GENERATION “VOICES” OF THE KHMER DIASPORA
Generation Magazine is an up and coming publication that seeks to engage with Khmer diasporic communities to establish a thriving network of creatives who are approaching their pasts, cultures,and identities with a fresh perspective. Rather than solely popularizing genocidal narratives, the publication hopes acknowledge Khmer histories while also bringing to light to contemporary experiences, topics, and voices. Featuring artists from California to Minnesota to Cambodia itself, Generation Magazine intends to start conversations across old and new Khmer generations in order to allow the community to heal, reflect, and move forward.
Graphic Designer : Long Nguyen is a young man from Ho Chi Minh city, Vietnam who loves taking pictures, dancing, filming, taking naps and eating good food. IG: @ell.thang
Videographer: Jonathan Goh is a half-Khmer and half-Singaporean sad Asian-American boi who grew up in Houston, Texas. Having graduated with a degree in Cultural Anthropology from Macalester College, his personal work focuses on translating the social innovation within marginalized communities into inclusive urban development practices. Heâ€™s still trying to figure out what it means to be Asian-American-but he knows he likes boba IG: @mister.goh
Assistant Photographer/Editor: Malvika Shankar is an artist from Bangalore, India, who graduated from Macalester College with a degree in Philosophy & Critical Theory. Her art focuses on empowering people through the celebration of who they are. She loves orchestrating moments that bring to life the essence of oneâ€™s identity through mixed-media artforms, and enjoys the process that makes all the magic happen just as much - if not more - than the final product. She is glad to be part of Generation Magazine. IG: @malvikashankar
CREDITS Founder/Editor in Chief/ Creative Director: Michael Khuth is gay khmer kid born and raised in Rochester, Minnesota. Nearing his last year at Macalester College, Michael hopes to continue his passion for visual storytelling through photography and magazine work. When he’s not stressing, Michael is most likely listening to saint by blood orange or eating pad thai/his yeay’s salaw machu kroeung. IG: @bbyyyboy
Literary Editor: Suenary Philavanh is an aspiring writer from Rochester, Minnesota. Her half-Laotian and half-Khmer identities shape the way she understands her “Americanness.” While finishing her B.A. in International Studies at the University of Minnesota Duluth, Suenary is working on expanding her portfolio in Journalism. She loves long walks along Lake Superior and finding substitutes to make Khmer-influenced food in her college apartment. She hopes to improve her Khmer so she can understand and pass down her grandmother’s stories. IG: @suenarii
Event Manager: Bina Johnson is a Khmer artist yearning to delve deeper into her cultural history and help strengthen her cultures future. You can find her binging tv shows with her cats or watching horror movies with her baby cousins. While currently studying film, graphic design and communications, Bina is especially passionate about caring for animals. Her future goals are to empower her community and facilitate intercultural connections between contrasting groups of people. IG: @binajohnson
Printer: BookMobile Submission and inquiries:
Instagram: @khmergenmagazine Online issue available at:
INDEX LETTER FROM THE EDITOR
FAMILY PHOTO ALBUM: MICHAEL KHUTH
APSARA &ROOTS AND BRANCHES: BINA JOHNSON LOSS: THE DESIRE TO FEEL WHOLE: SANARY PHEN & CALAA Iâ€™M DREAMING: SUENARY PHILAVANH
MEET THE ARTISTS OF KBACH ARTS
INDEX HOW TO PRAY & KHMER MOON: EMMELINE EAO
TO WRITE FEARLESSLY, TO WRITE VULNERABLY: MONICA SOK
UNDER THE TAMARIND TREE & IVY LEAF: SOKUNTHEA OUM TY CHUM
RECHOREOGRAPHING THE HEAVENS: PRUMSODUN OK & NATYARASA
LETTER HOME: SENG SO
“VOICES” the first issue the first issue
When I truly start to think of the word When I truly start to think of the word generation, I can’t help but think of the gaps. The “generation”, I can’t help but think of the gaps. spaces between the gay apsara from Long Beach The spaces between the gay apsara from Long and the young spray painter navigating Paris. Beach and the young spray painter navigating Between the yeays walked from Kamput to Paris. Between thewho yeays who walked from KamKhao I Dang theirand grandchildren who’ll go on put to Khaoand I Dang their grandchildren who’ll to go rewrite stories inherited. With each on tothe rewrite the they’ve stories they’ve inherited. With and every generation comes a set of voices coneach and every generation comes a set of voices stantly in flux—taking new shape over time constantly in flux—taking new shape over and time across borders. Throughout the course of thisof and across borders. Throughout the course project, I’ve come to view generations and this project, I’ve come to these view these generations their not as not entirely separate, but rather andvoices their voices as entirely separate, but asrather constantly in conversation with one as constantly in conversation withanother. one anHistory therefore always always speaking with itself, other. is History is therefore speaking with allowing us to better ourselves, how itself, allowing us to understand better understand ourselves, wehow got we here, where arewe going. this gotand here, and we where are Maybe going. Maybe this magazine is more of an of exploration magazine is more of an exploration these gapsof these gaps whether it be or gaps of time, or lands, whether it be gaps of time, lands, or within our or within our own families/communities. own families/communities. advertforforsubmissions, submissions,we we asked asked InInadvert question“What “Whatisisthe thesound soundwhen whenaagenergenerthethe question ation speaks?Does Doesit itboom boomororwhisper?” whisper?”I Idon’t don’t ation speaks? thinkhow howloud loudit itspeaks speaksmatters, matters,as aslong longas as itit think is speaking. As long as someone is listening. is speaking. As long as someone is listening. Khmerartists artiststhroughout throughoutthe thediaspora diaspora are are enenKhmer gaging with our histories, culture, and identities, gaging with our histories, culture, and identities, with a fearlessnessand anda asense senseofofpride. pride.So Solisliswith a fearlessness ten carefully, hear them well. ten carefully, hear them well.
In an interview regarding his novel On In an interview regarding his novel On Earth We Are Briefly Gorgeous, Ocean Vuong, Earth We Are Briefly Gorgeous, Ocean Vuong, discusses the importance of centering his literdiscusses the importance of centering his literary work around the experiences of his mother, ary work around the experiences of his mother, grandmother, and the Vietnam War in relation to grandmother, and the Vietnam War in relation to his own life. He claims that their lives, their expehis own life. He claims that their lives, their experiences are inspiring and are indeed “worthy of riences are inspiring and are indeed “worthy of Literature with a capital L”. This claim resonated Literature with a capital L”. This claim resonated with me because it embodies my own hopes for with me because it embodies own to hopes for Generation Magazine. Vuongmy brings light this Generation magazine. Vuong brings to light this desire to shed light on bodies and stories that desire to shed lightwhether on bodies stories that are rarely visible it be and in dominant literareature, rarelyglossy visiblemagazine whether pages it be inor dominant literthe television ature, glossy magazine pages or the television screen. screen.
For me, Generation magazine is a For me, Generation Magazine is a statement that Khmer bodies and Khmer art are statement that Khmer bodies and Khmer art are of value. That, as a community, we can mean of value. That, as a community, we can mean something that goes beyond genocide, beyond something that goes beyond genocide, beyond Pol Pot, beyond Wat— that that we we are are capacapaPol Pot, beyond Angkor Angkor Wat— ble of creating art that challenges our pasts, that ble of creating art that challenges our pasts, that allows to move move forward. forward. IIbegan began allows us us to to heal heal in in and and to this to see see and and lose lose myself myself this project project as as an an attempt attempt to inin the and the the voices voices of of other other the work, work, the the stories, stories, and Khmer artists. And I hope you all can too. Khmer artists. And I hope you all can too.
— Michael Khuth, Khuth, — Michael
Founder and and Editor Editor in inChief Chief Founder
