Myrna Lakshmi Gill
Myrna Lakshmi Gill (novelist, poet, and teacher) was born 24 May 1943 in Manila, Philippines. She is the third daughter of Karam and Wilfred Poso Gill. Gill’s parents met at the University of the Philippines and married despite the opposition of maternal relatives. Her mother’s family was Catholic, and her father, a Sikh, converted to Catholicism soon after their marriage. Her father, an entrepreneur, made money in the import/export business and the family therefore lived in middle-class comfort. Gill grew up in Manila where she attended a Catholic convent school. Soon after her high school graduation, she moved to the United States and attended the Western Washington University in Bellingham, where she completed her undergraduate studies.
She wrote her first mature poems in Washington, for which she received a university prize. Her first collection, Rape of the Spirit, was published in 1962. In 1966, she published her next collection, During Rain, I Plant Chrysanthemums. Her graduate studies soon followed at the University of New Brunswick. Later, she dropped out and attended the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, where she received her Master’s degree.
Her first publication with a New Brunswick press was in 1970, entitled Mind Walls. She also published her next manuscript with Fiddlehead Poetry Books, entitled Novena to St. Jude Thaddeus (1979). During these years, she kept in close contact with local author and publisher Fred Cogswell.
Between 1976 and 1988, she lived in Sackville, New Brunswick. There she received her Bachelor of Education degree from Mount Allison University, and also held a teaching position. She married William Godfrey, the head of the History Department at the time. They had three children: Marc, Evelyne, and Karam Keir. She was unhappy with the community’s size, and she struggled to live as a writer in the small town. In one of her poems, entitled “My Son Dreams in Sackville,” she illustrates her desire for opportunity by cataloguing her son’s desire to be an artist. She writes:
Mark listens to their dreams
Montreal, New York, Toronto
gigs there, record deals there.
Their syntaxes blur, merge into flux. (Returning 56)
She separated from Godfrey in 1988 and moved back to British Columbia with her three children, where she began work on her first novel. In 1993, she published it to positive reviews. Joseph Galdon wrote that it displayed “a masterful account of a young girl’s growing up in an alien world – cultural, religious, nationalistic and personal” (232).
Her selected poems were released in 1998. Entitled Returning the Empties, it “affirms the need we have of union between Asia and North America” (Galdon 741).
In addition to her teaching in the English Department at Mount Allison, Gill has taught at Notre Dame University, the University of Victoria, and the University of British Columbia’s English Language Institute. Her interest in travelling has brought her to many cities. She has lived in Manila, San Francisco, Brighton, London, and Hong Kong. She was one of the first members of The League of Canadian Poets, founded in 1966. Her membership took her poetry abroad.
Much of her work is autobiographical, often reflecting on her relationships with her parents (‘‘Puja for Papa”), siblings (“What If”), and children (“A Winter Scene”). Her work also focuses on her experiences as a writer and teacher (“Legacy,” “Storyteller”), as well as her experiences as an immigrant (“Me,” “An Asian in North America”). In her novel she recounts the story of a half-Indian and half-Filipino girl named Jazz. The story tells of her struggles growing up in a Catholic school, and her trials of searching for her own identity. The clash of the two different worlds of her parents is illustrated when Jazz eventually rejects Filipino culture, as well as blind faith in Catholicism, in favour of choosing her own path in life. This plot is eerily close to the author’s, and it compares with her other work in foregrounding her own sense of an emerging dignity. In her poem, “I Turn” (also in her 1998 publication), she illustrates that struggle with her own identity. She writes: “I consider The Real Me, deeply hidden / in the structured sonnet’s elegant rhyme” (Returning 4). Gill has stated herself that she seeks to “achieve a synthesis of [Asian and North American] cultures” (Chandler 98). The title of the collection, Returning the Empties, refers to this kind of recycling. Like the beer, said reviewer Galdon, “we must drink these poems together” (741). To critic Roshni Kerns, “her prerogative as a writer has been to write about characters, landscapes and stories that are not specifically South Asian” (101). Ultimately, her work, she confesses in Returning the Empties, is a “brick not for smashing out white windows, but for building an Asian temple” (170).
Currently Gill lives in Vancouver, where she is writing her next novel.
Kyle Steeves, Fall 2013
St. Thomas University
Bibliography of Primary Sources
Gill, Lakshmi. During Rain, I Plant Chrysanthemums. Toronto, ON: Ryerson Press, 1966.
---. First Clearing: An Immigrant’s Tour on Life. Manila, Philippines: Estaniel Press, 1972.
---. Gathered Seasons. Toronto, ON: League of Canadian Poets, 1983.
---. Mind-Walls. Fredericton, NB: Fiddlehead Press, 1970.
---. Novena to St. Jude Thaddeus. Fredericton, NB: Fiddlehead Press, 1979.
---. Rape of the Spirit: Poems by Myrna Gill. Manila, Philippines: Colcol Press, 1962.
---. Returning the Empties: Selected Poems 1960s–1990s. Toronto, ON: TSAR Publications, 1998.
---. The Third Infinitive. Toronto, ON: TSAR Publications, 1993.
Bibliography of Secondary Sources
Chandler, Harish. “Myrna Lakshmi Gill.” Asian American Autobiographers: A Bio-Bibliographical Critical Source Book. Ed. Guiyou Huang. Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 2001. 97-100.
“Fiddlehead/Cogswell Papers. UA RG83 Index To Correspondence Series MS1-MS6.” U of New Brunswick Libraries. 27 Oct. 2010
“Fiddlehead/Cogswell Papers. UA RG83 MS7 Poetry.” U of New Brunswick Libraries. 27 Oct. 2010
“Fiddlehead/Cogswell Papers. UA RG83 Short Stories/Essays/Book Reviews.” U of New Brunswick Libraries. 27 Oct. 2010
Galdon, Joseph A. Rev. of Returning the Empties: Selected Poems 1960s–1990s. World Literature Today 73.4 (1999): 741.
---. Rev. of The Third Infinitive by Lakshmi Gill. World Literature Today 69.1 (1995): 232.
Kerns, Roshni. “Lakshmi Gill.” Living in America: Poetry and Fiction by South Asian American Writers. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1995. 101.
Ryerson Library. “Asian Heritage in Canada. Authors: ‘Lakshmi Gill.’” Ryerson U Library & Archives. 28 Sept. 2010
The Writers’ Union of Canada. “Lakshmi Gill.” The Writers’ Union of Canada. 28 Sept. 2010