Pantoun for Chinese Women
Pantoun for Chinese Women
SHIRLEY GEOK-LIN LIM
"Pantoun for Chinese Women" was first published in Shirley Geok-lin Lim's third poetry collection, No Man's Grove, and Other Poems, which was published in 1985. "Pantoun for Chinese Women" is one of Lim's most frequently discussed poems, in part because of its stark description of murder. The poem personifies the epigraph, which describes the increase in female infanticide in 1980s China, by providing a singular example of female infanticide. Readers are thus forced to confront a social reality that is too often hidden away. They are also exposed to the helplessness experienced by Chinese women who must accept a tradition that values sons and devalues daughters. The ambivalence of the mother who agrees to the murder of her infant daughter is a powerful image that forces Lim's readers to consider the complexity of motherhood and marriage in such a culture.
The pantoun style, also spelled pantun, is a Malaysian technique that involves a very intricate repetition of lines. In Lim's poem, the tight construction of the pantoun, with its iterations, creates a greater emphasis on the injustice and oppression that Chinese women face. Lim weaves themes of infanticide, motherhood, and the implications of long-established cultural tradition into a poem that turns a statistic into a very real vision. Lim's poem reveals the injustice and oppression that women face and the effect this culture has on women's lives in China. "Pantoun for Chinese Women" has been reprinted in the anthology The Forbidden Stitch: An Asian American Women's Anthology, published in 1989, and in Lim's Monsoon History: Selected Poems, published in 1995.
Shirley Geok-lin Lim was born in Malacca (later Malaya), Malaysia on December 27, 1944. Lim's father named her Shirley, after the movie star Shirley Temple, but he raised his only daughter as a culturally traditional Chinese woman. Lim, her father, Chin Som, her mother, Chye Neo Ang, and her brothers all lived with her paternal grandfather and her grandfather's other children and grandchildren until she was five years old. When she was five, her father opened a shoe store, and the family finally moved into their own home. Lim was eight years old when her mother abandoned the family.
Malaysia was a British colony, and so Lim received a British colonial education. English was her primary language as a child, and she was educated at a British Catholic convent school. In 1967, she received a BA with first-class honors in English from the University of Malaya in Kuala Lumpur, where she continued with graduate studies until 1969. Lim received a Fulbright Scholarship in 1969 and moved to the United States, where she entered Brandeis University, just outside Boston, Massachusetts. She completed an MA in 1971 and a PhD in 1973, both in English and American literature. While still in graduate school, Lim married Charles Bazerman, who had been a fellow graduate student at Brandeis. During her time in graduate school, Lim worked as a teaching assistant at Brandeis and at Queen's College, in New York City. After graduation, she took a position as an assistant professor at Hostos Community College, of the City University of New York. In 1976, Lim left Hostos and began teaching at Westchester Community College, part of the State University of New York.
Lim's first collection of poems, Crossing the Peninsula, and Other Poems, was published in Kuala Lumpur in 1980. Her first book to be published in the United States was a collection of short stories, Another Country, and Other Stories, published in 1982. Another book of poetry, No Man's Grove, and Other Poems, which includes the poem "Pantoun for Chinese Women," followed in 1985. In 1989, Lim served as one of the editors for the first anthology of Asian American women's poetry ever published, The Forbidden Stitch: An Asian American Women's Anthology. That same year, she published another collection of poetry, Modern Secrets: New and Selected Poems. Since 1994, Lim has published several additional books, including poetry, short stories, the memoir Among the White Moon Faces: An Asian-American Memoir of Homelands (1996), and the two novels Joss and Gold (2001) and Sister Swing (2006). She has also edited a lengthy list of journals and literary texts and has published dozens of articles and chapters in other books. Since 1991, Lim has been a professor at the University of California at Santa Barbara.
At present, the phenomena of butchering, drowning and leaving to die female infants have been very serious.
The People's Daily, Peking, March 3rd, 1983They say a child with two mouths is no good.
In the slippery wet, a hollow space,
Smooth, gumming, echoing wide for food.
No wonder my man is not here at his place.
In the slippery wet, a hollow space, 5
A slit narrowly sheathed within its hood.
No wonder my man is not here at his place:
He is digging for the dragon jar of soot.
That slit narrowly sheathed within its hood!
His mother, squatting, coughs by the fire's blaze 10
While he digs for the dragon jar of soot.
We had saved ashes for a hundred days.
His mother, squatting, coughs by the fire's blaze.
The child kicks against me mewing like a flute.
We had saved ashes for a hundred days, 15
Knowing, if the time came, that we would.
The child kicks against me crying like a flute
Through its two weak mouths. His mother prays
Knowing when the time comes that we would,
For broken clay is never set in glaze. 20
Through her two weak mouths his mother prays.
She will not pluck the rooster nor serve its blood,
For broken clay is never set in glaze:
Women are made of river sand and wood.
She will not pluck the rooster nor serve its blood. 25
My husband frowns, pretending in his haste
Women are made of river sand and wood.Milk soaks the bedding. I cannot bear the waste.
My husband frowns, pretending in his haste.
Oh, clean the girl, dress her in ashy soot! 30
Milk soaks our bedding, I cannot bear the waste.
They say a child with two mouths is no good.
The epigraph that opens "Pantoun for Chinese Women" is a simple statement from a Peking newspaper. The single sentence reports that there is a serious problem of infanticide directed toward female babies. These children are being drowned, left outside to die, or murdered in other ways. The epigraph suggests to the reader that the content of the poem will relate to this newspaper reference.
The first stanza of Lim's poem makes clear that female infants are devalued. In fact, a daughter is no good for a family hoping for a male child. The mother, who narrates the poem, places the blame for her child's worthlessness on those who have established a tradition in which female children are considered useless. Lim uses the subjective personal pronoun they as a vague reference to unknown people who are not identified. The blame is clearly placed on traditions that claim that girls have no value in this society.
Readers are reminded that the newborn baby girl is just an extra mouth to feed. She needs to be fed, and her mouth opens wide, searching for her mother's breast and nourishment. The child's hunger is another reminder that the female child will take from the family but will not give anything back when she is older. This stanza ends with the mother's observation that her husband is not at her bedside to celebrate the birth of a son. There is no blame directed toward the husband because of his absence. In fact, the mother understands that there is no reason to celebrate this birth and no reason for her husband to be proud, so she is not surprised that he is absent. In this first stanza the mother's acceptance of her husband's disappointment makes clear that she understands and accepts the lack of value that accompanies the birth of a female infant.
As is customary for the pantoun format, the second and fourth lines of the preceding stanza are repeated as the first and third lines of the following stanza. Accordingly, this stanza opens with the line from stanza 1 that refers to the smooth empty space of the baby girl's mouth. This, again, is the reason why the baby's father is not there beside his wife. The wife knows that he is busy retrieving ashes that had been buried during her pregnancy. As the poem reveals only through an allusion, the ashes will be used to suffocate the baby. Even in this stanza, there is no suggestion that the mother intends to protect her child. There is only regret that the child is not the hoped-for son. If the child had been a boy, the father would not need to dig up the ashes that they had buried.
Because the mother's pregnancy now has no value, her husband's mother squats down by the fire and does not celebrate her new grandchild. Instead of proudly cooing over the new baby, this grandmother sits apart, away from the mother and child, waiting for her son to dig up the jar of ashes. Readers are told in the fourth line of this stanza that these are ashes that the family saved for the past three months of the pregnancy. That is, as the mother's belly grew large with child, the husband, his wife, and his mother planned for the murder of the infant if a girl were to be born. Presumably, the child will be placed in a box, with ashes that will be used to smother her face.
The opening line again tells readers that the husband's mother is by the fire. She remains separate from her daughter-in-law and granddaughter while she waits for her son to return with the ashes. While the two mothers wait, the child lies against her mother's body. Her mother feels each tiny squirm and movement and is perhaps reminded of the same movements that this baby made when still inside her womb. The baby's small sounds must remind the mother that the infant is alive and needs to be fed.