"សំឡេង"ការបោះពុម្ពផ្សាយទីមួយ ការបោះពុម្ពផ្សាយទីមួយ "សំឡេង" នៅពេលដែលខ្ ញុំច ាប់ ្តម ើមគិ គិតត ចារណាពី អត្ ថយ ន័នៃ យពា នៃពាក្ នៅពេ លដែលខ្ញុំចា ប់ ផ្ផ តើ ពិពិ ចា រណាពីអត្ ថន័ ក្យយ នាន់ ខ្ញតែ ុំតែងតែគិ អំពី ពីគ ម្លា លាត។ ល ាតរវាងអ្ នរប ករាំ របាំ ជំជំ នា ន់ ខ្ញុំ ងតែគិត តអំ គម្ ត។ គម្គម្ លា តរវា ងអ្នករាំ ាំ អអ សខ្ រាខ្ ទយ ើយ ពីក្ ទីក ្រឡុ ុងឡុ ងច ប៊ ិចងវិ និចិ ងត្ វិច ករបាញ់ ថវ័្ន ាំវ័យ មេងនៅទី ប្ប្ សរា ទើ ពីទី រុង ងប៊ិ និ ក រប រិត ា្រញ់ ថ្នាំ យក្ មេក្ ងនៅ ទី ក្ក្ រុរងប៉ា សរវ។។ ាងរវាងលោកយាយទាំ លោកយាយទាំងប៉ុ មា រូបដែ លដើរពីខេ ត្ តកំ ុងប៉ារីរី ស ងន្ ប៉ុន ្មនានរូ បដែលដើ រពីខ េត្ តពកំព តទៅខាវអ៊ីដាងនិងចៅ ៗ តទៅខាវអ៊ីដាងនិងចៅ ៗ របស់ ពួកព គា ដែ នឹងបន្ តសរស រជាថ្មីនូវរម ឿ លពួកគាត់ បា បា របស់ ួកត់ គាត់ ដល ែលនឹ ងបន្ តេ សរសេរជាថ្ ីនងដែ ូវរឿងដែលពួ កគាត់ នបន្សល់ទុកអោយ។ នបន្សល់ទុកអោយ។ ជំជំ នា ន់នី មួ យៗៗតែងតែភ្ តែងតែភ្ជា ប់ជា យសំ ឡេ ងដែលប្រែ ប្ររួ លជា នាន់ នីម ួយ ជាប់ ជាមួមួ យ សំឡ េងដែលប្ រែប្ ួល ជា ប្ប្រចរាំ - - ដែលផ្ លផ្លា ស់ ប្ប តូ រា ងជាថ្មី ទៅ តាមពេលវេលា ចាំដែ ល ាស់ ្តរូរូរូបប រាងជាថ្ មីទ ៅតាមពេលវេលា និនិ ងង ទីកន្លែង។ ក្នុងកំឡុងពេលនៃគម្រោងនេះ ទីកន្លែង។ ក្នុងកំឡុងពេលនៃគម្រោងនេះ ខ្ខ្ ញុំ ពី នី មួៗនិ យៗនិ សំ លេ ងរបស់ពួ ត់ មិ មិ នមែ នជាអង្ ញុំគគិ ិតតពី ជជំ ំននា ាន់ន់ នីម ួយ ងងសំ ល េងរបស់ ពកគា ួកគាត់ នមែនជាអង្ គភា ពដាច់ពីគ្ នា រុងនោះ ទេ ប៉ុ ជំនា ន់ នី យៗត ភ្ជាប់ គភាពដាច់ ព ីគទាំ ្នាទាំងស្ ងស្ រុងនោះទេ ប៉ន្ ុនតែ ្តែជំ នាន់ ន ីមមួ ួយ ៗតភ្ ជាប់ គា្នដោយការសន្ទនាជាមួយគ្នាទៅវិញទៅមក។ គា្នដោយការសន្ទនាជាមួយគ្នាទៅវិញទៅមក។ ដូដូ ច្ ប្ វរវត្ ្តិ ស្រ្ តនឹ ងតែមានទំនាក់ ទំនទ ងជា មួយគ្នា ចនេះ ្នេះប្ រត តសា ិសាស្ រ្ត នឹងតែ ងតែងតែមានទំ នាក់ ំនងជាមួ យដែ គ្នាដែ លធ្ វើឱ្ យើ ពីខ្ នយើ ងកា តែ បា ឲ្យ ងយល់ ថា ថា លធ្ វើឱយ ្យ យើងយ ងល់ យល់ ពលួ ីខ្ល ួនយើ ងន់ កាន់ តច្ ែច្ បស់ ាស់ ឲ្យើ យយើ ងយល់ យើងមកដល់ទីកន្លែងសព្វថ្ងៃដោយរបៀបណា យើងមកដល់ទីកន្លែងសព្វថ្ងៃដោយរបៀបណា ហើយតើនៅថ្ងៃអនាគតយើងនឹងឈ្ពោះទៅកាន់កន្លែងណាប ហើយតើនៅថ្ងៃអនាគតយើងនឹងឈ្ពោះទៅកាន់កន្លែងណាប ន្ត។ ន្ត។
តនៅលើផែនដី) តនៅលើផែនដី) លោកអូ ហ្ស ិនងវ៉និ ុងយា និយយ ាយអំ ពីសរៈ ារៈសំ ខាន់ ៃអក្ សរសរសាស្ តរ្ររ លោ កអូហ្សិ នវ៉ុ អំពីសា សំខា ន់ន នៃ អក្ស ាស្ត្ គដែ ាត់ល ដផ្ ែលផ្ តតទៅ ោតទៅលើ បទពិ ទពិ សោធន៍ បស់ ្តយ ាយរបស់ គាត់ បស់បស់ គាត់ តោ លើប សោ ធន៍របរស់ ម្ម តា របស់គាត់ ជីនដ ូនរបស់ គនិ ាត់ងសង្ និងគ្សង្ គ្រាមវៀតណាម ដែលទាក់ ទងនឹ ងជីវិតផ្ ជីដូ របស់ គាត់ រាមវៀ តណាមដែលទា ក់ទងនឹងជី វិតផ្ ទាល់ ខ្លួ នរបួន ស់ គាត់ ។លោ កអះអាងថាបទពិសោស ធន៍ោធន៍ និខ្ ង សែ ទាល់ ខ្ល របស់ គាត់ ។ លោកអះអាងថាបទពិ និងជី ខ្សែជី វិតរបស់ពួកគាត់មានឥទ្ធិពលលេីការបំផុសគំនិត វិតរបស់ពួកគាត់មានឥទ្ធិពលលេីការបំផុសគំនិត ដែលត្រូវយកមកចងក្រងជាអក្សរសាស្រ្តដ៏អស្ចារ្យមួយ។ ដែលត្រូវយកមកចងក្រងជាអក្សរសាស្រ្តដ៏អស្ចារ្យមួយ។ ការអការអះអាងនេះមានឥទ្ ះអាងនេះមានឥទ្ធិពលខ្ លាំ មកលើ រូបខ្ញុំ រោះ បង្ ធិព លខ្ងល ាំងមកលើ រូបព្ ខ្ញ ុំ ព្រវា ោះវាបង្ កប់នូ វក្នតី សង្ ឃឹ ខ្លួ ន សម្ ប់រទាប់ ស្ នា វដ្ តី ជំនា ន់ កប់ ូវក្ តីស ង្មផ្ ឃទា ឹមផ្ល់ ទាល់ ខ្ល ួន រា សម្ ទសស្ ស នាវដ្ តី ជំ នាន់ របស់ខ្ញុំ។ របស់ខ្ញុំ។លោកវ៉ុងមានបំណងលើកកម្ពស់ទៅល លោកវ៉ុងមានបំណងលើកកម្ពស់ទៅល រូបរៀង និង រឿងនិទាន ដែលពួកយេីងកម្រនឹងឃើញ រូបរៀង និង រឿងនិទាន ដែលពួកយេីងកម្រនឹងឃើញ មិនថានៅក្នុងអក្សរសិល្ប៍ពេញនិយម មិនថានៅក្នុងអក្សរសិល្ប៍ពេញនិយម ទំព័រទស្សនាវដ្តីនីមួយៗ ឬអេក្រង់ទូរទស្សន៍នោះទេ។ ទំព័រទស្សនាវដ្តីនីមួយៗ ឬ អេក្រង់ទូរទស្សន៍នោះទេ។ សម្សម្ រាប់ នា វដ្តី "ជី ំ"ជំ នា គឺ " "ជា ចក្តីត ថ្ ងថា រខ្ ាប់ញុំ ខ្ញទុំទស្ ស្ស ស នាវដ្ ត នន់ ាន់ គឺជសេ ាសេចក្ ីថលែ ្លែងថា រាងកាយនិងសិល្បៈខ្មែរមានតម្លៃ។ រាងកាយនិងសិល្បៈខ្មែរមានតម្លៃ។ ដែលក្នុងនាមជាសហគមន៍ ដែលក្នុងនាមជាសហគមន៍ ពួកយើងមានតម្លៃលើសពីការសម្គាល់ថា ពួកយើងមានតម្លៃលើសពីការសម្គាល់ថា ដែលបង្ហាញថាយើងមានសមត្ថភាពក្នុងការបង្កើតសិល្បៈ ដែលបង្ហាញថាយើងមានសមត្ថភាពក្នុងការបង្កើតសិល្បៈ ដែលប្រឈមនឹងអតីតកាលរបស់យើង ដែលប្រឈមនឹងអតីតកាលរបស់យើង ដែលជួយឱ្យយើងជាសះស្បើយពីបទពិសោធន៍ឈឺចាប់និង ដែលជួយឱ្យយើងជាសះស្បើយពីបទពិសោធន៍ឈឺចាប់ និង បន្តឈានទៅមុខបាន។ បន្តឈានទៅមុខបាន។
ប្រហែលជាទស្សនាវដ្តីនេះផ្តោតទៅលើការស្វែងយល់អំ ប្រហែលជាទស្សនាវដ្តីនេះផ្តោតទៅលើការស្វែងយល់អំ ពីគម្លាតទាំងនេះច្រើនមិនថាវាជាគម្លាតនៃពេលវេលាឬ ពីគម្លាតទាំងនេះច្រើន មិនថាវាជាគម្លាតនៃពេលវេលា ឬ គម្លាតដីឬនៅក្នុងគ្រួសារសហគមន៍ផ្ទាល់របស់យើងទេ។ / គម្លាតដី ឬ នៅក្នុងគ្រួសារ / សហគមន៍ផ្ទាល់របស់យើងទេ។ ខ្ញុំចាប់ផ្តើមគម្រោងនេះជាក្នុងបំណងសង្កេតមើលនិង នៅក្នុងការផ្សាយពាណិជ្ជកម្មសម្រាប់ការដាក់ស្នើក្នុងទ នៅក្ ន ង ុ ការផ្ ស ាយពាណិ ជ ជ ្ កម្ មសម្ រាប់រថកា ារដាក់ សពេ ្នើក ុងទ យល់ដឹងឱ្យជ្រៅជ្រះ ខ្ញុំចាប់ផ្តើមគម្រោងនេះជាក្ នុងបំណងសង្ កេតមើល និ ង ស្សនាវដ្តីរបស់ពួកយើងយើងបា នសួ រសំណួ "តើនៅ ល្ន ដែ អំពីការងារ រឿងនិទាន និង ស្ នាវដ្ តីរបស់ ួកយ យើ ងយា យើង បានសួ រសំ ណ ួរថា "តើឡេ នៅពេលដែ យល់ ឹងឱ្ យល្ ជ្របៅជ្ រះមែ អំព ីការងារ រឿងនិទ និងនឯងផ្ទាល់។ លម នុស ស្ សជំនា ន់នីព មួ ៗនិ យពួ កគាត់ បញ្ ចេ ញសំ ងអ្វី? សំលេ ងរបដ ស់ សិ ករខ្ រដទៃ ទៀតដេា យាន ខ្លួ លមនុ សង្ស ជំនាន់ នីម ួយឡេ ៗនិងយ ពួង កៗគាត់ ញ្ឡេ ចេញសំ ឡប?េងអ្ សំល េងរបស់ ស ិលពេ ្បករខ្ មល ែរដទៃទៀតដេាយខ្ ួននេះ ឯងផ្អ្ ទនាល់ តើ សំឡេ នោះ ជា សំ ខ្ាយ លាំ ឬជាប សំ ងខ្សឹ ខ្ " វី? ខ្ញុំ សង្ ឃឹមថា នៅ លដែ អ្នកអានទស្សនាវដល ្តី ក ។ តើស ំឡ េងនោះជាសំ ឡ េងខ្ ាំង ៗឬជាសំ េងខ្ ស ?" ខ្ ទេ ខ្ញុំសង្ឃឹមថានៅពេលដែលអ្នកអានទស្សនាវដ្តីនេះ អ្នក ញុំ គិ តថា វាមិនសំខា ន់ ត្រងល ់សំ ឡេ ងនោះឡ លឺ ដល់ក ម្ឹប រឹត ណា ទាំងអស់គ្នាក៏អាចយល់ដឹងដូចខ្ញុំដែរ។ ំគិតល ថាវាមិ នន់ សំគឺ ខមា ាន់ត ្រង់នស ំឡ េងនោះលឺ ដល់មា កម្នរនឹត ណាទេ អ្ញុ វីដែ សំខា នអ្ កនិ យា យ។ដរាបណា រណ ាម្នា ទាំងអស់គ្នាក៏អាចយល់ដឹងដូចខ្ញុំដែរ។ អ្វីដែលសំខាន់គឺមានអ្នកនិយាយ។ ដរាបណាមាននរណាម្នា ក់ស្តាប់ការសន្ទនា។ -ម៉ៃឃឺលឃុត(ស្ថាបនិកនិងអ្នកនិពន្ធ) ក់ស្តាប់ការសន្ទនា។ - ម៉ៃឃឺល ឃុត (ស្ថាបនិកនិងអ្នកនិពន្ធ) សិល្បករខ្មែរនៅពាសពេញប្រទេសកំពុងតែចូលរួមក្នុងចំណែ សិល្បករខ្មែរនៅពាសពេញប្រទេសកំ ពុងនិង តែចូ លរួមក្នុងចំណែ កផ្សព្វផ្សាយប្រវត្តិសាស្ត្រ វប្បធម៌ អត្តសញ្ញាណ កផ្យើ សព្ វផ្ស រន វត្ តរភ័ ិសយ ាស្ ្រ វប្ បង ធម៌ និយ ងមា អត្ តសញ្ ញព។ាណ របស់ ងដោ យាយប្ គ្មា កា ខ្ត លា ចនិ ដោ នមោ ទនភា យើង ដោយគ្ ានការភ័ យ ល ាចនិ ដោយមានមោទនភាព។ ដូរបស់ ច្នេះ ហើ យសូមម អ្ នកស្តា ប់ខ្ ពួ កគា ត់ង ដោ យយកចិត្តទុកដាក់ ដូច្នេះហើយសូមអ្នកស្តាប់ពួកគាត់ដោយយកចិត្តទុកដាក់ ស្តាប់ពួកគាត់ឱ្យបានល្អ។ ស្តាប់ពួកគាត់ឱ្យបានល្អ។ នៅក្នុងបទសម្ភាសន៍ទាក់ទងនឹងប្រលោមលោក“OnEarthWe Are Briefly នៅក្ នុងGorgoeus” បទសម្ភ(យើងមានភាពស្រស់បំព្រងមួយភ្លែ ាសន៍ទាក់ទងនឹងប្រលោមលោក “On Earth We Are Briefly Gorgoeus” (យើងមានភាពស្រស់បំព្រងមួយភ្លែ
FEATURING THE “VOICES” OF
MONICA SOK, PRUMSODUN OK & NATYARASA (CHAN SORY, DY PUTHIK, MORN SOPHAROTH, SOEURN CHAMREOUN, TES SOKHON, TOUCH PONMONYKA), SOKUNTHEA OUM, SENG SO, TY CHUM, MICHAEL KHUTH, EMMELINE EAO, BINA JOHNSON, SUENARY PHILAVANH, HOUR SOBEN, NGUON KOLKATEKA, SANARY PHEN & CALAA, CHHAN DINA, AND YSK (DANIEL OU AND SOVIVORTH ORPOV)
Family Photo Album Photography & Poetry Michael Khuth Assistant Photographer Malvika Shankar
During the post Cambodian genocide era, thousands of Khmer civilians flocked to refugee camps scattered along the Thai border in search of saftey, of home, and stability. From Kamput to Khao I Dang, photography began to resurface again among refugees. While photography and all forms of visual culture were deemed illegal and punishable by death under the Khmer Rouge regime (1975-1979), refugee camps offered a sense of freedom from the horrors of the regime. It was in these camps where refugee photographers began to smuggle in cameras from outside the camps and transform photography into a lucrative business. Families would save up the little money they had to afford images of their loved ones, friends, or even themselves. The image then became an embodiment of refugee survival, a preservation of memory, and a reminder of the journeys endured and the ones yet to come. These images fill the photo archives of families throughout the Khmer diaspora, take a look.
Family Photo Album Here, under dust I have found you all again Here, a testimony of your glory, the most selfish act for memory bought from stitched sarongs and an empty stomach because it was something to call your own you are not yet yeay nor a market but a home for a daughter born between countries kept only because a girl doesn’t deserve to be left in a world where there’s no time to bury the dead Here, I’ll stitch the past together, between where oum speaks and where memory stays silent because sometimes to remember is to ask why we hide the truth
Here, I do not know you,
Here, we cannot understand one another for you have not yet reached the Philippines, but I know you’d tell me that you’re alright, that one day koko you’ll tell my story of a girl who built Saigon and planted a cherry tree after she burned all the photographs
Here, you’re a pout and a pink purse a not yet a mother but baby feet, look at the camera goan, we’re going home now where you’ll force Pou Da to play school because without education, we can’t get anywhere where love is a house that smells like lemon grass and cha kreung even when you’re too tired with two boys crying at the dinner table because un deux trois is a faint memory
Here, the camera is yours again, which is to exist once more for me to hear you this time
Here, a photograph is a souvenir is a love letter written with blue mountains a flower bush, and don’t forget me, scribbled on the back in a broken language you’ll call home one day in a pale sky blue notebook where you’ve written 1980 where you’ll learn words can have pasts too, What is future for refugee? What is past for grandchildren? The present for Ta, is marlboro cigarettes, paris by night and puc café, is man who loves is poodle because moo moo number one!
