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Reviews

The Tao of Mrs. Wei
Counting
Bad Names for Women
Men & Other Strange Myths
Tigerbone Wine
Paper Boats
Lane with no Name
Crossroads

The Tao of Mrs. Wei

Chinese by descent and Jewish-American by marriage, Hilary Tham emigrated to the U.S., some thirty years ago, with a BA in English Literature from the University of Malaya. She has since settled in the greater Washington, D.C. area, published seven books of poetry and a memoir, received numerous grants, served as editor-in-chief of Word Works, Inc., and poetry editor for the Potomac Review. She paints professionally in the Sumi-e style. She is a regular presence at D.C. area workshops for children and the disadvantaged, open-mics, and poetry society events. Her most recent book - The Tao of Mrs. Wei - is published by The Bunny and Crocodile Press. Tham is a veritable poster-child for multiculturalism....

Full review originally published online by Gilbert Wesley Purdy on Thundersandwich.com

COUNTING: A LONG POEM

Tham's new book Counting is a poetry memoir, the equivalent to a personal epic at the beginning of the twenty-first century. It's reach is large, like Whitman's America. Filled with both Chinese and Jewish spirits, it overflows with humor, ideas, and stories. -- Shirley Lim Geok-lin

If the poems that make up Counting only gave us the particulars of Hilary Tham's life, they would be absorbing and exotic in themselves. But Counting is considerably more. It is a wisdom book in which poem after poem is woven into a complex tapestry that comprehends the great themes of life - love, death, grief, joy - and gives us, as well a work of exacting art. -- Merrill Leffler

The poet's journey follows a path out of darkness. Hilary Tham is a person who moves beyond borders and boundaries. Counting measures the complexity of her life. Here race embraces faith and the reader is witness to Tham's transformation into a person who glitters and glows. She reminds us that the human spirit only lives when it evolves. In Counting, Tham sometimes reminds me of Ginsberg, giving Kaddish for a loved one or asking America to confess or change. There is much in this book; what should we do with this unending light?
-- E. Ethelbert Miller

"I couldn't put it down!! It is so personal, so beautifully told that I was compelled to read on. Several times I went back a page or two to re-read a passage that I thought so beautifully worded I wanted to see how you had written it. The words themself, the structure, the rhythm... Thank-you for providing me with such an experience. I feel as if your soul is on the paper. "
--- Sharon Warden

"Interlayering of cultural and religious visions - as delicate as the folds of a fine strudel and surprising as jasmine tea with rugelach- I savored the intermingling of world and spirit, as subtle as the blend of Shabbat spices at Havdalah. No poem in this book has disappointed me. Always, there is a fresh vision and the clarity of a true note that resonates in the heart."
--- Roseline Intrater

Introduction for Hilary Tham and Counting: a long poem

"Memory is an erratic camera, with/variable film, and faulty zoom lens./Memory is a telescope we view from both ends" Thus, near the end of a description of a sister gone too soon at three, we are given what will be one of the many observational/philosophical gems that Hilary Tham's Counting lays before us to ponder. We read about her look back on the passage from "Chinese gods sitting on altars/wanting food and temples with fish ponds" to "Buddha wanting nothing" to Jesus offering love & forgiveness to books and the existentialism of Sartre and Camus to Judaism as she initially described it "a regression to man-made systems of worship"

Hilary looks through her telescope to remember a Malaysian childhood, her terrible teen moments when feeling the need to uproot, to escape, she was convinced to stay with her family by the plaint of frogs calling for love.

"We judge gods by their followers. What they do in the name of their Almighty." It seems throughout that Counting chronicles Hilary Tham's judgment of gods and followers and herself. I was given an opportunity to understand how this Malaysian-Chinese woman became Hilary Goldberg, not so that she could marry Joe, but so that her children would be Jewish. An answer that passes a test.

This is an examined life, not a lost river. Hilary's learned her shape and the effect she has on others and I believe she continues to learn and effect. Counting is just one way she can do this.

