Category Archives: Cambodian

In the Shadow of the Banyan by Vaddey Ratner

Confession first: I took almost two years to finish this debut novel. Not until an interview deadline loomed (stay tuned!) could I force myself to keep turning the pages until I reached the end. Because I just couldn’t let the book go. As wrenching and terrifying as the story is – the survival of a young child through the Khmer Rouge genocide in Cambodia that took most of her family along with some two million others – In the Shadow of the Banyan is surely one of the most heart-stoppingly gorgeous titles I’ve read in years.

Based on her own family tragedy, Vaddey Ratner‘s novel is a love letter in honor of the poet prince father she lost. Ratner’s fictionalized counterpart is Raami, the oldest daughter of a Cambodian prince who, with his privileged western education and reverence for his ancient culture, found his personal balance in beauty, knowledge, but most especially humanity. These are the unassailable traits that he imbues in his young daughter, but they are also the very elements of his royal background that take him too soon to an unknown grave. Under Khmer Rouge control, the family members disappear – murder, suicide, illness claim their shattered souls – until Raami is left only with her bewildered mother who somehow finds the steely strength to save them both.

In the book trailer available on her website, Ratner hauntingly bears witness: “[Banyan] isn’t so much the story of the Khmer Rouge experience, of genocide, or even of loss and tragedy … I thought it was something much more universal, much more indicative of the human experience: our endeavor to stay alive, our very desire for life.” The book proves to be that remarkable, living gift, providing undeniable testimony that only humanity trumps deprivation, injustice, horror, and even the greatest tragedies.

Readers: Adult

Published: 2012

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The Map of Lost Memories by Kim Fay

Map of Lost MemoriesThis has been my go-to article of late: “The One Thing White Writers Get Away With, But Authors of Color Don’t” by Gracie Jin. In the few blurbs I’ve briefly perused online about Lost Memories, I haven’t seen any mention of author Kim Fay‘s ethnic background (by photograph, she does not appear to be of Asian heritage), although I have come across a few commendations about her familiarity with Southeast Asia. The reviews seem mostly full of praise, and it garnered an Edgar Award nomination for Best First Novel in 2013.

But of course, I have to be the contrary one (think of this is as a public service announcement?), because Lost was surely a prime example of exoticized literary colonization. Irene Blum, not yet 30, doesn’t get the museum curator position she insists she deserves, mainly because she’s a woman in 1925. Her angry devastation proves brief, however, when her wealthy, dying mentor gives her the opportunity to discover a legendary temple in Cambodia which allegedly holds the secrets of the lost Khmer civilization.

Irene leaves Seattle for Shanghai where she convinces Simone Merlin, a Cambodian-born Frenchwoman with a reputation as temple raider and Communist sympathizer, to join her quest. After the two ambitious adventurers not-quite-on-purpose kill Simone’s abusive husband, they land in Saigon on their way to Cambodia. Both women pick up a lover – Simone’s old, Irene’s new – and eventually the foursome trek into the jungle, each with quite the contrasting agenda.

Irene’s motivation is purely personal gain: she plans to steal her Cambodian treasure to present to the American museum of her choice, cementing her career as a formidable curator. Hundreds of tedious pages later, she does indeed have some sort of too-late revelation (surprise!) about her self-absorbed greed and seemingly repent. In between, many – many – subplots meander and distract: lost parents, abandoned children, murder and other unsolved mysteries, secret pasts, orphan scribes of hidden libraries, and most prevalent of all, enough white privilege to keep the cringe-factor relentlessly zinging. Too much of Asia is but an exotic landscape to be manipulated, robbed, and colonized by the powerful, entitled white elite.

Hopeful that my tenacity (almost 13 hours stuck in the ears; narrator Karyn O’Bryant gallantly bears the weight of the faulty text) might somehow be rewarded with at least one character’s redemption, I grudgingly lasted through to the final track. Talk about misguided – lesson learned yet again: in the new year, literatus interruptus is a viable option that must be liberally exercised!

