This moment imprinted on me the sense of Malacca as my home, a sense I have never been able to recover anywhere else in the world. To have felt the familiar once is always to feel its absence after. The town through whose streets I mourned publicly, dressed in black, sack, and straw, weeping with kinfolk, united under one common portrait, is what my nerves understand as home. It doesn’t matter that the family is lost, and that the town has been changed long ago by politics and economics. Every other place is foreign after this moment. — Shirley Geok-lin Lim
The first time I read Shirley Geok-lin Lim was in high school, when a faltering attempt to introduce ‘English literature’ to a national education system that struggled to impart basic grammar rules manifested itself in a slim volume of poetry that included, among others, Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18 and Shirley Geok-lin Lim’s ‘Monsoon History’. The line in which she writes about reading Tennyson at six in the evening in her pajamas while it rains outside has stayed forever in my memory. To me, Malaysia will always be about the rain.
So when I saw her memoir, Among the White-Moon Faces: An Asian-American Memoir of Homelands, while browsing online, I thought, yes. All my life I have never doubted that I would eventually settle outside Malaysia and yet, I am only now beginning to grasp dimly the enormity of a lifetime spent away from home. One night in Sydney I was having dinner alone and down the street came an old Indian lady, wrapped in a cotton sari, carrying a bag of groceries and walking very slowly. I didn’t know her or her history, but she made me wonder whether homesickness could last forever. In Ireland, I met two Nepalese waiters who told me they had worked for years in a factory on Jalan Ipoh in KL. After they poured my coffee and left, I looked outside at the soaring Irish hills and felt inexplicably sad. Forever other. Never quite belonging.
It is all right to cry. Carry your own key, even if it is to a temporary home. After you have painted yourself into a corner, you can always get up and walk out of that corner. Living is an achievement.
Among the White-Moon Faces begins with Lim’s childhood in Malacca, surrounded by a volatile father and a runaway mother and a multitude of brothers. There’s a disturbing hint of violence in her description of her childhood, evidenced in beatings by her father (although to be fair, corporal punishment was common and considered necessary up until my generation), malevolent aunts (again, not uncommon in olden day Malaya) and a vague incident of molestation by a cousin. This sense of violence pervades the book and follows Lim to America, where she lives in a New York City street that is slowly taken over by her hostile neighbors. Lim goes on to detail her struggles to establish herself in American academia and her burgeoning sense of herself as a feminist.
Her writing seems uneven. At times lucid and visceral (she’s a poet after all) her paragraphs can suddenly veer into the bombastic and obscure, as if purposely constructed to showcase her vocabulary. And the way she spelled Peranakan with a lower-case ‘p’ — it’s a noun, capitalize it! She also seemed to have a chip on her shoulder about people treating her badly, from the nuns at her school to her best friend in America. I have no doubt that she’s had many unpleasant experiences, but the book sometimes felt as if it was becoming a litany of the unpleasant ways in which they unpleasant people in her life have treated her. She also skates over huge parts of her story, like how she met her husband, which leaves the reader feeling vaguely dissatisfied, especially after the first half of the book seems to detail every encounter she’s had with men.
Oh Asia, that nets its children in ties of blood so binding that they cut the spirit.
But despite all this, as I read the book lying in various hotel bathtubs across Ireland and on my couch here in Paris, I resonated with it. I, too, had felt white eyes slide over me (and very often to my boyfriend) with a kind of unseeing power, as if by murmuring my name I had rendered myself invisible. I, too, had felt that tie to Asia tug hard and bleed even as I plotted to make a future in the Western world. And when she wrote, “There are homelands of the memory and homelands of the future, and for many of us, they are not the same”, I damn near vibrated in my bathtub with agreement.
There are many ways in which America tells you you don’t belong. The eyes that slide around to find another face behind you. The smiles that appear only after you have almost passed them, intended for someone else. The stiffness in the body as you stand beside them watching your child and theirs slide down the pole, and the relaxed smile when another white mother comes up to talk. The polite distance as you say something about the children at the swings and the chattiness when a white parent makes a comment. A polite people, it is the facial muscles, the shoulder tension, and the silence that give away white Americans’ uneasiness with people not like them. The United States, a nation of immigrants, makes strangers only of those who are visibly different, including the indigenous people of the continent.
Later in the book, she talks about her experience of motherhood in a very clear-eyed way which I appreciated. I’ve always wanted children, but I’ve also always feared having them. I fear that I don’t have the capacity for sacrifice that motherhood demands. I’m a very selfish person and quick to anger. As my boyfriend can probably testify, my moments of rage can make me want to destroy everything in my path. This rage does not seem conducive to motherhood and it is something Lim writes about struggling with as well: “To change the blow to a caress, the sharp and ugly words to careful explanation, the helpless choking rage to empathy, that is my struggle as a mother: to form a different love.”
And finally this, oh this:
Late at night, after days when I had suffered the panic of disappearing into the nonentity of community college work, phrases, thoughts, images surfaced from that other life of Malaysian childhood and hope. I would get up reluctantly from a warm bed and write, hunched, cold, and happy in an abstract kind of way, as a poem started up in the gray predawn hours. I wrote to know I was still there, somewhere among the accumulating details of numbing reality. Writing offered a nostalgia beyond comfort, the only way to keep alive.