Poet, Teacher Hilary Tham Goldberg, 58; Immigrant's
Art Explored, Fused Cultures
By Joe Holley
Hilary Tham Goldberg, 58, a poet, painter and teacher who viewed
the world from the perspective of a Chinese-Malaysian converted
Jewish wife and mother in suburban America, died June 24 of metastatic
lung cancer at her home in Arlington.
Mrs. Goldberg was born in Klang, Malaysia, the daughter of Chinese
immigrants, and was educated at a convent school taught by Irish
nuns. Her grandmother grumbled that she wasted too much time with
her nose in a book, but a high school English teacher urged her
to continue reading and to write poetry.
"When we write poems," she would observe many years later,
"we pursue immortality by way of truth." She published
her first book of poems in 1969.
She received a master's degree in English literature in 1969 from
the University of Malaya and immigrated to the United States in
1971 after her marriage to a Peace Corps volunteer in Malaysia.
She lived in New Jersey before moving to Arlington in 1973
She was the author of nine books of poetry and a book of memoirs
and poems, "Lane With No Name: Memoirs and Poems of a Malaysian-Chinese
Girlhood" (1997). She also was editor in chief of Word Works
Inc. and poetry editor for "Potomac Review."
A book of poetry titled "Bad Names for Women" (1989)
won second prize in the 1988 Virginia Poetry Prizes. Two of her
books are used as Asian studies texts by the University of Pittsburgh,
and her most recent, "Tin Mines and Concubines," a collection
of short stories set in Malaysia, won the Washington Writers Publishing
House Prize for fiction and will be published in the fall.
In addition to writing poetry, she did Chinese brush painting
For Mrs. Goldberg, who wrote under the name Hilary Tham, poetry
-- and painting, for that matter -- grew out of the closely observed
world around her, her daily life and deep relationships and her
rich multiethnic heritage. In a 2001 Potomac Review essay, she wrote:
"I am a writer, a woman, a blend of many cultures: Chinese-Malaysian
by birth, American by love of my husband and Jewish by choice. My
identity is trellised on Judeo-western principles and ideals, but
my roots delve deep in Chinese lore."
Longtime readers of Mrs. Goldberg's poetry came to know Mrs. Wei,
her muse and poetic alter ego. A traditional Chinese mother, the
outspoken Mrs. Wei tossed out opinions on all manner of topics,
whether roosters and chickens or the First Amendment, snake magic
or soldiers, even Osama bin Laden ("A thief has entered the
house."). Many of Mrs. Wei's piquant observations are collected
in "The Tao of Mrs. Wei" (2003).
Mrs. Goldberg received several artist-in-education grants and writing
fellowships from the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts,
George Washington University and the Virginia Commission on the
Arts. She taught creative writing at Yorktown High School and Williamsburg
Middle School, both in Arlington, and at numerous other schools
in the District, Howard County and Northern Virginia.
"Poetry does so much for kids," Mrs. Goldberg told The
Washington Post in 1996. "Especially the teenage years is when
they need to make sense of authoritarian figures. Poetry gives them
control, that sense of power. It's an outlet for frustration as
well as self-expression."
Mrs. Goldberg converted to Judaism after her marriage and was active
in her synagogue. She served as Sisterhood president for several
years at what is now Congregation Etz Hayim in Arlington, volunteered
to help Vietnamese and Cambodian refugees and supported numerous
Survivors include her husband of 34 years, Joseph R. Goldberg of
Arlington; three daughters, Ilana Goldberg of Arlington, Shoshana
Sumy of Elk Ridge and Rebecca Goldberg of McLean; two sisters; two
brothers; and a granddaughter.
Recent and Coming Events
The Tao of Mrs. Wei (poems)
and Reality Check & Other Travel Poems & Art by Hilary
Tham (ISBN 1-888832-17-7) are now on the bookstands.
New review of The
Tao of Mrs. Wei.
Featured Poem of the Month
In this month's featured poem, Hilary Tham features Permafrost
from her Alaska trip.
Adventures in Poetry (a 467KB PDF
file) Writing Poems with Students
A handbook for teachers
to start students writing
in elementary to high school
is available for download for non-commercial purposes. (See restrictions.)(Note:
if you are on a dial up modem, it would be best to right-click on
the above link and download, as viewing will be slow.)
Visit the essay section and find out more about Finding
your voice as a poet, its relationship to identity and to one's
family, one's people, one's cultures...
See more of Hilary's art in the Online
July 7, 2005