Readers: Adult

Published: 2012

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Dogs at the Perimeter by Madeleine Thien

Dogs at the PerimeterAbove all else, Janie is a survivor. She escaped the horrifying deaths that took her entire family in her native Cambodia. She’s outlived her adoptive Canadian mother who passed away just last year. She’s built a fulfilling career as a scientist specializing in brain research. She’s the wife of a kind, gentle husband, and the mother to an adorable 7-year-old boy whose name in Khmer means “mountain.”

And then her colleague and good friend Hiroji disappears without warning – literally just walks out of his own life. And, Janie, too, begins to unravel as she can no longer contain the haunting memories of her never-faded past. Janie knows of Hiroji’s connections to her native country: his older brother James left Canada in 1970 to work as a Red Cross doctor for the victims of that heinous war, married a local woman, then just vanished. Hiroji’s repeated journeys produced no answers about his brother’s fate.

Now decades later, Janie realizes Hiroji’s need to finally know what happened has catapulted him from all that is comfortable and familiar; she knows that she, too, must do the same and confront her brutal past in order that she might reclaim her uncertain future. Both have lost a father, mother, brother. Both will need to face long suppressed memories literally trapped in their brains with which they are both so scientifically familiar, yet so emotionally detached.

In breathtaking elliptical prose that suggests more than it divulges, Madeleine Thien presents a tragic history in search of hope. Connecting elusive glimpses with disappeared moments and fractured pieces, Dogs at the Perimeter proves to be an exquisite story of redemption and recovery.

An award-winning Canadian writer of Malaysian and Chinese descent, Thien’s first two titles – her novel Certainty and short story collection Simple Recipes – found U.S. publishers after their Canadian debuts. Ironically (sadly), Dogs pubbed in Canada then in the U.K. (from highbrow Granta Books) to excellent reviews, but has yet to find an American home south of the border. U.S. publishers, take note: surely it’s time to move these Dogs at the Perimeter into the spotlight.

Readers: Adult

Published: 2011 (Canada), 2012 (UK)

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Never Fall Down by Patricia McCormick

Never Fall DownI admit I had a few false starts before I finally settled into Patricia McCormick‘s latest, which was a 2012 National Book Award finalist for Young People’s Literature. Based on the horrifying experiences of Cambodian activist/humanitarian Arn Chorn-Pond‘s childhood survival during the brutal Khmer Rouge control of his native country, McCormick “wrote his story as a novel.” She explains in her ending “Author’s Note,” “Like all trauma survivors, Arn can recall certain experiences in chilling detail; others he can tell only in vague generalities. … So I added to his recollections with my own research – and my own imagination – to fill in the missing pieces. The truth, I believe, is right there between the lines.”

With such careful creation, why did I need three attempts to finally finish? On the page, the sentences read jarringly in broken English; in the ears, the effect is even more pronounced as Ramon de Ocampo narrates in an initially grating, undefinable, pseudo-Asian accent. Might I (highly) recommend skipping forward to that ending “Author’s Note”: McCormick clarifies, “Trying to capture [Arn’s] voice was like trying to bottle a lightning bug. Every time I imposed the rules of grammar or syntax on it, the lights went out. And so, in telling Arn’s story I chose to use his own distinct and beautiful voice.” That explanation sent me searching for that voice … and I found this video of writer and subject together. Their interaction convinced me I absolutely needed to finish the book: all frustration and hesitation disappeared by the final page.

In a devastating world tragedy that took the lives of almost a quarter of a country’s entire population, Arn witnesses the most heinous crimes and tragedies; he is just 11 when the Khmer Rouge begins the devastation of Cambodia. He loses most of his family, his friends, his hopes, his beliefs. He’s forced to commit indescribable acts as a child soldier, numbing his heart and mind in order to live to the next day. Miraculously, he reclaims his own humanity to become an outspoken champion of the world.

McCormick has built her lauded literary reputation on giving voice to young people facing the most challenging circumstances – from addiction to slavery to war to genocide (her first National Book Award finalistSold, is revelatory). McCormick’s next title – her first co-writing credit – is due out in August 2014, and is already making headlines: I Am Malala: How One Girl Stood Up for Education and Changed the WorldSight unseen, I’m already practicing chants of ‘NBA, all the way.’