Here, you wish you knew what you looked like, there’s is no photo for larry love, tarantula holes, Long Beach, and ESOL of your friends fumbling over how to say the man walked on the moon because the past was always the hardest to pronounce but i’m sure the cheek bones you gave me and the way you tell me to dream would all be there Here, I have made you all again and on the back I’ll learn to write The hardest thing you ever taught me is that the most difficult part of being cared for, is understanding how to give it all back
Bina Johnson Roots and Branches, 2019 Wood Burning Bina Johnson created this piece to depict a physical manifestation of being truly at home. By burning forest scenes of trees from different settings on opposing corners of the wood in a sort of reflection; her roots planted deep in Cambodia and Minnesota can share the stage as two sides of the same coin. Traditional silk patterns inspired the frame around the artwork as she strives to mix contemporary concepts while simultaneously paying tribute to classical styles in Cambodian culture.
Bina Johnson Apsara, 2018 Fused Glass With a recurring focus on integrating contrasting and conflicting themes, Bina Johnson intricately designed this glass piece as a means to blend many aspects of a Khmer perspective. She executes this intention through diversity of imagery upon the three faces of the sculpture, generally embodying both positive and negative connotations. To contrast darker aspects of our past with symbols of our rich culture, the first of the three sides depicts a traditional apsara dancer that has been victim to a land mine. On the following side is the famous tree at Angkor Wat that she would play by as a child; which, famous from Tomb Raider, is also one of the limited times Cambodia has been given attention in mainstream media. The last side references Cambodian creation myth of being born from the Naga, alongside subtle lotus flowers and one of the monkeys often found at the entrance to Angkor Wat like a guard. For the base form of the glass sculpture she chose a tall pointed pyramid shape to mirror the significant triangular peaks frequently found in traditional Khmer architecture and art, as well as on the crown of Apsara.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Sanary Phen, the Board of Directors President of the Cambodian American Literary Arts Association. I had prepared for my interview with her a week in advance. We had planned to do a video call on Wednesday, and I felt uneasy to tell you the truth. It was going to be my first time interviewing a real Khmer adult-adult—on the record— about their experience. I’m 20, and because I didn’t explore my Khmer identity until a few years ago, the things I feel about my identity have been left unspoken. CALAA’s mission is to provide a literary platform and network for Cambodian/Cambodian-American writers. The organization offers literary development programs, inter-
cultural and intergenerational communication, and tools for cultural preservation and understanding. CALAA focuses on the importance of community and self-healing in storytelling. It publishes printed and digital issues of “The Stilt House Zine” which collects literary and visual works from Cambodian artists. Sanary joined CALAA in 2018 after rediscovering her passion for writing. Although born in a refugee camp in Thailand, she found a family in her Khmer community. Her upbringing inspires her storytelling, and she encourages members in her community to share their stories and experiences. She believes sharing stories and experiences can help bridge the gap between the older and younger generations.
LOSS: THE DESIRE TO FEEL WHOLE A conversation between Sanary Phen & Suenary Philavanh
Suenary: How does your involvement in CALAA foster the creativity in your writing? Sanary: For a long period of time, I had my own biases against my own culture. Obviously, growing up, there were really old school misogynistic values that were passed down. And not to say that was only in Cambodian culture—I mean, if you think about back in the US during the 1950s where women stayed at home, when men went out and earned the bread, there were kind of definitive gender roles in society in general. But more so, in the Cambodian culture where I felt there was a cultural victim-blaming when it came to young women, and there was this untreated trauma that people were not willing to address or the lack of being able to look at ourselves critically and not be open to those not-so-pleasant topics that are out there. I felt a lot of Cambodians were very superficial and materialistic. So I tried to veer away from my culture a lot, especially since I was darker skin and because I
was a little thicker than the rest of the girls. I just felt like I didn’t fit into what people thought was the ideal Cambodian girl, so I started to steer away from things that had to do with the Cambodian culture and Cambodian community during my adolescent years. And now that I’m in my 30s, I’m revisiting a lot of that—revisiting a lot of that trauma, revisiting a lot of my own thought process during that time and try to work through that, and integrating back into the community because I do want to see people in my community thrive. I do think that we are marred by the genocide, and some of us can’t seem to escape it no matter how hard they try. I feel like the work with CALAA definitely brings back all those pieces of writings—all those stories that my mom told me. I know that if she—especially the elders of that generation that survived the genocide are passing on, they’re older now. They’re dying out, and so do their stories and every wisdom and experiences they have to pass on to the rest of us. So that’s why it’s integral that we preserve as much of that as we can.
“I’m in my 30s, I’m revisiting a lot of that—revisiting a lot of that trauma, revisiting a lot of my own thought process during that time and try to work through that, and integrating back into the community because I do want to see people in my community thrive”
“I used to say, as a family, we tend to love people. We tend to be the keeper of their sorrows. So, all of my mom’s stories, her losses, I feel them just as deeply as she feels them” Suenary: There’s this psychology theory that trauma is inherited [called intergenerational trauma]. It’s kind of worrisome to think that maybe a couple of generations down, we will have less and less emphasizes on preserving our stories: what would our youth look like? Would it be a bunch of Cambodians with this trauma and this history they don’t really understand?
Sanary: All these stories that we are looking for, the experiences we want to share are even more so important to the youth, so that they can understand. The language is the hardest part, I feel like, and that’s where that gap between the generations that is really huge. It’s [important] being able to communicate with one another, understanding one another, but with the younger generation, how do we do that when the younger generation doesn’t speak the language? I used to say, as a family, we tend to love people. We tend to be the keeper of their sorrows. So, all of my mom’s stories, her losses, I feel them just as deeply as she feels them. And so, in order for me to heal from that trauma that was passed down to me, I feel I need to do this work with CALAA and be able to share with other people so that people know of my mom’s stories and her resiliency. And not
just her resiliency, but all of the Cambodian-American, all the Cambodians that survived the era and having to rebuild something and move forward from it. Albeit, some of that moving forward is done intergenerationally. So, my parents came here, they were able to, not necessarily work through all of the emotional trauma, but they were able to persevere and thrive. They got to be home owners, provide for their children. So now that those basic needs have been met, now it’s my job, as the generation that comes after to do a little bit more healing. Especially when it comes to addressing those traumas because our basic needs are met now. We talk about being emotionally responsible people, and not letting our trauma dictate who we are because we’ve seen some of that intergenerational trauma from my peer group. There were high [high school] dropout rates, gang activity, and gang violence. But you have to think of the phenomenon: why it occurs? What’s going on? Knowing what is happening to a group a people that is causing them to behave in this way or repeat these patterns of behavior. We definitely need specialized programs and specialized vehicles to address the specific events and trauma we went through. Anytime you do trauma work, it has to be designed to fit the needs of the population its serving.
Suenary: CALAA did a first edition for The Stilt House Zine, which story did you feel you connected with the most? (*this questions was answered at a later time and date over Facebook Messenger) Sanary: That is a hard question because there were so many of them that spoke to me but if I had to choose I would be torn between “(Dis) Place” and “Return Flight”. “(Dis) Place” reminds me of our interview in how I mentioned not really having a true desire to see Cambodia and how it was difficult for me to miss a place I never really knew. Randy Kim talks about his conflicting feelings and how he ties the trauma of the war into the Cambodian identity. When he writes “ In the land of Apsaras, century old temples, dried fish, tuk tuks, French style buildings, from colonial times and rice fields stood the ghosts of 2 million absent, the ghosts that haunt those who survived, and the ghosts that haunt those who are born after.”, he expressed that haunting feel-
ing we all have as the result of the inter-generational trauma I and others like me experienced as children of survivors from that era. He touches on the unresolved trauma that resulted in violence in the family household. It speaks on much of my experience in trying to understand the fractured psyche of my parents and how hard it must have been for them to be parents when they were broken and not fully healed themselves. It allowed me to forgive them and forgive myself for some of the difficult things we put each other through. “Return Flight” resonates with me as I realize that home is not really a place. For so long I was looking for a place to call home and belong to. I felt like I fit in everywhere and nowhere all at the same time. Reading “Return Flight” only reinforced for me that home is where those you love reside, where you feel a connection within the history of your creation and can take pride in those before you who somehow even as ghosts still have a role in making you who you are today.
“For so long I was looking for a place to call home and belong to. I felt like I fit in everywhere and nowhere all at the same time”
“There’s this gap—there’s this missing piece when your family’s not whole” Suenary: So, with the second one that’s coming out, the theme focusing on Genealogy. How did the board of directors come up with that theme? Sanary: The board of directors didn’t necessarily come up with the theme. We actually designated board members to serve on a committee for The Stilt House magazine, and they were the ones who developed the theme for the issue. But we did speak about how important it was—when we talked about trauma, when we talked about family—a lot of people during the Khmer Rouge era lost family members either through death or just not knowing what happened to them. Some are left questions whether loved ones survived and moved somewhere else. People are still being reunited years and years later. Some people thought [family members] were dead, and then the show up later. There’s this gap—there’s this missing piece when your family’s not whole. So [the committee] thought it was essential when picking the theme for the issue, to pick something that was relevant to the community that we need to address.
Suenary: In what ways do you think CALAA would give individuals space to really navigate those emotions in a healthier manner? Sanary: I think a lot of it is awareness and education. I can tell you honestly from my own experiences, a lot of the ways we deal with emotions is not necessarily taught—I wouldn’t say they taught us or told us how to do it—it was more of a way of modeling the behavior for us. I noticed with the Cambodian culture a pattern of passive-aggressive behavior. So, we nod and say “yes, yes, and yes,” and then we go off and do the opposite of what we just said yes to because it’s easier to agree with somebody than it is to deal with the conflict of disagreeing. Basically, that passive behavior is what I did with my parents in front of them—if I did something they disapproved of in school. It wasn’t that I didn’t excel in school or didn’t like school, I was just so—it was hard living with my parents’ expectations, wanting to live up to my own expectations, feeling a death of a child or my younger sibling, and the overwhelming responsibilities that was put on you from a very young age. My parents didn’t speak the language, and they depended on me to interpret. It was just a lot, and I don’t think they understood how overwhelmed I felt. So I would, like I said, rebel or did things they
didn’t approve of, but sit there and be the docile child in front of them because that’s what I was taught. I couldn’t effectively communicate with them, and I was taught I shouldn’t even communicate with them. I was just made to sit there and listen to them and have them say what they wanted to say, and I was made to follow their direction, their guidance in order for me to succeed in life, in general. Suenary: You had said you had felt disassociated from your heritage growing up, why did you feel that way? Sanary: I always felt that even in US society and Cambodian culture, we have women who are darker skin that are looking for creams and powders to lighten their skin. I thought light-skin people were seen as more beautiful. Growing up in my own peer circles, the majority of the boys weren’t interested in the girls that looked like me. They wanted thinner frame, straighter hair, you know all that stuff. I felt like I didn’t fit in with any ethnic group. I didn’t feel like I even fit in with my ethnic group. I did veered away from Cambodians because I felt like the Black and Latino communities were more accepting of my physical features than my own culture was. We talked about the genocide itself has created a huge mistrust in the Cambodian community themselves. Because if you think about it, you had tons of Cambodians killing other Cambodians, right? And
part of that seeded the animosity that allowed people to do that was the fact that you saw people—rich people—living a life of luxury, and you were angry and jealous and felt left out. So, when communism came, it came and said “now everybody’s going to be equal.” And you have opportunities to exact revenge on some of these wealthier people who probably treated you poorly due to classism. It’s an opportunity for them to retaliate and get revenge on some of the wealthier people that treated them poorly during that time. And so, we always question people’s motives on why they do things. Here, especially in Lowell, when some of the Cambodian-American communities would go out there and do some kind of community work or be running for office, I would question whether they were doing that out of the genuine concern for the community or if they were doing it more so out of their own social status than standing with the community. So that mistrust of each other, carried all the way out of genocide and into the day-to-day people and into the community as well. So, I grew up with that view of like “Well, us Cambodians, we kind of suck.” It was easy for me to remove myself from the Cambodian community. But now as an adult, you have a better understanding of some of it. And I really want to be able to help my people get past some of that mistrust for us to reinvent ourselves. You know, we all are resilient people. I mean, we survived the genocide. We have resettled all
over the world, not just here in the US. You know, there’s Cambodians in France, there’s Cambodians in Australia. There are Cambodian’s in China. There’s Cambodians in Canada. Cambodians are everywhere. Suenary: Sometimes, I think how crazy, how not that long ago this was happening in Cambodia—like my family lived through it. Sometimes when you talk about like genocides or wars, it feels like that happened a long time ago. But then here it is, the last generation. Sanary: Absolutely. It’s hard to imagine a lot of the stuff that my mom as gone through, and because I grew up here, in the relative safety of the US, I remember her saying stuff—like I remember when—you probably weren’t even born yet; well, you were young— the year 2000 came in, and we were worried about the crisis, and my mom was like getting gallons of water and lining them up along the staircases into the attic. So, I said “Mom, what are you doing?” and she said “Sanary, you never know what’s going to happened.” You know, she was concerned about my status as an immigrant, urging me to get my citizenship. I was like “What are you talking about?” I’ve lived like a permanent resident all my life. Nobody’s giving me a hard time. She said, “everything can change.” I was like, “Mom, the country’s not going to turn against its own citizens.” And she said,
“Sanary, you know, I thought the same thing too, but it happened in my country.”... Yeah, gallons of water. What she would do is—she was afraid there was going to be no running water. She was afraid there was going to be no electricity. She was literally bucking down for the end of the world type-ofstuff. I remember she got one of those propane pilots just in case we didn’t have gas. And she disaster-prepared us, and now she’s a hoarder. You know, it stems from the trauma that she went through, especially when It comes to food, she could not stand to throw food away. And she has a deep freezer for God only knows what. But that deep freezer is always really packed, and she continues to overfeed us. So, we’ll already have a meal, and she’ll go “Do you want some food?” And I’ll tell her we’re not hungry, and I remember her saying something like “I’m not afraid of anything, ‘cept for my kids starving to death.” And that literally happened to her because her second-born, my older sister Srey
Mao, literally died in her arms of starvation. That kind of thing just
doesn’t fade away. So, I understand why she overfeeds. I understand why she hoards all those things. She hoards things. She hoards food. She hoards money. They’re just afraid of giving things up or feeling something’s going to waste if there’s something somebody could use later. Suenary: I think a lot of people in our community fear that our history,
“I was like, ‘Mom, the country’s not going to turn against its own citizens.’ And she said, ‘Sanary, you know, I thought the same thing too, but it happened in my country’” culture, and our stories are going to be lost in this next generation, especially our language. Do you feel that the reason for that is the youth is becoming less interested in our heritage or do you think there are other factors? How do you think that CALAA have been able to foster a connection with the youth? Sanary: I don’t think it’s a loss of interest. I think it’s more of the general trend of a group of people assimilating to the culture of another country. So within each generation that assimilates, each group loses a little bit of their identity, and usually, the biggest thing is language. I think it’s the gradual assimilation of any culture that has lived in a country for multiple generations. A lot of Italians that live out here or who claim an Italian ethnicity don’t speak Italian. I guess, the other part of your question when you were talking about how I feel that my work with CALAA would
help foster [a connection with the youth], I think that you, such as yourself, are interested in knowing about Cambodian history because it’s part of your identity. So, when you don’t fully understand a piece of your identity, it kind of leaves you feeling lost. You’re carrying all this stuff with you, and not really understanding why you feel like something’s missing. Or you’re feeling this loss of something that you can’t identify. And so for myself, too, it was part of not being able to reconcile my place in the Cambodian community had me feeling like I was losing a piece of my own identity. In order for myself to feel whole, I had to reintegrate and revisit some of the choices or some of the reasons behind why I felt like I needed to pull away and be able to reconcile, you know, some of those biases and appreciate some of the good stuff that has come out of identifying as a Cambodian.
