Creative Storytelling

Poetry of Memories: The Retelling of Cambodia’s Past

I was laying in bed one day scrolling through Instagram, lost in the endless stories that have me so addicted to my phone. I skipped some and lingered on others, navigating the echo chamber of social media like a pro before coming across my local bookstore’s account. They were sharing books to read while their doors were temporarily closed due to Coronavirus. A vibrant yellow and blue cover with the words, A Nail The Evening Hangs On, caught my eye; it was a book of poetry -- a rare purchase for me, but the nod to the poet’s Cambodian history pulled me right in.

I ended up reading the entire collection in one sitting and wrote to the author, Monica Sok, immediately (although first and foremost I tagged her in an Instagram story like the millennial I am). We chatted on Instagram, then via email, the phone, and then Zoom. We have a lot in common - we are both creatives that work with our family history and we both use art to formulate questions and reckon with answers about a past we only know through inherited memories. We spoke about how we both perceive ourselves as professional observers in a sense — observers of history, of past wars, of how trauma forms identity. And, we were both quarantining alone, cohabitating only with our thoughts, and with the written word.

I shared with her that my favorite of her poems was ‘Self-Portrait as War Museum Captions.’ I read to her the words she wrote:

A daughter of survivors stands in the grass among tattered military tanks. She is the only one in her family who wants to visit the museum. Siem Reap, Cambodia. Nov 2016.

I too have wrapped myself inside the world of my own family’s war-torn history. In my case it’s the Holocaust.

Another stanza that struck me from Monica’s book was from her poem titled Tuol Sleng, named for the most notorious torture center used by the Khmer Rouge regime during the genocide. The site is a former school; somewhere between 14,000 and 17,000 Cambodians were detained there and fewer than 15 people survived.

Monica writes:

I come here with my six-year-old nephew, Ratanak, and two neighborhood girls. My nephew sprints down the halls, ducks his head into every classroom, then off again as though he hears a school bell ring. “You see that boy running the halls?” A tourist says to another tourist. “Does he have any respect for history?”

Monica’s words — her art — was the inspiration for my deep dive into the collection of Cambodian Genocide survivor testimonies in USC Shoah Foundation’s Visual History Archive. These oral histories transport me into another world and another perspective, a wider one. It’s as if a survivor’s words, their testimony is its own art -- interpretive and reflective. The Cambodian testimonies sit alongside thousands of others from genocides around the world. These testimonies taught me not only the history of that particular time, in that particular place, but perhaps more importantly, gave me context and an emotional touch point for an experience that I am just starting to learn about. The survivor’s words helped me better understand Monica’s poetry. They became a bridge of sorts, connecting me to a peer, someone of my generation; the survivors helped me better understand Monica’s living history, and the history of so many others like her.

“Throughout the years I have heard many stories from relatives and because I want so much to own those stories,
it’s sometimes difficult [to know] how much of those stories come from my personal memory
and how much of the stories are the recollections of others which I have adapted as my own story.”

— Theary Seng, Cambodian Genocide Survivor

I have formed a tradition of sorts for how I watch testimony — herbal tea next to me, a puzzle in front of me and a document opened on my laptop to jot down notes, quotes and timestamps. Sometimes I won’t take a note throughout the entire interview and simply familiarize myself with someone’s story. Other times, I can’t stop writing their words. This was the case with Theary Seng; a woman who, when she recorded her testimony in 2011, was not so much older than I am now.

Seng used phrases that were poetic in the call and response of retelling her own history. Seng talked of being a child living in Cambodia’s capital city and being the only girl in a family of five. She was the second youngest child and only four-years-old on April 17, 1975 when the murderous Khmer Rouge regime came to power in Cambodia. Within three days, more that two million people were evicted from the city that she knew as home. She spoke eloquently, with an emotionally driven matter-of-fact tone. “I had three more extra years with my mom,” she said. “I was four when my father was taken to be killed and I was 7, almost 8, when my mom was killed.”

“It’s still incomprehensible for me,” she said about her mother’s disappearance from the sleeping quarters where they were imprisoned. “How did the prisoners leave that cabin without waking me and my youngest brother? How did my mom untangle herself out of our embrace without waking us. They must have tip-toed to their death.”

‘They must have tip-toed to their death’ -- I must have replayed this statement half a dozen times, haunted by the idea of a mother staying silent as she let go of her child.

It reminded me of a line from Monica’s poetry. In a poem titled Sestina, she writes:

She closes her eyes. She disappears, pretends she’s the one who can fly. That sister so quiet. How does that sister stay quiet? Biting her lips she goes into hiding: between her teeth, the skin of a snake, hiding like a chasm in a field, a hole in the door to spy on the time…”

I spent hours going back and forth from Seng’s testimony in the archive, to Monica’s writings, finding meaningful connections. One story elevated the other. One generation gave context to the next. Their expressions of memory were poetic explorations of identity and interpretations of trauma.

