The Cambodian American Writers Who Are Reimagining Cambodian Literature
5 writers discuss subverting conventions and writing against the trauma narrative
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When I was a kid, the school librarian chased me down the hall with a book in her hand: First They Killed My Father, a memoir by Loung Ung. Like many Cambodian Americans of the 1.5 and second generation, I read survival literature to piece together my history––an important turning point for me as I navigated familial silence around the Khmer Rouge regime. But what if the librarian ran after me to give me a graphic novel about a Khmer girl who lived on the moon? What if she handed me a book about a queer Khmer boy living in Phnom Penh whose dream was to dance? A book with a different story?
The literature written by Cambodian diaspora often reflects the collective trauma rendered by the genocide that took place forty-four years ago, along with the urgency to heal. This storytelling is necessary. But sometimes I worry that the world reduces Cambodians, tokenizing my people inside a trauma narrative. How do we complicate our stories? How do we reimagine Cambodian American literature to include themes such as urbanism or sex or humor––themes that move away from the genocide?
By now, we are familiar with the image of the lotus which grows from mud. It is a metaphor we Cambodians use to empower ourselves and to hold onto our heritage. We may also be familiar with the image of shadows, which suggests the question, How do you escape the trauma of genocide? There is no way to undo history. We cannot outrun the genocide, even if we never lived through it ourselves. But we can dream and radically imagine the possibilities of our people beyond trauma. I believe the Cambodian narrative is ready to get out of the mud, to transmogrify the lotus into something as unexpected as snow. I believe there are Cambodian American writers, artists, and creators who are doing this now.
This past March, I was lucky to be part of an event called “How to (Not) Write About Genocide,” a reading and discussion that took place in Portland, Oregon with Angela So, Sokunthary Svay, Danny Thanh Nguyen, and Anthony Veasna So. It was the first time Cambodian American writers convened for a panel at an AWP Conference. With backgrounds in fiction, poetry, comics, and opera, we began with a discussion on craft, about breaking literary conventions––and even the expectations of our parents. We talked about how we resist a white publishing industry that eats up trauma, how to both honor the history we’ve inherited from our families and our own experiences in diaspora. What you can’t hear is how much we laughed while listening to one another talk about the growing imagination of Cambodian American literature.
Angela So: What literary conventions do you find yourself needing to break the most to write about Cambodian Americans? To what extent do you think you need to subvert conventional writing to tell our stories?
Anthony Veasna So: The thing that I always find dumb in workshop is, “Oh we need to make this character more complex, blah blah blah…” I always try to not write individualistic characters from like, an individualistic place, if that makes sense. I very much think that it’s a trap to sort of try to do away with all stereotypes, which seems good because stereotypes are bad… but then there’s a way in which sometimes you do that to the point that it’s like, “Oh, I’m this pure individual and like, I’m so great” and that’s just not the way I grew up in Stockton. That’s why I write characters that are like the famous singer––in my community, everyone just goes by whatever family business and then whether they are the son or daughter, like I’m “West Lane Brake and Tune Son” and someone else is like “Superking Grocery Store Daughter” or something like that, right… so I don’t know, I feel like individualistic notions are antithetical to the type of community I grew up in, so when I’m writing, I try to create new archetypes that represent people we can look toward. I feel like everyone needs a famous singer that can come in and serenade everyone and is uplifting.
Monica Sok: I find that in workshop, for example–– that I don’t get the feedback I necessarily need, as a daughter of genocide survivors writing actively about the Cambodian American narrative. Maybe it’s just that I don’t trust spaces that have historically excluded us and still do, or maybe it’s just that I want to protect my work from the white gaze and whatever conventions that gaze reinforces. I realize that intergenerationality is very important in my poems and in a lot of our works, you know. “Intergenerational” not just in the sense of our inherited traumas––but also heartbreak or love or tenderness. Things like that. I’m constantly trying to break this “conventional” idea that we have no feelings or that people of color only write about trauma. Sometimes white people talk about Cambodians, reducing them to just the trauma––
AVS: Yeah, like we’re so stoic. [laughs]
MS: ––or just the killing fields. They say, “You’re so resilient.” And sometimes they say it in the cheapest sense of the word. We know our people are resilient, but there are so many dimensions of what it means to be Cambodian American. Intergenerationality apart from trauma is something I’ve been really thinking about a lot.