Readers: Middle Grade, Young Adult

Published: 2012

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The Rent Collector by Camron Wright

Rent CollectorAllow me to begin with an intriguing tidbit and a cringe-inducing warning …

Thumbs up: The Rent Collector is a father’s novel inspired by his son’s documentary, River of Victory. Not only is the story based on the experiences of real-life family, even many of the names appear unchanged. If you choose the page, you’ll be rewarded at book’s end with a bonus section of photos that speak further volumes.

Thumbs stuck in the mud: If you go audible, get ready to practice your eyeball-rolling – Diane Dabczyniski narrates with supposed-to-sound-Asian accents. The thoughtless implication is that the characters are unable to fluently speak their own language! Ironically, she stumbles through the names of people and places in the one language that required accuracy, Khmer, the official language of Cambodia. The result is inexcusable – author Camron Wright even provides a “Pronunciation Guide” on his highly detailed website. Again, audible producers: accuracy can be but a speedy Google search away!

Welcome to Stung Meanchey, Cambodia’s largest garbage dump, located on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, the country’s capital. Sang Ly, her husband Ki Lim, and their baby Nisay, live in a hovel in the dump, surviving day-to-day from what they can salvage and sell. They regularly struggle to pay the bitter, alcoholic Sopeap Sin, the dump’s titular rent collector. They are short again this month, their rent money spent on treatments for the chronically sickly Nisay.

In the midst of her latest ranting demands, Sopeap notices a precious book on the hovel’s floor that Ki Lim recently rescued. The sight of the children’s story causes the most unexpected reaction from Sopeap, as she flees in shattered tears. Sang Ly realizes that Sopeap can read, and she strikes a deal with the angry old woman to teach her the same. Sang Ly is sure of one thing: literacy is the path out of poverty, and the only lasting way to save her young son.

That Wright had detailed access to his son’s documentary gives his novel an overall sense of authenticity, although the narrative is not without the occasional missteps that might remind the reader that Wright is not a young Cambodian mother trapped in a city of garbage: would a person of the dumps know about fanciest restaurants in France; would she ever think in terms of parenting awards? Inconsistencies aside, The Rent Collector is a sprawling story populated with tragic characters (a young girl whose brother is determined to sell her into prostitution), horrific history (the inhumanity of the Khmer Rouge), and grave uncertainty (the dumps are only growing). While the novel doesn’t quite rival the beloved literature that Sopeap reverently introduces to the hungry Sang Ly, Wright’s unembellished, straight-forward prose is a story well-told … a story of grace for a life redeemed, of gratitude for a few lives saved, and ultimately of unwavering hope for a better future.

Readers: Adult

Published: 2012

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Lulu in the Sky: A Daughter of Cambodia Finds Love, Healing, and Double Happiness by Loung Ung + Author Interview

When I recently met Loung Ung in person at one of her Washington, DC readings, we were the lone Asian women in the room. Yes, get ready with your “uh-oh.” Within minutes, a random stranger asked if Ung and I were sisters. Surprisingly, I behaved and politely answered with, “No, Loung and I just met.” To her credit, she did promise to put her glasses back on.

I didn’t embarrass my “sister,” but I did later share the incident, to which she replied, “I got one almost as good.” A would-be reader “asked me if I wrote the book or did I have help?” What Ung wanted to say was, “You think I no write English?” But being in a public setting (and having experienced far worse), Ung merely “got heated but stayed calm,” and graciously replied with, “Yes, I wrote the book… I wrote three books.”

Indeed, that third book is Lulu in the Sky: A Daughter of Cambodia Finds Love, Healing, and Double Happiness, which was published in May, and completes Ung’s trilogy of powerful memoirs. Above all else, Ung is a survivor – a survivor who’s managed to keep her humanity (and humor) intact in spite of enduring unspeakable atrocity. After living the first five years of her life as a privileged, pampered second-to-last daughter – one of seven children – in a large Cambodian Chinese family in Phnom Penh, she spent the next five years trapped in tortuous horror, trying to outrun destruction, war, starvation, and death. During her most formative years, she experienced both the unconditional devotion and courage of her family, and witnessed the most atrociously evil acts of inhumanity.

