Writer, critic, activist, educator, Shirley Geok-lin Lim was born in Malacca, Malaysia, one often children of a Hokkien Peranakan (1) family. After receiving her bachelor's degree from Kuala Lumpur's University of Malaya in 1967, she went to the US where she earned a PhD in English and American literature from Brandeis University. Widely considered as Malaysia's most internationally acclaimed writer in the English language, Shirley Lim is the author of five volumes of poetry, three collections of short stories, a memoir, and a novel. Her first book of poems, Crossing the Peninsula, won the Commonwealth Poetry Prize for 1980, the first Asian woman poet to receive this prestigious award. Her other volumes of poetry include: No Man's Grove (1985), Modern Secrets (1989), Monsoon History (1994), and What the Fortune Teller Didn't Say (1998). Her memoir, Among the White Moon Faces: An Asian-American Memoir of Homelands (Feminist Press, 1996), published simultaneously in Singapore as Among the White Moon Faces: Memoirs of a Nonya Feminist (Times Books, 1997), won the American Book Award for 1997. Her first novel Joss and Gold, was published by the Feminist Press, New York, and Times Books International, Singapore in 2001. Her short story titles include: Another Country (1982), Life's Mysteries (1995), and Two Dreams (1997).
Shirley Lim "s reputation as a writer is rivaled by her reputation as a critic of Asian and Asian American literature. She has edited or co-edited The Forbidden Stitch (recipient of the 1990 American Book Award), Approaches to Teaching Kingston's The Woman Warrior, Reading the Literatures of Asian America, and One World of Literature. She is also the author of Nationalism and Literature: English-language Writing from the Philippines and Singapore (1993) and Writing South East/ Asia in English: Against the Grain (1994). Winner of numerous awards for her outstanding contributions to teaching, she is currently Professor of English and Women's Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Her forthcoming books include a novel, a volume of poetry, and a book of cultural and gender criticism.
This interview was carried out via electronic mail in March 2002.
MAQ: Why do you write? Is it for the sheer joy of writing--the joy of telling a story, for example--or because you have some ideas to convey, some instructions perhaps? Is writing an obsessive, compulsive activity for you or is it a way of solving problems, private or societal?
SL: When I was much younger I might have replied that I wrote for the "sheer joy" of writing, but this has not been the case for a long time. That I feel driven to write is clear. That writing provides me with a deeply satisfying sense of coming to who I am, becoming who I believe myself to be, is also clear. But I am less certain now that "joy" has anything to do with it.
More often than not, writing means long hours and days of loneliness, isolation, doubt. And more and more I feel the absence of time for the kind of writing I want to do. Working on this interview with you, for example, means losing time for writing. Entire months and even years go by with very little time for the kind of writing you are asking me about.
Writing is surely no way to go about solving problems. I would like to think that my poems and prose works offer symbolic action and so participate in a significant way in the social world in a political public sphere, but that is a faint hope and as easily winked out even during my lucid moments.
Is writing obsessive for me? Not in the psycho-neurotic sense, the way an obsessive-compulsive has no rational control over her actions. My sense of duty, my work ethic, is very strong, and I spend most of my life devoted to my salaried profession as a university teacher and citizen. Social responsibilities take up an enormous amount of my energy, whether they were/are childcare, housekeeping chores or community services. …