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Open Access Publications from the University of California

In Honor of Shirley Geok-lin Lim

Festschrift: The Poetry and Poetics of Shirley Geok-lin Lim

'The Art of Being Home': Home and Travel in Shirley Geok-lin Lim’s Poetry

"'The Art of Being Home': Home and Travel in Shirley Geok-lin Lim's Poetry" is an exploration of Shirley Geok-lin Lim’s poetics of travel and home anchored in a narrative tracking a day spent with the poet. It is a sequel to “Walking between Land and Water,” an essay published in Asiatic, in which I combine a personal encounter with the poet with an examination of the tropes of walking and liminality in her work. Here the focus is more on the motif and theme of home in the poet’s work, as the essay excavates the complexities and ambiguities of the meaning of home, from her first collection to recently published poems. This essay identifies the shifts in the poet’s idea of where and what home is, and examines how it forms a counterpoint to the poetics of travel and transnational mobility that informs her work. So far, critical attention has been more on her relationship with Malacca, her place of origin, than on her self-mappings in her adopted hometown of Santa Barbara. The essay gives a portrait of the poet at home, and highlights the increasing importance of Santa Barbara in her poetry.


'cultivated, / Wild, exotic': Nationalism and Internationalism in the Poetry of Shirley Geok-lin Lim

Born in multicultural Malacca during British rule, educated there and later in Kuala Lumpur and Boston, a long-time resident of the USA and a visiting professor to many countries, Shirley Geok-lin Lim seems a transnational writer par excellence. Yet much of her later work involves looking back to Malacca, “at a loss here, / Loosening my grip on yesterday,” afraid of losing “[s]hades of father and mother.” She is the author of poems, short stories, novels and a memoir, as well as literary and social criticism. The memoir, Among the White Moon Faces, is subtitled, “An Asian-American Memoir of Homelands,” and the plural noun is notable. Concentrating on her poetry, this paper charts her shifting sense of identity as Malaccan, Malaysian, American and as a woman of Chinese heritage whose language is English, through “[s]peech which is sufficient enterprise,” even though in these late poems she can feel “unmoored” and sense “the gravity / of the unmade I.”

Juncos, Sparrows, and Crows in the Transnational Poetry of Shirley Geok-lin Lim

This essay explores Lim’s efforts to express and encourage inclusivity through the agency of her poetic imagination. As Lim renavigates the Pacific and other terrain and writes, she strives for a “utopian goal,” or to “voice authenticity as a signified.” Her poems advocate self-empowerment so that her nestlings can find their way in a world full of individuals of every race, creed, and gender. Lim shapes her poems to recognize the exhausting, long-term efforts a traveler or migrant must make as he or she wanders; a journey is not always finite, circular, or linear. To propel her inclusivity efforts, Lim often draws on imagery, not just of birds, but also of political movements in Hong Kong and elsewhere, natural disasters such as wildfires, or even a sunshine-filled Californian moment. She crafts her form to share her advocacy via haiku, alphabet, and prose poems. The intersections of her form, poetic imagination, and transnational crisscrossings reveal the painstaking ways in which a crosshatched identity develops and emerges over a lifetime. This article offers a bird’s eye view of some of Lim’s recent poems, mostly published after 2014, including her “Cassandra Days: Poems,” as well as works from Ars Poetica for the DayDo You Live In?, and The Irreversible Sun, not to mention an unearthed and unpublished interview from 1985.

'My Father’s Daughter': Filial Dislocation in Shirley Geok-lin Lim’s Poetry

Drawing on the father figure and the father–daughter dynamic in Shirley Geok-lin Lim’s poetry, this article examines how the motif of filial dislocation underlines ambivalent and complicated emotions and meanings that can be traced back to the poet’s traumatic childhood experience of her father’s violence. This experience, described here as one of acute psychical and emotional rupture and dislocation, has been imprinted onto Lim’s body and consciousness in the form of embodied memories and emotions, and reenacted in writing and poetic articulation where the father figure is concerned. Through the recurring themes of memory, (dis)connection, distance, and dislocation, Lim’s deeply personal, even autobiographical, poems explore the wounded father–daughter relationship; in so doing, they trouble the ideological premise of filial piety as a cultural concept, which upholds the child’s obligation to the parent through the performance of filial care, respect, and obedience. At the same time, Lim’s poems reflect how embodied memories and emotions are relived and refelt in the process of writing as well as the depth of the poet’s emotional response and subjective interiority in the articulation and performance of filial and gender identity. Weaving through and traversing interior and exterior spaces and landscapes of memory and imagination, body and geography, the poems illuminate complex psychological, emotional, and embodied dimensions of Lim’s mediation of her filial and gender identity as a feminist poet, a daughter, and a gendered individual.

Patriarchal Authority and the Southeast Asian Chinese Diaspora in Shirley Geok-lin Lim’s Passports and Other Lives

In Anglophone diasporic Chinese literature, father figures represent forms of authority that both daughters and sons need to grapple with to find answers to questions of identity. In this literature, paternal figures may be marginalized to thematize mother-daughter relationships and identify mothers as an important source of cultural transmission and empowerment. Or they may be viewed as the ancestors of a new diasporic community in a new land. Fathers could also be authoritarian, embodying patriarchal and masculinist authority. Or they could represent the difficulties of assimilation under diasporic conditions.