Sokunthary Svay: I’m just trying to keep from being bored. I have a real big interest in audience since I have a background as a performer, as a musician and as a singer, so one: I want to make sure that people are able to understand, in whatever way that means. And then also to enjoy it because you don’t want to take advantage of an audience like when someone takes the time out, to sit there and listen to you, it’s such an honor… and I never ever want to abandon that. I don’t want to put my art above people; I’m trying to take it somewhere with whomever is listening. I’m not good with genres. I’m not good with boxes so that’s why I’m working in multiple genres, and I think my dream is just to write whatever I want for the next book. It recently occurred to me that I can put anything on the page that I want. And that’s a huge revelation for me, because I always felt that I had to––based on my parents––be a certain way if I wanted something. It’s that very strict causal relationship, right? You know like: “Do this, so you can _____.” You know? “Work this way so that you don’t have to stand up all the time like we do.” Or, “You should get a job. Go to school, so you can get a job where you can sit down.” That was their goal for me.
But now it’s like, how can I get opportunities that I would not otherwise have? That’s just the hustle. If I see some kind of opportunity that has money, I go and I apply for it. And that’s what you all should do. Don’t feel like you are above it. And I don’t believe in the straight path. I’m a PhD student now — I have a 12-year old daughter, and I’m gonna be 39 this year. I definitely did not take the straight path. And since I’m not good at the straight path, I think that’s the way I’m breaking out of it because my mom had an arranged marriage at 15. And she doesn’t know life outside of taking care of her family, and I vowed that I was gonna be the opposite of that. So for me, it’s about breaking away from what I’ve seen in the household.
AS: So I thought a really long time about what I wanted to read because I feel like it’s a conversation of who I am as a Cambodian American. And when I was in grad school it was a lot about, trying to see myself on the page, the things I didn’t see as a kid. And then this piece is kind of a dystopian speculative novel about the second Dust Bowl and it came because I wanted to ask myself the thing that I can’t really write about directly––which is why I write fiction––which is like writing about what it means to be a refugee, and so for me the dust storm lets me imagine what it means to be a refugee in your own country and that’s the question I want to investigate because it’s a question, and I do it in this way, because I can’t do it directly, because it’s too emotional and it’s not a place that I can access yet.
Growing up, my mom would say, “One day you’ll write my stories because I know you’re a writer.” And I was like Oh and even sometimes just us talking, we don’t have a shared language so for her to say that is really––like I want to do that but I don’t know how and so I’m trying to write in this new so-called genre. And also as a person of color, living in a scary world full of anxiety all the time, I got to find the best way to talk about that because there’s not a lot of people of color in speculative work so that’s why I chose to read something that is very, very new which is scary for me because I don’t know if it’ll ever be finished but that’s how I feel right now.
DTN: So something that might be a little different about my experiences from other folks on the panel is that I’m mixed. My mother is Vietnamese and my dad is the mixed one, so he’s actually––so my paternal grandmother is from Châu Đốc which is a city on the border of what is modern-day Vietnam and Cambodia but what is traditionally called Khmer Krom, which is a southern region of what used to be Cambodia and has been annexed by the Vietnamese. And essentially the Khmer Krom were an indigenous river tribe. And so a lot of what I think of conventions… I actually do not know what conventional storytelling and narratives are, just because a lot of the ideas of genocide isn’t actually coming from… My paternal side isn’t related to the Khmer Rouge but rather how indigenous groups within Southeast Asia are colonized and occupied by other folks… And a lot of the literature that I find really inspiring and lean into and learn from, that I would think is staking out new conventions, are gonna be actually literature from authors who are also indigenous Southeast Asian. Folks I find kinship with are Hmong writers, Cham writers, folks who are incidentally like people that my mom’s side of the family raped and pillaged… so that’s something else. The Mien, the Hmong, the Khmer Krom are some of the smallest ethnic enclaves or ethnic groups within North America out of all the Asian ethnic groups. So it’s very small. It’s very unknown. And it’s just now that like, small celebrities are starting to pop up. Like Mai Der Vang obviously, who is a pretty established poet. Anyways, so there’s that.