“When you don’t fully understand a piece of your identity, it kind of leaves you feeling lost. You’re carrying all this stuff with you, and not really understanding why you feel like something’s missing. Or you’re feeling this loss of something that you can’t identify”
Suenary: Between when you were younger, you were rebelling and distancing yourself from your culture, and now when you’re totally embracing it, what made the switch?
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Sanary: I think what made the switch was my children and seeing through the youth how much, like I mentioned, not having a piece of your identity kind of left you feeling like you weren’t whole. And in order to role model better behavior for them, I needed to address some of those behaviors within myself that I were unbecoming, that I felt were maladaptive. So, eventually, it is the youth. It’s my children. It’s other young people in the community that can learn from my example and from my experiences. I want to help share that because if it helps even one other person get through what they’re going through, I think it would be worthwhile to put myself out there and be vulnerable.
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Suenary Philavanh I’m dreaming. In this dream, I’m sitting on a worn out, once indigo, corduroy recliner. The lint is lifting off of the arm rest, and the footrest no longer retracts. It looks much like my granny’s chair, The one no one’s allowed to sit in. “You’re not supposed to sit in her chair. She’s gonna know you sat in it.” My first instinct is to get up, but I can’t move out of the chair. I look at my arms, and my skin is a leaning rice bag. It sags down from my shoulders. My veins are like rivers running down my arms into my fingers, the river valleys. My skin is freckled with dark sun spots, and my skin is brown from gardening since morning. I see a young girl sitting in front of me It’s me. Younger me is sitting next to my mom, their legs curl to the right, and their hands fold up to their chins. Younger me bows three times, and she gives me a metal bowl with both her hands. It’s filled with fruits and money inside. It must be New Years. I thank younger me, and wish her the new year will grant her money and good luck. I wish that she will do well in school, and that she gets along with her brother and sisters. Thevata will give her a good year. Her eyebrows furrow, and she looks at her mother, and then back at me. My mother speaks to younger me, but her words are silent. Younger me smiles and nods, though I am not sure what she’s saying. Younger me speaks, but her words are silent. My mother breaks the silence and she speaks to me. Younger me wishes that I get healthier so I can continue to live a life full of love and pride.
Meet the Artists Of Kbach Arts
Founded by Tony Francis in 2017, Kbach Gallery has worked tirelessly to restore Phnom Penh to its former artistic glory of “the Pearl of Asia”. Trail blazing to create an urban arts scene by identifying, supporting and promoting Khmer inspired artists. The term “Kbach” refers to the stylistic elements of Cambodian artistry from traditional Angkorian culture such as stone carving on temple walls, deities, Apsara to contemporary Cambodian motifs. The first of its kind, KBach Gallery fuses traditional Cambodian elements with international urban art to create a unique “Kbach” style. Kbach Gallery is the flagship company within the Kbach Arts Collective of complimentary companies and projects aimed at creating a community for the upcoming generation of Khmer artists to showcase and promote Khmer art. តាំងពីចាប់មានរូបរាងឡើងនៅឆ្នាំ២០១៧មកវិចិត្រសាល«ក្បាច់» បានខិតខំប្រឹងប្រែងដោយមិនខ្លា ចហត់នឿយ ដើម្បីអោយមានវិស័យសិល្បៈដ៏រុងរឿងរបស់ទីក្រុងភ្នំពេញដែលដូចជាគុជខ្យងនៃអាស៊ី ឡើងវិញ។ធ្វើឡើងមុនគេបង្អស់ដើម្បីបង្កើតនូវទស្សនីយភាពសិល្បៈទីក្រុងតាមរយៈ ការស្វែងរក ការគាំទ្រនិងការលើកកម្ពស់វិចិត្រករដែលបណ្តុះគំនិតពីទំរង់សិល្បៈខ្មែរ។ ឈ្មោះថា«ក្បាច់»នេះសំដៅទៅលើគ្រឹះរចនាបថនៃសិល្បៈខ្មែរមានប្រភពចេញពីវប្បធ ម៌បុរាណនាសម័យអង្គរចម្លាក់ថ្មលើប្រាងប្រាសាទអាទិទេពនិងទេពអប្សារាជាអាទិ៍ ឆ្ពោះទៅគំនូរបែបសហសម័យខ្មែរ។ វិចិត្រសាល«ក្បាច់»គឺជាវិចិត្រសាលដំបូងដែលមានការលាយផ្សំសិល្បៈបែបប្រពៃណីខ្មែជា រ មួយនឹងសិល្បៈទីក្រុងបែបអន្តរជាតិដើម្បីបង្កើតក្បាច់រចនាប្លែកមួយ។វិចិត្រសាល«ក្បាច់» គឺជាទង់នាវានាំមុខក្នុងបណ្ដុំសិល្បៈក្បាច់ដោយមានការចូលរួមយ៉ាងពេញចិត្តនិងគម្រោង ជាច្រើនអមដោយគោលបំណងបង្កើតសហគមន៍មួយសម្រាប់វិចិត្រករខ្មែរជំនាន់ក្រោយបង្ហាញ និងលើកកម្ពស់សិល្បៈខ្មែរ។
Help support Kbach Arts’ vision of promoting and supporting native Khmer street artists by visiting their website: https://kbachgallery.com/ or IG: @kbachgallery
Nguon Kolkateka Infinity Kolkateka was runner up for the KBach Artist Competition 2018. Teka had demonstrated a remarkable proficiency in oil painting by the tender age of seventeen, a medium which often takes artists years to master. Coupled with his profound skill, Teka has a reverence for the history of the Khmer Kingdom, its nature and the love for lavishing style of arts. Born and raised in Phnom Penh, his colorful paintings pay homage to his homeland. His distinctive personal style emanates joy and peace and expresses the vibrant spirit and atmosphere of the Cambodian old-age era. His art expresses realistic depictions of the transformative effects of light and color in the style of modern art harmonized by the essence of Kbach Khmer.
Hour Soben Seasons of Ben Winner of the 2018 Kbach Artist Competition, Hour Soben was relatively unknown in the Cambodian art sphere until last year. After working with a gallery in his native province of Siem Reap, Soben was inspired to take to the canvas himself. Soben creates beautiful, colourful compositions marrying traditional and contemporary Khmer motifs. In the past year Soben has been developing his signature style: grey-stone faces juxtaposed against vibrant almost psychedelic backgrounds. His work is quickly gaining national and international acclaim. He will have his first solo exhibition with KBach Gallery in November 2019 and some of his artworks have already been exhibited this year at the Singaporean Visual Arts Center. IG: soben.hour
Chhan Dina From despair comes hope Dina is a trailblazing Cambodian artist who works in a range of media including painting and sculpture. Themes of life, music and everyday activities have captured the artist’s imagination over the past ten years. Most of her work of late is abstract in nature. Dina Chhan was born in 1984 and currently she works and lives in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.Her love of art gives her the energy and enthusiasm to teach visual art to children and teenagers in a number of orphanages, and the International School Phnom Penh. She has exhibited work in Cambodia, Colombia, France, Singapore and U.S.A. She specializes in painting and sculpture. For a duration Dina lived in a refugee camp in Poipet. Huge issues still exist with unexploded ordinance and land-mines in this region along the border between Thailand and Cambodia. Her experiences in Poipet influence her artwork to this day. She was the only female Cambodian artist to partake in the United Nations mine action program in Cambodia. Along with 9 other Cambodian artists, she visited some of Cambodia’s most mine-affected provinces to observe how the country is addressing the explosive remnants of war. She presented her interpretation of the issues through sophisticated sculpture. Visit Chhan Dina’s website: www.artistdina.com
YSK Untitled Daniel “Chaos” Ou is a young Cambodian artist born in San Bernardino, California but raised in Long Beach. He then moved to Phnom Penh at the age of 12. In 2012 Chaos started developing a passion for street art/graffiti in Phnom Penh. He is the founder of the Cambodian artist collective YSK, and the streetwear brand OMENS®. Daniel “Chaos” Ou’s work consists of a unique semasiographic hieroglyphics that illustrate emotion through merging the symbolic and significant values of fractals, creating a unique phenomena of its own. Chaos developed his style to explore a unique linguistic perception that serves to preserve the value and beauty in mystery. IG: @yskchaos
Sovivorth Orpov, also known as Mike YSK graduated from Royal University of Fine Arts at 21 years old. Born and raised in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, he has carried his passion for the arts since a young age, but began making professional art at the age of 17. Early on Mike started with traditional graffiti then later moved to develop his own style. His style is influenced by classic script such as old English and Khmer traditional script composed from elements of Khmer Kbach. Mike uses his typeface to communicate traditional proverbs, poetry and quotes to motivate, and raise awareness to both the local and international audience. IG: @yskmike17
Emmeline Eao how to pray: xerox, stamp, yeay Cheaâ€™s kroma, two layer risograph khmer moon: Angkor library wall [photo], Battambang window [photo], paper, two layer risograph Emmeline is a Khmer American Artist and organizer living in Portland, Oregon.
