Teow Lim Goh is the author of Islanders (Conundrum Press, May 2016), a book of poems on the history of the Angel Island Immigration Station. Her writing has appeared in PANK, The Toast, Guernica, The Rumpus, Winter Tangerine Review, and Open Letters Monthly, among other publications. She also makes letterpress and art editions of poetry and other writings at her imprint Black Orchid Press. She lives in Denver.
Fem: Tell us about Islanders.
Teow Lim Goh: Between 1910 and 1940, Chinese immigrants to America were detained at the Angel Island Immigration Station in the San Francisco Bay. As they waited for weeks and months to know if they could land, some of them wrote poems on the walls. All the poems we have on record were found in the men’s barracks: the women’s quarters were destroyed in a fire.
Islanders imagines the lost voices of the detained women. It also tells stories of their families on shore, the staff at Angel Island, and the 1877 San Francisco Chinatown Riot. A blend of fact and fiction, politics and intimacy, these poems chronicle a forgotten episode in American history and prefigure today’s immigration debates.
F: What was your motivation for writing it?
TLG: Several years ago, I went to Angel Island when I was in San Francisco to visit friends. At that time, I was just beginning to take myself seriously as a writer. I was also looking for subjects for my work.
I struggled with whether I could and should be an artist. I felt an urgency to write. I’m with Joan Didion, “I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear.” But I was also brought up to think of art as a luxury and frivolity.
And I had dealt with visa issues. In the years before the 2008 crash, there were far more applicants than there were available work visas. Congress refused to raise the cap and USCIS held a lottery to determine which applications to review. I won the lottery, but I knew my future was determined on such arbitrary grounds.
All of that came together when I went to Angel Island and saw the poems on the walls. I don’t understand Chinese very well, but I felt the desolation and despair in the words. I saw that art is a means of survival. In a way, the Angel Island poems gave me permission to be a writer. I started writing about it – some of my earliest publications are essays on Angel Island – but it took another three years before I realized I had a book.
F: Why was it important for you to imagine and tell the stories of these women?
TLG: There are no known records of poems written by the women. For a long time, historians believed it was because the women were illiterate; many Chinese families educated their boys but not their girls. But this presumption ignores the obvious: the women’s barracks burned down in the fire that eventually closed the immigration station.
I’m interested in erasure. Who gets to speak? Whose stories are preserved and whose are lost to history? When I read that some female detainees said they saw poems on their walls, I wondered: who were these women who could read and write? What does it mean to write in a culture that seeks to silence you? In imagining these stories, I could explore these questions.
F: What is the writing process like for a project like this that involves so much history?
TLG: Last summer I was in a workshop with Martha Collins, who writes deeply researched poetry books on race in America. She reminded me that when we write from history, we have to fill our minds with information on the places and events. When we write from our own lives, we already have that knowledge.
I thought I was going to write a book of essays. And I had been reading a lot of histories of the American West and of Chinese immigrants in America, not all directly for writing projects. By the time I had the idea to write poems from the women’s point of view, I already knew a lot of this history and the poems came pretty quickly.
F: Who are your literary inspirations?
TLG: I learned to write about place from Rebecca Solnit, in particular her books Savage Dreams and Storming the Gates of Paradise. She writes about the complex histories of the American West – nuclear testing, Indian wars, the Mexican border, among others – while extolling the pleasures of its landscapes. She showed me how to write about atrocities in the face of joy and beauty.
Four years ago, I read Lidia Yuknavitch’s memoir The Chronology of Water and took her online Ecstatic States class. Both the book and the class opened something in me. I began to explore the possibilities of writing from desire. Lidia showed me the permission I needed to give myself to write from the corporeal experience. The first seeds of Islanders were planted in her class.
Natasha Trethewey’s Native Guard, especially the titular poem, has been important to my thinking about historical erasures. And I had the idea to imagine the voices of the female detainees when I read her first book Domestic Work, in which she imagines her grandmother’s experiences as a working-class black woman in the South.
Lately I have been reading Muriel Rukeyser, Carolyn Forché, Louise Glück, Mary Gaitskill, and Clarice Lispector, among others.