Teow Lim Goh is the author of two previous books, “Islanders” and “Faraway Places.” She writes essays and poetry from the nexus of people and place. Based in Denver for the past decade, one of her ongoing projects is to recover the histories of Chinese immigrants in the American West.
SunLit: Tell us about the origins of your essay collection “Western Journeys.” What inspired you to put this collection together?
Teow Lim Goh: “Western Journeys” is rooted in my earliest attempts to write, which is to say, it grew out of my attempts to make sense out of the world. I started writing when I moved to Denver at 22, and as I cast about for subjects that would serve as my prisms into the world, I began with what was right in front of me: Denver and the American West.
I was drawn to stories of people and place. I traveled across the American West, trying to write about the places I visited, the facts that I could find in books and the emotional textures of what we would call a sense of place. I kept returning, both physically and on the page, to the Angel Island Immigration Station in the San Francisco Bay, where Chinese immigrants were detained under the exclusion laws of the time, and some of them wrote poems on the barrack walls.
I envisioned an essay collection on travel and immigration centered on the history of Angel Island. I was also writing essays about other places, like Colorado’s peaks or Utah’s red rock deserts, as well as about books and art. Along the way, I went down the rabbit hole of poetry — in my first book “Islanders” I imagined what the Chinese women on Angel Island, whose poems were lost to the fire that burned down their barracks, might have said.
It took me 15 years to write this book. Most of it was trial and error, trying to figure out who I am, what I knew, and what I could do. I put these essays aside for some years, thinking that maybe it was not my genre, but I’m glad I kept going.
SunLit: Your excerpted essay is called “Hollywood Pilgrims.” Your experience in Monument Valley you describe as “déjà vu” – owing in part, at least, to the influence of Hollywood on our perception of the West. How much has popular culture, especially some genres of film, shaped the way we regard the region?
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Teow Lim Goh: Last month, I was in Glacier National Park in Montana, and as I watched the Amtrak Empire Builder and the BNSF cargo trains chugging into the smoky blue horizon, my first thought was, “I bet the Chinese built this line.”
The western is an inherently ideological genre. As I argue in a later piece in the book, the cowboy hero is a mask for white supremacy and a politics of dominance, and the sublime landscapes of the West the ground on which these morality plays unfold. It primes you to cheer for the stoic, charismatic, and dashing outlaw hero as he defeats an outside threat, which are usually Indians. It embodies an us-versus-them mentality. And everyone else — Asian, Black, Hispanic — are invisible.
As I say in “Hollywood Pilgrims,” the western reinforces tropes so deeply embedded in the culture that they appear natural and inevitable. And while I don’t spend much time in circles that worship the western, I see it in SUV commercials set in rugged desert landscapes. I see it in luxury ranches in the rural West that display cowboy chaps and taxidermied animals as décor. It is a visual shorthand for a specific view of freedom — one that is accountable to power rather than justice.
That said, one of the great allures of the western is the landscape as a ground for reinvention. Our landscapes are spectacular. I experienced it when I came out West, the disorienting awe, the primordial feeling that another world, another self, is possible. And in many ways, “Western Journeys” traces my own reinvention. I conceded to this seductive vision of the West.
SunLit: “Western Journeys” includes many individual pieces, of course. When and how did you realize that your various writings fit together in a cohesive collection?
Teow Lim Goh: Like I said, I was writing individual pieces to test out ideas and approaches. I had a sense that I was working toward a collection, but for a long time, I could not figure out the shape of the book. About 10 years in, I gathered my essays to see how they might fit together. I saw that I had a good part of a collection, but it did not feel complete yet.
I sold the collection to the University of Utah Press on proposal. I made substantial revisions during the review process, expanding on my early pieces, adding a couple of new ones, and finding the threads that run through the book. One comment that every reviewer made was that I needed to establish the personal stakes better. When I went back into the manuscript, I saw that my journeys were ultimately about teaching myself how to exercise voice and develop credibility.
SunLit: What was the greatest challenge you faced in deciding what to include or leave out, and how to group the pieces in a way that made sense to you?