The last two lines of this stanza remind the reader of how the family saved ashes in preparation for this moment. They hoped for a son but prepared for a daughter. If the desired son had been born, the father would not have needed to dig up the jar of ashes. In the final line of this stanza, the poet makes clear that the family, including the mother, has been prepared to do what would be necessary. Thus, her pregnancy was not just a time of planning and joyous celebration, as it was also a time of planning for the possibility that they would murder the child. The mother knows that murdering the baby is what the family will do; she has no doubt of the outcome, even though her words are tinged with regret.
The opening line of this stanza reminds readers that the child is alive, as she makes small noises and moves against her mother. The kicks and noises remind the mother of the child's existence—but she is a girl, and her fate has been determined. The infant is powerless against a tradition that renders girls valueless. The mother-in-law prays, perhaps for the child, who is not unloved, just unwanted. The husband's mother is not without feeling, but she, too, a female herself, knows that a baby girl has no value.
The poet repeats the line from the previous stanza explaining that the family has always known what they must do and has been prepared to do it, but this time, the line is a continuation of the grandmother's prayer. The husband's mother has always known what must be done, just as her daughter-in-law has known. Thus, in this stanza readers may imagine that the grandmother is also filled with regret that the child must die. The baby girl is compared to a clay pot that breaks before it has been fired. There is no point in finishing the pot; it is worthless. For many Chinese families—particularly those in poverty—there may likewise be no point in letting a baby girl grow to become a child, a teenager, or an adult, as she simply cannot be afforded. She is essentially "broken," as she has no value and must be thrown out.
The mother-in-law is also an ineffectual female. In a sense, the husband's mother is as helpless and has as little value as her newborn granddaughter. She uses her powerless mouth to pray; whether her prayers are intended to save her granddaughter, perhaps, or to change the traditions and culture that place no value on the life of a girl is open to interpretation. The grandmother is defenseless against this tradition. She will not prepare a feast to celebrate, and the rooster will not be killed. The rooster has particular importance in Chinese culture, as it is one of the twelve zodiac signs, and rooster blood is thought to represent good fortune and to signify a strong life. Roosters also provide good meat, and so having a rooster slaughtered to eat and for blood to drink would be an important celebration for the birth of a boy. Since there is nothing to celebrate with the birth of a girl, the rooster's life is spared—while the life of the baby girl will be forfeit.
The third line of this stanza again tells readers that a baby girl is like a clay pot that is broken and never completed. This time the line ends with a colon, and so the following line builds upon a phrase that in the previous stanza made clear that a baby girl is as unfinished and worthless as a broken pot. Here, women are compared to wood and sand from a river, both of which are bendable and malleable. River sand constantly shifts and reforms to redirect the river's flow. Wood is porous and easily bent, but it is also easily repaired because it is supple and flexible. Thus, perhaps, unlike the rigid traditions that place no value on females, women are pliable and can adapt when called upon to do so. On the other hand, the reference to sand and wood can also be understood to mean that even adult women are perceived as less than human—as no more than the sum of the clay used to make the pot and the wood burned to fire it.
The opening line of this stanza reminds readers that there will be no celebration at the birth of the baby girl. The husband is in a hurry, now. He has the ashes and is ready to kill the baby, but he frowns. This is perhaps meant to assuage his wife's misery, or, as would be indicated by the way the second line continues into the third line, he may be frowning because he is unhappy to be doing what he is doing; in order to do what he believes he must do, he must pretend that he believes that women are of so little value that the killing of an infant daughter is justified. Meanwhile, the mother's milk has dampened the bed. The nuzzling of the infant against her mother and the soft sounds of hunger caused the mother's breast milk to flow, but the child is not receiving that milk. The poet laments the waste—the waste of nurturing milk and, with the child about to be killed or already killed, the waste of the child's life.
In the final stanza, the husband continues to frown, as he continues to pretend to believe that his daughter has no value, that he is doing the right thing. The mother expresses her wish for the child to be cleaned, then also asks that the girl be dressed in sooty ashes. The mother perhaps wants to honor the child by washing her even though she will be smothered in ashes afterward. The line could also be understood to mean that the mother considers the act of dressing the girl in ashes to be an act of final cleansing, in that the daughter will be cleansed of her life. The poet next repeats the line from the previous stanza that refers to the lost milk and the death of the newborn as a waste. The mother's milk has gone unused, a reminder that no child will be nursing at the mother's breast. As is customary for the pantoun format, the final line of the poem repeats the opening line. A female child is useless; she is just an extra mouth to feed. As was the case before, the blame is placed on traditions, or on some traditional persons, that hold that girls have no value in this society. When this line opened the poem, it was a statement of history, culture, and tradition. When it reappears as the final line, it reads more as a lament for what this family has had to do—for the daughter who is no more—and for what cannot be changed.
The sentence that opens "Pantoun for Chinese Women" is a vague reference to the traditions that govern this new mother's life. The very first word is a subjective personal pronoun that refers to a collective group of people. These unnamed people, whose values have determined that a girl's life has no meaning, are the people who are responsible for the family's choice to murder the child. The reader learns from the mother of her own acceptance of the family's choice. She mentions that she knew ahead of time that if the baby were to be a girl, she would have to be killed. The narrator uses the possessive pronoun we to include herself in this planning. Thus, she is helping to continue the traditions of a culture that places so little value on girls that the killing of female babies is routinely practiced and even planned for during pregnancy.
TOPICS FOR FURTHER STUDY
- Choose a brief sentence from a newspaper and use it as the basis for a poem, just as Lim has done with "Pantoun for Chinese Women." In writing your poem, try to mimic the pantoun style, with its specific repetitions of sentences. When you have completed your poem, write a brief evaluation of your work, comparing it to Lim's poem. In your written critique of your poem, consider what you learned about the difficulty of writing a poem in the pantoun style.
- Research infanticide in China and in India, two countries where the birth of a girl is traditionally not valued. After you have gathered enough information, create a poster that compares these two countries' female infanticide rates as well as any efforts that are being made to halt the practice.
- Poetry should create images and pictures in the reader's mind. Draw or illustrate one of the images from Lim's poem. You can also use photography if you choose. Then write an essay that explains how you chose and produced your image and what you think your image adds to your understanding of Lim's poem.
- The epigraph that Lim uses to begin her poem tells readers about the murder of female infants. It does not tell readers anything about the mothers of those infants. Research the lives of women in China and write an essay in which you discuss your findings. While focusing on motherhood, also research what is known about marriage in China and how marriage changes women's lives.
The Role of the Father
The one demonstrably unsympathetic person in this poem is the narrator's husband. The narrator relates that he is not there with her, even though she has just given birth to his child. Presumably, rather than comforting his wife, he left as soon as he discovered that his new baby is a daughter. The new mother is not surprised that her husband has gone, as they had already planned for what was to be done in the event that the child was a girl. The narrator paints an ambiguous picture of her husband, who performs his tasks hastily, as if eager to kill the baby, but who frowns and pretends that he values women as little as his culture values them. As the narrator describes it, the frown can be understood to be not real; perhaps he is only pretending to be sad that he must kill his child. From this perspective, his rushing to complete the deed before either his wife or mother changes her mind reveals his true nature: He is in such a hurry to commit murder that his display of grief is no more than a frown. He cannot even show sympathy or understanding for the loss his wife might feel, as his mind is fixated only on the son that his wife failed to give him. From another perspective, the fact that he must pretend not to care indicates that he does what he does against even his own heart's wishes. Nevertheless, there can be little doubt that, whatever his emotional state, he performs the horrific deed that supposedly must be performed.