The simple logic of Hilary's sometimes wonderful syllogisms open the mind to the complexity of living and making sense of life. The metaphors preceding a point, making clear some illusory observations on faith and an expanding universe made me sit back, read again, let me ponder ideas to a point that I could hear nothing around me, feel nothing. An idea alone produces active thought, several produce meditation:
The snake swallows the horse
and splits its skin, sheds its casing
to contain it.
The mind takes in the world
and expands, sheds its casing
to contain it.

The living walk paths the dead have made
and marked with cast-off skins, casings and words.
The expanding universe knows not
its limits, has not reached the end
of expansion.
The expanding mind knows not
the words for infinity. It only knows
it has passed beyond what it knows.

Later Hilary gives an excellent reason for charity:

Yet any act of kindness, a dollar for a homeless
woman or the bearded panhandler who says he needs
money to get home for a son's funeral, to buy
a cup of coffee, has to be better than pretending
they do not exist. Each act of refusal petrifies
the heart. The hard shell we grow to protect it
turns prison...

With Counting, unlike many of us who curse the darkness without realizing the gifts within the infiniteness of night and day, Hilary concludes with several statements of gratitude for those around her, in her life, and for simply being.

As you might be able to tell, I enjoyed Hilary Tham's exploration and examination of life, love and existence, so it is with pleasure that I introduce Hilary Tham and Counting: a long poem.
—Brandon D. Johnson
author of Man Burns Out and The Strangers Between

Bad Names for Women, by Hilary Tham

Word Works Capital Collection, 1989
(as reviewed on http://rantsravesreviews.homestead.com/BadNames.html)

The title brings to mind the derogatory terms we hear all the time: bitch, slut, whore, etc. However, Hilary Tham's poetry goes far deeper -- to the roots of cultural stereotypes about women. Tham is Malaysian and Chinese, her husband, Jewish; this background provides much of the inspiration for her poems.

Bad Names for Women is divided into three sections. The first, "Chinese Mother", draws upon Tham's heritage. Many of the poems revolve around the central figure of Mrs. Wei, through whom we get to see cultures clashing, as in "Mrs. Wei is Unhappy With the Sexual Revolution":

From the beginning, women have made men
pay for sex -- a leg of wild boar, gold
chains, marriage. Now, their daughters give
it away, call it freedom!

The second section, "Jewish Mother", looks at the heritage of Jewish women (with the obligatory mention of Lilith) and the difficulties of such a male-oriented religion, as in "Dancing the HaKafot":

This year, our synagogue allowed women
to dance the HaKafot. Hair streaming from headscarves,
we panted out songs and twirled with the men . . .

In a corner, the retired rabbi reproves
his wife with harsh words. Infected
with the momentum of the young, she has broken
a lifelong taboo. She has carried the Torah
with bare, female hands . . .

The third section, "Woman, by Any Name", is more feminist in sensibility and is wildly provacative. With titles like "A Liberated Woman", "The First Time is Always a Disappointment", and "Odalisques Were Invented by Men", it's hard to pick only one as an example. You will just have to go pick up a copy of the book and see for yourself.

Also by Tham: No Gods Today, Paper Boats, Lane With No Name: Memoirs and Poems of a Malaysian-Chinese Girlhood, Tigerbone Wine, and Men and Other Strange Myths.
Lane with No Name, Memoirs & Poems of a Malaysian Chinese Girlhood
"Hilary Tham's memoirs reveal the many images, cultures, myths and memories out of which her poetry has emerged. Tham recalls a life of many textures: her Chinese ancestry, her family's life in Malaysia, her early education and conversion to Christianity, her university studies, her marriage to a U.S. Peace Corps volunteer, and more. Amidst memories of her raffish father and inspired, overworked mother are stories of monkey raids, eggs noodles, a lascivious Buddhist monk, marriages, funerals, neighbors -- and the breaching of taboos.

The poems insterspersed in the text and the 'family album" photographs enrich this narrative of a life in which poetry, passion, warmth, stubbornness, community, and clarity of thought all play leading roles."

--- Lynne Rienner Publishers, Inc.

I love the worlds that come to life in these poems, the knowledge, the mysteries, the confusions, the mistures, all done through a startling and original language.

