Review of Islanders by Teow Lim Goh

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If I don’t tell her story

we cannot see her,

and without a reason for her being,

how will we let her survive?

–from “Her Story,” page 71

As a follower of Conundrum Press—a small publishing house based in Denver, Colorado which specialises in quality, literary titles—I was very pleased to hear about the publication of this poetry collection back in July.

To give some background to the collection, between 1910 and 1940 as many as 175,000 Chinese immigrants were detained and processed at Angel Island Immigration Station which is just off the coast of San Francisco, California.[1] They had made the long, arduous and often dangerous journey from China to seek a better life in America, only to find themselves imprisoned under racist and discriminatory immigration laws designed to curtail the influx of Asian immigrants. Some were joining family members who had already immigrated, others were arriving with their families in tow, only to find themselves separated upon landing, sometimes forever in cases where one partner was allowed to remain while the other was immediately sent back to China (usually the wife).  Others were single and hoping to find work and create a life for themselves free from the poverty and hardship they’d experienced back home, as so many immigrants to America sought to do.

Many of these immigrants were detained for months or even years under harsh, prison-like conditions. Others were sent back to China, never to see their families again. Between interrogations by immigration officials—supposedly designed to test their credibility but in reality designed to exclude as many Chinese as possible—the immigrants languished in their overcrowded barracks. To help cope with their miserable conditions, many of them composed poetry upon the walls of their cells, some of it carved onto the wooden surface.

All of the poems on record come from the men’s barracks. The women’s poetry was destroyed by a fire which happened in 1940 and which resulted in the closure of Angel Island.

In this poignant and powerful collection, the lost voices of these women are imagined, remembered and brought to life for modern-day readers.

In the opening poem, ‘Angel Island,’ Goh recalls the legacy of the Chinese in America, ‘To the miners who sailed the Pacific / with dreams of golden rivers. / To the workers who built the railroads / over mountains and prairie skies. / To the farmers who made the desert bloom.’ She then contrasts the hardships they endured with her own relatively easy experience as a recent immigrant. ‘This is my history. / I crossed the sea. / I sat on a plane. / I came with the dream / of freedom / to speak / to believe.’

Goh then goes on to structure the collection in five sections.

In the first section, ‘Voices: Angel Island 1910-1940’, Goh imagines the experiences of the women who were imprisoned on Angel Island, waiting to go ashore and separated from their families. In the poem, ‘In a Wooden Building,’ she writes: ‘Each day we knit in silence, / socks for the children, / hats for the parents, / and our words swirl in the sea.’

‘The Waves’ tells a story about a young man whose father dies suddenly. In order to help support the family, he goes to America to work. When he makes enough money, the man returns to China, to marry his sweetheart and bring her to live with him in San Francisco. But when their ship docks in California, she is turned away, ‘There’s nothing / we can do. Foreign wife / of a Chinese merchant, your case / is automatically / denied.

In ‘Between the Sea and the Sky,’ a woman commits suicide while in Angel Island, and another tries to.

The second section is titled, ‘Echoes: San Francisco: 1910-1940.’ Here Goh tells the stories of the family members waiting for their loved ones in San Francisco. Some of these stories overlap, such as in ‘Letter Unsent,’ which is written from the point of view of the same Chinese merchant whose first wife was refused entry and who has now married for a second time, only to find his second wife detained at Angel Island for over a year. Also, in ‘Consolation,’ the husband of the woman who committed suicide, reflects on the experience. He is told she died of ‘causes unknown,’ but he knows the truth as he too has been on Angel Island and is aware of the terrible conditions there.

In ‘Tomorrow’ a man anticipates the joy of finally bringing his wife home. ‘I will hug you and never let you go. /  / I will bring you home to a feast.’

‘Work: Angel Island 1910-1940,’ includes the stories of those who were involved in running Angel Island. These include the privileged, smug and disdainful official whose decision changes lives for better or for worse. Then there are those officials who are the children of recent immigrants and who cannot help but see their own parents in the faces of the families who arrive. ‘In her eyes he sees his mother / fleeing a homeland plagued by famine, / huddled on Ellis Island.’ (‘Daydreams’) There is also the cleaner in ‘Housekeeping’ who tries her best to make sense of the words scribbled on the walls, having only recently learned to write herself.

In ‘Riot: San Francisco, July and August 1877,’ Goh skilfully and sensitively imagines the voices of all those who were involved in the Anti-Chinese riots. The Anti-Chinese riots happened during an economic downturn in the American economy when labourers, including those in trade unions, blamed the Chinese for the lack of available work, claiming that their willingness to work for reduced wages drove everyone’s pay down. Instead of trying to unionise the Chinese workers, they persecuted them instead.

