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2005-07-25 - 2:44 p.m.
Our Own Small Mark on the World
The following is a recent obituary from the Los Angeles Times that prompted me to research this author and check out a couple of her books from the library. Huntington may be reminded, as I was, of an Asian-American Studies class with a certain Ke-Sook Kim, circa Fall 1993.
In reading the author's Memoirs and Poems of a Malaysian-Chinese Girlhood, I was struck by her musings on wanting to become a writer in order to leave some kind of indelible mark on things, or at least to leave some trace behind; to have an impact on someone, somewhere.
I can relate, somehow, to that wish, but I also wonder just as often if it is some kind of egotistical grasp, a fear of death, an indication of some kind of self-important delusion. But what if we don't leave behind a perfect-bound legacy with ISBN#? I supposed that's still ok....
Hilary Tham Goldberg, whose often startlingly frank poems reflected her unique perspective as a Chinese Malaysian who converted to Judaism and moved to the suburbs in the U.S., has died. She was 58.
Goldberg died June 24 of metastatic lung cancer at her longtime home in Arlington, Va.
Poetry appealed to her because "it is the best way to say things with the least possible words," she once said. She likened poems to visual art: "A few strokes and you catch the image and emotional tones of an event."
Her poetry, written under the name Hilary Tham, drew on everyday life and reflected her fascination with how customs and beliefs affect human behavior.
Goldberg's work was "social poetry, more talk-story than metaphoric fancy," a reviewer for the Seattle-based International Examiner said in 1996.
One of her nine volumes of poetry, "Bad Names for Women" (1989), won second prize in the 1988 Virginia Poetry Prizes. A collection of short stories set in Malaysia, "Tin Mines and Concubines," won the Washington Writers Publishing House Prize for fiction and is scheduled to be published in the fall.
Goldberg invented a playful alter ego, the elderly Chinese matriarch Mrs. Wei, who dispensed Old World kitchen wisdom and lacked political correctness. In "The Tao of Mrs. Wei" (2003), which collected the poems written in the voice of Mrs. Wei, Goldberg holds forth on dead souls and reincarnation, snake magic, soldiers, the 1st Amendment and Osama bin Laden.
In the book's first poem, "Mrs. Wei & Ancestor Worship," Mrs. Wei is at a cemetery unpacking a feast she has cooked for her dead father's ghost. Nearby, an Englishman is visiting his mother's grave with flowers.
"When's your father coming out
Hilary Tham was born in a house with dirt floors — and various gods in residence, she liked to say — in Kelang, Malaysia. The daughter of Chinese immigrants went to a convent school taught by Irish Catholic nuns.
She published her first book of poetry, "No Gods Today," in 1969, two years before she earned a bachelor's degree in English literature from the University of Malaya.
When she married American Peace Corps volunteer Joseph Goldberg in 1971 and converted to his Jewish faith, she moved to New Jersey, then to Virginia.
The culture shock she felt living in America caused her to put down her pen for 10 years. Goldberg once said she needed to feel "a certain amount of inside-ness" to be able to write about her life here.
Goldberg was editor in chief of Word Works Inc., a nonprofit poetry press; poetry editor for Potomac Review, a literary magazine; and a creative-writing teacher. She also did Chinese brush painting.
Her memoir, "Lane With No Name: Memoirs and Poems of a Malaysian-Chinese Girlhood," was published in 1997.
She is survived by her husband, three daughters, two sisters, two brothers and a granddaughter.
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