I’m curious: what’s your elevator pitch for your book?
Sex, drugs, and violence. That’s not wholly inaccurate. Here’s the official version:
Between 1910 and 1940, Chinese immigrants to America were detained at the Angel Island Immigration Station in the San Francisco Bay. As they waited for weeks and months to know if they could land, some of them wrote poems on the walls. All the poems we have on record were found in the men’s barracks: the women’s quarters were destroyed in a fire.
Islanders imagines the lost voices of the detained women. It also tells stories of their families on shore, the staff at Angel Island, and the 1877 San Francisco Chinatown Riot. A blend of fact and fiction, politics and intimacy, these poems chronicle a forgotten episode in American history and prefigure today’s immigration debates.
How did you come upon the subject of your book?
In my twenties, I went to San Francisco almost every year. Many of my friends moved there and they invited me to visit. I don’t remember exactly how I first heard about Angel Island, but I’m pretty sure it was between finding things to do in San Francisco and reading histories of the city.
The first time I wanted to go to Angel Island, we could not make the ferry and went to Alcatraz instead. That got me thinking about the landscape: the splendid San Francisco Bay was also a border and a prison. I wrote one of my earliest essays about this experience. Four months later, I was back in San Francisco to visit another friend and I made sure we went to Angel Island.
I wrote essays at first. I thought I would write a collection of essays in which Angel Island was a departure point for ruminations on place and migration. As I spent time with this history, one story haunted me: there are no known records of poems written by the women. For a long time, scholars believed the women were illiterate. Chinese families tended to educate boys over girls. But in recent oral histories, female detainees said they saw poems on their walls.
I didn’t write poetry then. I thought I was an essayist. I remember reading Natasha Trethewey’s Domestic Work. In the second section of the book, Trethewey imagines her grandmother’s experiences as a working-class black woman in the Jim Crow South. Something happened when I read these poems. I began to wonder: what might the women on Angel Island have said?
I signed up for a poetry workshop and told myself that if I couldn’t cut it, I would try writing fiction instead.
And the title? Sometimes, it seems to me, titles can strike like lightning or can be extraordinarily elusive. How did you go about finding your title?
The title Islanders came to me early in the writing of the book. The island in the fog is not just an actual place; it is also a metaphor for the loneliness and despair of the people who were detained there on account of their race. But as I wrote the stories of the staff and the riot, I came to see that injustice isolates the oppressors too. An unjust system rewards us for sublimating our conscience to its demands. I wanted the title to also highlight this psychological cost.
Tell us something about the most difficult thing you encountered in this book’s journey.
I struggled with whether this was my story to tell. I don’t have a personal history on Angel Island. I came to the U.S. for college and stayed on to work. I have considerable privileges that the detainees and their descendants don’t have. On the other hand, I know what it is like to be treated as suspicious. I know what it is like to be questioned on the validity of your most intimate relationships.
The stakes are higher when you write shadow histories and challenge dominant narratives. I had to ask myself why I wanted to tell this story and how I could be fair to the people whose lives I depicted – including those who were on the wrong side of history.
And the most pleasurable?
I’m not sure if ‘pleasurable’ is the right word, but once I created this quasi-fictional setting, I started to write about things that I find difficult to talk about – and not just about immigration. I agree with Kim Addonizio, “While there is a real distinction between art and therapy, the truth is that art is therapeutic. It helps you take something that is within you and make a place for it outside of yourself.” There is a dose of emotional autobiography – albeit heavily fictionalized – in the book. Now that the book is out, I feel that I’m letting go of a part of my life.
What’s the best and / or worst piece of advice (writing or publishing or similar) you’ve gotten?
The worst kind of advice I’ve received assume there is one way to write or to be a writer. It is patronizing and ineffective.
Tell us one of your favorite books you’ve discovered recently and say a little about why.
Lucia Berlin’s selected stories, A Manual for Cleaning Women. I love the compassion she shows for her characters and their foibles. She does not judge the alcoholic single mother or the spurned woman trying to decide if she wanted an abortion. I read the collection in two weeks and felt as if I had lived through two lifetimes of hard decisions and impossible grace.
Can you share an excerpt from your book? Give us a taste.
PANK published the lead sequence from the book: Five Poems.
What’s a question you wish I asked? (And how would you answer it?)
If you could remove one word from the English language, which would it be?
“Naturalize,” which the dictionary defines as “to confer citizenship upon (an alien).” It tells us that the citizenship we obtain by the circumstances of our birth is natural and normal. Migration is aberrant. Our anxieties about immigrants and refugees are epitomized in this word.
OK, we’re smitten. Where do we go to buy your book?