“Although it was widely known as the Ellis Island of the West, Angel Island wasn’t meant to herald immigrants to the United States so much as to keep them out. Located just across from Alcatraz in the San Francisco Bay, the immigration station started operating in 1910, largely to process the cases of Chinese laborers, who, three decades before, had become the first group of people to be specifically blocked by federal U.S. immigration policy. After the first of the Chinese-exclusionary laws was passed by Congress, in 1882, working-class Chinese men and women were only allowed into the U.S. if they could prove that they were related to American citizens.”
So begins the essay in The New Yorker this week explaining what happened on Angel Island and the poetry carved into the walls of the detention center by the Chinese immigrants waiting for a final ruling on whether they would be allowed to enter the country or be sent back.
Most of the article focused on Teow Lim Goh‘s book Islanders which reimagines through poetry some of the stories of the detained immigrant women, as well as their waiting husbands already living in the country, the guards of the detention center, and the participants in the related riots in San Francisco.
Goh tells The New Yorker, “In repeating the same stories from various perspectives,” she could explore “the intimate consequences of political acts.”
Islanders has also received attention from Colorado Public Radio’s Colorado Matters, National Public Radio’s Morning Edition, PBS NewsHour, Poets & Writers, and much enthusiasm from the Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation.
Since the lead-up to and the launch of Islanders, many other publications have given her poetry collection some beautiful and very praiseworthy ink: among them, Confluence Denver, The Fem, The Cloudy House, The Toast, PANK, At The Inkwell, and Tweetspeak Poetry.
In the interviews, Goh walks us through why she chose to write about Angel Island and what kept her motivated. She even shares some writing and research techniques. Reviewers were moved by her stark, spare, and penetrating verse in this work, which tells the tales of the lost voices of detained Chinese women at the Angel Island Immigration Station, their families on shore, and the 1877 San Francisco Chinatown Riot.
Taken together, the interviews and reviews provide a fascinating and comprehensive account of Goh’s work, writing, and life. They comprise a mosaic of sorts that, when pieced together, forms a portrait that will give readers a greater understanding of Islanders, including how these poems came into fruition and just how deeply they affected her, her reviewers, and others.
“I wasn’t quite prepared for the sorrow and tragedy these women experienced,” wrote Glynn Young in Tweetspeak Poetry. “Nor was I prepared for watching how, far too often, hope was transformed into fear, heartbreak, and sometimes tragedy. These are stories, told in simple language and stark reality, of what the women experienced after crossing the Pacific Ocean.”
In an interview with The Cloudy House, Goh stated: “It is my hope that Islanders transcends this history and asks larger questions on migration and belonging.”
Reviewer Benjamin Schmitt from At the Inkwell seems to believe this was accomplished. In his review of Islanders, Schmitt picked up on those themes: “On the surface, the book provides a voice to the countless female immigrants held in horrible conditions at The Angel Island Immigration Station in the early part of the twentieth century. But it is also a book concerned with how all of us, on each side of every border, is struggling through the force of history.”
Goh expands on this idea further in an interview with The Toast. She was asked to elaborate on this theme:
Nicole Chung: “What do you think Angel Island and the immigrant stories you tell in your poems have to teach us about our current immigration system and the surrounding debate?”
Goh: “I find that when we talk about politics, we often talk about values and beliefs, as if what matters are our principles and the positions we take, instead of the repercussions our laws and institutions have on the people we don’t see. … Our politics shape the ways we live and love.”
In The Cloudy House interview, Goh also discussed the genesis of the book and her writing process including challenges she overcame along the way: “When I saw the poems on Angel Island, I knew I was going to write about them, but it took another three years before I figured out what I had to say. … I started with the idea to reclaim the women’s voices. I showed early poems in a workshop and a friend suggested writing from the point of view of the women’s families on shore and the staff at Angel Island.”
“… 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,” Goh said in an interview in The Fem.
Tags: Angel Island, Chinese Exclusion Act, immigration, Islanders, teow lim goh