-- Gerald Stern, when selecting Bad Names for Women as Second Prize winner. 1988 Virginia Poetry Prizes

Hilary Tham's poetry is a marriage of two cultures, the Chinese and the Jewish. Embracing both, she has made compelling poems. From "Mrs. Wei in Peking" to "Dancing the Hakafot", Tham creates a poetic grammar rooted in two rich traditions -- she gives us poems that are striking and exotic.

-- Merrill Leffler on Bad Names for Women

Hilary Tham, now Jewish and married to a Jewish man, was born and raised in a Chinese family in Malaysia. Her poems are brief, vivid sketches of moments and people from the Chinese-Malaysian, Jewish, and just-plain-American parts of her life. Tham takes the same clumsy words I know and transforms them into brief, sharply drawn images, showing me familiar scenes in new ways and unfamiliar scenes in ways I'll never forget.

-- Hanna Bandes of NESHAMA

For witty, often metaphysical poems about the melting pot world of her life which includes her Malaysian, then American identities, as well as her marriage and conversion into a Jewish family. Despite occasional bitterness and one-dimensional anger, poems such as "There are no Kungfu fighters in my Family Tree", "Mrs. Wei is Unhappy with the Sexual Revolution". "Odalisques were invented by Men", and "Eve" portray a vivid comic sensibility and the passionate language of wit which transcends petty political or personal concerns.

-- Diane Wakoski when selecting Bad Names for Women for Third Prize in the 1989 Paterson Poetry Prizes.

MEN & Other Strange Myths

A cacaphony of fables, some with an angry edge, others touched with razor sharp sarcasm. Accessible poems that hit the reader in the gut.

-- Melissa Bell, Visions International

This is a collection of sixty-five poems, many accompanied by original pen and ink drawings by the author, Hilary Tham. It is an interesting and eclectic mixture of poetry. The poems are loosely connected to images of men, be it father, grandfather, a Chinese knight, or the image of the male wolf. The poetry is rich and imaginative, sometimes reflecting cultural experiences of the Malaysian-born author. Currently a resident of Virginia, Tham's poems have won prizes in the United States and have been published in Malaysia, Singapore, New Zealand, England, and Israel.

Many Asian American women writers incorporate themes of identity, race and generational conflict in their poetry and stories. Interestingly Tham does not fall into this genre. She writes as easily of "Dream Man Ken" as she does of her grandfather taking her to see Wayang Kulit puppets shadow dancing. Reading a poem titled "Yom Kippur" or "Aegean Politics" can be slightly unsettling when three pages earlier appeared a poem about "Bo Wan," a man, "He talked like a woman..."

The poems in this work are collected under the headings "Men" and "Other Myths." The poems centered around the theme of men paint pictures of heroes, family pain, and missing fathers. They are at times playful poems. Others end with a strange twist. In a poem titled "Fathers (For Sylvia Plath and another)," Tham writes, "We go looking for our fathers, looking for that time capsule when our world was small and simple," and ends the poem. "Lost in far vacuums of other galaxies we remember sunlight, we go looking for our fathers. If we are lucky we do not find them." This is indeed a fascinating collection of poetry.

Yem Fong
Head, Information Delivery Services
University of Colorado, Boulder

Tigerbone Wine

What a treat to read poems by this woman born in Kelang, Malaysia. I agree with the blurb on her book: "She makes the bizarre, the foreign, the other culture, the past, accessible and universal."

-- Michael J. Bugeja, Writer's Digest, 1992

Courage and truth shimmer from Ms. Tham's work like "light from 'shook foil'." I was pierced deeply when Ms. Tham in a deceptive throw-off observed a truth which every black person can attest to:

There is no poverty like the poverty
a man feels when he ceases to be
a hero to his sons.
Truth, indeed, knows no racial barriers.
-- Dr. Gregory Rigsby

Paper Boats

Paper Boats is very much a Malaysian-identified collection, richly laden with ethnic Chinese and Southeast Asian stories, family histories, cultural artifacts, socio-political thematics, flora and fauna.... each poem also leads to insights that cross, if not transcend, geographical and cultural boundaries.