Other kinds of convention, and using my piece as a jumping off point, let’s just say I like talking about stuff that would make my parents really ashamed. And that includes sex and drugs and rock and roll. So yeah, but then that in itself has conventions, so I try to write about stuff that has sex or is sex-adjacent, but is not necessarily sexy? I don’t think anybody is gonna get off to anything that I write and I hope not just because I don’t really like writing about moist noises. That being said, I think that trying to write about something really dire and creepy and downright traumatic and trying to make it funny, that’s something that’s really important to me. I’m working on a collection of nonfiction essays right now and it’s all about trying to find parallels between Southeast Asian trauma with queer trauma and at the same time trying to make sure that it’s, like, comedic.
AS: Implicitly that question––especially when you talk about conventions––is it like conventions by whom? And constructed by whom? And it seems like it’s conventions constructed by a white publishing industry. But basically no one is trying to write into expectations in their own way, to create that sense of complexity in the way that we see it in our communities which is really amazing, and I personally think that all the humor that was in everyone’s reading was beautiful. Because I think the only narratives that are commonly known are like memoirs of what happened to people during the Khmer Rouge, which doesn’t allow a lot of laughter.
AVS: I mean my parents are constantly joking about the genocide. I was like 5 years old and they were like, “Well, at least Pol Pot’s not here you know.”
SS: Oh, I got one. I got one. My mom was like, “You know, your brother––he loves to eat rice. He was so fat during Pol Pot, he would cry and beg for rice––” and she was laughing about it.
AVS: Yeah, my mom came home from work one day and was like, “I hate my job. I always find myself in regimes. Why is this always happening to me?” Haha.
SS: I remember that particular afternoon my dad said, “One day, I tell you my story and you gonna write a book.” And I felt like, Oh f***, I have to dictate this book? And it took me many years of soul searching and reading all those very tragic, devastating memoirs, I call it survival memoirs or survival literature, and then I thought Damn, I want to write my own damn story. A story about how I relate to my parents. Like, that’s the contribution that I can make. And also, I was reflecting on what you said Angela, about using fiction as a way to explore the feelings around the issues of identity you otherwise would not want to deal with directly. And I know a Chinese American writer who feels the exact same way. She’s based in Queens but she’s like yeah, I can’t write nonfiction, fiction is my way of going around those very tough emotions.
AS: So the hard part for me in writing nonfiction is, I don’t know if any of you feel this way… is that it feels like secrets that I shouldn’t share. I have many feelings, and it’s strange because my parents can’t read English so it’s not like they’re going to be able to read it either so there’s a weird relationship. Like they’re so happy for me but they can’t really experience this with me, which makes it really tragic although my mom did say I need to write a screenplay so she can watch it and then make the Hollywood money.
MS: Are we talking about writing into expectations? I’ve talked to each of you at some point about how we might feel pressure to write and represent Cambodian people. We know we’re not the first Cambodian writers ever. There are so many. Our people are storytellers. There was so much Khmer literature and oral storytelling even before the Khmer Rouge, so we have to understand that and also speak about that. We’re not just reducing our community’s narrative to the killing fields, to the Khmer Rouge.