The United States’ evacuation of Vietnam in April 1975 affected not only Vietnam but neighboring Cambodia and Laos where the so-called Vietnam War spread. With the U.S. troops out of the way, the Communist Khmer Rouge stormed into Cambodia’s capital and largest city Phnom Penh and dispersed its inhabitants; those who survived were sent to forced labor camps where many would die of starvation, disease, torture, and execution. Over the next four years, Pol Pot and his regime claimed 1.7 million lives – a quarter of Cambodia’s then-population.

Half of Ung’s immediate family somehow survived. Those horrific years – from ages 5 to 9 – eventually became her debut memoir, First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers, which quickly becoming a national bestseller after it was published in 2000. Five years later, she followed that success with the critically acclaimed Lucky Child: A Daughter of Cambodia Reunites with the Sister She Left Behind, in which she examines the parallel lives of her own American experiences with those of her one surviving sister who remained in Cambodia. Ung confronts her deep guilt of being the chosen one, the “lucky child,” and finds healing through love, family, and community.

In Lulu in the Sky, Ung is all grown up. Attending a small liberal arts college in Vermont, she begins to navigate her life as an adult, away from the “No dating, no boys” family rules she lived with from age 13. When she meets an easy-going, tall, handsome young man from Ohio, she thinks “Kismet! … I, a brown girl living in the whitest state in America, met the only Caucasian person on campus who had been to my part of the world.” How could she not fall in love with this happy Midwest boy who had spent a year in the Philippines teaching English in a refugee camp? Kismet indeed.

But falling in love – even having that love abundantly returned – is not enough to keep Ung’s fears, nightmares, and bouts of depression away. For 10 uncertain, peripatetic years, Ung will struggle to find peace in her soul and her place amidst her traditional family both near and far. Meanwhile, she needs to discover what fulfills her in the world, and how to reconcile the inhumanity she’s witnessed with the unconditional love she’s been offered.

In an essay at the end of Lulu, you write so poignantly, “If First was about getting lost, being lost, and losing, then Lucky Child was about being found, finding, and gaining.” How might you add Lulu into that description?
Lulu is my journey of going from surviving to thriving… about reconnecting, reclaiming, and rejoicing.

So what’s the backstory with Lulu? What made you write a part three?
Lulu is filled with stories about going back to Cambodia, not only as an activist but as a sister, an aunt, a daughter. I’m coming full circle from being a Chinese Cambodian, which I wrote about in First They Killed My Father; then becoming an American, which became Lucky Child; and now I’m writing about being an international citizen of the world. I’ve loved having all these roles.

Writing this book helped me learn so much about Cambodia on a spiritual and emotional level. It’s also very much about my mother. Lulu came into being one morning when I woke up and found myself crying and cleaning the floor – something I rarely do – and something I’ve never done together! It took me awhile to figure out why I did that: why I was crying when I have such a great life? What I finally realized then was that in one year I was going to outlive my mother; she died when she was 39. And in my mind, I’d always thought that as long as she was alive at this age, at my age, she could exist in another place, living out her life perhaps in a parallel universe. And in this way, we could still be connected, talk to each other, be in each other’s lives.

But what happens to this connection when her lifeline ends? As a daughter, I feared I would lose her all over again, so I began to dig into her story, to learn about her life not only as my mother, my father’s wife, but as a woman, a fully formed human person. The search for my mother really drove me to explore more about the role of who we are as women, who we are as part of the human race. It turned out to be a fun project that I really enjoyed. I think Lulu reflects this; so it’s a lighter story, more hopeful, and humorous. I went into it because of pain, a delayed separation anxiety about losing my mother again. I came out of this journey full of hope and gratitude for a mother’s love, the human heart, and the generosity of people to assist one another in our times of need. [… click here for more]

Author interview: Feature: “An Interview with Loung Ung,”, June 2012

Readers: Young Adult, Adult

Published: 2012

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The Road of Lost Innocence: The True Story of a Cambodian Heroine by Somaly Mam

Before you open Somaly Mam‘s astonishing memoir, you need to be prepared to bear witness to some of the most horrific acts a human being can commit against another, especially helpless young girls. Once you begin, the frank, unmitigated writing will not allow you to turn away. Once you’re finished, Mam’s miraculous resilience will draw you in to join her fight – for life.