In her memoir Among the White Moon Faces (1996), Shirley Geok-lin Lim gives her reader an account of the significance of her father in her life, especially after her mother left the family when she was still very young. Left with the father as her sole parent, Lim has a problematic relationship with him, a man who is susceptible to severe rages and capable of physical violence. When she travelled to the United States for further studies, she did so without the accompanying presence of her father. Lim’s immigrant experience in America is realized through the abjection of paternal authority.

The significance of the father to the writing of the immigrant and diasporic experience is elaborated on in the poems selected for publication in Passports and Other Lives (2011). Lim’s poems make clear that even though this father did not join his daughter in her journey to America, he continues to haunt her life in a foreign land through dreams, photographs, and the persistence of memory. Enabling the daughter’s remembrance of her birth country, the haunting presence of paternal authority facilitates literary meditation on the construction of diasporic identity predicated on the tension-filled negotiations between past and present, between remembering and forgetting.


The Familial Grotesque in the Poetry of Shirley Geok-lin Lim

Framing the representation of the family in Shirley Lim’s poetry against the concept of the grotesque, this essay aims to demonstrate how the aesthetic category is arguably enlisted as a symbol referring to the trope – or more accurately, with particular members of the family– in order to mount a criticism against it, or less directly, the Confucian, male-biased symbolic order that underscores it. That the maternal-figure is most often transfigured as a grotesque embodiment in Lim’s poems is telling in its implication of the poet’s own ambivalent feelings towards her own mother whom she recognizes as a woman who illustrates empowering individualism but also reprehensibility. As such, while some of her poems express affirmation of the grotesque’s capacity for transgressing ideological borders and confusing distinctions, others are less celebratory of the concept, which they evoke explicitly to clarify the family’s monstrous dimensions.

Past Spaces and Revisits in Transnational Poetry: The Sojourning Returnee of Shirley Geok-Lin Lim’s Do You Live In?

This essay explores the shifting vantage-point of a temporary returnee and an observant sojourner in the poetry of Shirley Geok-Lin Lim. Situating Lim’s recent collection, Do You Live In? (2015) both in the context of her renewed migrations to different places in Asia and within a widening transnational project of reconceptualizing traditional dichotomies of the diasporic, a critical discussion of her latest poetry enables us to trace how reflections on memory and place in a world of growing global change and exchanges can contribute to an awareness of the everyday experiences of the transnational. The lyric form allows Lim to express the emotional experience of the moment, and the collection as a whole consequently produces a juxtaposition of divergent emotions: snapshots of returns and the reordering of memory. While the bounded self is located in what Lim terms a “place of nomadism,” the heteroglossia of individual lyrics expresses the multiplicity of influences and their re-appropriation. In her seemingly most localized poems, personal memories encounter – and rip apart – heritage nostalgia to engage self-consciously with transnational experience.

Embracing the Angel: Reading Shirley Geok-lin Lim’s Hong Kong Poetry with Hannah Arendt’s The Human Condition

In 1999, after having moved to America for nearly thirty years, Chinese Malaysian poet and scholar Shirley Geok-lin Lim began her sojourn in Hong Kong. In addition to being a research professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara, Lim has been accepting invitations to teach at the University of Hong Kong and the City University of Hong Kong as chair professor or writer-in-residence for almost twenty years, and has published several collections of poetry in and about Hong Kong. This paper analyzes Shirley Lim’s Embracing the Angel: Hong Kong Poems, a poetry collection inspired by the Umbrella Movement in Hong Kong, 2014. The major issues for discussion include: 1) how Hong Kong is under the shadow of Chinese culture and hegemony; 2) how Hong Kong has been striving for democracy and freedom after the Handover; and 3) how literature enacts to construct history and authorize hope. Similar to college students who have adopted the Umbrella Movement as their “space of appearance” (in Hannah Arendt’s term) for the ideal of democracy, Lim published Embracing the Angel as her “space of appearance” to offer support and indicate hope for Hong Kong.

Five New Poems (with Commentary by Nina Morgan)

Published for the first time in the Journal of Transnational American Studies, these new poems by Shirley Geok-lin Lim are accompanied by a commentary by JTAS's Editor-in-Chief, Nina Morgan.


Currents of Progress, Toy Store for Tourists: Nineteenth-Century Mexican Liberals View the Niagara Falls

The essay addresses the depiction of the Niagara Falls as an ambivalent symbol of progress in nineteenth-century Mexican travel accounts of the United States. At that time, various Mexican intellectuals spent some time in the USA. In diaries and travelogues, some of them articulated their views of their host country but also reflected on their own society through the contrast with their northern neighbor. The Mexican visitors expressed a particular fascination with signs of modernity in the United States. Interestingly, such signifiers included not only political and social institutions and economic and industrial advancements, but also the Niagara Falls as a site of both natural and technological wonders. Examining the depiction of the Falls in major nineteenth-century Mexican travelogues of the United States, the essay illuminates some of the metaphorical “uses of nature” for articulating socio-political ideas as well as experiences of mobility.