The author's choice to write a poem about infanticide calls attention to the issue. The epigraph tells readers that female infanticide is a very serious problem in China. As the reader studies the poem, it becomes clear that the poem is about the fate that awaits a newborn baby girl. Lim makes infanticide personal by making the mother the narrator, such that the mother's voice relates the details of the events that follow the girl's birth. Although the mother has helped to plan for this possibility, she is ambivalent about having to kill her baby. Lim makes the mother-narrator regretful over the waste of milk that will not nourish the infant and over the human life that will be wasted because the child is not the desired son. Since the reader sees infanticide from the mother's point of view, there is a greater impact on readers, who are compelled to see the problem in a more personal way.
Maternity and Motherhood
There are two mothers in Lim's poem. The new mother narrates the poem, and so readers see the events from her point of view. The baby's body is snuggled against her mother, who feels the child move against her, just as the child moved in her womb only the day before. The mother's milk flows, an involuntary acknowledgement of her role as nourishing mother to this baby girl. The milk is a reminder that this mother's role is to care for her baby; to kill her child is the antithesis of motherhood. The mother knows in her mind that she will have to kill her newborn, but her body remembers the child and longs to feed her. The mother-in-law is also a mother, one who once felt her own son kick inside her womb and who once felt her breast milk flow, as well. Initially, the narrator describes the mother-in-law as distant. She stays away from the new mother and infant, squatting down next to the fire. When the narrator explains that her husband's mother is praying, however, the reader suddenly sees her in a more sympathetic light. The killing of this child cannot be easy for her, either. The two mothers are forced to do what their culture tells them is their obligation, even though motherhood is about giving life, not taking life. The ambivalence of both mothers regarding what lies ahead is clearly established in the story the narrator tells.
Asian American Women's Poetry
The phrase "Asian American women's poetry" is a broad term that refers to many different traditions, none of which are easily defined. Thus, the term really refers to a multicultural tradition of women writing largely about topics that, according to Lim, have "too long been forbidden to Asian American women." In her introduction to the anthology The Forbidden Stitch, Lim describes Asian American women's poetry as capable of increasing readers' awareness of cultural difference. Although Asian American women poets represent a diverse multicultural background, they also tend to reflect a distinctly Asian voice, whether speaking of their countries of origin or of their adopted American country. Their poetry is often marked by emphases on culture, kinship, and family relationships. Lim's poem reflects such an emphasis on culture and family dynamics. "Pantoun for Chinese Women" narrates a story that is not usually the subject of poetry, and it is a story that is not often discussed. The issue of female infanticide in China is a distinctly Asian issue that reflects concerns about kinship, family, and cultural values.
An epigraph is generally known as an inscription used to mark a burial. Originally epigraphs were used to mark Egyptian tombs. The Greeks and Romans wrote epigraphs to celebrate their generals, but they also wrote epigraphs that celebrated the lives of their wives and children. An epigraph is also a quotation placed at the beginning of a literary work to serve as a sort of introduction to the topic. The use of the epigraph to begin Lim's poem correlates with its purpose as a way to mark a tomb. "Pantoun for Chinese Women" is in a sense a funeral ode for a newborn child, and the epigraph serves as the tombstone that explains that this child is only one of many who have died for the same reason—because the child was a girl.
The pantoun poem, which is sometimes also spelled pantoum or pantun, originated in Malaysia during the fifteenth century. The poem consists of several four-line stanzas; the number of stanzas has no designated limit, and so the poem can be any length. The structure is very rigid, however. The second and fourth lines of every stanza are repeated as the first and third lines in the following stanza. The first line of the poem is also repeated as the final line of the poem. Thus, almost every line in a pantoun is repeated once. Typically, the first two lines of each stanza create an image, while the final two lines provide the thematic meaning. One of the most interesting aspects of a pantoun is how the meaning can be changed when the lines are repeated. Lim does this with subtle changes in wording and punctuation. For example, in the fifth stanza, the narrator describes her baby's two feeble mouths and her mother-in-law praying; when the line is repeated in the sixth stanza, the mother-in-law is the one said to have two feeble mouths. This indicates that the mother-in-law has little more power than her newborn granddaughter.
Social Awareness Poetry
Poetry can be used to increase social awareness of injustice. Poetry that focuses on social issues can give voice to topics that are important but are not often discussed. Poems of protest can be used to seek an end to war, as they were during the Vietnam War, and they can be used to create social change. The emotional impact of a poem can spur readers to action; Lim's poem, for example, may inspire readers to investigate infanticide and work to eliminate the practice. Lim's use of the mother as narrator makes the poem more personal and the impact of infanticide more dramatic, thus making the poem itself more influential.
History of Infanticide
Lim's poem "Pantoun for Chinese Women" puts a personal face on the story of infanticide in China. Lim shows only one family's decision to kill their infant girl, but the problem, of course, extends far beyond that single family. The history of infanticide is quite long. Female infanticide was practiced by the Greeks during their golden age and has been practiced by almost every civilized country since then. Many victims of infanticide have been children with physical handicaps or female infants. Often, population control and economics have been motivating factors for infanticide. In times of food shortages, infants may be killed to preserve the supply of food, but female infanticide in particular reveals a preference for male children. Infanticide may have been a serious problem in Arabia, as well, since the Koran includes laws against female infanticide. Indeed, the historical evidence regarding such laws tends to suggest that infanticide must have been enough of a problem to create a need to outlaw the practice. In Victorian England, infanticide was frequent enough to become the subject of novels, such as those written by Charles Dickens and George Eliot. Infanticide is even a problem in the United States, which has one of the highest levels of infant murder among developed countries. In fact, historical evidence suggests that at the end of the 1970s, female infanticide was no more frequent in China than in many European countries. For children under one year of age, the murderer is most often the mother. Historically, in fact, the parent who most frequently commits infanticide is the mother.
Infanticide in China
As is the case for nearly all countries, in China infanticide has a long history, but after the formation of the People's Republic of China in 1949, the practice fell into disfavor; infanticide was outlawed, and as a result, infanticides dropped significantly. The increase in infanticides in the mid-1980s is most often attributed to the one-child policy adopted by the Chinese government in 1979. Under this policy, families having more than one child are economically penalized. Parents who have more than one child might be subjected to monetary fines, or husbands could lose their jobs. Rural families are permitted two children, but only if the first child is a girl. With the practical limit of a single child, the preferred choice is most often to have a son. The preference for boys is based upon cultural traditions. Boys carry on the family name, and they are expected to work in business or on the farm and thus support the family. In addition, sons are the designated caregivers of elderly parents.
COMPARE & CONTRAST
- 1980s: In 1981, the United Nations adopts the Declaration on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women. This is the only international statement guaranteeing women's human rights.
Today: In 2005, a United Nations statement by Secretary-General Kofi Annan calls violence against women a global issue. He cites infanticide, genital mutilations, and dowry-based violence as some of the most common instances of violence directed toward women.
- 1980s: Because of China's one-child rule, the number of abandoned children increases dramatically. The majority of these children are girls. The orphanages in which they are placed are so poorly run that mortality rates are between 50 and 90 percent in some areas of China, according to the organization Human Rights Watch. It is estimated that most of the abandoned children never even reach orphanages, dying on the streets instead.
Today: In 2007, the U.N. General Assembly establishes the post of special representative of the secretary-general on violence against children. The position is created as part of the effort to eliminate the hidden and often socially approved violence against children that occurs in many nations.
- 1980s: China dismantles collective farming and allows farmers the freedom to run their farms as private enterprises. Farmers expect that this change will allow them more economic freedom and a greater ability to support their families.
Today: In 2005, there are more than 87,000 protests by farmers and workers, who complain about the economic instability and disparities that have led to greater poverty in rural areas (where the government has artificially depressed wages). Many families are living in extreme poverty.
