Under-the-Radar Writer: Wing Tek Lum

Lauded in national literary circles, Wing Tek Lum may be better known at home as an engineer and real estate broker than an award-winning poet. His latest book may change that.


Photo: David Croxford

I ALWAYS FELT that I was really good in math and science, and that I wasn’t very good in reading and writing. Like I was a little bit backward or handicapped or something. So I majored in engineering. But during college, I thought: Maybe I can back up and see if I have some kind of interest in writing and reading poetry. To me, it was like solving a math problem. What is the poet trying to say? That’s the way I looked at it. Then it became a hobby for me, and it still is, even after all these years. I just kind of plug away at it.

TO BE a scientist or to be an engineer, you have to be a problem-solver, and there’s always creativity involved. You have to use your imagination to think out of the box—to try to solve some kind of a problem. I don’t think writing is that much different.

I DON'T write every day. It comes in spurts. It’s poetry of the moment. People who write prose are interested in how moments in time progress and develop. They have a beginning, a middle and an end. I’m not very good at that. My mind works in a different way. I like to look at a moment in time and reflect on that. A lot of my poems are related to or inspired by photographs. I look at a photograph and I try to write something down—a description of what I see. I look at it again and write something more.  

SOME PHOTOGRAPHS, they don’t turn me on. There’s nothing there, even though it might be an important photograph. The photo first has to hit me someplace that is instinctual. I have to have some emotional connection to it. From there, I try to translate what I think and how I feel so that you can feel it, too.

I STARTED WRITING this book (The Nanjing Massacre: Poems) after reading Iris Chang’s book, The Rape of Nanking. I was so moved by it. It wasn’t like I started off with this project in mind, but it just came, one poem at a time. Over 15 years, I wrote 104 poems.

I'M NOT an academic. I’m not a historian. I’m not a political scientist. All I’ve done is use whatever talents I may have as a writer to translate historical truths into literary truths. I will not say that what I write about is historically accurate. But I’m hoping that it will ring true in another way, and that there is an emotional truth that is conveyed to the reader, rather than one that is read in a history book.

PEOPLE WHO have read the book have told me they find the material shocking. For me, that’s not the case, because I’ve been living with it for all this time. My motive was to speak for the dead. I felt there was an urgency, a feeling of responsibility to tell the victims’ stories—to tell the stories of the people whose lives have been brutally and callously erased.

I WAS SURPRISED by my reaction to Chang’s book. I mean, I was moved enough to write a poem and then another poem and another poem. And after I discovered other books written on the subject, I wanted to try to tell the story, not as a historian, but on an individual level. One story at a time.

The Nanjing Massacre: Poems Published by Bamboo Ridge Press, and available for $18 from bambooridge.com.

Last month, Lum received the 2013 Elliot Cades Award for Literature from the Hawaii Literary Arts Council.