After Dinner in Prek Eng Monica Sok My aunt doesn’t want help burning garbage near the persimmon forest behind the yard grows a garden, the banana tree proudly glows when the light goes out the house my aunt, as she sees the monk by her gate for his morning round and plump her calves in my hands when she asks me to massage her legs are swollen but she walks everywhere or calls a tuk tuk to travel long distance to the city from here is kind of unbearable but I try to hang out here anyway I’m afraid my aunt won’t like me much unless I keep my mouth shut the kitchen door Srei Mol or else it’s your fault the hen and her chicks get inside the mosquito net I’m always reading until my aunt says breakfast on the table is sometimes a place to sit, lie down, or nap, or on the hammock tied above the trees of this village, the night is not as dark as I thought, especially in the forest by the house, my aunt likes to crouch knees bent, heels touching the dirt isn’t too much dirt and I’m not too much of a priss that I cannot sit beside her she keeps betel leaves to chew on and I crouch down without her noticing I’m there she turns toward me slowly, wondering how I got there, there, there again I got no smile from her blackened betel leaf-crusted teeth are the scariest features in old Khmer people I know, criss-crossed eyes gazing on me for a moment, my aunt stares hard, back at smoke prancing over banana peels, over the sweets I had and Cokes, I’d rather be garbage, just garbage that she said in her low voice go back, go back
*previously published by Springhouse Journal
Strategy Against Dying Monica Sok We fashioned party cups to catch bees, wasps,
sprayed the green hose
to drown them, then freeze them, little blue flowers, milkweed from the field, pulled grass dead as hair.
We trapped the queen butterfly, so free we suffocated herâ€“â€“
at the touch of water, her wings went limp, they hinged shut inside a yellow cave. We froze her.
The ice pulled her apart, opened her wings.
In the garage, we rested her inside her own cup beside cut meats.
Dad found her in the freezer, and asked us Why?
as he held her grave
like a drink in his hand.
*previously published in Bennington Review
To write fearlessly, To write vulnerably
Monica Sok : The emerging Khmer-American poet on myth making, inheriting histories, writing for sustenance with vulnerability, and her debut poetry collection, “ A Nail the Evening Hangs On”.
from “Year Zero”
On Mon, Jul 8, 2019 at 7:58 AM Michael Khuth <mkhuth@macalester. Whilethrough scrolling Facebook, through Facebook one day, I came across an Scrolling I came across an article writedu> wrote: article entitled, “The Cambodian Writers Who Are Reimagining CamboHi tenMonica, by Monica herself entitled, “The Cambodian Writers Who dian Literature.” Within the first few minutes of reading, I was struck by Are Reimagining Cambodian Literature”. Within the first few minthe author’s to write Khmer inpoetry, narratives thatcoming move beyond Iutes hope is well! desire So while reading a lotpeople of your I kept ofallreading, Istill immediately resonated with Monica’s desire toback trauma while acknowledging our history and its continued impact to the Khmer storytellers in my own life that that havemove influenced the trauma way I write andinthe write people in narratives beyond while the lives of modern Khmers. I was particularly intrigued by the author’s stories I choose to tell. You know I would listen to my yey recount moments also response acknowledging our history and howthe it continues influence to the infamous saying about lotus which to grows from mud. from her childhood as I plucked her gray hairs at night or while we’d cut “There is noIn way to undo history,” she writes, “We cannot outrun Khmers today. response to the known “lotus growing out of the the bokchoy at our family store. But it wasn’t just my yey. I remember growing genocide, even if we never lived through it ourselves. But we can dream mud” saying, Monica writes that “there isstay no up way to telling undo ghost history. up, I’dand sleep at my cousins’ houses and we late stories radically imagine the possibilities of our never people lived beyond trauma.itI We cannot outrun the genocide, even if we through or laughing funny experiences withisone another. I was you believeat the Cambodian narrative ready to get out of wondering the mud, to iftransourselves. we the canstorytellers dream and radically imagine the possibilities couldmogrify tell meBut about in your own life and how they may have the lotus into something as unexpected as snow”. of our people beyond for trauma. impacted your passion writing.I believe the Cambodian narrative is ready to getFloored out of by theher mud, to transmogrify the lotus something poems, I decided to reach out to into Monica through as unexpected as snow”. Warm regards, email to express my own hopes for Generation and see if she shared that vision. I wasby thrilled to see a Iwarm and enthusiastic response in my inbox Floored her poems, decided to reach out to Monica Michael just a few days later. my Withhopes Generation based in St.and Paul,if Minnesota through email to share for Generation she saw and Monica Oakland, weThankfully decided do a video chat. On Thu, Jul in 11, 2019 atCalifornia, 5:18vision. PM Monica Sokto<monicasokwrites@gmail. herself being a part of that within a few days, I recom> wrote: ceived a warm reply with big open arms. With Generation based in Just from that conversation, I learned a lot about Monica. She is St. Paul, Minnesota andperson Monica incarries Oakland, California, we demeanor. decided an incredibly humble withgrandma. her a veryI calm That’s such an intimate picture ofthat you and your love that you listo doOriginally a video from chat.Lancaster, Pennsylvania, Oakland where tened to her stories growing up, that she wasMonica willing moved to opentoup about them. I quickly learn quite a bit about Monica just from hearing her shesilence is currently Stegner aFellow University, however, Familial has ainformed lot of at myStanford writing actually. When I wasshe a kid, I speak. Monica is incredibly humble and carries with her a very calm tells me she doesn’t like starting out with “that” when introducing pieced together the memories my mom and dad were able to share.herself. Those Even came while actively working onmost her upcoming book of poems, she still demeanor. Originally Lancaster, Monica moved memories out as from fragments ofPennsylvania, the time. They also emerged finds time to teach writing to Southeast Asian at the Center for Emto Oakland where she is a Stegner Fellow at youths Stanford University. when we were driving somewhere. I always wondered about that––how my powering Refugees and Immigrants and as a poet-in-residence at BanHowever sheaccess tells me she doesn’t like starting “that” when parents could memories of Cambodia whenout wewith w0ere moving inside teay Srei––an Oakland based organization aimed to promote education, introducing herself. Although she’s incredibly busyofwith on a vehicle, which was kind of a safe space. I think both my working parents are leadership, and self determination to women at risk or engaged in sexual myth makers though. If they skipped over traumatic details in a story, they her upcoming exploitation.poetry book, she still finds the time to teach writing might have substituted the real for something much moreRefugees bearable for to Southeast Asian youths at thing the Center for Empowering me. So I can see how their storytelling has influenced the decisions I make and Immigrants and interview as a poet-in-residence at Banteay Srei- an The email that unfolded in the weeks following our initial in my writing. I try to use myth to move towards difficult subjects, and in that chat details inner workings a poet—what shapesleaderher writing Oakland basedMonica’s organization aimed toaspromote education, way, and it helps me as the writer create agency inside of the poem. chooses to write. Whetheratshe it or not,inMonica ship, andwhy selfshe determination to women riskrealises or engaged sexualis paving the way for writers throughout the diaspora by writing Khmer bodexploitation. ies/stories into literature and allowing readers to see themselves in her The email interview that unfolds weeks after our initial chat work. If she embodies the new wave of emerging Khmer storytellers, our details Monica’s inner workings a poet— what shapes her writing future is as bright and fresh as as snow.
and ultimately why she chooses to write. Whether Monica realises it or not, she is paving the way for writers throughout the diaspora by writing Khmer bodies/stories into literature and allowing readers to see themselves in her work. If Monica embodies the new wave of emerging Khmer storytellers, our future is as bright and fresh as snow.
On Mon, Jul 8, 2019 at 7:58 AM Michael Khuth <mkhuth@macalester. edu> wrote: Hi Monica, I hope all is well! So while reading a lot of your poetry, I kept coming back to the storytellers in my own life that have influenced the way I write and the stories I choose to tell. You know I would listen to my yey recount moments from her childhood as I plucked her gray hairs at night or while we’d cut bokchoy at our family store. But it wasn’t just my yey. I remember growing up, I’d sleep at my cousins’ houses and we stay up late telling ghost stories or laughing at funny experiences with one another. I was wondering if you could tell me about the storytellers in your own life and how they may have impacted your passion for writing. Warm regards, Michael
On Thu, Jul 11, 2019 at 5:18 PM Monica Sok <monicasokwrites@ gmail.com> wrote: That’s such an intimate picture of you and your grandma. I love that you listened to her stories growing up, that she was willing to open up about them. Familial silence has informed a lot of my writing actually. When I was a kid, I pieced together the memories my mom and dad were able to share. Those memories came out as fragments most of the time. They also emerged when we were driving somewhere. I always wondered about that––how my parents could access memories of Cambodia when we were moving inside a vehicle, which was kind of a safe space. I think both of my parents are myth makers though. If they skipped over traumatic details in a story, they might have substituted the real thing for something much more bearable for me. So I can see how their storytelling has influenced the decisions I make in my writing. I try to use myth to move towards difficult subjects, and in that way, it helps me as the writer create agency inside of the poem. On Fri, Jul 12, 2019 at 5:14 PM Michael Khuth <mkhuth@macalester. edu> wrote: Hi Monica, It’s interesting you bring up these notions of truth, memory, silence, and myths in relation to storytelling because I feel like that’s something that I do as well whenever recounting a story. This idea that we kind of dance around the truth in order to move through tough subjects without retraumatizing moments, to somehow get closer to the ‘real’ truth made from fragments of memories, or to reinstill agency in a story is something that resonates with me hearing stories my yey would tell me growing up. It makes me think of this poem I wrote about how my yey almost was shot when she was caught by a Khmer Rouge soldier for stealing rice for her sick mother. Even though my grandmother was basically powerless in that moment, the way I had written her made it seem like she could fight back, like she wasn’t scared of death. Would you say that writing your subjects with a sense of agency is important in your writing? Furthermore, I think it’s crucial for Khmer artists who are engaging in this process of memory work to not just simply retell these narratives but to also to engage with them in a way that feels progressive. Progressive in the sense of using these stories as a way of maybe allowing the reader to gain a more nuanced sense of history and people. Is this something you’ve reflected about while writing? Looking forward to hearing from you soon, Michael
â€œI think both of my parents are myth makers though. If they skipped over traumatic details in a story, they might have substituted the real thing for something much more bearable for me. So I can see how their storytelling has influenced the decisions I make in my writingâ€?
“How do we create a more nuanced sense of our history and people? Or rather, how do we come at the same subjects from different, fresher angles?... I’m excited to see how future generations want to approach this history through new perspectives, how the future might inform how we deal with the past. I have a lot of hope for the future of Cambodian literature. For me, in this present moment, I know that I’ll always be influenced by my family’s experiences during the Khmer Rouge regime. That part of my history will always influence the way I approach my writing” On Sat, Jul 13, 2019 at 4:31 PM Monica Sok <monicasokwrites@ gmail.com> wrote: I definitely try to prioritize agency for people and personas that appear in my work. And in that way, I hope to reclaim a narrative that has been marginalized, reduced, erased, or silenced. Even if the poem is wrestling with trauma or despair or some difficult subject, I still try to find a way to empower the speaker of the poem. This agency may look different each time. It may look like tenderness or forgiveness. It may look like sleep. It may even look angry. I view writing as a tool of self-empowerment, so it makes sense that you were also writing about your yeay as though she wasn’t afraid of death. Maybe in order to write poetry, we must be aware of death––it’s inevitable. But through poetry, I can refuse to be ruled by death. As for the process around memory work... I’m not sure about using the word progressive. Because progressive can mean so many different things to a Khmer person. Retelling narratives could be progressive in and of itself––especially when breaking a long-held silence. Breaking the silence is progressive, perhaps. But I think you’re pointing to something else around diaspora and the stories we choose to tell. How do we create a more nuanced sense of our history and people?
Or rather, how do we come at the same subjects from different, fresher angles? Fifty years from now, a Khmer poet might write about the genocide. I’m excited to see how future generations want to approach this history through new perspectives, how the future might inform how we deal with the past. I have a lot of hope for the future of Cambodian literature. For me, in this present moment, I know that I’ll always be influenced by my family’s experiences during the Khmer Rouge regime. That part of my history will always influence the way I approach my writing. My first book is about inheriting that history as a second generation Cambodian American woman. But I recognize the need to depart from survival literature, to expand the notion of diaspora, and celebrate the fullness of our human experiences. I’m excited to explore my obsessions in other ways. On Sun, Jul 14, 2019 at 1:24 PM Michael Khuth <email@example.com> wrote: I had never really considered how even speaking about the genocide could be a progressive act in itself especially within spaces or families where there still remains this silence around the matter. As you mentioned, I think I was getting more at the fact that I think it’s important that as Khmer artists to try to engage with this period of our history in a way that feels innovative? Innovative whether it be incorporating these experiences in art as a tool for healing or perhaps interrogating the genocide more varying perspectives. I don’t mean to say that this part of our history should be ignored or that it’s not worthy of further discussion/exploration because it’s such a fundamental part of how we move through the world as Khmer whether we realize it or not. I guess what I want to see more is Khmer artists incorporating our history within their work, but at the same not being solely limited to it. It’s all very tricky. I bring this all up because I think when we are constantly focusing on these survival narratives, many other experiences are left unspoken for or overlooked. I don’t know, for me it’s nice just reading or seeing work about Khmer people just doing very ordinary things. I feel like some of the poems from your chapbook Year Zero delve into seemingly day to day things such as burning garbage with your aunt or processing your father grappling with the loss. Although you explore these simple moments, your poems feel very layered with meaning. Meanings that I’m not sure I quite fully grasp, but maybe I’m reading too deep into things. I tend to do that. While reading your poetry, there was this attention to detail and level of specificity that really allowed me as the reader to live in moments and the people that you described. How do you go about crafting these poems with such precision? How do you create these levels of meaning within moments that appear very straightforward? Michael
On Tue, Jul 16, 2019 at 7:55 PM Monica Sok <monicasokwrites@gmail. com> wrote: I hear you. I definitely want to see more Cambodian narratives that portray very ordinary things as well. These days, I find myself moving away from history and inheritance to explore experiences around sex, power, race, womanhood, and the body more openly, and I think it’s kind of thrilling to move towards these subjects because they reflect my daily experiences in a more forthcoming way. The newer poems are about surviving too. As a woman of color. As a Khmer woman in America. As a daughter. As a lover. It’s hard though. There are times that I make myself small in my actual life. Or maybe I silence myself. Or I just don’t feel safe enough to go there. I wrestle with myself quite a bit when writing. I get in my own way. But I want to learn how to inhabit my own experiences on the page. And in order to be innovative in your writing, I believe that you have to give yourself permission to really speak the truth. It’s not easy. It takes time. Courage. Honesty. I was talking about my poems with another Khmer artist recently. She also said something similar about the specificity of my poems. We started talking about how much I love imagery. I believe that if I can tell you exactly what I see, you will be able to see it with me. You, as the reader, will be able to feel grounded in the experience, the time, the place, the feeling I’m trying to describe. At least I hope so. I think those moments require straightforwardness and precision, nothing embellished or romantic or grand. Whatever my own eyes see, I want the reader to see as well. I try to allow imagery in my work to reveal emotional truths. I like it when the same image repeats––but differently each time so that I can explore its meaning. But I notice a pattern. My poems loop in a circle if that makes sense. So sometimes I get frustrated, and I want to figure out new ways to work with language so that I can surprise myself.