When girls marry, they essentially then belong to their husband's family. Thus, girls are of no lasting benefit to their parents. To increase the possibility of having a male child, prenatal testing has become quite common; if the fetus is a girl, the mother may have an elective abortion. This practice, too, has been outlawed, but it still continues outside the law. In areas where sex-selective abortion is not an option, female infanticide becomes more common. The killing of infants is also against the law but still continues. Many girls are abandoned, while some are turned over to adoption agencies. Indeed, the children in China's adoption agencies are overwhelmingly female, and in many cases the orphanages are where girls are sent to die. A September 1995 report in the South China Morning Post revealed that in many orphanages, girls die of neglect in record numbers. Infanticide and sex-selective abortions have created a significant disparity in the numbers of girls and boys in China. Some estimates suggest that anywhere from 80 to 110 million men in China will be unable to marry due to a shortage of women. Regardless of the social and economic problems caused by infanticide, the cultural desire for sons has resulted in a veritable genocide of China's daughters.
Shirley Geok-lin Lim is a prolific writer. In addition to her novels, her memoir, and her many collections of poems and short stories, she has edited several anthologies and has published more than 130 articles or chapters in books. To be in such demand suggests that Lim's work is much admired. Yet, in spite of her copious output, her poetry has received "little critical attention," as Andrew Ng notes in his 2007 article in Women: A Cultural Review. Ng notes that "Lim's poems provide profound insights into Malaysia," where she was born. Her poems also address "the problematic social spaces of women." One poem that has received more critical attention and that addresses the social space of women is "Pantoun for Chinese Women." Ng refers to this poem as "one of Lim's most powerful poems." One element to the poem that Ng suggests is particularly impressive is Lim's use of the pantoun format. The repetition of lines in the pantoun works to reenact the trauma that victims of abuse feel when they constantly relive a traumatic event. Thus, the use of the pantoun, according to Ng, creates a poem that is "stylistically sensitive to a traumatic experience that cannot be expressed directly." Since for the mother, "mere words fail to convey her suffering," the choice to construct this poem as a pantoun allows the poet to create a work "stylistically sensitive" to that suffering. Overall, then, the repetition of lines and the subtle changes that Lim makes in punctuation help to create a more profound image of feminine grief.
In a 1986 review of No Man's Grove, the collection in which "Pantoun for Chinese Women" appears, Bernard Gadd is especially enthusiastic about Lim's poetry. In his review, which was printed in World Literature Today, Gadd says of Lim that this collection "confirms her as a writer of verse that is not only perceptive and intelligent but also enjoyable." Lim's poetry is compared favorably with the English romantic tradition, and in particular her use of imagery is described as being "lush." Gadd refers to Lim's writing as "quick with intelligence." Although Lim's literary work has not received as much attention as one might expect, the attention she has received has been largely positive.
Sheri Metzger Karmiol
Karmiol has a doctorate in English Renaissance literature and teaches literature and drama at the University of New Mexico, where she is a lecturer in the university honors program. She is also a professional writer and the author of several reference texts on poetry and drama. In this essay, Karmiol discusses Lim's use of imagery in "Pantoun for Chinese Women."
Poetry can provide readers with a way to view ideas, history, and customs that might otherwise never be experienced. Poetry illuminates a world that readers have never seen, never visited, and in some cases, never knew existed. Poetry educates and inspires, and it changes the world by illuminating injustice and by showing readers that the world needs to be changed. Poetry creates an emotional response that can make it difficult for readers to simply walk away from suffering. Most importantly, poetry clarifies the injustices of bias and discrimination and educates readers about the need for change. In "Pantoun for Chinese Women," Shirley Lim uses analogy and imagery to create a picture of helplessness and oppression in women's lives.
Poetry uses language to create meaning, but not in the same way that prose creates meaning. Poetic meaning is derived from the reader's own experience, which in part depends on the analogies created by the poet. For instance, in Maxine Hong Kingston's memoir The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood among Ghosts, the narrator tells the story of her mother, who was a midwife in their village. In one instance, her mother delivered a baby who was born without an anus and who was subsequently left outside in the outhouse to die. The narrator uses this story as an example to suggest that her mother was not one of those midwives who would "prepare a box of clean ashes beside the birth bed in case of a girl." In such cases, if the baby was a girl, the baby's face would be buried in the ashes. The narrator's mother said of the act of smothering the baby, "It was very easy." While this dramatic episode is designed to get the reader's attention, it does not function in the same way as a poetic rendering of the same situation. In her poem, Lim describes the pregnant mother-to-be, her husband, and his mother saving ashes for three months, so that if the baby was a girl, they would know what to do. The image is incomplete, such that it requires that the reader understand the unspoken meaning of the ashes. The three months of saving ashes are the last trimester of the wife's pregnancy. This is a time when the baby is fully formed; he or she is growing and moving in the mother's womb. All of this is implied but not stated, as the poet only alludes to the possible interpretations through an image. It is up to the reader to fill in the details. Poetry, then, is typically not as easy as prose. Kingston leaves no room for misinterpretation, as she does not require that the reader create his or her own meaning.
WHAT DO I READ NEXT?
- Among the White Moon Faces: An Asian-American Memoir of Homelands (2000) is Lim's memoir. It includes her memories of life in Malaysia and of life after immigrating to the United States.
- Lim's second novel, Sister Swing (2006), is the story of three sisters whose Chinese ancestry continues to become the focus of their new lives in the United States.
- Transnational Asia Pacific: Gender, Culture, and the Public Sphere (1999), edited by Shirley Geok-lin Lim, Larry E. Smith, and Wimal Dissanayake, is a collection of essays that explore the ways in which globalization influences culture and society, especially the ways in which women's identities are impacted.
- Home to Stay: Asian American Women's Fiction (1990), edited by Sylvia Watanabe and Carol Bruchac, is a collection of short stories by twenty-nine different Asian American women writers.
- An Interethnic Companion to Asian American Literature (1997), edited by King-Kok Cheung, offers writings that explore the cultural identity of Asian American writers. The collection of eleven essays explores gender, immigration, and critical theory as well as other topics that contribute to an understanding of the cultural context of Asian American poetry.
Kingston's memoir presents another example of how a daughter can be eliminated from the household, when she depicts an episode that occurs in the marketplace. The narrator describes her mother walking through the Canton markets and coming upon a scene where parents are selling their daughters to be slaves. These were "the sellers of little girls." Sometimes there was only a father selling his daughter, but other times "there were fathers and mothers selling their daughters, whom they pushed forward" as potential buyers walked by them. The implication in these descriptions is clear. Girls can be assigned so little value as to be sold like merchandise, a commodity to be disposed of like vegetables from the garden or furniture marketed for sale. Lim also creates an image of girls as valueless or as useless members of the family, but her description has hidden meanings and depth not available to prose writers. Lim describes a girl as a child with two mouths, a child who is no good. The child with two mouths is a child that is doubly wasteful. No infant contributes productivity to a household, but a boy will grow up to help on the farm or in the business. He will care for his parents in their old age, but a girl contributes nothing. She just eats food and needs clothing and wastes resources. She will marry and then belong to her husband's family. The value assigned to girls is made clear in Kingston's image of parents selling their daughters; but Lim's image of two mouths carries meaning that must be deciphered, and every person who reads the poem finds different meaning in it.
It is the reader who creates and re-creates meaning with every reading of a poem. Kristie S. Fleckenstein argues in her essay in College English that images do not just exist. Instead, "an image evolves when we shape a reality based on the logic of analogy." That is, readers create meaning from the imagery that the poet creates, and they shape the image based on analogies with which they are familiar. Another example of how imagery enriches "Pantoun for Chinese Women" is found in Lim's use of language to describe the mother's flowing breast milk. This foundational image creates multiple supplementary images. In the most common analogy attached to the image of breast milk, the milk signifies the maternity of the mother and her readiness to nurse her new baby. But in Lim's poem, the breast milk soaks the mother's bedding and goes to waste. It soaks the bedding because the baby is being killed, and all that the mother can do is mourn the waste. She grieves for the waste of the baby, as well as for the waste of the milk. The image of wasted breast milk suggests multiple meanings of loss and suffering, of a mother denied the opportunity to nurse her baby and a baby denied her life. As Fleckenstein observes, "An image is never just one thing; it is many different things at the same time." The poem has more power, then, by virtue of the multifaceted image that the poet creates of wasted milk. Once again, it is the reader's interpretation of that imagery that infuses the poem with meaning. Because poetry requires that the reader seek out meaning and work for understanding, some readers conclude that poetry is just too difficult to read—and prose ends up being the more privileged literature. According to Fleckenstein, "Historically, language has overshadowed image, preventing us from recognizing the essential role of imagery in meaning." If readers privilege the imagery, they emerge from a reading of "Pantoun for Chinese Women" with a greater understanding of the helplessness of women's lives in China.
