Lawrence Pettener interviews Malaysian poet Shirley Geok-lin Lim

I corresponded with Malaysian pioneer generation poet Shirley Lim in July this year. This interview was a written response to my emailed questions.  

Shirley Lim was born in Malacca in 1944. Reading English by the time she was six, her first poem was published in the Malacca Times when she was just 10. She identified herself as a poet from the age of 11.   

Her early education – under the British colonial education system – was at Infant Jesus Convent. Shirley gained her BA from the University of Malaya and her PhD in English and American Literature from Brandeis University, Massachusetts. She has won many awards and honours in the US, where she lives. 

Her oeuvre also includes volumes of short stories, three novels, criticism and a memoir. Her debut poetry collection, Crossing the Peninsula and Other Poems (1980), won the Commonwealth Poetry Prize, a first for a woman or an Asian person. Her other collections include No Man’s Grove (1985), Ars Poetica for the Day (2015), The Irreversible Sun (2015), and a Selected, Monsoon History (2007).  

Professor of English and chair of the Women’s Studies department at the University of California, Santa Barbara, Shirley retired in 2012 after over a decade of service.   

Lawrence Pettener: Do you think there is a balance between some Chinese and Malay cultural sensibilities that nurtures poetic development? Peranakans produce poets!  

Shirley Geok-lin Lim: I try not to make statements on “raced” cultural sensibilities, even about the ethnic communities I am most familiar with, and so I cannot rightly answer your query. I approach “Chinese cultural sensibilities” as the broad spectrum of human cultural sensibilities. For example, I admire many Chinese poets like the Tang poet Li Bai who celebrated nature, friendship and drinking wine, and philosophers like the Daoist Zhuangzi, who, on waking up from dreaming he was a butterfly, wondered whether he was a man dreaming he was a butterfly or a butterfly dreaming it was a man. But I view the Chinese who currently rule the PRC, like Premier Xi Jinping, as ideological, and the loyalty to the Communist Party line as far removed from the “cultural sensibility” we can infer from Tang poetry and Daoist philosophy.   

Also, I cannot speak to Malay “cultural sensibilities” as I have not studied them, although observers have noted that Bumiputera politicians are often uptight and power-driven, even as the village or rural Malays are stereotyped as “senang” or easy-going. Historically, Malacca and Penang Peranakans, unlike the Malay and Chinese communities in colonial Malaya, possessed bilingual Malay and English skills that placed them as useful clerical assistants for the British administrators. This literacy advantage may have developed into a literary sensibility that helped form the pioneering generation of Malaysian Anglophone writers separate from Malay and Chinese writers who were also publishing in the same period. All this is speculation on my part, and the thesis emerging from following the dots is neither evidence-based nor rigorously theoretical. 

Lawrence Pettener: What else do you feel that mix brings? Other thoughts/feelings around having that background?    

Shirley Geok-lin Lim: Many locals and even scholars casually assume the facticity of original Peranakans. But, to my mind, this definition of a Peranakan community is murky when generalized. Peranakan subjects and identities are fine-grained by place and time. Ee Tiang Hong and I are rooted in a Malacca Peranakan history, but he is a generation older, and to my mind is more fully embedded in its original authenticity, which includes a colonial British stock. Post-World War ll and exposed to American global culture, my Peranakan self had shed the patriarchal control of the female body and with it the social practices that tracked the original Malay/Batak-based rituals of purification, chaperones for women outside of the household, etc. The home language for Malacca Peranakans was Malay, for Penang Peranakans, Hokkien. Singapore Peranakans arrived from Malacca and rapidly became fully Anglophone. Lee Kuan Yew’s mother, Chua Jim Neo, aka Mrs. Lee Chin Koon, was a Peranakan whose identity is expressed in her cultural cuisine, as evidenced in her cookbook, Mrs. Lee’s Cookbook, published in 1974. As with all mixes, each resists hegemonic and generic sameness. The “background” or back story is similar/familiar, but the clans, families, and individuals that compose and spilt apart from the greater community have unique stories that resist mere repetition. My Melaka Peranakan subject is composed of the weaves, loops, knots, and ties that I create, like Penelope at the loom of my self-construction.  

Lawrence Pettener: Did you know Peranakan poet Ee Tiang Hong? 

Shirley Geok-lin Lim: Yes, but only slightly. I met him once at the University of Western Australia in Perth. Ee was a lecturer at the Western Australian College of Advanced Education, also in Western Australia. My first book of poems, Crossing the Peninsula (1980), had won the Commonwealth Poetry Prize, and on the strength of that award, I was offered a three-month Writer in Residency at the University of Singapore in 1982. It was a fortuitous meeting. Bruce Bennett, Department Chair and editor of Westerly, a major pioneering journal he had established to publish Australian and Asia Pacific critical and creative work, invited me (chiefly because I was in Singapore and travel costs were affordable!) to the conference he was organizing on the topic of the writer’s sense of the contemporary.  The conference was a hectic two days. I don’t recall Ee and I spent much time together.  

His reputation as the famous poet from my Malacca hometown preceded our brief encounter. My older brother had told me stories of Ee teaching the poems of William Wordsworth to the Malacca High School sixth formers, and gazing out of the classroom window quite forgetting the bored students waiting for him to complete his thoughts. I was moved and very grateful when he published a generous review of Crossing the Peninsula. I have written of his unique contributions to Malaysian Anglophone poetry, and I continue to regret his poems have not received the recognition they deserve as part of a Malaysian Anglophone canon. He is more visible as a local poet in Singapore, which extends its state history to its past as one of the three British Straits Settlements.  