She empathises with both the out-of-work labourers as well as the Chinese immigrants who’ve come to carve out a new life, much as many of those labourers did a generation before. ‘Maybe his wife just left him / in a string of shattered plates. / Maybe he’s looking for / something beyond himself, / a crowd he can become.’ (‘To Chinatown’) But Goh does not shy away from exposing their racism for what it is either. ‘I hear him tell the boy / he should count his blessing: / / unlike those dregs of Asia, / he was born to a worthy people,’ she writes in ‘Nob Hill’. In ‘Immolation’ she tells the tale of a Chinese man who committed suicide by overdosing on opium, unable to bear up any longer. A mob discovers him dying in an alley and stuffs the head of a duck down his throat.

In the final section and poem, ‘Pilgrimage’, Goh reflects on the history she shares with those long-ago immigrants as she herself pays a visit to Angel Island, ‘the borders we inhabit, the borders / we inherit, and in writing this story / / I find my way home.’

Islanders is a beautiful and remarkable collection, as important for the stories it tells as for the restrained and resonant way in which it tells them. Goh brings a little known piece of American history vividly to life and reminds us of how relevant this history is to our modern day experience of living in a world where people cross national boundaries every day in their search for a better life.

Readers can purchase Islanders direct from the publisher: https://squareup.com/store/conundrumpress/item/islanders

From Amazon UK: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Islanders-Teow-Lim-Goh/dp/1942280319/

Amazon US: https://www.amazon.com/Islanders-Teow-Lim-Goh/dp/1942280319/

Learn more about Teow Lim Goh’s writing by visiting her website: https://teowlimgoh.com/ 

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My cat, Othello, enjoyed her poetry too.

[1] http://www.cetel.org/angel_poetry.html

 

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Interview with Eva Jordan, author of 183 Times a Year

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Today I’m welcoming the lovely Eva Jordan to my blog. Eva’s debut novel, 183 Times a Year, is currently available as an ebook and was released as a paperback on the 28th April (my review follows the interview). To celebrate she’ll be doing a book launch at Waterstones in Peterborough on 12th May. The address is 38-40 Bridge St, Peterborough PE1 1DT, and the event will run from 7 to 8.30pm. Do drop by if you’re in the area.

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Welcome, Eva! Thanks for coming by to talk with us today about your writing, especially your debut novel, 183 Times a Year.

Hi Kendra, thank you so much for having me on your wonderful blog.

Firstly, could you describe the story for readers?

183 Times a Year is a laugh out loud look at contemporary family life. The story is seen from two points of view and heard through two very different voices, namely Lizzie and Cassie. Lizzie is the exasperated Mother of Cassie, Connor and Stepdaughter Maisy. She is the frustrated voice of reason to her daughters’ teenage angst and gets by with good friends, cheap wine and talking to herself—out loud. Then there is 16-year-old Cassie—the Facebook-Tweeting, Selfie-Taking, Music and Mobile Phone obsessed teen. Cassie hates everything about her life and longs for the perfect world of Chelsea Divine and her ‘undivorced’ parents—and Joe, the gorgeous boy every girl fancies. 

What inspired you to write this story? I understand that you’re the mother of four teenagers.

It is the women in my life, including my mother, daughters’ and good friends that inspired me to write my debut novel. I wanted to show people the extraordinary amongst the ordinary. For, despite living in a world of advanced technology, where everything is available to us, and anyone with opposable thumbs can document, broadcast, and stream just about anything, smartphone in hand of course, it also feels, at times, like a lonelier, more insular place. It’s easy to believe when scrolling through our friend’s social media pages that somehow everyone else has got it right and yours is the only dysfunctional family on the planet – which just isn’t true of course.

I’m a mother to a 19-year-old daughter and a 17-year-old son. I’m also a step mum to my other half’s son and daughter who are both now in their twenties. Ours is a blended family and like most families, we’ve had our ups and downs. Parenting, including step-parenting, isn’t easy. At times it can be difficult and challenging, especially with teenagers, but it can also be extremely rewarding. I have many friends with children, some are blended families, some not, and many of the problems that arise in my novel are common to most families. However, although tragic at times, 183 Times a Year has many laugh out loud moments. It is an amusing exploration of domestic love, hate, strength and ultimately friendship. A poignant, heartfelt look at that complex and diverse relationship between a Mother and daughter set amongst the thorny realities of today’s divided and extended families.