Imagery is especially important in understanding the cultural context of "Pantoun for Chinese Women." In his essay in Women: A Cultural Review, Andrew Ng points out that Lim's poetry reflects a cultural context that positions Chinese women as both victimized and silenced, such that their suffering has not been given voice. While the husband in "Pantoun for Chinese Women" goes outside to dig up the ashes that he will need to kill his newborn daughter, his wife and mother can only remain silently in the house. The new mother holds her baby close to her, while the husband's mother squats by the fire and prays. She prays, but her prayers only emerge from her own weak mouth. Neither woman objects to the murder of the baby girl; in fact, they have participated in saving the ashes and have always been prepared to do what they know must be done. Ng argues that "Lim's poems imaginatively recreate moments of" the suffering endured by Chinese women; where these women have had no voice and thus no history, her poems "reposition them back into ‘history’ through a different discursive strategy (poetry instead of official history record)." If history has not recorded the suffering of women who are undervalued or even valueless, then Lim can give them value by articulating their pain and suffering. Female infants—the primary victims of infanticide—have even less voice, but Lim manages in "Pantoun for Chinese Women" to take these invisible and silenced infants and make them visible. She even gives them a voice, when she has the infant cry against her mother's body. The baby, who nuzzles against her mother's body and whose movements remind both the mother and Lim's readers that this child should live, becomes real. This is not an abstract statistic, as the newspaper quoted in the epigraph might have provided; this is a living child, a baby whose birth would have been celebrated if only "she" had been a "he."
In the world of "Pantoun for Chinese Women," males are the honored members of society. They have the advantages and the opportunities denied to females; however, it is the women who people Lim's poems. These female protagonists are drawn from what Ng observes is "a distinct cultural background which privileges the male." According to Ng, Lim's poetry, "in a sense, can be seen as a means by which these repressed voices can be reinstated into a public space of discourse." In "Pantoun for Chinese Women," the husband's voice is mediated by his wife's narration. He is silenced, with only his actions and mannerisms described. This is an example of Lim's choice to give voice to the mother's point of view. Ng remarks that in Lim's poetry, "It is often the women's viewpoint that is privileged," and that is certainly the case in this poem.
Lim's use of imagery in "Pantoun for Chinese Women" creates and enriches the meanings that are hidden within the poem. In each reading of Lim's poem, readers find something new hidden within the images. In this poem, what emerges is the voice of a woman who has not been given any other way to express her pain. The brief newspaper reference from the epigraph does not tell a story of suffering and anguish; it tells of a serious social problem, but the scope of loss is not articulated. That task is for the poet to perform. Ng asserts that "Lim's poems, by reimagining the lives of marginalized women, effectively return these forgotten victims to contemporaneity, and directly articulate their suffering and trauma." To ignore these women's voices is to ignore social history. Lim is not about to let that happen.
Source: Sheri Metzger Karmiol, Critical Essay on "Pantoun for Chinese Women," in Poetry for Students, Gale, Cengage Learning, 2009.
Mohammed A. Quayam
In the following excerpt from an interview, Lim contrasts writing poetry with academic writing and discusses her Malaysian-Chinese heritage.
… [Mohammed A. Quayum:] Why do you write? Is it for the sheer joy of writing—the joy of telling a story, for example—or because you have some ideas to convey, some instructions perhaps? Is writing an obsessive, compulsive activity for you or is it a way of solving problems, private or societal?
[Shirley Geok-lin Lim:] When I was much younger I might have replied that I wrote for the "sheer joy" of writing, but this has not been the case for a long time. That I feel driven to write is clear. That writing provides me with a deeply satisfying sense of coming to who I am, becoming who I believe myself to be, is also clear. But I am less certain now that "joy" has anything to do with it.
More often than not, writing means long hours and days of loneliness, isolation, doubt. And more and more I feel the absence of time for the kind of writing I want to do. Working on this interview with you, for example, means losing time for writing. Entire months and even years go by with very little time for the kind of writing you are asking me about.
Writing is surely no way to go about solving problems. I would like to think that my poems and prose works offer symbolic action and so participate in a significant way in the social world—in a political public sphere, but that is a faint hope and as easily winked out even during my lucid moments.
Is writing obsessive for me? Not in the psychoneurotic sense, the way an obsessive-compulsive has no rational control over her actions. My sense of duty, my work ethic, is very strong, and I spend most of my life devoted to my salaried profession as a university teacher and citizen. Social responsibilities take up an enormous amount of my energy, whether they were/are childcare, housekeeping chores or community services. If I did not have to work for a living, I would probably have devoted myself to the work of poetry and fiction and be a different kind of writer.
MAQ: You had a difficult childhood and adolescence I understand. How have those early experiences helped to shape the writer you are?
SL: It is perhaps those early years that have made it so difficult for me to disengage from the academic profession, which offers steady employment and social respect, to enter fully into the life of writing. In that way, those years have made me a discontinuous writer. I am always amazed to hear anyone say that I am a "prolific" writer. Compared with prose authors such as Charles Dickens, Mark Twain, George Eliot, Virginia Woolf, or, in our time, Doris Lessing, Salman Rushdie, Anita Desai, or poets such as Adrienne Rich—and I do not mean to claim equal standing with them, merely use them as known figures for illustrative purpose—my literary output is meagre. All these figures lived their lives professionally and socially as writers. I have not.
I feel profoundly that I have not become the writer I may have been if I had taken the risk to leave academia. But then, knowing how difficult if not impossible it is to make a living out of selling one's books, I might have been tempted to write to please the market. My writing has remained quirky, not attuned to a popular readership, really "minor," "deterritorialized," in the way that Deleuze and Guattari used these terms, as a form of "flight from territorialization." Childhood misery, of course, has also provided some of the materials and themes in my writing, particularly in the poems and the memoir. More significant I think is the ideological weight that bears on most of my thinking—the leftward leaning perspective, the sympathy for the weaker, poorer, the outsider.
MAQ: You are both a poet and a fiction writer, and an academic to boot. How important is it for a writer/writer-academic to keep abreast with the global developments in writing and criticism? Does the theoretical awareness, or awareness of criticism and literary scholarship, interfere with the process of writing which I believe is largely a spontaneous/unconscious activity?
SL: A scholar and teacher in a top research university is by the very nature of the institution expected to be part of the leading edge in her discipline; and as you know, disciplines are now shaped within globally circulating discourses. Air travel, the Internet (which has practically made faxes unnecessary!), even the development of English as a global language for the science, technology, and infotainment industries, signify that this academic must be a global worker as well.
But a writer is not or not always an academic. I do not believe that a poet or even a novelist needs to know what is happening in the next village, not to say in "global developments in writing and criticism." A sense of history for a writer may even shirk a sense of the global contemporary, which in its speed and transitoriness may be only so much ineffectual noise for the writer.
This is not to say that there is one prescriptive mode for a writer to process his materials. Doris Lessing is as different socio-politically and stylistically from Jane Austen as a woman writer can be, and yet one may trace certain similarities of social engagement in their novels. "Theoretical awareness" may be so much useless twaddle for some writers and catalytic for others. Writers are as varied as the fruits of nature and they produce in many kinds of climates. Only totalitarian absoluteness can silence them, and not for long.
MAQ: Would you elaborate on the way you write? Are there any idiosyncrasies associated with your writing such as gulping down a big cup of coffee as, for example, Hemingway did every time he sat down to write?