“But I want to learn how to inhabit my own experiences on the page. And in order to be innovative in your writing, I believe that you have to give yourself permission to really speak the truth. It’s not easy. It takes time. Courage. Honesty”
On Wed, Jul 17, 2019 at 10:34 AM Michael Khuth <mkhuth@macalester. edu> wrote: Hi Monica, I completely understand where you’re coming from. I hear you too! You’re not small at all! You’re larger than life! You work is B I G. As artists, there’s definitely this internal struggle with yourself, the work you’re making, and vulnerability. You allude to an interesting idea of using art as a way of discovering more about oneself no matter how uncomfortable it may be. It’s very therapeutic in that regard. I think it’s especially frightening when I make work that is so closely tied to my identities as queer fem boy, as Khmer, as a child of immigrants, etc. because I see my work as extensions of myself. My art is like my baby you know? And when I finally decide to show people my work, at the end of the day it’s me being like, “Here’s a part of me. Do you get it? Do you understand where I’m coming from?” You really have to be your biggest cheerleader and own up to what you’re creating. Although making art from a very honest and raw place can be so frightening, it can also be so rewarding when someone sees it and just understands. It just reminds me that whenever I’m scared/’when I feel small’ to create/show work, that for every person that doesn’t quite get IT, they’ll be those who do. They always those who will be able to sympathize with the humanity in your art. I really love the idea of you constantly trying to find different ways of molding and experimenting with language and words to surprise even yourself. It kind of reminded me of this conversation with my friend about a documentary she saw about these three visual artists. I don’t remember the name of the documentary, but basically she was telling me about how one the artists mentions in an interview that when they’re making art, it’s important to always be in ‘a state of play’, a state of experimentation. Do you agree? If you were to give some advice to let’s say the younger Monica who’s writing her first poem or frustrated with her work or is falling out of love with storytelling, what would you tell her? Michael :)
On Wed, Jul 17, 2019 at 10:42 pm Monica Sok <monicasokwrites@ wrote: Ongmail.com> Wed, Jul 17, 2019 at 10:42 pm Monica Sok <monicasokwrites@ gmail.com> wrote: Hi Monica, Hi Monica, Thanks for your kind words. That internal struggle is sometimes called impostorfor syndrome. areThat daysinternal that I don’t knowisifsometimes what I’m writing Thanks your kindThere words. struggle calledreally immatters, to be honest. I’m not trying to talk about myself in a self-pitying way postor syndrome. There are days that I don’t know if what I’m writing really either. I don’t mean to sound like I’m feeling bad about myself. It’s just a matters, to be honest. I’m not trying to talk about myself in a self-pitying way reality for most artists. Sometimes question how art matters a world either. I don’t mean to sound like I’myou feeling bad about myself. It’sinjust a like this, when children are kept in cages and ICE is deporting our people reality for most artists. Sometimes you question how art matters in a world back to Cambodia when they had never set foot in the country. And yeah, it’s like this, when children are kept in cages and ICE is deporting our people scary to create work that feels close to home. I’m sure that, for you, writing back to Cambodia when they had never set foot in the country. And yeah, it’s around your narrative as a queer femme Khmer boy means you have to scary to create work that feels close to home. I’m sure that, for you, writing unpack many, many layers. I certainly hope to act as an ally for queer Khmer around your narrative as a queer femme Khmer boy means you have to writers too. On and off the page, I’m always trying to actively see others. unpack many, many layers. I certainly hope to act as an ally for queer Khmer writers too. On and off the page, I’m always trying to actively see others. When I share my work with people though, I don’t expect them to get where I’m coming from. There is true power in validating myself though. I don’t When share my work with peopleme, though, I don’t expect to getI’dwhere writeI for anyone else to validate because if that werethem the case, be I’mvery coming from.I’d There is true power validating myself though. I don’t unhappy. be unhappy all thein time or I’d stop writing. I mean I deal write anyone else to as validate me,when because if that were case, I’d be withfor a lot of rejections well. So a reader does getthe it though––espevery unhappy. I’d be unhappy all the time or I’d stop writing. I mean I deal cially someone who isn’t my friend or a family member––then it means the with a lot of rejections as well. So when a reader does get it though––espeworld to me. That’s another type of surprise. It’s that rewarding feeling that cially someone my friend or a familyreading member––then it means the sneaks up on who you. isn’t Sometimes a stranger’s of my poem teaches me world to me. That’s another type of surprise. It’s that feelingtothat something that I didn’t even know. And that helps usrewarding all move closer our sneaks up on you. Sometimes a stranger’s reading of my poem teaches me own true selves. something that I didn’t even know. And that helps us all move closer to our own true selves. Play is very, very important to writing. If I had to give advice to my younger self because I felt stuck in my writing, I would probably tell her to go dancing. Play very, very important to writing. If walk. I had Literally to give advice myget younger I’d is say: Girl, move your body. Go for a go playtoand out of self because I felt stuck in my writing, would probably tella her go dancing. your mind. Indulge in ice cream. TakeI a bubble bath. Do facetomask. Don’t I’dthink. say: Girl, move for mind a walk. gowe play and about get out of Writing canyour takebody. place Go in the so Literally much that forget our bodies. if we forget about our bodies, then bath. whereDo can the poem your mind.But Indulge in ice cream. Take a bubble a face mask.actually Don’t live?Writing can take place in the mind so much that we forget about our think. bodies. But if we forget about our bodies, then where can the poem actually live?
“Writing can take place in the mind so much that we forget about our bodies. but if we frorget about our bodies, then where can the poem actually live?”
eo el th tlf me
“When I share my work with people though, I don’t expect them to get where I’m coming from. There is true power in validating myself though. I don’t write for anyone else to validate me, because if that were the case, I’d be very unhappy. I’d be unhappy all the time or I’d stop writing” On Sat, Jul 20,2019 at 1:51 pm Michael Khuth <mkhuth@macalester. edu> wrote: Hi Monica! First the 2019 Ruth First of of all all congratulations congratulationson onbeing beingselected selectedasasa afinalist finalistforfor the 2019 Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Poetry Fellowship! Such an amazing Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Poetry Fellowship! Such an amazing feat feat and and I’m I’m wishing wishingyou youall allthe thebest! best!
It sounds like you write with this fearlessness and determination which is very Itadmirable. sounds like write with this fearlessness andthough determination is It’syou brave really, to write things even no one which but yourself very admirable. It’s brave really, to write things even though no one but may understand. Hearing you speak about your writing embodies for me this yourself may understand. Hearing you speak about your writing embodies desire as an artist to create work not for appraise, but for yourself and befor me this desire as an artist to create work not for appraise, but for yourself cause you simply love to write. You don’t seem to be at all concerned with the and because you simply love to write. You don’t seem to be at all concerned approval of others and that’s really amazing in itself. with the approval of others and that’s really amazing in itself. I think thats great, sound advice! The body needs to rest! Whether it be a cool charcoal clay mask before bed or a Mcdonald’s mcflurry while strolling I think thats great, sound advice! The body needs to rest! Whether it be a through the neighborhood. The bed bodyorneeds to rest because poetrystrolling can’t live cool charcoal clay mask before a Mcdonald’s mcflurry while without it! through the neighborhood. The body needs to rest because poetry can’t live I think poetry lives in the mouth. Poetry stays still on the page and must alwithout it! ways be spoken out loud to move and live again. As you mention, writing can take uppoetry so much in mind that we can forget thatthe poetry be always I think livestime in the mouth. Poetry stays still on pageshould and must heard out It needs voice. Clearly, workwriting has even always be loud. spoken out loud to move and someone live again.reading As you your mention, taught you valuable things. I’m curious, what was one thing you’ve learned can take up so much time in mind that we can forget that poetry should be while someone work voice. that has restedsomeone with you? always heard outread loud.your It needs Clearly, reading your work Throughout this you entire conversation, I keep returning both and has even taught valuable things. I’m curious, what to was oneaudience thing you’ve intent. learned while someone read your work that has rested with you? Ultimately my final questions for you are who do you write for and why do you write? Would you say conversation, that in a sense you write for yourself? Throughout this entire I keep returning to both audience and intent. Ultimately my final questions for you are who do you write for and why do you write? Would you say that in a sense you write for yourself?
“Why do I write? That’s always a hard question to answer. I’ll say that I write for sustenance. It’s deeper than writing “Why do I write? That’s for myself or for anyone always a hard question else. If I wrote solely for to answer. I’ll say that myself, then you would I write for sustenance.
On Fri, Jul 26, 2019 at 3:45 pm Monica Sok <monicasokwrites@gmail. com> wrote: Thank you, Michael. I am so honored to be a finalist for the Ruth Lilly this year. I applied six times, which means I was rejected five times over the last five years. And this time, someone must have noticed my application and advocated for me. I am glad I kept trying despite the rejections. That fearlessness you speak of begins in vulnerability. I always feel vulnerable sharing my work with others in any given space––with friends, with editors, any audience. Family too. While I don’t let the opinions of others drive my creative process, I do hope others will connect with my words. And sometimes I find that people are not ready to receive my poems, and I’m okay with that too. I consider my audience by asking myself questions that hold myself accountable as a writer. I try to be responsible for all the ways my poem is in conversation with a larger history, larger than myself. I always hope to be conscious of my words. I don’t want to perpetuate violence in any way, and this may be why I take a while to abandon a poem. Someone once told me that my poems were defiant, and that stayed with me. In my poem “Here Is Your Name,” I’m the child speaker singing “Feel So Good” by Mase at the dinner table: Bad bad bad bad boy! You make me feel so good! I kind of giggled at what she called defiance, which I didn’t know was a good thing until someone else affirmed that for me. And from that comment, I wonder if desire is a form of defiance too. Why do I write? That’s always a hard question to answer. I’ll say that I write for sustenance. It’s deeper than writing for myself or for anyone else. If I wrote solely for myself, then you would never know about my poems. It’d be similar to keeping a secret diary. Hopefully my poems can provide sustenance for others too. The last lines in “These Poems” by June Jordan really move me: “I am a stranger / learning to worship the strangers / around me // whoever you are / whoever I may become.” I believe this is why I write.