When reading 183 Times a Year I was struck by how honest you were in your depiction of teenagers and their relationships with their parents at that age (or seeming lack thereof!). I have to admit you made me cringe with embarrassment at how much of my teenage self I recognised in young Cassie, and, while I don’t have kids of my own, I definitely sympathised with her mum, Lizzie. How difficult was it to re-create these relationships in fiction, and how much of the story was drawn from personal experience?

I’m glad you cringed – that was exactly the emotion I wanted to evoke. The story was drawn from personal experience but not just mine, it was also the experience of friends, family and information gathered through research. As a parent of teenage children it wasn’t particularly difficult to re-create these relationships. I know a couple of readers have struggled with the way Cassie speaks but I wanted to keep her as real as possible. Some readers have said they find Cassie annoying and frustrating – to which I have wanted to reply, “Err hello – welcome to my world and that of most parents of teens.”

Like my own children, Cassie can be extremely annoying at times. Her view of the world is naïve. She sees things as black or white and hasn’t had enough life experience to fill it with all the colours in between. Her moods can often seem extreme swinging from endearing through to narcissistic but, at the end of the day, she is just a young woman struggling to make sense of her place in the world. Lizzie also struggles, especially with parenthood but like a lot of mothers, she does her best with her children. However, although older and wiser she is also at odds with herself, questioning if this – being a librarian and mother – is indeed her lot in life. And if so, is it actually enough? She forgets how difficult it is being a teenager. The universal need of most of us, in one way or another, to assimilate, to somehow fit in and belong in a world that doesn’t always make sense.

What would you like readers to come away with, after reading your book?

To remember that we’re all human, all flawed and that we all make mistakes. Remember to love family and those that love and support us – it’s easy to take people for granted. If your Mum drives you crazy, remember she’s just doing her best, being a parent is one of the most difficult but rewarding jobs in the world and one that comes without an instruction manual. Alternatively, if your teenage children, step children, grandchildren, nieces, nephews or your friends’ children are driving you to distraction, remember you were young once. I’m not saying we have to pander to our children but just remember that whilst you are busy worrying about important things like how you are going to pay the rent or mortgage, if that lump you discovered is something to be concerned about or if you really can afford to go on holiday this year, your son’s concern that his acne-pulsating face is preventing him from getting a girlfriend or your daughter’s anxiety at her exclusion from that party that everyone else has been invited to, are also very real to them. After all, true wisdom comes from compassion – for yourself and others.

What obstacles, if any, did you encounter when writing 183 Times a Year?

Time, there just isn’t enough of it. I need a 48-hour day and 14-day week to fit everything in – like most people I think! I’ve also struggled with people’s perception of writers – especially those starting out like me. General consensus seems to suggest that because you work from home you can be interrupted, if you’re caught staring into space you can be interrupted, if you ask not to be interrupted – yep, you’ve guessed it – you can be interrupted. I for one, work very long hours as a writer and there are those who just don’t understand or appreciate that. However, having said that, I have also had a great deal of support and encouragement from friends and family alike. And often, that support has come when I have felt like giving up, during those moments when terrible self-doubt creeps in. So in that sense, I have been very lucky.

The novel is written from the alternating viewpoints of teenage Cassie and that of her mum, Lizzie. Was it difficult to write from two different points of view, and how did you manage it? For example, did you write the story chronologically or did you write all of Cassie’s parts and then all of Lizzie’s, or vice versa?

Being a mother and having witnessed the language and behaviour of four teenage children, it wasn’t too difficult to write the two very different points of view, namely that of a mother and her teenage daughter. I did write it mostly in chronological order as one point of view easily followed the other. However, there were times where I just imagined a particular scene with one of the characters so I would write that conversation or chapter and then fit it into the story at a later date.

What do you feel you gained through the writing of your novel?

I achieved a life-long ambition but I gained so much knowledge, information and made many new friends. Online and off, I have met some wonderful, amazing people. The writing community, including readers, reviewers and bloggers are unbelievably supportive and helpful. It would be natural to assume, especially amongst the writing fraternity, that because there is a lot of competition out there, there must be less desire to help one another, however that couldn’t be further from the truth. Don’t get me wrong, you have to do the legwork, put the time in and put yourself out, but if want help, advice and support, it’s there, in abundance.

Once your story was down on paper, did you do a lot of rewriting? Could you talk us through this process?

Yes, I did have to do rewrites but it was more about joining the dots, making sure there was enough foreshadowing and keeping the characters in character – sometimes Cassie sounded too grown up and more like Lizzie!