Somaly Mam doesn’t know when she was born. She doesn’t remember her birthparents, who left her to be raised by her maternal grandmother in a remote forest village, home to “an old tribe of mountain people” – an ethnic minority group in Cambodia. At 9 or 10, a man claiming to be her grandfather took her away, eventually arriving at what he claimed was her father’s ancestral village. “Grandfather” proves to be cruel and abusive, keeping her as his servant slave.

But in the new village, Mam finds temporary refuge with the kind village schoolteacher who tells her that she is his brother’s daughter. He is the person who gives her her name: ‘Somaly’ meaning “The Necklace of Flowers Lost in the Virgin Forest,” and ‘Mam’ because he claims her – and, unlike almost everyone else, always treats her – as his valued, respected, true family.

In spite of a bond with the Mam family that remains strong even today, Mam’s childhood respite does not last long. At 12, she is sent to be brutally raped to pay Grandfather’s debts. At 14 she is married off to a violent soldier with whom she experiences only misery. When he disappears, Grandfather sells her to a brothel where submission in the only way to survive the endless hell.

A Swiss humanitarian worker is the first to help Mam out of sexual slavery; while Mam writes about him with nothing but admiration, the fact that he initially hires her as a teenage prostitute is one disturbing fact impossible to overlook. Through sheer will and impossible energy, Mam not only gets out … she miraculously helps many, many others to freedom, rehabilitation, and new life.

Mam wrote this book in hopes that “it will stop me from having to tell my story over and over again, because repeating it is very difficult.” In it are people, places, memories that she “never want[s] to have to talk about … again … [i]t makes me vomit.” And yet because “one day I may no longer be here … I want everyone to know what is happening to the women of Cambodia.”

She insists, “My story isn’t important. The point is not what happened to me. I write my story to shed light on the lives of so many thousands of other women. They have no voice, so let this one life stand for their stories. On their behalf, I would like this book to serve as a call to the governments of the world to get involved in the battle against the sexual exploitation of women and children.” Join her call to (open, waiting, hopeful) arms:

Readers: Adult

Published: 2008 (United States)

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World and Town by Gish Jen

Hattie Kong’s email inbox is full of desperate pleas from various relatives to please send back her parents’ bones to the family plot in Qufu, China. Because her American missionary mother and her Confucius-descended Chinese father found their final rest in Iowa, the remaining Kong family members are convinced that all manner of unfortunate events – from anorexia to useless boyfriends to even a four-wheel-drive vehicle getting stuck – are a direct result of her parents’ afterlife estrangement from their Kong ancestors, never mind that Hattie’s late mother is actually reposed in her hometown. “‘Hogwash,'” continues to be Hattie’s reply.

At 68, Hattie is mostly alone. Born and raised in China, she landed in the U.S. as a teenager and stayed. She recently lost her husband and best friend, one after the other; her one son lives in Hong Kong, while she lives with her dogs in upstate New York. She’s retired from her biology teaching job, she has a few friends whom she meets to walk and eat. She paints although not necessarily well.

When a Cambodian family arrives with a trailer – thanks to a local church group – just beyond her backyard, Hattie takes cookies and delivers their kitchen drawer (which only Hattie seemed to notice when it fell out during the move). Hattie’s rescue mission is just beginning. The traumatized parents and the older son are survivors of Cambodia’s Killing Fields; their American-born daughter Sophy has a troubled past all her own.

As Hattie adjusts her daily routines to accommodate her new neighbors, Hattie’s heart relives old challenges when her first love, Carter, appears in town. Suddenly her controlled, well-regulated life is anything but … and she must fight old friends, electronic intrusions, God Squad, and even her own ‘Hattie-is-batty’-doubts to somehow regain her crumbling balance.

