John H. Park
Shirley Geok-lin Lim was born on December 27, 1944 in Malacca, Malaysia, a British subject under the then tripartite estate called the Straits Settlements. The awkward and discordant experience of growing up in a world of Chinese-Malayan traditions with newly injected Western influences marks many of Lim's early experiences, beginning with the selection of her name. “Lim Geok Lin, ” suggested by her grandfather, was given to her as a conventional name “intended to humble, to make a child common and same” (White Moon Faces 2); “Shirley, ” a name taken after Shirley Temple, was chosen by her father who had a penchant for Hollywood and British films and whose imagination “was possessed by Western images” (21). Her childhood was further complicated by a shifting cultural climate produced from ethnic tensions and imperial occupations by both Britain and Japan: “My birth, at the end of 1944, at the peak of Japanese torturous repression, and of food shortages and mass starvation, could have brought no rejoicing” (38).
Speaking the language and dialect of assimilated Chinese, baba Malay, in a community that spoke Hokkien, Lim became sensitive to the effects of language at an early age. Once exposed to English, she eagerly read Western novels and poetry and believed in the “vital connection between language” and her “specific local existence” (76). A precocious child who fell in love with literature at a young age, and inspired by a poem by William Blake, she decided to become a poet at age eleven. Her gift for words also became a means to access fatherly approval, rebel from a domineering Catholic school system, and escape poverty: “Then, as if the only thing between this poverty and