Reviewed by Vanesa Pacheco
Teow Lim Goh’s collection of poems imagines the lost stories of the women detained on Angel Island’s Immigration Station, as well as of their families, staff, and of those involved in the 1877 San Francisco Chinatown Riots. Decades after the Immigration station closed, poems were found written on the walls of the men’s barracks sharing their thoughts, documenting their experiences, and giving voice to their journeys. Unfortunately, those of the women’s were destroyed in a fire that burned down their barracks and, ultimately, erased their words. As Goh shares with The Fem, she blends “fact and fiction, politics and intimacy” to give voice to their tales so that others may finally hear their stories.
Goh divides her collection of poems into four sections: Voices, Echoes, Work, and Riot. Within these headlines, we come across the same moments retold from different perspectives and lives. As we see the wife labeled a whore in “Virtue Exam,” we later find the pain and shame the man who must tell her what she is labeled must face as descendent of Chinese immigrants himself: “In her eyes he saw his parents / fresh off the boat, bringing with them / the taint of blood that shaped his life / and brought him to this prison” (49).
The poems intertwine the experiences and emotions of the women with the rest of the world of that time. Goh binds them to each other even if they are not aware of it, if ever. To be associated with immigration was to have your life braided alongside those detained, and Goh reminds us by tying the stories into knots.
Yet, Goh’s weaving also illustrates the way immigrants become scapegoats for the problems of a city, state, and even country. Her section Riots, a focus on the Chinatown Riots, has the phrase “the Chinese must go” repeated throughout various poems. A new face – a change and addition to a society – has always sparked fear for those already settled, leaving them to throw their problems on those who’ve arrived instead of finding the root of the issue. The repetition that “the Chinese must go” is nothing more than a refusal to find the real problem and address that life will evolve instead of staying stagnant.
There is denial of anger, problems cast upon immigrants, and fear for life and property. This is still the case today.
As a first generation U.S. Citizen, I delved into Teow Lim Goh’s Islanders curiously. Having witnessed how others struggle through today’s immigration policies and prejudice –my parents included– I knew I would confront similarities. I was certain that the stories recreated by Goh of the Chinese immigrants detained on Angel Island over a century ago would show a part of the ugly reality that, unfortunately, transcends race and ethnicity and plagues all those who seek the American Dream.
At the heart of each poem Goh places the voice of an immigrant – one that has always been cast aside as nothing more than alien. They are foreigners. But as she mentions in “Angel Island,” her first poem: “This is my history. / I crossed the sea. / I sat on a plane. I came with the dream / of freedom / to speak / to believe. / It is here I begin to write. / This is my legacy” (13).
We are connected. We must find the lost voices. Goh’s Islanders sheds light on the plight to enter a country christened the land of free by giving her readers a true sense of what it means to come and start fresh.