-- Dr. Shirley Geok-lin Lim, CALYX, 1990

Lane With No Name

On the dedication page of her memoirs, Hilary Tham states with characteristic candor and dry humor, "The idea of writing my memoirs goes against the gram of my upbringing. Though I had breached the taboo with my poems, prose feels like a greater violation." These remarks not only assert Tham's transgression of traditional Chinese codes of conduct, but also foreshadow the central concern of her memoirs-the formations and transformations of subjectivity in a multiracial and multicultural Malaysian society characterized by conflicting ideologies. Tham explores these processes and their effects through intimate stories of people's private lives, wjijch reveal many fascinating "real faces behind the preserved faces of my life, my family, and my people" (p. 3), and she also examines her own development from childhood to maturity and toward an understanding of the meaning of life and her creative mission as a poet.

Lane with No Name consists of a prologue and 30 subtitled chapters, with 19 photographs and 21 poems. Tham opens the prologue with her experience of arriving in New York for the first time with her American husband. For Tham this border-crossing experience is at once alienating and revealing; the interstices between different cultures have become an enabling cognitive and critical space within which to reexamine her received beliefs and to reinvent herself. In fact, the transformation of subjectivity through encounters with the "other" is a major theme in Tham's memoirs.

The form and content of Tham's narratives, which are discontinuous and multi-voiced, reflect the importance to Tham of people with cultural backgrounds different from her own in molding the woman and poet she was to become. Chapter titles such as "The Odd-Job Man," "India Next Door," "Grandfather Au," "The Nuns," "The Bad Widow," and "The House on Palace Road" suggest the diversity of people and lives represented in Tham's memoirs, where we encounter figures ranging from Tham's maternal grandfather to the Irish Catholic nuns at school, from the Indian family in the neighborhood to the Malay royal house and its princesses, whom Tham tutored. These people and their disconnected stories are pieced together to form the complex, intricate web of Tham's multiple girlhood worlds, which coexist and yet are separated by circumstances of race, culture, and economic and social status. Moving among these various worlds, Tham learns the limitations each culture places on individuals as she encounters the possibilities afforded by others.

Cultural differences sometimes become dividing boundaries between people when viewed through the distorting lens of racial prejudice. In the longest chapter, titled "Bare Feet & Broken Glass," Tham gives a most informative and insightful account of the racial conflicts between the majority Malays and two minority groups, the Chinese and the Indians. Tham provides detailed information about the demographic make-up of each group and their respective economic situations and social status within the specific historical context of Malaysian politics and the legacy of British colonial masters, whose policy was "Divide and Rule" (p. 180). The deterioration of racial relations from separateness to animosity results in part from Malaysian politicians' manipulation of public opinion. Being kept apart and manipulated, Tham writes,

"we remained unknown, alien to each other; unfounded rumours and political lies became legends and took on a vicious subterranean life in our minds. when we met, our prejudices formed a distorting glass wall between us. Racist perceptions strip away the freedom to be what you want to be: they reduce you to the lowest common denominator of your group; you have to struggle to recall that you are more than what the other sees" (p. 181).

The combination of penetrating analysis and unflinching commentary with enticing narrative details and rich local colors is a salient characteristic of Tham's memoirs. The reflective and analytical aspect of Tham's writing gives her narratives depth while sustaining the emotional intensity throughout the book. Tham achieves these effects and more by placing her poems separately between the chapters. For instance, at the end of Chapter Thirteen, "Grandmother Tries to Give My Sisters Away," Tham places the poem "May Means Beautiful in Chinese":

We name daughters
Yee May, Soo May, Yin May, May May,
May Wan, May Choo, May Li, as if
Beauty is the main imperative
for a woman, as if the naming
will make it fact. We load a diversity
of hopes on sons: Ying for courage
Ming for brilliance, Fook for fortune,
Tai for greatness, and for honor
and endurance, Chong Yan.

Only when bad luck demons pester
a son with sickness and accidents do
we hide his maleness, call him Cat
or Dog. Ah Mow and Ah Cow are common
life-saving names. If this ploy fails,
there's one sure way to turn away a demon:
disguise your son's value behind a girl's
name, call him Beautiful (p. 82).

