what the fortune teller didn't say by Shirley Geok-lin Lim
(West End Press/University of New Mexico, Albuquerque, NM, 2008)
Woman of Colors, Joanna L. Kao's painting that graces the cover of Shirley Geok-lin Lim's what the fortune teller didn't say, iterates the multiple, overlapping, askewed identities found in the collection. The title itself provokes, as if I were Lim's close friend and she wanted to share one of life's secrets with me. It introduces as subject matter: the pieces of her life that the fortune teller she saw as a child in Malaysia did not tell her, nor could foresee. It is the voice of that child that she collaborates with to analyze her life over the decades in between, allowing her to reach refreshing levels of clear and earnest expression.
Thematically, the collection opens in Malaysia with the fortune teller and closes in the United States, with Lim learning to love America. The language of each section reflects her own migrations and growth. To her retrospective lens she lends her university training and years of teaching, allowing her to confront her history simultaneously with emotional directness and academic precision. These are the poems of a woman who is still young, who is a daughter, a mother -- a woman who is brave enough to face the pains of her childhood in earnest, and expresses herself in a language that is all her own. She writes with a rare frankness.
Focusing on family, specifically her mother, Lim's voice shifts from poem to poem. It is in these pieces that I find some of her most compelling language. Though she writes retrospectively, her remembrance is so vivid that I cannot tell what is real and what is not:
Thirty years later
I hear mother singing "In the sweet
bye and bye." She is a Jesus woman
grown up from bar-girl. Sailors and Tommies
have disappeared from her Memory Lane.
I still keep the bracelet mother gave me,
gold saved from beer spilled on the clean
tables, her clean lap. I savor the taste
of that golden promise, never to love men
in white who laugh, quack, quack. (12)
The intimacy she speaks through in this piece is much like the rest of the work in the collection. Mother is frequently the subject matter for her earlier poems, and not often in this nostalgic and positive light. She paints a picture of her parents as imperfect people, in a way that could only come from years of distance. Lim’s language defies a singularity of gaze. Descriptions of her mother range from the magical, even mythical, reflections of an admiring child to descriptions that cast her as abandoning and porcine.
On the other side of motherhood, Lim goes into her own experience in her piece, "Learning to love America" (which should be read as the preface to each line):
because I have nursed my son at my breast
because he is a strong American boy
because I have seen his eyes redden when he is asked who he is
because he answers I don't know
because to have a son is to have a country
because my son will bury me here
because countries are in our blood and we bleed them (74)
Lim's poems express a plethora of hesitations. She loves America, but her language of learning to love America disrupts the notions that it is a haven for immigrant communities. With the addition of her son to life in America, experience takes on new meaning for her, and the readers sense that as well. Perhaps she had defense mechanisms to protect herself, but her son's innocence exposes the alienating and complicated nature of citizenship.
Lim plays with ambiguity and transition in “lost name woman,” the second of the three sections. This is where her feminist lens comes in most prominently, as she questions assumptions about gender, sexuality, immigration, and rebellion. In "The rebel," where she asks why she cannot be more like her slovenly, unsavory uncles, lies a subtext problematizing the power that they (and men in general) hold:
This morning I sang with the car windows up,
letting my voice go its natural length.
What a revelation to hear my voice
as it is, booming in natural rhythm.
Did my uncles always speak in their voice?
Did no one tell them to be quiet,
be gentle, be soft, to whisper,
to hush? I with seven uncles
am forbidden to walk in their path.
Tonight I'll speak like my uncles,
I'll tell those who taught me to be
a girl, I'm not, not, not, not, not.
The boisterous and unchecked behavior of her uncles is one of the more poignant aspects of this poem. Her narrative points out the many conflicting messages that she received about voice, power, and gender reinforced by her family. Her feminist voice lies in critiquing the power structure in which she lives and breaking through it, in her own way. Shirley Geok-lin Lim's collection, what the fortune teller didn't say, may be as much for herself as for the world. I appreciate her unique perspective that combines the seemingly paradoxical voices of direct personal engagement with an academic deconstruction. In doing so, she creates a body of work that reaches a truth of its own. It is her truth -- the way the world lives on in her body and her mind, embracing subjectivity and interpretation as inseparable from fact.
Reed Boskey is a student at Macalester College.