Book Review

Teow Lim Goh’s Western Journeys delves into the heart of what it means to be an American—and what it means to not be considered American enough. Immigrants, minority peoples, and native peoples all find a place in Goh’s analysis of the American experience. Her essays also probe what it means to be living in a world of environmental destruction and appalling disregard for the dire conditions of this planet and country. Goh’s work is a necessary wake-up call.

Goh is very aware that the stories we tell both reflect and create our world. In an essay near the end of this collection, she explains:

Stories shape our worlds. They are, for better or for worse, compasses by which we navigate our lives. Each time we tell a story, we are creating maps of our values and beliefs. We may reinforce what is false and sentimental, or we may tell truths that make us uncomfortable.

This human narrative tendency, which is a defining element of our species, has become even more important now, in our age of mass communication and instant connections. The stories we tell about ourselves, and our laws, culture, and politics, have the power to cause untold harm. Narrative can be hijacked so effectively and cleverly by extreme agendas that we are sometimes not even aware of them. In our own lives, we selectively remember what does not cause us pain, and we tend to ignore the pain in others that may, in key ways, conflict with our stories. Stories, for Goh, are extremely important and the way she filters reality, but they are also fraught with the danger of individual and collective deceit.

Goh has no other choice but to write about her world. She is compelled to tell her story by an inner drive, but so much of her story is missing. As a person of Chinese ancestry, her family has spread across continents. Goh plans lunch with an aunt she has never met, and the aunt gives her a description so she will know her when they meet in the restaurant. But Goh tells us that the “descriptions were not necessary . . . I cannot say what it was, but I recognized her as family . . .”

Despite uncanny recognition of her relatives, Goh realizes that the grand narrative of her family is forever lost. She may recognize a relative’s face, but she says that each “time I write about this legacy, I come up against what I do not know, but these gaps, for better or for worse, are a part of who I am.” Western Journeys is her attempt to fill those gaps against the towering myth of the American West, and the Chinese place in that painful history. For Goh, the West, imperialism, China, and the exploitation of people and our planet are inextricably bound.

In the first essay in this collection, called “Hollywood Pilgrims,” in a section entitled “Beyond the Myths,” Goh is traveling to Monument Valley but recognizes it long before the road signs label it. By the time Goh came to America at age twenty-two, images of Monument Valley, the background for innumerable Westerns, had “seeped into [her] . . . It was instead a kind of homecoming.” Goh discusses the film Stagecoach, which visually utilizes Monument Valley as its backdrop, but the story it tells also erases a painful history of the land:

In this film, the landscape itself is stripped of its history and memory – for one, it is located in the Navajo Nation, itself a legacy of settler violence against the Indigenous peoples of the Americas, a story that Stagecoach not only elides but turns on its head to portray Indians as the menacing other.

Here, the American West is both sanitized and polluted at the same time—the history of violent dispossession of the land is masked behind stereotypes of the masculine, stoic values of a mythic American man in the character of the Ringo Kid, played by John Wayne. This is tied closely to her next essay, “Coastlines,” in which the history of pain and dispossession of one island is engraved on wood.

Angel Island in the San Francisco Bay is often referred to as the Ellis Island of the West, but it has a darker history. From 1910 to 1940, the island was the primary location where people from China seeking to enter the United States were incarcerated. Some would spend long periods on the island, trying to provide the necessary proof that they could legally enter the United States despite the Chinese Exclusion Act. Their legacy on Angel Island is Chinese poems carved in the walls of rooms and cells, and they tell a story of “homesickness, broken dreams, anxious futures, and fears of disappointing the family.”

Goh tells us that in these “poems, the cold fog of San Francisco heightened the isolation of the prison.” The author is unable to fully read Chinese, but she wanders the room with a fluent friend. The poems run through a range of subjects but primarily express the loneliness and homesickness of the inmates of Angel Island. “In the quiet of the night, I heard faintly, the whistling of wind / The forms and shadows saddened me; upon seeing the landscape, I composed a poem / The floating clouds, the fog, darken the sky.”

As Goh leaves Angel Island, she remarks that in “imperial China, it was a crime to write unofficial histories . . . At Angel Island, I saw that the detainees had used the barrack walls as a kind of poetry board, a space in which they could chronicle their journey to America and give voice to a history that would otherwise not be told.”

Perhaps Goh’s greatest insight in this book is her highlighting that the American West we see today was built by dubious and nefarious means, and that the few economic and political winners won by sacrificing many working people—a great many of them Chinese laborers. Yet she walks around the great beauty of Stanford University, fully knowing that Amasa Leland Stanford made his considerable wealth as a railroad baron, exploiting Chinese workers who worked under appalling and dangerous conditions. He also seized land from native tribes and stripped the land of natural resources with no thought of future generations. Yet the university he built, and its lovely campus, are appealing to Goh. She knows its dark history, but is captivated by it nonetheless; she asks how “do we reconcile art and beauty in the face of vicarious greed?”

There is no easy answer. In its heyday, Stanford’s Southern Pacific was known “as the Octopus, for its many tentacles reached far and wide across American society, from networks of freight lines to the influence of business on politics. In many ways, it was a pioneer of the modern corporation, with all its excesses and abuses.”

We still live with these legacies. For those of us who enjoy the privilege of attending or working at well-funded universities, we are aware that the land they sit upon is stolen, and the endowments they accrue are gained from many companies that exploit and destroy our planet. Goh has no ready solutions to these major dilemmas—we are all intertwined, and therefore, we are complicit in racism, planetary destruction, and capitalist exploitation.

In her last essay, she aptly sums up what we must not do: associate with only those whom we like. She writes that when we “privilege likeability… we limit our emotional range to what is agreeable and repress the most compassionate parts of ourselves. We fail to see the humanity in people who are unlike us. We disengage from all the rage, trauma, and injustice, embracing a silence that will eventually consume us all.” All our problems and dilemmas are tied together, and they both feed our need to fight them and keep us bound to them. Goh’s essays examine ways we can delineate and then solve some of our most vexing issues.

About the Reviewer

Eric Maroney has published Religious Syncretism, The Other Zions, and The Torah Sutras. He has also published short stories, articles and book reviews. He has an MA in philosophy from Boston University. He lives in Trumansburg, New York with his wife and two children.