“Why do I write? That’s always a hard question to answer. I’ll say that I write for sustenance. It’s deeper than writing for myself or for anyone else. If I wrote solely for myself, then you would never know about my poems. It’d be similar to keeping a secret diary”
“I will fit fit “Idon’t don’tknow knowhow how my my book book will into the stostointoKhmer Khmerliterature literature and and the ries either. riesof ofdiaspora diaspora as as a a whole whole either. That put into into Thatmay maybe besomething something to to put context road. II contextlater lateron on down down the the road. just othjusthope hopereaders, readers, especially especially other erKhmers, Khmers,will will feel feel cared cared for in the writtheway wayIIfelt feltcared cared for for while writing can ingthis thisbook. book. II hope hope the book can act enter actas asaadoor doorfor for people people to enter themselves” themselves”
On Sun, Julknow 28, 2019 athow 4:36 PMmy Michael Khuth <mkhuth@macalester. “I don’t book will fit edu> wrote: into Khmer literature and the stoLooks likediaspora 6th times the charm! Clearly, someone recognized your determiries of as a whole either. nation and talent. Just know you’re making the community (and our ancesThat may something to put into tors) proud and be the fact that you’ve made it this far is already an accomplishment. We are with you! Hope you make it to the very end! context later on down the road. I I’m sure your poetry provides healing and sustenance for readers. just hope readers, especially oth-It certainly has for me. Like you mentioned, the fact that you write from vulnererable Khmers, willreaders feelto cared in My last, last and raw place allows connect with for your work. questions your upcoming poetry book, A Nail thewritEvening Hangs the wayareI for felt cared for while On. What inspired the title for this new body of work? What can readers ing this I hope the book expect from book. it? How do you see this body of literature fittingcan into the larger Khmer diaspora as a whole, and ultimately, what do you hope for readers act as a door for people to enter to take away after reading it? themselves”
On Tue, Jul 30, 2019 at 6:27 pm Monica Sok <monicasokwrites@ gmail.com> wrote: Well, my myparents parentscame cametotovisit visitme meininOakland Oaklandrecently. recently. They were excitWell, They were excited ed about the news, and because it was my birthday a few days later, my about the news, and because it was my birthday a few days later, my mothmother wanted to up wake uparound early around theoftime of my give offerer wanted to wake early the time my birth to birth give to offerings to ings to my grandmother. We went to the farmer’s market and bought flowmy grandmother. We went to the farmer’s market and bought flowers. She ers. She made samlar curry and we bought from rambutan from Chinatown. We made samlar curry and we bought rambutan Chinatown. We had quite quite We a spread. We and lit incense prayed to theand ancestors and gave ahad spread. lit incense prayedand to the ancestors gave thanks. So thanks. Somy that’s how my familytoresponded that’s how family responded the news. to the news. The title A Nail the Evening Hangs On was actually a line from an old love poem. teacher Yusef Komunyakaa salvaged linefrom andan told me it The titleMy A Nail the Evening Hangs On was actuallythis a line old love would make a great title for a book. I carried that line with me for many poem. My teacher Yusef Komunyakaa salvaged this line and told me it would years auntil it could again the me poem the Loom.” make great title formanifest a book. itself I carried thatinside line with for “Ode manyto years until itAnd could itself the mean poem something “Ode to thenew Loom.” And for Ime, formanifest me, I love an again imageinside that can each time Ilook loveat anit.image that canwhat mean new each timefrom I look at book. it. I’m not I’m not sure mysomething readers should expect this I shy sure readers should expect from this shy fit away expecawaywhat frommy expectations. I don’t know how mybook. bookI will into from Khmer litertations. I don’t my book as willafitwhole into Khmer stories ature and the know storieshow of diaspora either.literature That mayand bethe something of diaspora as a whole either. That may be something to put into context to put into context later on down the road. I just hope readers, especially later down the just hope other Khmers, will feel otheron Khmers, willroad. feel Icared for inreaders, the wayespecially I felt cared for while writing this cared for in the way I felt cared for while writing this book. I hope the book book. I hope the book can act as a door for people to enter themselves. can act as a door for people to enter themselves.
Prey Veng Monica Sok Ba’s friend from Prey Veng is dying inside his wooden stilt house. Rain hammers the man’s roof, it shakes the floor. His chest an anvil, he can’t get up to show respect so he sampeah. Take off your shoes, Goan Srei, Ba whispers. Don’t want to wake the floor. Ba tells his friend, Your ribs are bruised from sleeping on these slats. His friend says, But heaven spreads out straw mats to make floors. My first time meeting the man, I offer chek from our banana tree and leave forty dollars next to a plate of sponge cakes on the floor. Now behind us, it seems the whole village has come to his door. Even chickens gather on the dirt underneath this fake floor. One woman opens her purse, gives a few riel to help him buy herbs. Ba puts down more money for the man as if he wants to break the floor. Two days later, we hear Sam Ol from Prey Veng died from a stroke. Burning dead leaves in the yard, Ba falls down—but how his knees rake the floor.
*previously published by Omniverse
Monica Sok is the author of A Nail the Evening Hangs On is forthcoming from Copper Canyon Press in February 2020. Her work has been recognized with a â€œDiscoveryâ€? Prize from 92Y. Other honors include fellowships and residencies from Hedgebrook, Elizabeth George Foundation, National Endowment for the Arts, Kundiman, Jerome Foundation, MacDowell Colony, Saltonstall Foundation, and others. IG: @monicajuice / Twitter: @monicasokwrites or www.monicasok.com
Under the Tamarind Tree Under the Tamarind Tree Sokunthea Oum Sokunthea Oum Momma sitting by her side Momma sitting by her side Swatting flies Swatting flies Under the cover of a shanty shack palm tree roof Under the cover of a shanty shack palm tree roof Under the tamarind tree Under the tamarind tree Vietnamese soldiers dusting up plumes red dirt storm Vietnamese soldiers dusting up plumes red dirt storm On Onananoffensive offensiveattack. attack. Khmer KhmerRouge Rougeretreat retreatininchaos chaos Scattering in disguise Scattering in disguise On Onthe theback backofoftheir theirheads headswhite whitefrightened frightenedeyes eyes InInand andout outofofdream dreamstage stage Lying Lyingininthe thesearing searingdusty dustydry dryseason seasonheat heat Remembering being pulled and propped Remembering being pulled and proppedup upto toseat seat Lifeless rag doll Lifeless rag doll Momma Mommaputting puttingspoon spoontotoher herlips lipsto toforce forcefeed feed Didnâ€™t want to eat but sleep Didnâ€™t want to eat but sleep Kru Kruemerged emergedtotobless blessand andchase chaseaway awaythe theevil evilspirit spirit That Thatlatched latchedonto ontoher hersoul soulwhen whenwe wesought soughtshelter shelter Visiting Visitingmedical medicalindividuals individualswould wouldcome comeand andgo gofor forweeks weeks With hollow pills to swallow With hollow pills to swallow Long Longlarge largeneedles needlestotoshoot shootclear clearliquids liquids Butt Buttcheeks cheeksred redand andsore sore Covered Coveredwith withscores scoresofofprick prickmarks marksall allover over The Thelook lookofofa afrightened frightenedgrave graveface facemother mother hazymemory memoryunder underthe thetamarind tamarindtree tree InInhazy Rememberingthat thatdistinct distinctfeel feelto toslumber slumberand andnot notbe bebothbothRemembering ered ered Thewhisper whisperofofworries worriesand andsoft softcries cries The Drainedwith withtries tries Drained The dying girl takentotoaadusty dustydirty dirtymakeshift makeshiftmilitary militaryclinic clinic The dying girl taken Whenan anivy ivydrip dripcosted costedthem theman anarm armand andaaleg leg When AwakentotoMomma Mommacaressing caressingher hercheek cheek Awaken weatheredwoman womansmile smiletotoher hergirl girlbeing beingon onthe themend mend AAweathered With her eyes being able to stay open With her eyes being able to stay open Notananend end Not
ស្លឹកបះ (sluk bah) ស្លឹកបះ (sluk bah) Sokunthea Oum Sokunthea Oum
Ivy Leaf Ivy Leaf
កូនស្រីជួយទៅរក (Khon srei chuol កូនស្រីជួយទៅរក(Khonsreichuol thaow rho) thaow rho) ស្លឹកបះ (Sluk bah) ស្លឹកបះ (Sluk bah) ខ្ចីខ្ចីមិនចាស់ (Kchaeh kchaeh ខ្ចីខ្ចីមិនចាស់(Kchaehkchaeh mn chah) chah) mn ម៉ាក់សុំបាន (Mak som bhan) ម៉ាក់សុំបាន (Mak som bhan) ខ្ ល ាញ់ ជ រ ្ ក ូ មួ យ ដុ ធ ំ ំ (Klaegn ខ្លាញ់ជ្រូកមួយដុំធំ(Klaegn Chrouk muy muydom domtom) tom) Chrouk ប៉ុនមេដៃ (Pun(Pun mehmeh dai) dai) ប៉ុនមេដៃ ធ្ វ ស ើ ម្ ល កកូ រ (Terh sawlaw ធ្វើសម្លកកូរ(Terh sawlawkawkkawkho) ho) ឱ្យកូនទាំងអស់ (Auw khon ឱ្យកូនទាំងអស់ (Auw khonthong thong auh) auh)
Daughter go help find Daughter go help find Ivy leaf Ivy leaf Tender new leaf not old Tender new leaf not old Mom (I have) asked for (and Mom (I have) asked for (and received) received) Onelarge largepiece pieceofofpork porkfat fat One The size of thumb The size of thumb Makemix mixstew stew Make Forall allyou youchildren children For
Don’tbe bebe bedisgusted disgusted Don’t (Goahead ahead) )Eat EatEat Eat (Go Mom (I am) not hungrynow now Mom (I am) not hungry don’thave haveanything anythingelse else I Idon’t Don’thave haverice rice(unhusked (unhuskedgrain) grain) Don’t កុំខ្ពើម (Khom kperm) កុំខ្ពើម (Khom kperm) Don’thave haverice rice(husked) (husked) សុីទៅសុីទៅ (See thauh see see thauh) សុីទៅសុីទៅ (Seethauh thauh) Don’t Don’t have rice (cooked) ម៉ាក់ អត់អត់ឃ្លានទេឥឡូវ ឃ្លានទេឥឡូវ (Mak aut ម៉ាក់ (Mak aut Don’t have rice (cooked) Haveonly onlydirt dirt Have klien theh theh ilauv) ilauv) klien អត់មានអីទៀតទេ (Aut mien eh eh អត់មានអីទៀតទេ (Aut mien thiet theh) theh) thiet អត់មានស្រូវ (Aut(Aut mien srauv) អត់មានស្រូវ mien srauv) អត់ ម ានអង្ ក រ (Aut mien angkor) អត់មានអង្ករ (Aut mien angkor) អត់មានបាយ (Aut mien bye) អត់មានបាយ (Aut mien bye) មានតែដី (Mian thae dey) មានតែដី (Mian thae dey)
Sokunthea Sokunthea Oum Oumisisaasurvivor survivorof ofthe theKhmer KhmerRouge Rougeand andimmigrated immigrated to US US in in 1979. 1979.In Inaddition additionto tobeing beingthe themother motherofoftwo twocollege collegestudents students and an an advocate advocatefor forGirls’ Girls’Education, Education,she sheteaches teachesyoga yogaand andmeditameditation. Sokunthea makes annual trips to Cambodia to share her tion. Sokunthea makes annual trips to Cambodia to share herlove love for the practices. Through meditation, she has found a glimpse of for the practices. Through meditation, she has found a glimpse ofher her voice voice in in poetry poetryform. form.One Oneday, day,she shehopes hopestotopublish publishaacollection collectionofof her her poems. poems. IG: @sokunthea.oum @sokunthea.oum
Cast away from the motherland with nothing but an empty stomach Strange how 35 years have passed and yet I’m still starving Awakened from a nightmare that seemed to go on forever Now I’m ready to take this burden off my shoulders No more shame No more fears And no more guilt For I will build this house of stilt. - Ty Chum
Ty Chum is Cambodian refugee, business owner, political candidate, and a father of three little ones. He fell in love with his culture and history during his journey in empowering his kids and loved ones. He hopes to create a legacy that will last forever, one that will inspire and empower those around him. To learn more about Ty Chum’s work : Website: https://www.chumforlowell.com/ FaceBook: https://www.facebook.com/ty.chum
Rechoreographing the Heavens Photography / Interview Michael Khuth
A conversation with Prumsodun Ok on sculpting Cambodiaâ€™s first gay dance company, the power of a fragile art form, and his hopes to change the world. Featuring photographs of the NATYARASA dance troupe : Chan Sory, Dy Puthik, Morn Sopharoth, Soeurn Chamreoun, Tes Sokhon, Touch Ponmonyka
The lights dim into a warm red and yellow, and I watch as the Natyarasa dancers walk slowly onto the main stage. They begin to dance with poise and fragility as if gliding through water. Golden apsaras shimmering as they sway to the rhythm of the music- hands bending backward into flowers while mimicking the flow of water. It’s unbelievable that only an hour ago, I was surrounded by 6 young men from Phnom Penh laughing and chatting as they helped each other get dressed, which I was told takes anywhere from 1 to 2 hours for their weekly Sunday performances at the Counterspace Theater in Phnom Penh. I watched as some steadily applied eyeliner and wigs in the cramped hallway mirror, while others assisted in pleating each other’s skirts before laying on heaps jewelry. After hours of tedious preparation, they had transformed themselves into something entirely otherworldly. As they dance, I begin to think of those before them, how classical dance had been nearly lost under the Pol Pot regime, and the fact that these were all gay Khmer men. Growing up in houses filled with paintings female apsaras and countless New Year’s performances, I had grown up to view the art form of classical dance as strictly reserved for cis gender Khmer women. However, Prumsodun Ok and Natyarasa were revolutionizing all of that. To dance with Natyarasa then, is to breathe new life into ancient tradition. After the show, I thank Prumsodun. Since seeing his TED Talk regarding the art of Khmer dance nearly 2 years ago, I knew that one day I’d have to meet him. Jet-lagged from his recent trip back from Cleveland, we decide to meet the morning after at a small cafe shop in the heart of Phnom Penh. The day after the performance, I prepare for our interview only a few hours before my flight back to the United States. With my back slicked with evening sweat and my hand gripped tightly around my camera bag/notepad, I hop into a tuk tuk and head towards downtown. I pull out my moleskin and begin to rehearse scribbled questions as the car weaves between sounds and smells of the city—the swirling brown dust roads,old yeays shouting in pastel floral bucket hats, vendors selling chopped swai and smoke roasted quail, and the hum of motorcycles zooming past us. Little did I know that the interview to follow would teach me not just about Khmer classical dance, or Prumsodun, but also the power of embracing who you are and art as a tool to enact change.