SL: I write best given huge chunks of time. Being away from familiar ground helps. Being alone helps. Having other writers to talk to and engage with helps; and if this appears to contradict the statement before, that can't be helped. Not having to worry about laundry and meals and public appearance helps. In short, I have found that living like a pampered hermit, the way that Thoreau did when he wrote of being alone at Walden Pond while all the while he was going off for meals every evening with the Emersons and others down the road, helps. I would live in a writers' retreat, in the lap of a social privilege that provides tranquil hours and a supportive community when needed.
Alas, absent these conditions, I write in between chores, on weekends and teaching breaks and very occasional fellowships, after I have completed some research project. My memoir and novel were written under such conditions. I write long journal entries on plane rides. As for poems, they usually arrive late at night and more and more rarely as my nighttime energy level declines with age.
MAQ: In what way does teaching influence your own work?
SL: My immediate response is very little. Perhaps if I spend more time pondering on this question I may come up with a better answer. My immediate response, however, is that the time taken up teaching is time away from writing. In that way, teaching may have saved the public from more books by me.
MAQ: How is writing a poem different for you from writing a short story, or for that matter an academic essay?
SL: A poem is an intense writing experience. I have hardly ever written a poem in cold blood, that is, as an exercise with no emotional occasion attached. The heat of the feelings that move me to the act of composing or that accompany that composition, to my mind, is what produces, cooks, the rhythm, the pulse that gives rise to lines of words. Such feelings become "embodied" for me in the poetic form, in its sounds and rhythms.
Poetry does not sprawl for me—it is no extravagant exhibition of language, rather an extravagant exhibition of intensity, the form the words take, their lines, images, rhythms, rhymes, alliterative force, shaping an inward sense that is the radical opposite of "emoting." I dislike poems that emote, the way I dislike make-up on a woman for deceiving appearance. More and more I am trying to discover an organic form that is true to the particular moment of the particular poem, the simple plain inwardness of that moment. A short story also possesses intensity but that quality is more carefully and deliberately rather than "spontaneously" wrought. One must take care not to be writing poetry when writing a short story, even as rhythmic and figurative language plays a major part in how a story evokes meaning and feeling. Prose has its own hard-won pleasures from poetry, a different pacing and staging for irony, ideas, and insights, a compulsory insistence on separate voices of characters, their separate values and actions. Michel Bakhtin is correct in noting that the novel (and the short story) comes from a dialogic imagination that incorporates heteroglossic and carnivalesque features, while poetry—especially lyric poetry—tends to work in a more monological manner.
As for academic writing, it belongs to a very different universe of discourse. The imperatives for citation, rigorous evidentiary argument, some form of logical clarity, despite what appears to be humanism's total surrender to the poststructuralist dogmas of undecidability, indeterminacy, and contingency, all impose a closed conventional structure where even writing something differently becomes framed as playing against such discursivity, that is, becomes part of academic writing.
MAQ: Is California or Kuala Lumpur your home turf? You left Malaysia to take up residence in America more than thirty years ago but you still seem to be "writing home"—narrating Malaysian life and experiences in many of your stories, including your first novel Joss and Gold, which is partly set in Malaysia and deals mostly with Malaysian characters.
SL: Kuala Lumpur is definitely not MY home turf; I am not delusionary. But neither is California. As I had said earlier, my work is deterritorialized, an ironic prior property for a writer to whom "home" has been such a first-order question and thematic.
Much of my imagination has been and continues to be located in my earlier experiences as a Malaysian. After all, not only was I about 24 years old when I left Kuala Lumpur for Boston, but I return home frequently to visit my numerous brothers, relatives, and friends. The prospect of spending a good part of my later years in Malaysia is very much a possibility.
But I am a US citizen with an American family. This is not to say that I have no home turf or two. Imagination is a tricky power; it refuses to stay in one or even two places.
My recent two years as Chair Professor of English at the University of Hong Kong resulted in a number of poems that, for the first time, explore the question of a Chinese identity in my individual and collective history. However, more and more I find myself wanting to explore what having lived in America, as you note, for over thirty years means imaginatively.
MAQ: Really moving from Kuala Lumpur to California has not changed your circumstances all that much—it is like moving from one margin to another, from being a Malaysian Chinese to an Asian American, right?
SL: Your assumption is incorrect. The status of a Malaysian Chinese is nothing like that of an Asian American, because the two states have very different constitutions and institutional structures. What you imply, I think, is that both identities are marginal. But they are identities embedded in very different socio-political economies and rights. Asian Americans do not face a constitutional restriction on their rights as citizens. Prejudice and racism are as present in the United States as they are anywhere, but actions proven to arise from these evils are legally prohibited. The rights of minorities are protected by the constitution, and although there is no utopia here, no internal security act bans struggles for a more equal and just union. Of course the ISA applies equally to ALL Malaysians, regardless of ethnicity. As a US citizen, I can open my big mouth, and I sometimes do, without fear of losing my job, losing a promotion, or losing my liberty.
However, Chinese Malaysians are not a marginal community in Kuala Lumpur as they are here in California. While Chinese Malaysians are not the majority community, neither are they marginal to the nation, its history, culture, and economy the way that Asian Americans still are in the United States.
That is, my circumstances as an equal national citizen here make me part of the American mainstream, whereas in Malaysia, I would be a marginalized citizen. But my ethnic position here makes me part of a very marginal ethnic cultural community whereas in Malaysia I would remain part of a visible and vital cultural community. Citizenship rights versus ethnic community vitality: perhaps that is the dilemma in US assimilation for Asians coming to America.
MAQ: What are the distractions of a modern writer? Do you think literature could survive the current technological onslaught or is it becoming increasingly "obsolete"—"finished," as some would suggest?
SL: You are not the first to put forward the death of literature. When the Internet first came into popular use, as distinct from its use by university researchers, there was a great deal of talk about the disappearance of print—no more newspapers, journal publications, books. But e-books have not taken off, and e-publishing still suffers from an excessive ephemerality, even in the context of the relative short lives of journals.
Instead, more and more people world-wide have taken to literacy, especially in English, as they engage in writing e-mail, memos, interactions in chat rooms. That is, more and more of contemporary human reality is transpiring as written text. Current technology is turning humans in a massive manner into cyborgs of the written (word-processing).
Thus, I do not see "literature" as becoming obsolete but as being transformed where it interfaces with technology, but also maintaining its ancient pleasures of narrative and song. The amount of poetry and its accessibility over the Internet is amazing. As for distractions facing the modern writer, when were distractions, be they the insistent necessities of livelihood and family or decadent corruptions of drink and play, ever absent for writers?
MAQ: How is present internationalism/globalism important to the writer and literature?
SL: I had intimated earlier that present globalism may have different emphases for different writers. As part of a global cultural industry, publishing has been affected by the tastes and purchasing habits particularly of profitable markets in the West. Writers who are also national intellectuals are inevitably influenced by ideas and practices from outside their local sphere. The Bengali Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore was as much influenced by Western philosophical values of modernity as by Hindu-based philosophy. Lu Xun, the preeminent Chinese writer for the first part of the twentieth century, studied medicine in Japan, itself undertaking reform with European models as guides. Gao Xingjian, the first Nobel Laureate from China, now lives in France. Abdullah bin Abdul Kadir Munshi's Hikayat Abdullah (1849) would not have been written without the instruction received from Middle Eastern Islamic thought and the influence of British colonialism. In this way, "internationalism" whether as colonialism or as individually undertaken study, has had a profound influence on writers from Asia for centuries.
Is this openness of writers to external intellectual forces important and continuing today? I hope so …
Source: Mohammed A. Quayam, "Shirley Geok-lin Lim: An Interview," in MELUS, Vol. 28, No. 4, Winter 2003, pp. 83-99.
In the following excerpt from an interview, Lim speaks of herself as a poet and a woman.
… [Kirpal Singh:] More and more your poems appear to adopt a very strong "women's" voice. Do you think that there is a need still for women to "band" together? Has there not been, in your opinion, a real change so that poets like yourself can now put behind you women's issues and write for and about everyone?