How did 183 Times a Year come to be published?

I initially self-published my debut novel as an ebook with Troubador in September last year. I then met a lovely reviewer online who read my book and suggested I send it to a publisher she knew, which I did. The publisher in question was Matthew Smith of Urbane Publications. During the run up to Christmas last year, Matthew read my book and agreed to collaborate with me on the paperback version which, I’m happy to say, was released on 28th April. Matthew and Urbane Publications have done a wonderful job and I couldn’t be more pleased with the end result.

I understand that you’re also a published short story writer. Having written both short stories and a novel, which form do you prefer? What do you see as the benefits and drawbacks of each?

I actually like both forms, short stories and novels but because I always tend to write more rather than less, the short story is a great exercise in editing and condensing which then serves to remind me that I don’t always need to say so much in my novels.

Which writers have influenced your work?

How long have you got – I’ve been inspired by lots of different writers. I have a degree in English and History and my reading has been wide and varied. I’m not a reading snob either – the classics are great but so is a lot of contemporary fiction. Many writers have inspired me from Shakespeare, Jane Austen, Charles Dickens and Joseph Conrad to Angela Carter, Sue Townsend, Stephen King—and recently Anna McPartlin, Gillian Flynn and Louise Doughty. I’m currently reading a great debut novel, The Long Weekend, by a writer I recently met called Jane E. James, which is brilliant. I enjoy stories that force the reader to observe the daily interactions of people with one another set against the social complexities of everyday life, be that through crime, love or comedy.

Are there any future novels in the works?

Yes – absolutely! I’m writing the sequel to 183 Times a Year at the moment. It’s three years later and there’s lots going on. It’s still humorous but much faster paced with some unexpected dark moments. I also have an idea that I’m collaborating on with one of my brothers – it’s a completely different genre to 183 Times a Year – a thriller I suppose – but very exciting. I’m also working on an idea for a YA novel.

Finally, how can readers get hold of your novel?

Now released as a paperback, you can find or order 183 Times a Year as both an ebook or paperback through most bookshops and retailers including Waterstones and W H Smiths, Amazon, iBooks, Nook and Google Play.

You can also order it in print from Urbane Publications: https://t.co/UTxfI9RsYT

Thanks so much for taking the time to come and speak with us about your work. Best of luck with 183 Times a Year, and with all of your writing!

Thank you so much for having me!

About Eva Jordan

“I am a short story writer and author of the debut novel 183 TIMES A YEAR. I live in a small town in Cambridgeshire with my fiancé and ours is a blended family. Between us we share one cat and four children, all of whom are a constant source of inspiration! My career has been varied, including working in a Women’s Refuge and more recently at the city library. However, storytelling through the art of writing is my true passion.”

Learn more about Eva’s writing by visiting her website:  https://evajordanwriter.com/

Like her page on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/EvaJordanWriter/

Follow her on Twitter: @evajordanwriter

Kendra’s review of 183 Times a Year

“Why had I been so unforgiving? Even Cassie had had the good sense to see it was just one stupid mistake.”

With a mortgage to pay, an ex-husband who is less than supportive (monetarily or otherwise), cuts being made at work, family illness and friend troubles, Lizzie has little time left to herself. Enter three children and a modern-day blended family and life becomes even more complicated. Her stepdaughter, Maisy–who prefers to be called Mania–hates her. As does her own daughter, Cassie, who refuses to so much as sit at the same table with her should they go out for coffee together, though she is more than happy to let her mother buy the drinks. Lizzie’s only consolation is 11-year-old Connor, who has yet to hit puberty, and who therefore still respects her and enjoys her company.

As the pressure at work mounts due to budget constraints, Lizzie struggles to cope. When Amber, a young, unemployed, library volunteer, confesses to Lizzie that she wants to become pregnant so she won’t have to continue looking for work (and failing to find it), Lizzie does her best to try and help. But is it possible for someone to be too caring?

Meanwhile, Cassie is struggling to pass her exams at school, and uncertain about college. With the most popular girl in school’s party coming up, and Cassie uninvited, she’ll have to do her best to appear “sick” (or “cool”, for those of us from older generations). Unfortunately, her supposed friends seem to forget all about her when she needs them most.  Will Cassie have the courage to be herself for a change, and, if so, where will it take her?

183 Times a Year is a hilarious,  deeply empathetic and almost uncomfortably familiar, exploration of the ins and outs of family life. Jordan does a remarkable job of capturing the relationships between teenagers and their parents and made me look at my teenage years in a very different light. A highly enjoyable read.