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Poetry Moment: Hilary Tham’s verse on free speech

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The first amendment to the United States Constitution is first for a reason. Freedom of speech is vital for a democracy.

Adopted Dec. 15, 1791, the amendment is first on the list of the Bill of Rights, and grants Americans the right to assemble, the right to a free press, and the freedom to speak their truth to power and to petition the government.
This week, America held an election. And whichever way it turns out, we the people can protest or support the decision, in the streets, to our neighbors, in whatever media we can find, social or otherwise.

Not every country in the world is this way. The ten most censored countries in the world include North Korea, Burma, Turkmenistan, Equatorial Guinea, Libya, Eritrea, Cuba, Uzbekistan, Syria, and Belarus. China, Russia, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia have long repressed their citizens’ rights to speak.

Poets, even in verse that seems light and funny on the surface, know the consequences of repressing speech.

This week’s Poetry Moment highlights Hilary Tham, a poet born in Malaysia to Chinese parents who studied literature and immigrated to the U.S. Tham’s famous persona poems, usually in the voice of a Chinese mother very like her own, were collected in a book called The Tao of Wei.

“Tham is able to capture the idiosyncratic, topsy-turvy world-view, a combination of superstitious and unthought-out religious beliefs, housewifely thrift, termagant courage and humorous generational differences of a particular Southeast Asian woman. Some of these poems are absolutely hilarious,” writes Shirley Lim about the Mrs. Wei poems in Calyx.

The poems’ speaker, which Tham says is based on her pragmatic, superstitious, spunky mother, dispenses advice to the lovelorn, yells at a lecherous monk on a bus, berates her children for holding their chopsticks the unlucky way. The poems are ironic, and funny, but also illuminating. Writing persona poems, Tham says, “gives me the luxury of having two points of view on something.”

Tham explains in the full interview from which this week’s poem is plucked, “When I get caught up in my mother’s stories, I find it very hard to disbelieve her totally, but I don’t believe her totally either.”

In this week’s poem, “Mrs.Wei Wants to Believe the First Amendment,” the fictitious Mrs. Wei, having been “raised” in a more authoritarian country, is shocked that the First Amendment protects Americans and their freedom of speech.

Tham remembered being worried when her American husband wrote a letter to the president critical of his actions. “I thought the FBI would be on our doorstep,” she said. “In the third world, we do not have freedom of expression.”

Americans still have the right to speak. Make your voice heard.


Susan Thornton Hobby
The Writing Life producer


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