Hilary Tham (1946-2005)

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Hilary Tham (1946-2005) wrote nine poetry books, a memoir, and a book of short stories. She served on the Board of Directors for The Word Works, eventually becoming Editor-in-Chief of the publishing house, and edited poetry for the Potomac Review. Her poetry book Bad Names for Women was published by The Word Works and won second prize in the 1988 Virginia Poetry Prizes, and her book of short stories Tin Mines and Concubines (2005) won the Washington Writers’ Publishing House Prize for fiction. Two of her books have been used as textbooks at the University of Pittsburgh. She was born in Malaysia to Chinese parents, and graduated from the University of Malaysia with a master’s degree in English literature. She then moved to New Jersey and then to Arlington, Virginia with her husband. Tham was a talented Chinese brush painter and a teacher. She taught Creative Writing at Yorktown High School, Williamsburg Middle School, and various other schools in Washington, DC and Northern Virginia. Tham was passionate about bringing poetry to youth, especially to those experiencing the angst of adolescence. She was awarded several grants and fellowships from the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, George Washington University, and the Virginia Commission on the Arts. Her book Counting (2000) was also published by The Word Works. Further, Bad Names for Women (1989) inspired what would be called the Hilary Tham Capital Collection, the Word Works imprint which publishes both local Washington, DC authors and authors who work for arts nonprofits and are active in the literary community. She was editor for this imprint before it was named after her. Her poetry was inspired by the meaning in everyday life and the relationships she had, as well as her unique cultural heritage. She often wrote poetry about her alter-ego, the traditional Chinese mother Mrs. Wei.

http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2005/06/28/AR2005062801514.html AND http://www.wordworksbooks.org/programs.html#hilarytham Beltway Poetry Quarterly: http://www.beltwaypoetry.com/poetry/poets/names/tham-hilary/ DC Writers' Homes: http://dcwriters.poetrymutual.org/pages/tham.html

Written by Monica Root, December 2013.


In August 2014 Elisavietta Ritchie added this more personal biography:

Hilary Tham was apparently a familiar name in literary circles in Singapore when we lived up the Malaysian coast in Sungai Karang in 1976-1977. In Singapore a professor handed me her first book and insisted I look for her. But at the time Hilary, born Buddhist near Penang, Malaysia, converting to Catholicism in school where she learned her English, then to Judaism when she married Peace Corps volunteer Joe Goldberg, was either now in South Korea or Washington.

I located Hilary in Virginia, but in the 1970s, with three little girls, she had no time for poetry. When she finally had a baby sitter, she joined our Macomb Street workshops, and turned out beautiful poems.... I took them to Donald Herdeck, as his Three Continents Press specializing in Third World writers, kept its office in the Flatiron Building in downtown DC. Three Continents published PAPER BOATS in 1987. Hilary’s other books regularly followed from other presses. In 1997, Three Continents published her LANE WITH NO NAME: MEMOIRS AND POETRY BY A MALAYSIAN-CHINESE GIRL.

Hilary was also a fine artist, painting in Chinese style, and filling her little sketchbooks wherever she traveled. She created the cover of my skinny-but-prize-winning chapbook THE PROBLEM WITH EDEN, and her later line drawings of our dacha by the Patuxent River still hang on the wall at Macomb Street. Isn’t this another way those we love remain with us?

In 1990 +- Eli Flam invited me to become the poetry editor of his Potomac Review. Not only did I feel insufficiently knowledgeable for the job, but we were about to move to Canada for what turned out to be over five years. I looked around our Greater Washington poetry community for someone to recommend to Eli. A big consideration, along with selecting not overburdened with teaching, babies and other work, was how well that person would get along with others, meet deadlines and be fair in judging submissions. Hilary—who was forever learning more about poetry—rose to the top. Indeed, Potomac Review poetry editor and frequent essayist for years, she showed herself knowledgeable, perspicacious, responsible, and fair.

Hilary was by now active with The Word Works press, and as Joe Goldberg was working for the World Bank, she took an active interest in their poetry programs. And she became Virginia’s poet laureate. All this, while exploring Chinese traditions and superstitions, and creating her “Mrs. Wei” who expressed novel opinions on many subjects.

She had by now extremely knowledgeable about the Old Testament, and assumed the presidency of the Sisterhood at her Synagogue, which became Congregation Etz Hayim in Arlington. She put her faith into practice. While our close mutual friend Maxine Combs was battling the final stages of cancer, Hilary was often at their house on King Place, and became an immense help to Maxine’s husband Martin Bernstein, whom she brought into her Synagogue. After Maxine died, Hilary sat Shivah at their house.

The poem Hilary emailed to me the day she herself had just been diagnosed with an incurable form of cancer expressed gratitude for the joys life had given her, and emanated a mystical calm acceptance of impending death.

As if ever in Buddhist mode, Hilary wrote in her poem “Permafrost,”

The natives here are Aleut, Inuit, Yupit—word meaning Real People, the rest of us are virtual, visitors who come and go like summer wind, not real.

Washington Writers’ Publishing House held the annual competition for manuscripts, and the collection of Malaysian stories Hilary submitted had already won. Several of us, as well as Judith McCombs, line-edited the manuscript and proofed the galley. Hilary managed to paint the cover illustration, to approve the book, and finally see the finished book in print. WWPH published TIN MINES & CONCUBINES in 2005.

We scattered dirt on her open grave, right beside Maxine Combs' grave at King David cemetery.

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