While the chapter provides an illuminating context and source for the poem and for Tham's feminism the poem also serves as a commentary or critique on sexism revealed in the chapter it follows. This arrangement reveals the dynamic relations between Tham's life and art; it also adds a philosophical aspect to Tham's memoirs.

Lane with No Name provides scholars of Southeast Asian studies with a valuable source for investigations into the postcolonial subject, the possibilities of cultural hybridity, and the question of how Malaysian writers relate to the English language within the historical context of postcolonial Malaysian nationalism.

Zhou Xiaojmg
SIJNY at Buffalo

CROSSROADS: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, Vol. 12. #1 pages 223-225

Lane With No Name: Memoirs & Poems of a Malaysian-Chinese Girlhood.

What could be imprisoning for many-recollection of the past is freeing to Hilary Tham as she takes us back to the land of Malaysia. There she grew up on a dirt lane surrounded by chat-tering monkeys, delicacies (like birthday egg noodles), the idiosyncracies of Indian neighbors, Chinese, Malays, relatives, ancestors, the views from under a zinc roof which finally replaced the thatched attap. An otherwise ordinary life was energized by metaphor, poetry, aphorisms, sayings and the presence of spirits made daily in her life. All this, primarily from her mother who could not have enriched her more had she also spoken Shakespeare. She started her children with lullaby, Tham explains: "Besides nursery rhymes, my mother was very fond of proverbs.. ...I often think Cantonese proverbs are like bouillon cubes; they are always compact, evocative word pictures that pack a lot of meaning and punch..."

Hilary Tham describes growing up with language "terse and concentrated and full of rhymes and image..."

Words words words from her mother fall into her with every move she makes, and now rise up out of her to change a world, which other than for her presence, was changing on its own globe very slowly indeed.

How Hilary Tham nabbed the tiny darts of time as they went through, to make them into remembrance is the sourcing for a writer's life, pluming out to the page, temporizing what could have been hardship, the potentially painful which could have been a doleful tale. No poet's sorrow here. Rather the wish for us to capture all she lived as precisely as it was felt, with a loveliness of language and the rise of self within an admirable self disclosure.

"Since we were too poor to have a horse, or a car.. .we could walk, we were lucky, we had two good legs. But [mother] was wrong about our having no horses; she gave us strong horses named 'Integrity 'Brave Heart,' and 'Taking Responsibility'; she gave us steady horses named 'Clean as Water, Never Sticky with Debts: 'Good wilt: and 'Wearing Eyes to See People'; she gave us mountain-climbing horses named 'Motivation' and 'Respectfully Refusing to Quit: Endowed with such horses, I have never felt poor."

This book is like nothing else you will ever read, the clear voice speaking out of tradition and its inheritance of a true multi-cultural existence. In Chapter 8, "India Next Door" the neighbor's baby is screaming again at 3 o'clock. Hilary Tham enters the cultural difference between the houses-speaking of the wonderfully high noses of the Jndian neighbors compared to the "flattened nose" of the Chinese. In a delightful revelatory visit net door, we see Mrs. S give her baby a bath. "She shoved her right thumb up the mouth of the baby and hoisted him off her knees with just that point of contact... "a demonstration of how Indians got such handsome noses." Mother thanked her as they rushed out of the house... "As terrible as foot binding," Mother says. "Your future brothers' and sisters' noses wilt just have to stay the way they come."

Lasting, breathing characterizations are found here. The sights, smells, sounds in a modest life are not shown to be poverty, nor even an economy of riches, but a bounty multiplied by a writer/recorder who sees irony, magic and mystery in every corner of her world. IJncorrupted by others, author Hilary Tham uncovers the secret of a totally original and genuine story. It comes from the assurance of someone who is determined to explain all. Somehow Tham had to find her way back to memory, step by step, to walk each room again, from house to village to school, to learn movement without restraint. The writing in this book is in Technicolor. It could not have come to her in a hurry. (We do not dream in a hurry). I find it to be without the superior attitude of American memoirists whose self criticism and self absorption often get in the light of the story. This writer does not judge the story as she tells it.

