So often the tales of immigrants are buried beneath the gathering dust of history. But these stories can tell us so much more about what it means to be American than almost any other type of known literature.
The process of acculturation, of becoming American, the hard road that many traveled and the unknown tales and challenges of their journeys created the country we know today. In her debut volume of poems Islanders, Teow Lim Goh explores one liberating and equally painful thread of that journey, taking us back to Angel Island, California and nearby San Francisco in the early 20th century. It is available for purchase today on our website.
In searing, honest, and beautiful poetic language, Goh offers a new tale of Asian immigration, a book that is due to secure a place on bookshelves beside Maxine Hong Kingston and Jhumpa Lahiri. In her work, Goh imagines and describes the lost voices of detained Chinese women at the Angel Island Immigration Station, while also telling the stories of their families on shore and the 1877 San Francisco Chinatown Riot.
Here’s just one of the many poems included in the collection:
In Name Only
I’ll cross the bay.
I’ll leave the past behind,
take on another name,
and marry another man.
I’ve seen only his picture.
He’s twenty years older.
But I have no choice.
The drought came,
the crops died.
A man in America
is the only way out.
Now my life will always be
The poems in this splendid work are already receiving plenty of praise and press, including a recently published interview with Goh in Confluence Denver. The interview is prefaced with an introduction by Confluence Denver writer Laura Bond. She writes, “The (Angel Island) 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.”
In the interview, Goh describes how she created the work: “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.”
As Jimi Sharpe noted in a review of Islanders for PANK Magazine: “The collection constitutes something of an imagined history — Goh imagines the voices within the poems, but each one is based entirely in historical document.”
The book raises questions that deftly interrogate history, while also bringing to life an understated account of this moment in time in spare, yet powerful verse. Yet this only underlines some of the importance of these stories. Goh is giving voices to the voiceless, and we are here to listen as these women wait to set foot upon unaccustomed earth.
Mark your calendars too: the book release party for Islanders will be on Saturday, May 21, at 6:00 p.m. at the Lighthouse Writers Workshop, 1515 Race Street, Denver. The event is free and open to the public. Teow’s reading from Islanders will begin at 6:30 p.m., and be followed by a book signing. Teow will be holding additional readings throughout May and June. A complete schedule of readings is available on her website.
Purchase Islanders on our website today. It will be available from booksellers beginning July 12.
About the author:
Teow Lim Goh’s poetry, essays, and criticism have appeared in PANK, The Toast, Guernica, The Rumpus, and Open Letters Monthly, among other publications. She lives in Denver and dreams of the sea. This is her debut book. For more information about the author, and a series of readings she is holding in May and June, stop by her website at teowlimgoh.com.
Praise for Islanders and Teow Lim Goh:
Blending research and imagination, Teow Lim Goh creates a polyphonic narrative of early twentieth-century Chinese immigrants who were detained on Angel Island. In these spare but powerful lyrics, she presents fragments of the same material from disparate points of view, and then provides a backgrounding flashback to 1877 San Francisco, where “the Chinese must go” becomes a refrain. In this poignant journey across “the borders we inhabit, the borders / we inherit,” the author finds a history that she makes ours, as well as her own.
— Martha Collins, author of Blue Front and White Papers
The voices channeled by Teow Lim Goh in Islanders arrive with little poetic adornment, with a restraint instilled by Chinese culture and reinforced by exile and imprisonment. It is possible to feel rage while hearing, or overhearing, these distress calls from the forgotten reaches of American history. But the real power of this poetry sings out from an empathy so complete that we readers and the poet herself almost vanish into them. Instead of cultural difference and the exile of history, Goh’s poetry reminds us that the suffering these poems give voice to exists here and now, in the forgotten reaches of our own lives.
—Joseph Hutchison, Colorado Poet Laureate, author of Thread of the Real and Marked Men
These poems are imagined out of ash—script written on walls of a detention building that burned down and took the record with it. Teow Lim Goh would have those voices back, voices from the barracks, voices at the gates, on sea crossings to China, on bay crossings to San Francisco, amid riots and in cold examination rooms, in a brothel, in a prison shower, in rooms of privilege and power, challenging readers to navigate layered tone and inter-subjectivity, all of it staged at the theatre of lost history, recovered.
— Chris Ransick, author of Language for the Living and the Dead
In between seeing and saying. In between shadow and fire. The voices and words in Islanders honor the bodies of women disappeared from history, reminding us how it is that America has always been standing on the bodies of those it swallowed whole. In the lost voices of Chinese women detained at Angel Island we have the chance to yet hear something from the ruins: song.
— Lidia Yuknavitch, author of The Small Backs of Children and The Chronology of Water
Teow Lim Goh’s important first collection of poems gives voice to the Chinese immigrants detained on Angel Island during the Chinese exclusion era. Like the sea that “spins a song of solitude and pain,” these poems are haunting, deliberate, and utterly relevant to contemporary issues of race and immigration. Goh’s work is fearless: like the imprisoned women on the island, these poems “never return and never arrive.” Instead, they reverberate with the unanswerable question, “why must I prove that I am me?”
— Nancy Pearson, author of The Whole by Contemplation of a Single Bone
Article created by Shannon Wheeler, an editorial contributor for Conundrum Press, and Stephen J. McConnell, director of marketing and content for Conundrum Press.