Teow Lim Goh: I knew early on that this was not a book about my private relationships or the backstory to my struggle for voice and credibility. That would take up a whole other book and more importantly, distract from my intentions here. At the same time, I draw on personal experiences to frame my subject position. Take immigration for example. My immigration journey was privileged, but it gave me a perspective on the fractures in the system that a person who did not go through it might not see.
In workshops and the like, I often was told that I should “tell my story” in pieces that are explicitly journalistic. I have a piece in which I consider what it means for an immigrant to be at home in the context of U.S. immigration laws past and present, namely, Asian exclusion and the current situation at the U.S.-Mexico border. While the question is personal, the approach is not, and I deliberately did not include my story as I did not want to center myself in other people’s pain.
I have nothing against personal writing, but I will do it on my own terms. I think I got a lot of these unhelpful comments as I am a young(ish) woman and an immigrant of color, and there are a lot of implicit stereotypes of what we can and should write — namely, we need to make ourselves legible and mine our traumas in order to have a seat at the literary table.
It is a balancing act, to render our subject positions, which involves a certain degree of self-revelation, without making everything about ourselves.
As for grouping the pieces, most of it was instinct. I worked with a mentor to figure out the themes and structures, as I was too close to the work to see it clearly. She suggested opening with “Hollywood Pilgrims.” The rest followed from there.
SunLit: Tell us about your personal story that led you to the American West. Does that path track the one you lay out in your book?
Teow Lim Goh: I grew up in Singapore, went to college in Michigan, and came to Denver for a job and a relationship. I had no idea what I was getting myself into, but I had a sense it was the right path. I was a math and finance major. Writing was not on my radar — I failed Literature (and History, for that matter) in Secondary Two, Singapore’s equivalent of eighth grade. Sometimes I wonder if I would be a writer if I had gone elsewhere, like New York, after college.
SunLit: You write both poetry and essays, often about the same subjects. How do you choose the form for your work?
Teow Lim Goh: I don’t think of poetry and essays as separate endeavors. I have been writing for long enough that I have internalized both forms and can tap into their structures and expectations as I consider an idea. Often, I sense the beginnings of an idea without knowing what form it would take, though the form I choose is usually shaped by my intentions.
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I find I turn to essays if I want to explore the dimensions of a subject. It is a space for me to roam, test out new ideas and approaches, and think aloud. I tend to turn to essays first, to map what I know and draw out the questions that animate the idea.
I turn to poetry when I want to explore emotional and psychological states, enact the stutters and silences in our speech, or flesh out the gaps in our knowledge with imagination.
Both approaches inform each other and enlarge the possibilities of my life and writing.
SunLit: Walk us through your writing process: Where and how do you write?
Teow Lim Goh: My writing process has changed over the years. Translating ideas in the mind into words on the page — that is, sitting at a desk and typing — is the final stage of a much longer and rather private process of wandering, researching, and taking notes. I tend to make notes longhand, type up what feels promising, and let it sit for a while. I often find my opening into a piece when I’m thinking about something else, and by then, I usually have multiple files of notes to draw on.
I don’t write at my desk every day, but on most days, I engage with some aspect of the process, such as reading, making notes, or organizing files, even if only for 15 or 30 minutes. I take walks or go to the gym to decompress, to inhabit my body. I can’t write in coffee shops or other public places — when I’m deep in a draft, I pace around a lot. And in my home office, I usually have a supurrvisor or two watching over my shoulder to make sure I get the job done.
SunLit: Tell us about your next project.
Teow Lim Goh: I have a couple of poetry projects on the stories of Chinese immigrants in the Old West. One is on the Chinese massacre in Rock Springs, Wyoming, in September 1885. The other is a retelling of the myth of the Chinese prostitute, based on the story of a real woman who lived in Evanston, Wyoming, in the late 1800’s — she helped many of the men who fled Rock Springs on that horrific day.
Lately I have been thinking about the larger Chinese diaspora. I joke that I would study the diaspora through sampling the variations of lobster noodles around the world. The Chinese have an intact and powerful motherland to which many of us overseas Chinese feel little connection. And that power stands in contrast to the war, poverty, and desperation that compelled many of our ancestors to emigrate. But it will be a while before a project takes shape.