Lawrence Pettener: You mentioned, in a recent interview, that you have recent works waiting to be submitted for publication; what can you tell us about them that we won’t find on the book covers? 

Shirley Geok-lin Lim: Book covers seldom say much about the content in the pages. I am now considering submitting three collections within the same time period, and would not include that information on the book covers. A “prolific” writer is seldom viewed as approvingly as one who confesses to producing hard-won books taking years of a life. Think of J.D. Salinger, whose Catcher in the Rye kept promising more masterworks waiting to be released through decades. I am not a prolific writer, but I sit on work over years. I have accepted this avoidance behavior, a symptom of general anxiety, as a major character trait rather than a medical condition to be treated therapeutically. When I submit work, it tends to fall within periods of determined activity, against the grain, as it were. My last collection appeared in 2015. If I am lucky, I may have three new collections published in the same year in 2023 or so. If not, I will again keep Emily Dickenson’s life in mind as consolation. SHE was a prolific writer, but of her almost 1,800 poems that we know of, only 10 were published in her lifetime.  

Lawrence Pettener: What shocked you in the West? In US in particular? Did you have a community of friends or support of any description in California? What surprised you?   

Shirley Geok-lin Lim: My “West” was the U.S. East Coast, the first three years in Massachusetts, then 17 years in Brooklyn and upstate New York, before my move to California in 1990. What shocked me on first arrival were first, the cold. No one who has lived only in an equatorial zone can imagine, anticipate, the months of brief sunlight hours, dark days and deep freeze nights, bare trees, sleeting blizzards, empty sidewalks piled high with dangerous ice banks, the sheer absence of human bodies outdoors, and the lonely isolation of rental rooms for an individual who is abruptly transformed into a foreigner. Entry into this wintry West was my moment of metamorphosis, waking up to find myself, like Kafka’s Gregor Samsa, an alien to the Americans around me. That is, the external cold of the natural world was also the internal psychic cold I experienced.  

My second shock was the food Americans ate. Even as a graduate student in Kuala Lumpur, I could feast on hawker foods and bounteous fruits—satay, mee goreng, rojak, dosai, fishball soup, bananas, pineapples, etc.  An impoverished graduate student, I could not afford U.S. fast foods, McDonald burgers, pizzas, pancakes, doughnuts, nor apples in grocery stores. The supermarkets confused me; so much plastic and cardboard packaging; aisles of frozen food stuffs—spinach, peas, corn. The fresh vegetables in wet markets I bought in “piculs” or “catties” were withered greens in the U.S. that were already bunched and weighed in pounds and ounces. I don’t remember cooking for myself in my first six months, having no access to a kitchen with pots, knives, or ladles. I remember eating a lot of cereal straight from boxes without milk; lots of candy bars. I am uncertain how I survived that first winter. Yet I did survive. I weighed 91 pounds in 1969 when I got on the plane leaving Kuala Lumpur, via Bangkok, Amsterdam, London, to Boston. By 1970, I had put on 20+ pounds, going from size 2 to 12. Today, having mastered the arts of grocery shopping and cooking in the U.S., surrounded by California’s organic, fruitful farms and gardens, I am almost back to that original Malaysian weight.  

Here in California, I have always been able to lean on my husband, who has borne my melancholia with steady calm; my son, who has grown to be my good counsellor; my niece, who came to stay with me in New York when she was 15, and now serves as a surrogate daughter; and numerous undergraduate and graduate students who have thrived personally and professionally and whose visits, calls, emails, and cards are more reward than I deserve. My surprise this late in life is how lucky I’ve been in falling in with an extended family that is non-natal and whose members have chosen me. 

Lawrence Pettener: Was Malaysia known to most of the people you met in the US?   

Shirley Geok-lin Lim: Definitely no. For a long time, I’d add, “Malaysia is south of Vietnam,” at which point a flicker of orientation may appear. Wars and casualties have a way of marking Asia for most Americans. 

Lawrence Pettener: What would the present you say to a Shirley Lim in 1980, regarding life and poetry?  

Shirley Geok-lin Lim: Wow, that is a whopper of a question. What I know for sure of life and poetry today might be written on a postcard. What I know provisionally of life and poetry will take up eight volumes, one for every two decades.  

Regarding life, I repeat what I learned from the Women’s Protest March in Washington D.C. on January 21, 2017, after Trump’s inauguration as U.S. President, AND from Disney’s 2015 retelling of the Cinderella story. Both the 21st century Cinderella and the women protestors shared the same mantra: Have courage and be kind. I add to this simple mantra that courage is the other side of fear. Only the fearful understand what courage entails. And only those who have felt the affliction of cruelty and meanness can see feel their hurts and decide to break away from that destructive cycle. A girl with roustabout brothers, to be accepted as one of them I had to close my eyes and jump off high walls, pretending to be equally brave. Similarly, the target of cruel gossip and barbed by mean jokes and backstabbing, I resolved to mark myself as different in kind, and to be kind whenever possible. I’ve failed often in both aspirations, but “have courage and be kind” are what I would teach my early self. 

As for poetry, alas, I am still learning daily. I wonder if the younger poet has more to say to me in 2021 than I to her. In 1980, I was content with publishing one poetry collection. I have much to learn from that contentment. 

About Lawrence Pettener

Originally from Liverpool, Lawrence Pettener works full-time in the Klang Valley as copy-editor, proofreader and writer, specialising in helping solo authors (including mentoring poets). He facilitates poetry-writing workshops, the most recent of which was for LevelUp. As Kwailo Lumpur, he writes comic material about Malaysian life, food especially. Find him at: https://www.facebook.com/lawrencepettenerwriter/
and http://www.lawrencepettener.com