Poet, Teacher Hilary Tham Goldberg, 58; Immigrant's Art Explored, Fused Cultures

By Joe Holley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 29, 2005

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 charities.

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.

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