Confluence Q&A: Teow Lim Goh, Poet and "Islanders" Author

Local poet Teow Lim Goh explores immigration history and women's voices in Islanders, her new book from Conundrum Press. Confluence talked to her about poetry, her process and the modern parallels to the stories behind her work.
In Islanders, her first book of poetry, Chinese-American writer Teow Lim Goh imagines the lives and experience of Chinese women detained at Angel Island, a detention facility in San Francisco Bay that housed thousands of newly arrived immigrants between 1910 and 1940. The detainees were held for weeks and months without knowing if they could enter the United States. To pass time -- and endure loneliness -- some wrote poetry on the walls of their cells. Much of it was lost when the women's barracks burned; Goh seeks to restore their voices and their place in history.

Local poet Teow Lim Goh.Goh brought the Angel Island story to life with help from the local literary community: She's a member of Denver's Lighthouse Writers Workshop, which will host a book release party and reading by Goh on Saturday, May 21. The latest book from Conundrum Press, a small but mighty imprint that highlights work by writers from the Rocky Mountain region, Islanders will be released May 16.

How did you learn about Angel Island, and what was your reaction when you did?

I don't remember exactly how I first learned about Angel Island, but I visited San Francisco a lot in my twenties and must have heard about it along the way. I remember the first time I wanted to visit the place -- this was in May 2010 -- I did not make the ferry and went to Alcatraz instead. One of my earliest published essays is about this experience and the parallels between the two prison islands in the San Francisco Bay. Later that summer, I was back in San Francisco and made sure I went to Angel Island.

Does your family have a personal connection to Angel Island?

No. I came to the U.S. as a college student and stayed on to work. Sometimes I wonder, though, whether Angel Island and the Chinese Exclusion Act played a role in my grandmother and her sister's decision to move to Malaya and Singapore in the 1940s, after the Communists forced their family from their hometown. They had their reasons to choose Southeast Asia, but did they feel on some level that America wasn't an option for two young, unaccompanied Chinese women? The women in my poems could have been them.

What sparked the idea for the concept, an entire book that tells the story of these people -- in particular, women -- lost to time?

I've been interested in questions of place, history and migration. When I finally visited Angel Island, I knew I was going to write about it, but I didn't know what angle I would take. The idea to imagine the lost voices of the detained women came when I read Natasha Trethewey's first collection of poems, Domestic Work. She has a sequence of poems, also titled Domestic Work, in which she imagines her grandmother's life as a working class black woman in the Jim Crow South. In this work I saw poetry as a way to explore the private truths of history.

How did your work as a poet equip you especially well to tell this story?

Ha. Islanders is my first serious attempt at verse. I thought I was an essayist. But in writing this book, I had to draw on techniques from all the genres. Islanders is based on historical document, the veracity of nonfiction, and the research that entailed. But instead of telling a straight history -- which has already been done -- I reached for fiction's imagination and invention. And I pulled it all together in verse. I suppose I could have written a book of short stories -- which was my fallback if my crash course in poetry had failed -- but I wanted to honor the history of the Angel Island poems.

What was your research process like?

There are a number of books on the history of Angel Island. I relied a lot on Judy Yung and Erika Lee's Angel Island, a comprehensive history of the Angel Island Immigration Station, and Him Mark Lai, Genny Lim, and Judy Yung's Island, an anthology of the surviving poems, their translations, and oral histories.

But facts only tell a part of the story. I visited Angel Island twice to get a feel for the place. The splendid views of the San Francisco Bay, in contrast with the confinement of the barracks, the way the fog circles the peak of the island -- these are things you can't learn from history books. I had to experience the place before I could write these stories.

Why do you think poetry emerged in the harsh environment of Angel Island? What was its function, how did it help, et cetera?

The detainees had a lot of time on their hands and the suffering needed to make art. Jokes aside, I read an article that argued the Angel Island poems belonged to a Chinese tradition of travel poetry. In imperial China, writing unauthorized histories was a punishable crime. Travelers, who were less bound to authority, wrote poems on history as they went from place to place. Many of them wrote anonymously on poetry boards at inns. Some of them also wrote on ephemeral materials such as leaves and snow.

The detainees at Angel Island were travelers. Many of them came to America out of necessity. Many families spent their savings or borrowed money to send their sons to America, where there were more opportunities than in China after the Opium War. To be stuck on Angel Island, to be denied entry into America, was a mark of shame and failure. I think that for these detainees, writing these poems was a way to alleviate their suffering. I think it was also a way for them to subvert what they saw as unjust authority.  

This story is so timely, with all of the ugly political rhetoric about immigration as well as the international refugee crisis. Is your book something of a cautionary tale? What parallels do you see between these points in history?

Anti-immigration rhetoric hasn't changed much in the last hundred or so years. It's not uniquely American either, though only America claims to be the land of the free. I didn't set out to write Islanders as a cautionary tale, but I don't mind it being read as such.

The Chinese Exclusion Act, which was passed in 1882, came out of the Panic of 1873. Then, as now, irresponsible speculation -- railroads then, housing now -- led to an international financial crisis from which America was slow to recover. The Chinese were never liked, and California had passed laws such as the Foreign Miners Tax, but as long as jobs were plentiful, the Chinese were grudgingly tolerated. But when jobs dried up, the Chinese became the target of white anger.

In the last section of Islanders, I depict the San Francisco Chinatown Riot of 1877. It was one of many episodes of anti-Chinese violence in the American West -- others include Los Angeles in 1871, Denver in 1880 and Rock Springs, Wyoming in 1885. Rock Springs in particular arose from decades of unfair labor practices in the Union Pacific coal mines. I hope our political moment doesn't come to this, but inflammatory rhetoric gives its audience implicit permission to commit violence.

The Angel Island story is such a human example of what happens when we attempt to exclude entire groups of people.

I hope the book will contribute to the ongoing dialogue on immigration. I hope it will get us thinking about the private ways in which we contribute to injustice. Oftentimes, when we talk about immigration -- or any political subject really -- we resort to high-minded rhetoric instead of looking at the ways we are complicit in the system.

You had support for the book from within the local literary community -- specifically,  Lighthouse Writers Workshop and Conundrum, your publisher. How did that help?

I didn't study writing or literature in school -- my degree is in math -- so literary centers such as Lighthouse and the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown have been my writing education. I tend to take craft or generative classes. I rarely workshop -- I prefer to work on my own and seek advice when I need it. But at Lighthouse and FAWC, I've also found a community of writers and mentors. It would have been much harder to write this book without this support.

It has been a pleasure to work with Conundrum Press. Like with many small presses, the author is treated as a part of the team. I had a lot of say over things such as the cover design. When we ran into some problems, the publisher asked for my input before making decisions. At the same time, like with many small presses, a lot of the work of publicity falls on the author. But the press has been very supportive of my work, which in the end is what matters most.

Read more articles by Laura Bond.

A former editor and staff writer with Westword, Laura Bond has written for Rolling StoneUSAA and Spin, among others. She is the principal of Laura Bond, Ink., a content and communications strategy firm that serves nonprofits across metro Denver.
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