• • •

The Cambodian Genocide took place between 1975 and 1979 and is often referred to as one of the greatest crimes of the 20th century. The Khmer Rouge regime, led by Pol Pot, was a fanatical Communist movement which sought to create a utopian agrarian society; they ruled through fear, intimidation and execution. Anyone who questioned authority risked death. Ethnic minorities were especially targeted, as were intellectuals, or any one appearing to be an intellectual. Wearing glasses or being able to speak a foreign language were often death sentences. Those who survived suffer memories of imprisonment, forced labor, thought control and the violent images of what was called ‘killing fields’ -- the sites throughout Cambodia where over a million people were ruthlessly murdered. Adding to the country’s collective pain is the decades long wait for justice. It took some 30 years before any of the architects of the genocide were convicted. Pol Pot never saw justice. He died before ever being charged.

Monica is second generation -- the child of survivors. She was born and raised in rural Pennsylvania not far from the other members of her mother’s family, all who were resettled in the United States in the early 1980s. In the living room of her late-grandmother’s house, there is a fireplace that has never been used. Above the fireplace is a mantle that holds family portraits, the visual memories of relatives Monica never met, the ones who were killed in the war. “One portrait is of my grandmother,” Monica told me. “The other is a photograph of my uncle Samon Yous... I describe this photo in my poem, Tuol Sleng.”

“I talk a lot about familial silence in my poetry and how that ties into intergenerational trauma and my own experiences,” Monica told me about her writing.

“How does it feel to put your story out there?” I asked her. “How does it feel to have those inner reflections now published and printed on pages that live on people’s bookshelves?”

“It gets uncomfortable when people do this trauma-gazing,” she said. “They want to talk to me about Cambodia and how sad it is. They want to talk about the tour guide they met when they went to Cambodia and how he lost his whole family. But, you know, every single Cambodian person has lost somebody and those Khmer people who were able to get out before the war, they have lost people to.”

Some of Monica’s family talks about the genocide, other’s don’t. This split of those who find comfort in retelling the past versus those who need silence is true for survivors of other genocides as well. “I really had to listen and pay attention,” she said about her mother’s memories. “Because I knew when [my mother] told me these things that they were stories she may not tell again... But, when I started to write I did have more questions and I would start to ask my family about it. And because I was older and they saw me writing, I felt like that meant something for them. It created meaning for them. To give space to their remembrance.”

Monica first traveled to Cambodia when she was 10-years-old. “When I went to Cambodia, I understood the landscape so much more. The mosquitoes bothered me and everything, but I remember feeling so at peace and at home. I felt like we belonged there and at the same time, I knew that we were also different because we are people of the diaspora.”

Monica’s sentiment about returning to Cambodia reminded me of something I heard in Theary Seng’s testimony. She, like Monica’s mother, was a child during the war and resettled as a refugee in America at a young age. She stated about her own dueling identities, “I am a product of two very different cultures and I am comfortable in both.”

Monica returned to Cambodia for a second time when she was 19. She enrolled in a year-long program in neighboring Vietnam and from there was able to do a field study in Cambodia. This too was something resonant from Seng’s testimony. Both women used their university years to study international relations as a way to investigate and deepen their understanding of the politics of their family history.

While abroad, Monica was active in trying to process her own experience as a Khmer woman in Vietnam -- a country that warred with Cambodia in the second half of the 1970s, eventually invading Cambodia at the end of 1978, contributing to the end of the genocide there. Monica’s mother was witness to this war between neighbors; she was born in a province along the border. Monica’s father was forced to fight with the Khmer Rouge against the Vietnamese during the end of the war. “I think that for him to recall his memories is tied to a kind of guilt,” Monica told me of her impressions of her father’s history. “He would tell me about when the Khmer Rouge fell and how the Vietnamese had come into the country. The history books will say that they liberated Cambodia from the Khmer Rouge, but they also invaded Cambodia so his stories were complicated. It was both a liberation and an invasion.”

Monica’s interest in global politics began playing a role in her poetry around this time. “I was learning the history between Cambodia and Vietnam… And, then when I went to Cambodia, I also felt that it was important to interrogate my Americanness -- my American privilege -- in that context as well,” she said. “My upbringing was so different from the upbringing of my cousins in Phnom Penh.”

Towards the end of our Zoom conversation, Monica and I began talking about the desire to write about the simple moments in life -- the good moments that don’t seem complex, at least not on the surface. We talked about ice cream and walks in our neighborhoods, bike rides, and sitting by a lake. She showed off her new plants and I introduced her to the dog I was fostering. “I’m thinking about the artists and intellectuals and writers and dancers and musicians who were targeted during the Khmer Rouge regime,” she told me. “I know that being a daughter of survivors and being a writer and a poet, it means something... I owe it to my Khmer ancestors who I never knew and never met to figure out what it means to thrive and what it means to create joy.”

Rachael Cerrotti

Rachael Cerrotti is an award-winning photographer, writer, and educator. She is the creator and host of the We Share The Same Sky Podcast and has a forthcoming memoir by the same name set to be published in Fall 2021. You can reach her at: rachaelcerrotti@gmail.com.