Islanders

Islanders

 

Introduction by Christina Roman

A scenic outpost in the San Francisco bay that, like Alcatraz, once relied on the landscape itself to separate the island dwellers from the mainland, Angel Island was home to an immigration station. Here, from 1910-1940, detainees were questioned about their morality, inspected naked, and interrogated on the minutiae of their lives and families to prove that they were related to American citizens. Many Chinese immigrants would forsake their own histories and memorize detailed accounts to pass inspection – the number of stairs to the front door, family names, the web of the village – to become the “paper sons and daughters” granted entry.

And yet those detained for weeks and months left behind their own records – the men’s barracks are covered with formal and deeply intimate Chinese poetry. This was what captured Teow Lim Goh’s attention on her first visit to the island in 2010, when she did not yet consider herself a poet and was seeking subject matter for a book of essays on borders. As an immigrant herself, it was a compelling subject.

It was not until several years later when she learned that a barracks fire had destroyed the poems of the women detainees that Islanders, her debut book of poetry, was born. She explained in Entropy Mag; “My experience as a recent immigrant with a college degree and a professional job is very different from that of the Chinese during the exclusion era. But when I delved into the stories, I realized that I recognized the textures of the detainees’ lives. I understood the context in which they acted. That’s when I knew I could write their stories.”

The extensive research she had conducted for the proposed essays was now the foundation for a much more personal account. The collection begins and ends with Goh’s deeply personal reflections. She writes in the opening poem:

This is not my history.
I am not the daughter of a miner.
I am not the daughter of a laborer.
I am not the daughter of a farmer.
I am not the daughter of a
                paper son
                                 false citizen
                                                   prisoner.
This is not my legacy.

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.
 

Islanders takes on not only the lost voices of the women in modern free form prose, but Goh also lends her imagination and empathy to give voice to the families on shore, the inspectors on the island, and even the workers fanning the flames of the 1877 Chinatown Riot.

Although published before the recent election, these disparate voices echo even louder now. “The one thing I learned while researching this book is we don’t learn from history. The history is there. We’ve been through this, but we’re still going through the same questions.” Teow Lim Goh explained to the High County News after the inauguration. The rhetoric of the ban and fear of immigrants today is an easy parallel to the history of Angel Island.

Since then she has continued to reflect on what it means to immigrate, to be an alien, a citizen – to be caught at a border. In Catapult she reflected on her visit to Angel Island;

“Seven years ago, I visited Angel Island for the first time. I rode a ferry across the bay, climbed a steep flight of stairs, and walked along a service road to the immigration station. The sky was clear and I could see for miles around the bay. I remember thinking that unlike those who were held here, I had the freedom to walk where I wished. I also remember thinking that here, the sea is both a border and a vista of possibility. Borders don’t always keep people out, but they can keep those of us inside from looking beyond.”


 

City Hall

I see him in the sandlots,
his voice fiery,
his eyes raised to the sky.

His lips curl into a sneer.
He flings off his coat
and unbuttons his collar.

And whatever happens,
the Chinese must go!

And the crowd cheers.

I see a young man raise his fist.
Once he built the railroads, 
now he waits in pantry lines.

I see a man with a pickaxe.
The children at home
have no food to eat.

I see a woman in a corner.
Her husband's doused
in the drink of despair.

They think of those people
who take away their jobs,
who speak a language

they cannot understand,
who live in tenements
and send their money home,

who eat dogs and rats
and spend their nights alone
in a haze of sweet smoke,

and they think of his words,
And no matter what happens,
the Chinese must go!


I see him again in the sandlots,
a boy of eleven without a father,
trying to make a living at sea,

each year drifting farther
from the home he had to leave,
knowing he will never return.


 

Landed

I want to forget this island
where the waves drown
those who dream of escape.

I will never look back.

But I know that in my dreams
I'll see our words on the walls,
touch the blood on the floor,

feel the fog on my skin,
smell the salt of the breeze.
I know that wherever I go

I will carry this island with me.


Poems reprinted courtesy of Conundrum Press

Islanders is available on Amazon

several poems from the walls at Angel Island are online here

The Music of Lalo Resendiz

The Music of Lalo Resendiz

Immigrants of America

Immigrants of America