Here's the noodle vendor (in Chapter 6) who managed meat in his soup even when the Japanese took pigs and chicken away. He was suspected of collaborating with the enemy until his carelessness exposed a rat tail in the soup. Tham's people here are operatic in their ludicrous, clumsy, startling humanity.

Although the author attended a convent school and was trained with western knowledge, we never have the feeling she thought she should be somewhere else. The diversities of learning needlepoint as well as good girl behavior made for adventure at the hands of nuns: "Good Girls always sit with their knees together.. .G.G. never cross their legs... G.G. never shake their legs or wiggle in their chairs... "The rules go on and on. Somehow Tham transcended and adapted the Irish lilt of this learning to make a good girl write this winning account of life with the nuns. (Chapter 15). Later she learned Julius Caesar by heart, the education which would be the underpinning in a life of literature. The confluence of east and west is what this book is all about. Perhaps her books are the vehicles by which Tham understands it best.

In the Kelang Library where Hilary Tham paid borrowing fees with lunch money, she read Gone with the Wind, Dracula, World Fairy Tales. "I read Poe, Emily Dickinson, the Bronte sisters; gobbled up Georgette Heyer, Jane Austen, George Eliot, Barbara Cartland, Agatha Christie, Charles Dickens -I read them all and did not care that one was good writing and one was pulp."

Learning about love is the topic of Chapter 20, "Chinese Medicine."

"Love was unstable as water, that fathers were heroes one day, taking you out to feast at restaurants or to the beach on an unexpected Sunday; that the next day, they will disown you and call you an unbearable burden."

Mothers were the opposite, argues the author, "dull as walls and furniture," nagging, with a moral to tailor each move the children made: (on faimess) "The black dog steals the food, the white dog gets punished;" (prudence) "Eat the eggs but not the mother hen; "On not expecting perfection, she advises the children to remember "the one-eyed man viewing his wife."

I could read forever of Mother's proverbs and her wisdom for each event -from the death of "second daughter" to the western "electrifying" of hair. We are in a world unimagined before, vivid, now our own. How do we have the license to enter? I believe the author must write unselfconsciously, to be possessed of bravery before honesty. Tham admits the initial struggle.

On the title page she states "The idea of writing my memoirs goes against the grain of my upbringing, though I had breached the taboo with my poems, prose feels like a greater violation." She overcame this; and the decision to be forthcoming is the reason this is not somnambulistic writing but a full giving away- talking long enough, undeviatingly enough to evoke memory: every thrown tea cup from grandmother's tantrum, the graves visited, the festivals - told with the human heroes and jesters in full view. Especially important is the poetry at the end of most chapters. These pieces are from former books, No Gods Today (1969), Paper Boats (1987), Bad Names for Women (1989), Tigerbone Wine (1992), Men and Other Strange Myths (1994).

I share one from Bad Names ... which concludes the chapter "Grandmother Tries to Give My Sisters Away.

May Means Beautiful in Chinese

We name daughters
Yee May, Soo May, Yin May, May May,
May Wan, May Choo, May Li, as if
Beauty is the main imperative
for a woman, as if the naming
will make it fact. We load a diversity
of hopes on sons: Ying for courage,
Ming for brilliance, Fook for fortune,
Tai for greatness, and for honor
and endurance, Chong Yan.

Only when bad luck demons pester
a son with sickness and accidents do
we hide his maleness, call him Cat
or Dog. Ah Mow and Ah Gow are common
life-saving names. If this ploy fails,
there's one sure way to turn away a demon:
disguise your son's value behind a girl's
name, call him Beautiful.

I'm aware that anyone can review a book well loved. I also know that to be a "critic" is to set things right, to show the author just how and where to do this. I could not begin to know how this book could be made better. This is not by statement of my own limitations, but rather because a book of such welling of experience is like a world opening and opening and opening outward, unfrequented ever before. This is the first review book I've ever read twice. The literary landscape is virgin land. You'll be glad to be taken there, to enter Hilary Tham's mythology. You can't get there without her. You wouldn't even want to.

Grace Cavalieri
1998 The Paterson Review #27, pp. 395 - 397