[Shirley Geok-lin Lim:] I am not certain how to respond to this question, as I reject almost all its premises. First, I do not see that women "band" together. Some women are activists and organize politically to achieve social justice. Many others live individual, separate lives, identifying with their husbands and families or communities. Also, I do not write poems in order to express women's issues, nor poems directed only to women. I write about what is important to me emotionally, and about what I find beautiful or mysterious. The notion that I can now put something behind me because of "real" social change in women's positions in the world is nonsense. I don't write polemical or political tracts. Should a man stop writing about his feelings for his father once his father is dead or about how trees are mysterious once the United Nations passes a world ban against illegal timber clearing?
When Crossing The Peninsula won the Commonwealth Poetry Prize , did you feel that you had arrived? What does "arrival" mean to youas a writer? Would being put in an anthology which is then widely used in schools, colleges, and universities signal a sense of arrival with which you are comfortable?
As I wrote in my memoir, I was surprised when Crossing the Peninsula won the Commonwealth Prize. And no, I did not feel then that I had "arrived," perhaps because the prize appeared so illusory to me. I did not go to London to accept the Prize and did no publicity for it. I was nursing my newborn infant, and literary awards were very far from my mind then. I am not sure what "arrival" means, as this is not a word that I use. If being in a popular college anthology signals arrival, then I had arrived a while ago. The strange thing is that it never occurs to me that I have or have not arrived. What presses on my consciousness is all those poems, those stories, those books I have not yet written.
Obviously your subjects have changed, though I suspect your themes have remained the same. Do you think that more than 25 years of living in the US have made it hard for you to write powerfully about subjects Malaysian-Singaporean still? Does your childhood, for instance, still return with the same intensity as that felt in your first volume of poems?
My subjects have changed. I have moved on psychologically and geographically. I don't write from contemporary Singaporean-Malaysian settings. In my first novel, still unpublished, large parts are set in the Kuala Lumpur of 1969 and the Singapore of 1982 or so—historical periods when I was resident in those two places. Very few readers question V. S. Naipaul's or Paul Theroux's claim to write of places and people that they are little acquainted with except through very brief visits; and often, reviewers praise such writers for the power of their portrayals. But my residence in the US seems to lead to questions as to my ability to write from an Asian location or with Asian settings. Yet I return frequently to Asia, to Malaysia and Singapore, and I have a very large family still in both states. In July 1999, I will be taking up a two-year appointment as Chair and Professor of English at the University of Hong Kong. I do not think that my writing identity is so clearly restricted to prescribed national boundaries.
When you deal with the theme of sexuality, I detect there are two broad categories: woman-to-man, and woman-to-woman—would you agree? And would you agree that your woman-to-woman poems are somehow more personal, more intense, more painful?
I am not sure what your question is asking. It may be that some of my poems appear to address men and others women. But I would not therefore conclude that these poems are equally "about sexuality," whatever that means. Some are love poems, with their own tinctures of passion, confusion, memory, and so forth. Some are sister poems, offering shared experiences of life. I had thought that my earlier "love" poems, if such emotions could be easily identified as "love," were, to use your terms again, personal, intense, and painful.
You have spoken about your education and the way this instilled in you a love for English Literature. When did you begin to value non-British literature written in English? Who influenced you to stress the crucial importance of postcolonial, non-canonical writings in English?
My reading of American literature, much of which is, of course, canonical in the United States, opened my eyes radically to a different cultural production of "great writing." I remember reading Wallace Stevens, William Carlos Williams, h.d., Edna St. Vincent Millay, Henry James, and so forth, and finding this an utterly different and distinctive literature. Then, when Lloyd Fernando taught the "Commonwealth Literature" course at the University of Malaya in 1966, we read Chinua Achebe, George Lamming, Ee Tiang Hong, and others, and suddenly I glimpsed what it was to write out of—both in the sense of grounded in but also at a place away from—the British tradition. Much later, in my thirties and forties. I read works in translation. The Latin American writers—Borges, Marquez, and especially Neruda—were such wonderful original visionaries.
As a scholar-critic who is also a vibrant writer, do you feel that sometimes scholars/criticstend to over-value the "surface" of creative works while somehow missing the essential "artistic" qualities? Do you enjoy detailed analyses of your poems in terms of their stylistic experiments, or do you prefer to have your works read in terms of their larger social/political/cultural content and voice?
I do not see how scholar-critics ever over-value the surface of creative works. That is a failure I find in my undergraduate students whose theoretical apparatus is weak. You may mean something else by that word than I do. I do not separate the qualities of a work into "surface" and "artistic," as surface is art polished, and art is manifested through surface as well. I seldom read critical works on my writing, although recently I have been receiving quite a few articles, chapters of dissertations and books that treat my writing. I cannot say I "enjoy" such reading. It makes me happy when a reader finds something valuable about my work, but after reading the chapter or article, I move on and do not re-read it.
Why have you not written more fiction? Are you more comfortable writing poetry? Or are the kinds of experiences you wish to share and express more readily voiced through poetry rather than through prose?
Oddly enough, I believe that it is factually correct to say that I have written much more prose than I have poetry. I am working on a second novel. If all goes well, the first novel may yet be published. I have written probably too many critical articles and books. My memoir has brought me more critical and popular attention than any of my books of poetry. I agree that I have not written that many short stories. I have all kinds of stories in my head, but unfortunately I have only one life and 24 hours in a day. Most of that life is spent as an academic, a critic, scholar, and housekeeper. Poems are much more difficult to voice than fiction or other prose genres. It takes a lot of time and space for a poem to emerge, if at all, which explains why I have not written that much poetry.
By the standard of recent autobiographies, yours is considered by many to be "tame," "safe." Would you apply these labels yourself? There are so many hints at more urgent matters that crave expression in your memoir. Were you overly "self-conscious" and therefore unnecessarily censorious? Looking back at it now, do you think there were things you could/would have stated differently?
I am not sure who these "many" are who consider my memoir to be tame and safe. A critically astute scholar said to me that he considered the portrayal of the daughter-father relationship risqué. Others have talked about my courage and so forth. Perhaps among academic women, the frankness of my discussion of emergent sexuality may be considered not so safe. What are you comparing my memoir to? To Sybil Kathigasu's No Dram of Mercy or Janet Lim's Sold for Silver or Maxine Hong Kingston's The Woman Warrior? I did not write the memoir to shock but to inscribe a history of a community and a particular experience of gender and colonial education, as well as to produce a work that would "stand" on its use of language, a contribution to the long line of other literary productions recognized as memoirs, but with its insistent inflection on the Malaysian gendered, colonial, and immigrant subject.
With age comes mellowness in some cases. In your case your poems and stories reveal a maturity in excess of your age when you wrote them. Is this because of the suffering you yourself endured from a very early age? Did your relationships with your parents emphasize a stance which you have since found wanting in terms of what your writing demands?
I assume that you are complimenting me on early maturity in my writing. I do not think that "literary" maturity has anything to do with "suffering." One is in language, the other in life experience. If suffering resulted in literary maturity, then our greatest writers should come from the poor, dispossessed, diseased, and so forth. As to the second part of your question, you seem to express criticism of what you call "a stance" in my writing. Do you mean that the relationship to father and mother that my writing sometimes constructs has resulted in a "stance" that leads to an inadequacy in my writing? I am not certain what kinds of dynamics are being suggested here. Of course, as my first novel shows, I am capable of imagining other forms of these relationships. But I am careful not to confuse what you may see as "real" or autobiographical relationships with relationships imagined in texts, be they poems or stories. I could, if I wanted to, valorize mothers and fathers—and I have read very loving poems that do exactly this. But this is not what I wish to say or explore. I wish to explore the fierce complexities, contradictions, and ambivalences at the heart of all relationships—not to celebrate but to intimate that fearful intimacy.
What do you think of women (or men for that matter) telling all? Would you say even when there are big battles to be fought there are good reasons why a writer must not go beyond certain time-honored boundaries of telling, of revealing?
