If the walls of an immigrant detention center could speak

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Teow Lim Goh's book "Islanders" is a collection of poems about the Angel Island Immigration Station. Photo by Kit Hedman.

Teow Lim Goh’s book “Islanders” is a collection of poems about the Angel Island Immigration Station. Photo by Kit Hedman.

Between 1910 and 1940, Chinese immigrants who came to America were detained and interrogated at the Angel Island Immigration Station in the San Francisco Bay. The conditions at the prison were grim and often the immigrants would spend months — sometimes years — waiting to see if they would be granted a visa. To pass the time, they wrote poems on the walls of the barracks. The men’s poems have survived, but the women’s barracks burned down and their poems were lost forever.

Poet Teow Lim Goh has just published a collection of poetry in which she imagines the voices of those detained women. It’s called “Islanders” and Goh says some of the characters are directly based on people she discovered during her research, while some are purely fictional. She also writes about family members waiting on shore, the workers at the detention center and society people in San Francisco.

READ MORE: Seeing a culture of fear, poet explores the immigrant dream

“If there’s one thing I want people to take away from the book, it’s how intertwined we all are with the immigration system. That’s why I wrote in all of the different voices. Each and everyone one of us carries with us our own set of beliefs, our own fears, our own prejudices. And it all feeds into the system.”

Goh herself is an immigrant from Singapore, although she is quick to say that her circumstances were very different from the women at Angel Island. She came to the United States when she was 19 to attend the University of Michigan. Still, years later when she entered a lottery to try to get a work visa, she said she was both fascinated and unnerved by the process.

“I was certainly a lot more privileged. But I understood the uncertainty and arbitrary nature of how immigration decisions are made. I can only imagine how unsettled those women must have felt on Angel Island.”

In a prologue to her book, Goh — who is now a U.S. citizen — acknowledges that in some ways, the Angel Island story is also her story.

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.

Goh said that as she wrote the poems, she was struck by the parallels between the immigration issue at the beginning of the 20th century and the debate today. The Angel Island detention center was created to stem the flow of immigrants because many Americans felt they were taking jobs away from the people who were already in the United States.

“Immigration sentiment hasn’t changed in the last 100-150 years. The demographics of who is targeted has changed. But excluding certain groups and the rhetoric that is used against them has not changed at all.”

“What I came to realize was that immigration sentiment hasn’t changed in the last 100-150 years. The demographics of who is targeted has changed. But excluding certain groups and the rhetoric that is used against them has not changed at all.”

Goh recently began work on another project taken directly from the history books. In 1885, at least 28 Chinese immigrant miners were killed during a race riot at a Rock Springs, Wyoming, coal mine. Although she hasn’t definitively decided what form her project will take, she’s inclined to again, using character driven poems.

“What I really enjoyed about my first book was that I could enter the experience of this history. Not just what happened, but how people felt. How did they live? How did they think of themselves? These are the questions that poetry allow me to ask.”

The Walls Speak

The year I turned fourteen,
Father took me out of school.

I scrubbed the floors,
washed the clothes.

At night, by candlelight,
I snuck in my brother’s books,

dreaming of a faraway land
where I could read and write.

*

Here the fog obscures
the full moon and the stars.

The sea spins a song
of solitude and pain.

I wait for my turn to enter
the land of the free.

At night, by candlelight,
I write in a notebook I hide.

*

On the walls I see poems,
brushed in ink, carved on wood,

laments of lost women
stumbling in the world.

I read their stories
and weep.

*

Each time
I pick up the knife,

ready to etch my words
into the wood,

my hands tremble
and I step back.

*

At night I lie awake.
Will I always be a secret?


Teow Lim Goh is a poet, essayist and critic. Her first collection of poetry is “Islanders”, a volume of poems about the Angel Island Immigration Station. Her work has appeared in PANK, Pilgrimage, Winter Tangerine Review, The Rumpus, Guernica, and Open Letters Monthly. She also makes letterpress editions of poetry at her imprint Black Orchid Press. Goh makes her home in Denver.

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