And along survival memoirs or other writing around Cambodia, there’s so much out there labeled, “In the shadows of this, in the shadows of that…” Nostalgia. I think that nostalgia is something that our people are also obsessed with because when we think about the golden age, or the glory days we still think about the ‘60s and particularly, we think about Sinn Sisamouth or Ros Sereysothea… and these are things that many of us write about, you know, because it’s what we’ve grown up with. It’s also what we’ve inherited, but it doesn’t just stop there. I don’t know. I’ve had someone say to me, “There are no Khmer writers writing in the way they did back in the glory days…” and I’m like, What do you mean? You know? There are so many of us today who are just being who we are. There’s no one way to be Khmer either. And that’s another thing I was curious about. Danny, I would love to hear what you have to say to this question too… but just another thing: Sokunthary is from the Bronx, Anthony’s from Stockton, Angela is from Houston, I’m from Lancaster, Danny’s from the Bay Area. Diaspora: There’s this understanding that there’s no one way to be Cambodian.
DTN: So another thing I’m really inspired by with my writing is the community work that I do. So I currently work for an organization called the Asian & Pacific Islander American Health Forum, we are a national policy-based organization that does health advocacy for Asians, Pacific Islanders, and Native Hawaiians. I’ve been doing a lot of work within policy and health and wellness for Asian communities in the United States. And something to what Monica’s saying, “There’s no one way to be Khmer…” I think there’s absolutely no one way and at the same time, what makes Khmer folks and other Southeast Asian refugee communities so unique compared to other Asian American communities is that we have a higher poverty rate. We have higher incarceration rates. Right now we’re dealing with issues around fucking ICE with deportation. With folks who are straight up American but just don’t have the papers for it. These are consequences of what our migration patterns across the globe looks like. How did we end up in the United States? There’s a story there. And it’s stamped by a uniqueness that sets us apart from other Asian ethnic groups and all the kinds of pride and privileges and oppression that comes with that, that I think there’s a little bit of a pressure to write about that for me. And at the same time, I’m like, okay, I know luckily the pressure is kind of dispersed across other folks, and at the same time––again, we’re not the largest Asian ethnic enclave in the United States at all. And so, I don’t know how to end that but it’s somewhat concerning.
MS: I feel the pressure to continue to affirm our narrative. When I see a Khmer person, I just want to say, I see you. You know? The pressure to me––but it’s not really a pressure, it’s also a pleasure––is to build community, to recognize one another. I wore my sarong in the middle of nowhere in California at a farmer’s market. I wore it outside, because I was just gonna roll out of bed, go to the farmer’s market and get some things. And some Ming shouted, “Hey oun! I see you with your sarong!” And I thought, Oh my gosh. From her stand, she said, “It’s okay! Nobody knows!” But I just said, “But you know! You saw me!” And it’s this feeling of recognition. It just means so much to me. I mean, I grew up feeling very isolated as a Cambodian girl in Lancaster, and so this panel is special because anything that we shared, any of the stories, poems––you know, like I’m so excited for Sokunthary’s opera next year. And just navigating, what you said Angela, navigating what it’s like to be a refugee in your own country, which is part of what we’ve inherited. I feel like we’re refugees from our families. You know what I mean? Survival memoirs, the survival literature before us are by refugees from Cambodia’s killing fields. But the second generation, and 1.5 generation, right… we’re refugees from our families in a way.
AS: How do you negotiate that question of the audience and what’s a stereotype and what’s a complexity when in reality––especially in the publishing industry––it’s mostly white people. Anyone?
SS: Well, I do a lot of persona poems in various family members’ voices, and I realize that there’s some people, probably some East Asians who feel that’s a sort of minstrelism and I don’t really care, frankly. It’s taken me about twenty years to get to a place where I can say these are real experiences, and this is a real person so you know… you can come for me, and I’m ready. I’m just not going to apologize for that, you know. See my shoes? Hot red shoes, I will stomp on you.
MS: You don’t want her to stomp on you.
SS: Unfortunately, that’s the compromise, you know. Otherwise, you’re just writing in your journal and you’re gonna read it to yourself. That’s totally cool. But um, I think that there’s always going to be, for me, a performative aspect. And I really like that. Part of what I want is that I want to entertain. In addition to that, there are poems that I write that I won’t share with people that just take me to these places that I feel like… I can’t breathe, you know? And those are things that I won’t share.