In spite of moments of clever buoyancy, Gish Jen‘s fourth novel (six years after The Love Wife) seems much … well … heavier than her others. Hattie’s self-absorption, too often mixed with self-pity, becomes weighty baggage over the almost-400 pages. As I was plodding through the final chapters, my mother proudly, even gleefully announced (on the Fourth of July, of all days), that she had finally finished Jen’s debut, Typical American, with delighted enjoyment. Shockingly, that book is already two decades old … and I must admit, I found myself longing for those whimsical, exasperated, hysterical days of Jen’s ‘typical’ youth …

Readers: Adult

Published: 2010

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The Clay Marble by Minfong Ho

Twelve-year-old Dara, her older brother, and their mother are the only ones left of their once-large family. Although the Vietnam War officially ended in 1975, neighboring Cambodia – decimated by Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge regime – is still plagued with uncontrolled violence. Dara’s diminished family flees their village to a refugee camp on the Thai-Cambodian border, where they find a near-instant connection with another splintered family.

Dara is especially drawn to Jantu, one year older, whose remarkable talent for creating dolls, toys, whole imaginative worlds out of almost nothing – even muddy clay! – binds the two girls tightly together. When both families are forced to flee yet again, Dara, Jantu, and her injured little brother become separated in the chaos. Fueled by the magic Dara believes Jantu has blown into a special clay marble, Dara tenaciously struggles to reunite both parts of her new family.

Minfong Ho‘s preface reveals her own personal journey guided by a magical clay marble, when she temporarily left college to volunteer with an international relief agency, setting up feeding programs for children in Thai-Cambodian border refugee camps. “I remember my first day at the Border,” she writes. “There are no words to describe the intensity of suffering I saw there. … I wanted to shut my eyes, turn around, and go back home.” But she didn’t.

What kept Ho from leaving was “a ragged little girl,” who offered her “a small round ball of mud”  … complete with “a beautiful wide smile.” The laughter of the children that gathered around made Ho see that these refugees were “not the victims of war but its victors.” Although Ho doesn’t know what happened to the little girl – “life could not have been easy for her” – she can still “hope with all [her] heart that the little girl who gave [her] that first clay marble is safe and happy, home in Cambodia.”

Perhaps the spirit of that smiling little girl lives in on Dara’s story, a lingering magic that gives her the strength and determination to continue to survive … and decades later, to thrive.

Readers: Middle Grade

Published: 1991

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Roots and Wings by Many Ly

Born and raised in a small Pennsylvania town, the only connection 14-year-old Grace has to her Cambodian heritage are her mother and her grandmother. While these three generations of women clearly need and love one another, they are uncertain as to how to truly know each other.

When Grace’s grandmother Naree dies unexpectedly, her mother Chandra decides she will be the dutiful daughter she wasn’t when her mother was alive, and take her mother’s ashes back to St. Petersburg, Florida. Fourteen year ago, Chandra and Naree fled their tight Cambodian American community without a single explanation to anyone, including longtime companions with whom Naree shared a childhood in Cambodia, and with whom she somehow survived the brutal Khmer Rouge. Mother and daughter settled where no one would know them, where Chandra became a teacher, and fatherless Grace was raised without a past.

Now suddenly in St. Petersburg, Grace and Chandra are welcomed by most with open arms, especially by Naree’s closest, oldest friend Oum Palla and her two sons. As Chandra prepares for Naree’s traditional Cambodian funeral (and assuage some of her burdensome guilt), Grace sees an opportunity to learn more about her own past, including who her unnamed father might be. By connecting with the family’s scattered roots, Grace (and Chandra) will finally be ready to understand, forgive, and ultimately release those waiting wings …

Ly’s bicultural coming-of-age story of self-discovery contrasts teenage innocence with the worst of generations-old scars of war. Alas, Ly’s debut title, Home is East, is definitely the more memorable read. Moments (pages!) devoted to self-pity ultimately mar what could have been a powerful experience of multi-generational transforming change.

Readers: Middle Grade, Young Adult

Published: 2008

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Filed under ..Middle Grade Readers, ..Young Adult Readers, .Fiction, Cambodian, Cambodian American, Southeast Asian, Southeast Asian American