Is it ever possible to tell all? One person's all may very well be another's nothing or trifle. The boundaries that concern me are not the trivialities of whether we use the "f" word or describe degrees of wet or dry, but boundaries of how stories work, how language and form work, how cultural and deeply psychic understandings halt and how we can break out of such haltings.
What are you working on now? Are you going to follow up with another memoir?
I am working on a second novel. At the same time, I am preparing three edited and co-edited scholarly and literary volumes for publication this year, another two for publication in the year 2000, and a critical book. All this leaves me no time for poetry.
As the world shrinks and we move away from issues of national/cultural identities to larger questions of technological imperatives, do you think it behooves writers to enter more the world of science, the world of technology?
Of course it behooves us all, writers and non-writers, to enter the world of science and technology. My son is in the school of engineering, studying Computer Science. He is fully in this world. Yet he reads postmodern authors such as Thomas Pynchon and Don DeLillo, adores dramatists such as Samuel Beckett and Tom Stoppard, and writes deliciously witty postmodern plays himself, one of which was performed by the Drama Department of the University of California (Santa Barbara) when he was sixteen years old. He is at home in both the Arts and the Sciences; his creativity is impressive. In comparison, I find myself limited, still struggling with ancient questions of identity, subjectivity, and the literary.
Would you say that in the final count being recognized as a truly international writer, while being very, very good, is still smaller than that wonderful recognition given us by those we love and who say, "You are a good human being"?
I love it that you say I am a good human being. That is important to me, for it validates my struggle to be a decent person, to be sensitive to those poorer, weaker, and less able. As a colonized child, I was also poor, weak, and powerless, and my identification with that condition is primary. But I do not see this desire for validation as a good human being as on the same plane as recognition for one's writing. The good thing about recognition is that it may bring you readers and perhaps improved conditions for more writing. But whether one is recognized as a good person or recognized as a good writer—these are very different domains.
Source: Kirpal Singh, "An Interview with Shirley Geok-lin Lim," in Ariel: A Review of International English Literature, Vol. 30, No. 4, October 1999, pp. 135-41.
In the following review, Bose evaluates the poetry in Lim's collection Monsoon History.
Laurel Means, in her introduction to Shirley Geoklin Lim's selected poems, Monsoon History, accords her a "rightful place" in postcolonial Malaysian writing in English, yielding her also a legitimate claim within the Chinese American canon. It is befitting that Means concludes her introduction with a discussion of Lim's "place" and "claim" within the English literary canon, because it is apparent that location, identity, and language—in their various complex interrelations—are the overriding concerns of Lim's writing. To this extent, the organization of this selection of her poems "in six sections more or less chronologically aligned with [her] personal history" manages to convey a vivid sense of Lim's life and visions; many of her particular concerns are further explicated in the short essay "Tongue and Root: Language in Exile" that is reproduced as an afterword to the selection of poems.
Clearly, Lim is a typical product of the postcolonial migrant generation, whose diasporic experience has been, in her own evaluation, empowering even while being somewhat disquieting. The biographical details of her life—growing up in British Malacca, being educated in the English medium in a convent school, going on to a "first class Honours English" B.A. degree from the University of Malaya, and then coming to America for graduate studies and staying on to work and live there—may read like a case study of any of the millions of the diasporic elite in twentieth-century America; but in fact they hold the key to understanding, and appreciating, much of Lim's creative (and, in fact, critical) work.
The English language, by her own admission (if not in so many words), is Lim's primary, almost obsessive, concern, and there is no doubt that she employs it well. The foreword to Monsoon History, in the form of a poem, sums up the dislocations and the relocations that English has engineered in her life: "It was like learning / to let go and to hold on: / a slow braking, shifting / gears … carrying the child / to foreign countries." Fittingly enough, the first section traces a return to the land of origin, as an adult, with all the adult burdens of memory and guilt and exhilaration that are born out of the yoking of two worlds. Upon her return, the second section locates her within her "Malay-ness," an essence that she struggles to retrieve in order that she may evaluate her history. Understandably, it is difficult for her to find a stable point of reference in the world of her childhood, long abandoned. The third section witnesses another crossing, this time to her adopted homeland. Lim poignantly expresses in her poetry the complexities of diasporic identity entwined with her disappointment with the present-day politics of her original homeland. The subsequent three sections record her responses to those ideas and issues which crowd and confront her adult existence: Western art, literature and culture, elements of the natural world, and women.
Although Lim's poetry is sensitive to the problematics of her place in history, there is a tendency to oversimplify the solution to diasporic fracturing by privileging the English language, adorning it with near-divine powers of unity and healing. It appears that to justify her "voluntary exile," Lim transcends the realities of location and space to find her "calling" in a language: "I make my living teaching it to native speakers, I clean up the grammar of English professors, I dream in its rhythms … Reading it and writing it is the closest experience I have ever had to feeling infinity in my presence." One wonders whether the native speakers themselves might squirm in the face of such devotion!
Source: Brinda Bose, Review of Monsoon History, in World Literature Today, Vol. 70, No. 4, Fall 1996, pp. 1033-34.
Chow, Zoe, "The Dying Room," in South China Morning Post; reprinted in World Press Review, September 1995, p. 39.
Fleckenstein, Kristie S., "Words Made Flesh: Fusing Imagery and Language in a Polymorphic Literacy," in College English, Vol. 66, No. 6, July 2004, pp. 612-31.
Gadd, Bernard, Review of No Man's Grove, in World Literature Today, Vol. 60, Summer 1986, p. 523.
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Lim, Shirley Geok-lin, Introduction, in The Forbidden Stitch: An Asian American Women's Anthology, edited by Shirley Geok-lin Lim, Mayumi Tsutakawa, and Margarita Donnelly, Calyx Books, 1989. p. 11.
———,"Pantoun for Chinese Women," in The Forbidden Stitch: An Asian American Women's Anthology, edited by Shirley Geok-lin Lim, Mayumi Tsutakawa, and Margarita Donnelly, Calyx Books, 1989, pp. 204-205.
Ng, Andrew, "The Maternal Imagination in the Poetry of Shirley Lim," in Women: A Cultural Review, Vol. 18, No. 2, 2007, pp. 162-81.
Rummel, R. J., Death by Government, Transactions Publishers, 1994, pp. 65-66.
Sandis, Eva E., "United Nations Measures to Stop Violence against Women," in Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, Vol. 1087, November 2006, pp. 370-83.
De Bary, William Theodore, and Irene Bloom, eds., Sources of Chinese Tradition, 2 Vols., Columbia University Press, 1999-2000.
These texts are a good resource for information about Chinese philosophy and religion as well as Chinese culture in general.
Johnson, Kay Ann, Wanting a Daughter, Needing a Son: Abandonment, Adoption, and Orphanage Care in China, Yeong & Yeong, 2004.
This book explores the interaction between China's efforts at population control and the country's social practices, which place greater value on the birth of a son.
Morton, W. Scott, and Charlton M. Lewis, China: Its History and Culture, 4th ed., McGraw-Hill, 2005.
This text details China's history from the Neolithic period to the modern period, including the country's scientific, political, and economic history.
Schwartz, Lita Linzer, and Natalie K. Isser, Endangered Children: Neonaticide, Infanticide, Filicide, CRC Press, 2000.
This book focuses on the sociological, philosophical, and criminal aspects of why parents murder their children and includes a focus on the psychological and psychiatric defenses that are offered.
Sen, Mala, Death by Fire: Sati, Dowry, Death, and Female Infanticide in Modern India, Rutgers University Press, 2002.
Female infanticide occurs in both India and China. This book examines three personal stories that illustrate how females are devalued in modern India.
Thorp, Robert L., and Richard Ellis Vinograd, Chinese Art and Culture, Prentice Hall, 2003.
This book includes more than 350 illustrations. The authors incorporate political, social, and economic contexts in their discussion of the art they showcase.