Walking backwards at the intersection of gender, race and poetry

by Jocelyn Anna Sears on 04/12/11 at 9:50 am

Shirley Geok-LinIntroducing her poem “Pantoum for Chinese Women” at her recent on-campus reading, Shirley Geok-lin Lim noted that the pantoum, with its intricate pattern of repeated lines, strikes her as a highly female poetic form.

“It’s a repetitive form, it’s a braiding, and I think that the braiding is very gendered,” she observed, adding that she also appreciates the pantoum because it originated in Southeast Asia before being adopted by the French and English poets, whereas, “Form usually comes from the West to the rest.”

This braiding of Asian form with Western language, traditionally male poetic structure with female voice, typifies the intersectionality of Lim’s work.

Though she identifies primarily as a poet, Lim has been wildly productive and successful across genres, publishing poetry, short stories, novels, and a memoir, as well as criticism. Her first book of poems, Crossing the Peninsula, won the Commonwealth Poetry Prize in 1980, making her the first woman and the first Asian to do so, while her memoir, Among the White Moon Faces, won a 1996 American Book Award.

The latter weaves the story of Lim’s journey from her childhood home of Malaysia to her emergence as a strong immigrant voice in American literature and criticism.

Born in Malaysia to Chinese parents, Lim grew up amidst Eastern traditions but learned the Western literary canon, attending a Catholic convent school under the British colonial system, and it was English  literature that most excited and fascinated her in school.

After completing her B.A. at the University of Malaya, Lim came to the United States to pursue her PhD in English and American literature, supported financially by fellowships. Studying at Brandeis University, Lim found herself, for the first time, reading considerable literature outside of the British canon.

“I grew up reading Yeats, obviously, Keats, and Byron – hardly any women,” Lim observed. “For a long time, the reception of poetry was more welcoming to male poets. There were women writing good poetry, but they were not circulated as much, they were not studied as much, they were not praised as much.”

Praise for Lim herself, however, has been abundant. After finishing her doctorate, Lim began to publish her own poetry, following the award-winning Crossing the Peninsula with five subsequent books of poems, the most recent being 2010’s Walking Backwards.

She also entered academia, and as a professor has had the opportunity to present students with a reading list that extends beyond the traditional canon.

Historically, women poets have been less read and less taught than their male counterparts, a phenomenon due, Lim asserts, not to any dearth of female poetic talent, but to problems of reception.

“Too often women authors have not been made as highly visible as they deserve to be,” Lim stated, adding that gendered conceptions of men’s versus women’s writing have fueled this exclusion.

Presenting Edna St. Vincent Millay as an example, Lim noted, “Some of her poems are really gorgeous, but she gets burdened by this gendered reading that she was sentimental and too much involved with love and always having affairs and having a broken heart.”

The cultural and literary elite, Lim suggested, have historically seen male poets as honing their poetic craft, whereas they have regarded women’s writing mostly as uncontrolled emotional outpourings.

It is the gendered expectations with which men’s versus women’s poems have been read, however, that produces and perpetuates this categorization, according to Lim. Men, she said, “seem to have a gravitas when it comes to their relationship to the literary tradition; women seem to write out of romantic affairs and that kind of stuff. I don’t know if that’s an accurate reflection of the oeuvre or if we critics have not been resisting that kind of gender stereotyping sufficiently through the years.”

Lim is optimistic in terms of breaking down this gendered separation: “I think we are arriving or we have arrived at a certain moment in terms of literary perception where we are willing to look at the work for its own sake and not say…‘this is a man’ or ‘this is a woman.’”

While Lim believes that creative work can exist for readers independent of the writer’s identities, however, critical writing is linked to the larger persona of the academic. Being a professor necessitates presentations and teaching, which bring any identities visible on the body – woman, Asian, etc. – into play.

“In the humanities,” Lim commented, “being a woman, per se, is not always a difficult location.” The difficulty comes if one is a woman of color.

“Especially if you’re a woman of color who’s an immigrant with an accent. And your accent is not French, or Italian. Certain accents are sexy, you know what I’m saying? And certain accents are not,” she quipped.

Racial background can also become problematic when the issue of tokenism arises.

“I am very uncomfortable with the issue of tokenism,” Lim said, “because it’s highly predictable what you’re going to be saying. You’re representing something that’s already a given.” She added that academics are always evolving in terms of what they know and how they know.

Yet fixed stereotypes clash even more fiercely with a creative project than a critical one.

“Writing is heuristic…You don’t know what you will discover except through the writing.” One of writing’s most valuable outcomes, Lim asserted, is discovery.

The combination of discovery and self-expression that creative writing offers likely accounts for its continued relevance even amidst our culture’s mile-a-minute technological progress.

“Who would have thought,” Lim mused, delight in her voice, “that in the twenty-first century with Twitter and Facebook, people are still reading poetry – and writing it! There must be something about that desire to articulate in a special kind of expressive form …hardwired into our DNA – brain cells or something…Otherwise what would account for its survival today? [Poetry] lost its evolutionary value centuries ago.”

Shirley Geok-lin Lim’s talk was presented by Stanford’s Program in American Studies and co-sponsored by the Asian American Activities Center, the Asian American Studies Program, Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity, and the Department of English.


Jocelyn Anna Sears is an undergraduate student, class of 2011, studying English. She is part of the Clayman Institute Student Writing Team covering gender topics at Stanford.


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