Between Duty and Romance: The Attraction of Sounding “Black” in Paris

The histories of Black Americans who significantly influenced French life and culture in Paris are hardly marked or visible across the most frequented tourist destinations or within state-sponsored museums dedicated to national history. Instead, certain tourist-oriented live performances constitute audible monuments to Black soldiers and musicians. Audible monuments are sound objects constructed through live orature, collective participation, or sound-producing movements that recall history and memory for the purpose of witness engagement or tourist consumption. Toward a critical analysis grounded in performance studies theory this essay first replays and reinterprets the music and military histories shared between African-descended US soldiers and the nation of France as a gendered and misaligned romance, and then suggests how performance events like the tours of “Black Paris” can rehearse that romance and then rupture it by a contemporary African presence.


The Construction of Race and Space in Thomas Dooley’s Writings: “What kind of place was Laos?”

This article examines narratives on Laos published between the Geneva Agreements of 1954 and 1962 because this period saw the most aid workers, missionaries, diplomats, journalists, and educators in Laos, and provided Americans the most detailed knowledge of the country. Attentive to imperialist ideology and close readings of Thomas Dooley’s nonfiction account of his humanitarian journey in The Edge of Tomorrow and The Night They Burned the Mountain, I analyze the languages and tropes that enabled Dooley to conceive of Laos and Laotians as stagnant, backward and without progress, characteristics that allegedly would make them more susceptible to communism. In particular, I read Dooley’s nonfiction novels as an imperial discourse that racializes Laos’ landscape as “empty land,” which I suggest contributed to America’s eventual treatment of Laos as a military wasteland during the US air war from 1964 to 1973. Situating my work in transnational American studies, ethnic studies and cultural studies, I offer a critical analysis of Dooley’s construction of race and space in Laos, which I argue can reveal another form of America’s racial knowledge of Asia(ns) that reinforced US intervention in the region.


“The Barbary Frontier and Transnational Allegories of Freedom”

Excerpt from Routledge Companion to Transnational American Studies, edited by Nina Morgan, Alfred Hornung, and Takayuki Tatsumi

Post-Apocalyptic Geographies and Structural Appropriation

Excerpt from Routledge Companion to Transnational American Studies, edited by Nina Morgan, Alfred Hornung, and Takayuki Tatsumi

"Laws of Forgiveness: Obama, Mandela, Derrida"

Excerpt from Routledge Companion to Transnational American Studies, edited by Nina Morgan, Alfred Hornung, and Takayuki Tatsumi

“A Kaleidoscope of Color or the Agony of Race? Barack Obama’s Dreams from My Father”

Excerpt from Developing Transnational American Studies, edited by Nadja Gernalzick and Heike C. Spickermann

Introduction to Performing America Abroad

Excerpt from Performing America Abroad: Transnational Cultural Politics in the Age of Neoliberal Capitalism

“Colonial Problems, Transnational American Studies”

Excerpt from After American Studies: Rethinking Legacies of Transnational Exceptionalism

Introduction to The Chinese and the Iron Road

Excerpt from The Chinese and the Iron Road: Building the Transcontinental Railroad, edited by Gordon H. Chang and Shelley Fisher Fishkin, with Hilton Obenzinger and Roland Hsu

“The View from Home: Dreams of Chinese Railroad Workers across the Pacific”

Excerpt from The Chinese and the Iron Road: Building the Transcontinental Railroad, edited by Gordon H. Chang and Shelley Fisher Fishkin, with Hilton Obenzinger and Roland Hsu

“Introduction: Oceanic Archives, Indigenous Epistempologies, and Transpacific American Studies”

Excerpt from Oceanic Archives, Indigenous Epistempologies, and Transpacific American Studies, edited by Yuan Shu, Otto Heim, and Kendall Johnson

“Oceania as Peril and Promise: Towards a Worlded Vision of Transpacific Ecopoetics”

Excerpt from Oceanic Archives, Indigenous Epistempologies, and Transpacific American Studies, edited by Yuan Shu, Otto Heim, and Kendall Johnson


“Locating Shirley Geok-lin Lim: An Interview by Nina Morgan”

Excerpt from Asian American Writing: The Diasporic Imagination, Vol. 1 Interviews and Essays, edited by Somdatta Mandal

“Connecting a Different Reading Public: Compiling 美国文学大辞典"

Excerpt from 美国文学大辞典 (A Companion to American Literature), edited by Yu Jianhua

“Blockbuster Dreams: Chimericanization in American Dreams in China and Finding Mr. Right”

Excerpt from The Power of Culture: Encounters between China and the United States, edited by Priscilla Roberts

“Lost in Translation? Transnational American Rock Music of the Sixties and its Misreading in 1980s China”

Excerpt from The Power of Culture: Encounters between China and the United States, edited by Priscilla Roberts