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Shirley Geok-lin Lim

For years I continued to believe that there was a kind of woman I wanted to be like. But not my absent mother or silent stepmother, not the punitive nuns or my friends' sad mothers, nor the rubber woman my brothers laughed hysterically at, not jealous Mandy or acquiescent Kim. The problem that confused me for years, until the years formed their own ironic answer, was what to do with my life as a woman: not simply what kind of work I wanted, but how to grow up as a woman.

          — Among the White Moon Faces

Biography / Criticism

Shirley Geok-lin Lim is an award-winning writer of fiction, poetry, and criticism who strives to bring together, rather than separate, the multiplicities in the different threads of her cultural identity. Born in 1944 in Malacca, Malaysia, a small town on the west coast of the Malay Peninsula, she endured a childhood powerfully shaped by deprivation, poverty, parental violence and abandonment. Abandoned by her mother, and growing up with five brothers in a culture that rarely recognized girls as individuals, she tried desperately to fit in. Lim described herself during this period as "a wild girl who ran with the boys and alone through the streets" (Among the White Moon Faces, 49).

This experience only seemed to toughen Lim. She possessed a "stubborn spirit" that she utilized in school, making her a leader as well as an outcast. In an interview with Sook C. Kong of the Asian Lesbian Bisexual Alliance, Lim says, "Growing up when I did, there weren't many other recreational alternatives, and I had a pretty unhappy childhood. Reading was a huge solace, retreat, escape. I was a really obsessive reader. Somewhere along the line, I had a sense I should write about things I knew rather than read about things I didn't know. I wanted to write my own voice, my own community. "

Finding her own voice meant coming to an understanding of her native Chinese-Malaysian familial culture vis-a-vis the conflicting values her Westernized parents modeled. She was scorned by teachers for her love of English over her "native" tongue and was looked down upon for wishing to pursue her love of English literature. Her early education was at a Catholic convent school under the British colonial education system. Lim then won a federal scholarship to the University of Malaya which she attended from 1964 to 1969, earning a BA with First Class Honors in English. In 1969, at the age of twenty-four, motivated by two prestigious fellowships, she entered graduate school at Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts, earning her Ph.D. in English and American Literature in 1973.

Poetry is Lim's driving passion. In terms of poetry, she says "That was my first form of literary expression and is the most primal for me. " Her first poem was written and then published in the Malacca Times when she was ten. By the time she was eleven, she knew she wanted to be a poet. Her first book of poetry, Crossing the Peninsula and Other Poems, won the Commonwealth Poetry Prize in 1980, just after the birth of Lim's first (and only) child, Gershom. Lim was the first woman and the first Asian to recieve the award. With a provocative and intimate tone, Lim uses her poetry to reach into the past to make sense of the present. Thematically, questions of identity and transition, gender, race, and the complexities of relationships permeate Lim's poetry. Dreams and her childhood experiences often provide inspiration and source material.

Although Lim identifies herself as a poet, she is a cross-genre writer who has also published numerous scholarly essays, short stories, and her memoir, Among the White Moon Faces: An Asian-American Memoir of Homelands (Feminist Press, 1996). In 1990, along with co-editors Mayumi Tsutakawa and Margarita Donnelly, she won the American Book Award for The Forbidden Stitch: An Asian American Women's Anthology. In 1982 she won an Asiaweek Short Story award for "Mr. Tang's Uncles. " (Feminist Press, 1997).

Lim's writing has received considerable attention both in the United States and in Asia since the 1996 publication of her memoir. Readily apparent in Lim's prose writing are her roots as a poet. There is extreme attention to detail, making the memoir read much like a novel. She describes scenes from her past with vivid imagery. On page 10, for example, she describes "Cold water from a giant tap running down an open drain that is greenish slime under my naked feet. "

Lim says that one of the "major thematics" to emerge from the memoir is the story of emigration from Asia to the U.S. As an Asian, she came to see the reality of the U.S. that had been glamorized before she came. In Malaysia she was an outsider for being an "Anglophile freak"; in the U.S. she was lonely in a society where she was treated with awkward stiffness and tentativeness. "There are many ways," she laments, "in which America tells you you don't belong" (Among the White Moon Faces, 199).

A simple, yet important element in Lim's writing is her profound honesty. She fearlessly recognizes the struggles she has endured, admitting her choices were not always easy or correct. Her work posesses a rare openness that makes her an accessible voice and courageous role model to all female readers, not just those of a similar heritage.

"Across the divisions of race and class (between women), a rare yet common ground is visible. We understand each other in devious ways: our physical desires and the shame we have been trained to feel over our bodies, our masked ambitions, the distances between our communities and our hungry selves, our need to be needed. (I find) a sensibility of support that grows when social gender is recognized as a shared experience" (Among the White Moon Faces,157).

Currently working on a novel and new collection of poems, Lim continues to explore origin and identity. Her current research includes a book-length study of gender and nation identities in Asian American discourses.

Selected Bibliography

Works by the Author

Novels

Poetry

Collections of Short Stories

Memoir

Other Publications

Works about the Author

** Full text article is available online through Lexis Nexis Academic Universe, available at most University libraries.

Related Links

Shirley Lim and the Crisis of Identity of the Migrant
Chitra Sankaran, Ph.D. , from the National University of Singapore's Department of English Language and Literature, uses critical literary analysis to show Shirley Geok-lin Lim's struggle with identity as an Eastern-born woman in a Western society.

University of California-Santa Barbara: Faculty Page
Lim's page with UCSB.

Interview with Bill Moyers on PBS
The PBS site features an interview with Lim with Bill Moyers. There are RealAudio clips of the interview and a poetry reading, as well as typed versions of the poems, a quote, and biographical information.

Report a dead link or suggest a new one by emailing voices@umn.edu.

Contributors

This page was researched and submitted by: Cathy Gallagher, Paula Hoover, Sarah Monahan, Gwen Steel, and Nina Sutton.