Cambodian-American poet Sokunthary Svay is tired of hearing about the Khmer Rouge. After concluding a yearlong review of Cambodian literature available in English, Svay found that nearly every accessible text about the country of her birth concerned either Angkor Wat, the ancient Angkorian Kingdom, the Khmer Rouge, or memoirs written by Cambodians who survived the Khmer Rouge’s genocidal purges.
In her first full-length collection of poetry, Svay explores these remarkable and complex aspects of Cambodian and Cambodian American lives. Her distinctive voice blends an identity rooted in Cambodia’s complicated past with contemporary ideas about Khmer traditions, refugees, and the trauma of exile in a way that’s original and vitally important to both the Cambodian and the American experience.
Tillman Miller: What kind of experience did you and your family have leaving Cambodia and settling in the United States?
Sokunthary Svay: I wasn’t born until after my family left Cambodia, so I was spared that experience. My parents don’t really like to talk about it, and that’s a common theme for Cambodian refugees. What bits I know are from the random times that my father has spoken about it, and I put it in my book: how they crossed through the jungle; how at one point, during monsoon season, they were stuck for three days and couldn’t walk anywhere; how when they were crossing the border into the Thai refugee camps, some people were led either by Thai pirates or former Khmer Rouge members to a field filled with landmines. They led these people to their death. A lot of dark stuff. Even in the camps themselves, my mom had told me that often soldiers would drive by at night and they would pick on people. My mom had said that my crying kept the soldiers away, so I’d saved her life. I remember crying on a New York City street thinking, I saved my mother’s life by crying in Thailand.
TM: Many young Cambodian Americans have written about how they’ve had to wrestle with inherited trauma. Can you speak more about this?
SS: The term “inheriting trauma” is kind of a big thing right now in certain writing communities, but for me it was the way that my parents responded to how they were living in the Bronx: the fear that they had, the mistrust. That’s what I had inherited. I felt like that was how we were supposed to be. For example, we didn’t open our door. If someone came to the door and they were unannounced, we would look out the keyhole but we would almost never open it up. Sometimes we would pretend we weren’t even there. We had ten locks on our door. There were two big chains that we put Master locks on and an alarm. That was just the atmosphere of the Bronx in the 1980s.
As refugees you’re always trying to help out other refugees, so we invited another family to live with us. They lived in our bedroom — it was two parents and their newborn — and the five members of my family lived in the living room. I can’t remember how long that was for, but it just seemed normal to us: that this was how people grew up.
Read Tillman Miller’s interview with Sokunthary Svay on Electric Literature.
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