MS: There’s a way to be who you are and to push your work into a space that allows you to continue to be who you are no matter who’s in the audience. To continue to be the most authentic version of who you are as a Khmer person, you know. I think that’s really important: to value your own authenticity as a Cambodian person, but to not be tokenized in a space. You never want to play into tokenization. But there are so many ways in which I find myself in spaces where I’m always tokenized. But… I got boundaries and I try not to let these distractions get to me.
AVS: I mean, I think it’s also about learning to recognize when the audience asks a question and they really mean something else. You know what I’m saying?
Like there’s a genuine question where the audience wants to connect with you, and then there’s the question that’s like, “I don’t understand and that’s your fault.” And I’m like, No you’re just dumb. I don’t know. I feel like people are always just like: “Your characters are too smart.” And I’m like, my family came here as refugees and all my cousins still made it to colleges like UC Berkeley, and I’m like, I’m sorry. I just don’t know what dumb is. I’m sorry that you do. Right? But it’s also just more about recognizing what the actual question is that some people are asking of you. Like, “Oh I don’t understand this, please explain it to me.” Often times, that’s what they’re asking. I’m like just Google it. Or like, “You’re making me feel uncomfortable because I thought that I was oppressed.” I’m like, I don’t care about your problems. I don’t understand how your problems are in my story. But like, you get what I’m saying? Being a writer and stuff like that, you’re constantly seeing what people are actually asking when they come to you.
Danny Thanh Nguyen’s short stories and personal essays have appeared in The Journal, South Dakota Review, Entropy, Foglifter, New Delta Review, Gulf Coast, and other magazines. He is editor of AS IS, an anthology of Vietnamese American art and literature. Danny is currently a Kundiman Fellow, VONA, and Lambda Literary Fellow. He is working on a collection of short fiction, a memoir told in essays, and a social media persona project he calls “Sluterary Thirsterature” on Instagram: @engrishlessons.
Angela So is a Cambodian-American writer with an MFA in fiction from The Ohio State University. Her prose has been published in Glimmer Train, Houston Chronicle, Day One, and The Pinch. She has received fellowships from Kundiman and the Vermont Studio Center. Currently, she is the Communications Manager at Writers in the Schools and serves on the Kundiman Junior Board.
Anthony Veasna So is a queer boy, a Cambodian-American son of former refugees, and a graduate of Stanford University. His prose and comics have appeared in n+1, Hobart, Ninth Letter, and elsewhere. Currently, he is a Prose Editor for The Adroit Journal, a PD Soros Fellow, and an MFA Candidate in Fiction at Syracuse University, where he was awarded a University Fellowship and the Joyce Carol Oates Award for Fiction.
Monica Sok is a Cambodian American poet and the daughter of former refugees. She is the author of Year Zero, winner of a Poetry Society of America Chapbook Fellowship. Her work has been recognized with a “Discovery” Prize from 92Y. Other honors include fellowships from Hedgebrook, Elizabeth George Foundation, National Endowment for the Arts, Kundiman, Jerome Foundation, and others. Currently, Sok is a 2018-2020 Stegner Fellow at Stanford University and a Poet-in-Residence at Banteay Srei in Oakland. Her debut poetry collection A Nail the Evening Hangs On is forthcoming from Copper Canyon Press in 2020.
Sokunthary Svay was born in a refugee camp in Thailand shortly after her parents fled Cambodia after the fall of the Khmer Rouge regime. They resettled in the Bronx where she grew up. She is poetry editor for Newtown Literary, founding member of the Cambodian American Literary Arts Association (CALAA), the recipient of the American Opera Projects’ Composer and the Voice Fellowship for 2017-19, and the 2018 Emerging Poets Fellowship at Poets House. Her poetry collection, Apsara in New York, is available from Willow Books. She is currently a doctoral student in English at the The Graduate Center, CUNY and writing the libretto for an opera in collaboration with composer Liliya Ugay, to premiere at the Kennedy Center in January 2020.