Michael: So before we get into more about traditional dance and Natyarasa, can you describe your childhood in Long Beach,California? You know when I was little, I don’t think I had this appreciation for traditional Khmer art and culture and I was wondering if you had this appreciation for traditional dance since a young age or if it was something you learned to appreciate as you grew older? Prumsodun: So I was born and raised in Long Beach to Khmer refugee parents who survived the Khmer Rouge, the refugee camps in Thailand, and eventually immigrated to California. At that time Long Beach … wasn’t a good place live. We immigrated towards the end of the LA race riots and so there’s a lot of racial tension and gang warfare -there was a lot of violence in Long Beach. When you think about the community, you have these elder refugee parents who often didn’t speak that much English and my generation who don’t often speak Khmer. It was a world of cyclical violence and poverty, a world of language barriers and cultural rifts, a world of intergenerational trauma. That was the environment that I grew up in. However, amongst all of that harshness, there was always a sense of grace in my life. I remember when I was 4 years old, I saw a video of young amateur dancers performing in cheap costumes. Instead of flower garlands they wore tinsel that you’d wrap around a Christmas tree. Silk skirts were fabricated out of cheap cloth. Also their quality of dance was very terrible. I often think about that. Everything about that video was not good, but somehow as a four year old I really loved it. It makes me think about the spirit of the dance. The beauty of the dance is so powerful that even when it’s watered and broken down, someone as ignorant as a four year old can see how magical that art form is. So as a four year old, I used to put on my sister’s red dress and imitate the dances and add twirls here and there, and my family would encourage and record me. And it wasn’t until I was 16 where I finally found a teacher, Sophiline Cheam Shapiro. Initially my sister started dancing before I did, and I used to go and watch her. Since it is understood as traditionally a female art form, I didn’t have the courage to go up and dance. So I would go and watch for a whole entire year, until I finally had the courage to go up and ask Sophiline to teach me how to dance.
“The beauty of the dance is so powerful that even when it’s watered and broken down, someone as ignorant as a four year old can see how magical that art form is.”
Michael: Was she hesitant at first? Prumsodun: She was immediately open and not hesitant at all. Actually at my first rehearsal, it was smaller because she was teaching us demon roles, which the others hadn’t learned. So it was maybe me and four other dancers. After the rehearsal she got so excited and she was like, “Prum you can be Preh Ream.” As a 16 year old in America with very little connection to Cambodia and Khmer culture, I didn’t know who that was. So Preh Ream, or Prince Rama, is the hero of Ramayana. Basically the most important male character in the tradition. The next day I’m sitting down watching everyone practicing because I didn’t think I could join the full class, and she calls me over, and I start dancing with everyone. Everyone just started looking at me and they were like, “this makes sense”. Michael: A star is born. We both chuckle. Prumsodun: Yeah, and in one month I was already one of her best dancers. Michael: A YOUNG PRODIGY. Prumsodun: I mean I don’t know , whenever dancers from Cambodia would come to America, they would see me and say, “Prum has Nisai,” or an attachment, a karmic bond, a connection to the dance. And even when I was in my college years, I was picking up a dancer who was doing a residency at UCLA and she turned to me and said, “Oh so you’re Prum, I was told the first thing to see when coming to America was to see you dance.” Michael: It sounds like you’ve had a lot of encouragement growing up. Were your parents always so supportive since the get-go? Prumsodun: So actually when I was younger, it was something “cute”. You know at four years old you don’t know what you’re doing, but when I was 16, they actually tried to stop me from dancing. My parents grew up in the land, tied to the sun and the rain. If any of those things didn’t deliver that meant they would struggle or die. So for them life was a culture of survival and growing up America, that’s not necessarily something that comes to mind. On top of that, I was apart of a magnet program in high school that was training us to go to schools like Harvard and MIT. So for my parents, I was the possibility of breaking out of this cycle of struggle so they really did everything that they could to stop me from dancing. My mom even threatened to disown me once and my brother would sometimes beat me up as he grew tired of me
and my mom arguing. So it was not an encouraging environment actually. But that said, I think that that environment really gave me a warrior spirit and really taught me how to fight for what I believe in and what I want. No-one likes to say that their mom threatened to disown them, but I wouldn’t change my experience. Because it really gave me the strength and the courage to be who I am today. It really gave me the sense that I need to get the hell out of Long Beach and a hunger for the world, and I wouldn’t be here in Phnom Penh if it weren’t for what I’ve been through. Michael: Sorry if I misunderstood, but did your parents try to prevent you from dancing more for financial reasons versus issues with going against Khmer gender norms? Prumsodun: My parents, although they were really old, never had a problem with my sexuality or going against norms. On the other hand, my older brother and sisters, who were really caught up with trying to be “American”, were less open minded more rigid. There was the sense that we needed to fit in. But my parents were never upset with my sexuality. They were always loving. Michael: So that was all around the age of 16. After that, where did you go from there? Prumsodun: So I had been dancing with Sophiline two years by the time I had left school. I then went on to study experimental film and photography at San Francisco Art Institute. But while I was in San Francisco I was organizing performances and film screenings related to performance. Michael: Can you walk me through NATYASARA began? Prumsodun: So actually I left the art school because the school was changing, with all the staff members that I really inspired and nurtured me leaving due to the different vision of administration. So after college there was a period where I was teaching Khmer classical dance, going to school at UCLA , creating my own work. So had these different stints. Around 2011/2012, I became the assistant associate director of Khmer Arts. During my time there was teaching a lot of Khmer Americans, and I taught there until maybe 2015. In the beginning it was great. I loved my students, but as time kept passing I realized that my students no matter how much potential they had, none of them would become artists because they didn’t come from families that say, “yeah you can make a living from classical dance, you can survive , you can be who you are”. So it made me really question the value of my time in that space. Especially when young Khmer Americans say “Oh this is my culture” and I ask what is your
culture and they say “Khmer” and I say “what’s Khmer?” and then there are crickets after. So instead of culture being a set of values, your beliefs, intangible things that connect you across time and space and borders, it became very limited to ethnic identity. That’s not how I understand culture. Furthermore dance is not just a celebration of ethnic identity, it a tool, it’s a medium, it’s a language, a vocabulary to shape and transform the world. It was this thing where what I wanted to do with dance I couldn’t do it with the people around me. So as I started to feel that more. It also made me realise that I was getting older, cause as dancers we have time limits. I was 27 when I started to feel old and so because of that, I started to travel. I went to Brazil, Chile, Mexico city practically looking for home basically. I decided to move to Mexico City because I had friends there who were some of the leading filmmakers and theatre directors. So I was ready for this romantic artist life. So when I quit my job, my teacher and her husband were disappointed initially because they were hoping I’d take care of that space. But right after I quit, I received this grant that I forgot that I had applied to develop a project called “Beloved” in Cambodia. So “Beloved” is inspired by a Khmer ritual recorded during the 13th century , where the king would climb to the top a temple every night to make love to a Naga which would take the form of a woman. If the Naga woman doesn’t show up it means that the king is going to die soon. If the king doesn’t show up it means that drought, disease, famine, some sort of destruction would reap upon the land. So this was a tantric ritual in which the union of masculine and feminine was believed to renew life, was believed to ensure the prosperity of the kingdom. So the conceptual idea behind “Beloved” was what would it mean if I took a love so powerful that it renews life itself, and cast that role into bodies that are considered illegal or bodies that are considered contrary to nature. So because of that, I needed young gay male dancers to perform. So I asked my friend to help me find dancers and 12 dancers came in to audition here in Phnom Penh. Initially I was going to choose them from the first audition but I realised that’s not enough. It’s not enough to have beautiful bodies. I need to know if they’re good people, I need to know if they’re brave people, if they’re curious and open minded people. I ended up doing a 3 month audition process in my living room. When I first came to Phnom Penh, my friend told me that the country/the arts needed me and that I needed to stay. I was hesitant because everywhere I looked I saw so much struggle, sadness, and poverty. To love the people, the country, the culture, and feel like you can do anything to help in a meaningful way is heartbreaking. But that said, about a month and a half in, I took a look at the dancers and I thought “wow they’re all synchronized and in tune with one another, they look like a real dance company”. I had this epiphany that Cambodia’s first gay dance company formed in my living room. I soon realized that if I wanted to make the biggest impact on art and humanity that I had to do it from Cambodia.
Michael: Was there any fear or backlash when engaging in work that in a sense goes against years of tradition of Khmer dance as a space for predominantly cis gender Khmer women ? Prumsodun: Initially when we started, I think that the young men were afraid because one they never had access to this dance form. And two, to come forth and say that we are Cambodia’s first gay dance company, it’s a level of being out that they have never even dreamed of. For example when we had our debut in Cambodia June 2016, it was at the department of performing arts, which is run by the ministry of culture. When I mentioned that we would be dancing in that space, they freaked out. They got scared. This was an official government space and for them they had been dancing in hiding for so long, and to be visible and open to the critical eye in Cambodia where artists are known for being critical of things that are new and different, was scary. So the dancers were initially very afraid. Since I’ve come here, many people have seen the transformation of these young men around me, they went from being invisible to being some of the best dancers in the country. They’re making a wage to support their families, to pay for their own college tuitions, they’re traveling all over the world to perform. So when people have seen the transformation of these dancers, it’s opened up a lot of acceptance for the company.And I tell my students that, “people can call you whatever they want, they can say whatever they want. Just make sure they don’t say that you can’t dance beautifully.Because you can’t please everyone. Just make sure you’re at a level, at a point where they can’t say you didn’t dance beautifully”. Michael: While watching your show, one thing that stood out to me was the merge of Sam Smith’s “Lay Me Down” and Khmer traditional dancing. Can you explain the process of choreographing a dance that merges contemporary music and a classic art form? Prumsodun: So actually that piece is a favourite of many people because it allows people in the English speaking world because it also people to understand and see the language of Khmer dance. Today in Cambodia, if you look around there are all these new buildings being built and everyone is chasing after this idea of progress. And certainly in Khmer dance, the idea of progress is often contemporary dance. So basically white Eurocentric aesthetics. Without thinking, those forms are not anymore universal than Khmer dance. And so, as a Khmer American, as an artists working with many different mediums, and someone rooted in schools where I learned to understand tradition but also studying film in a way where it was not about making movies in Hollywood but rather forging your own cinematic language, I live in and between many different worlds. So that piece feels very natural to me. Dance is something that lives inside of me and pop music is something that I really love so merging them was not an issue for me. And actually
that piece started as a joke. I was trained in art school. You know , people in art school were like we wouldn’t touch this low culture. Laughs. I was kind of snooty when I was younger and I would literally laugh while performing it. But its evolved into one of our signature pieces. Michael: How do you go about casting roles for the performances? Prumsodun: With the roles there are two things. First you really have to look at the spirit of the dancers. The dancers right now are split into male and female roles. But then there’s what kind of man, what kind of woman are you. Are you an old king or a young prince. Are you a divine woman or a woman on the street? Each dancer brings a certain natural beauty and energy in their performance. The easiest thing to do is to cast them according to characters that are aligned with their spirit. However, my company is very small so there are times where casting dancers to characters that align with them isn’t an option. What if I need a king who is in his late thirties and uses magic. And my dancer is only 19. He wouldn’t understand that. It’s a lifelong process of exploring these roles and who they are and what they mean. And it’s not an easy process. In Khmer sometimes we say that the dancers haven’t been fully cooked into their roles yet. Understanding a role with your brain is not the same as understanding it with your heart and your body. Michael: When teaching roles, how do you get your students to fully understand them? Is there a big research element? Prumsodun: So there are certain things that cannot be taught. There are certain things that you can be guided to, but not taught. How to be a star/ How to perform a character is not something that you teach, it’s something you guide someone to. We can say ok this character at this moment is afraid and a fear of a young boy who’s about to lose his mother, but it’s the performers’ jobs to really understand that body, mind, and soul. The teacher in this moment guides them but it’s not something that can be taught. A lot of people say you have it or you don’t. And some people really have it but they’re not showing it. It’s my job as a teacher to really pull that out? Michael: Is that the case with many of your dancers ? Prumsodun: Yeah. Many of the dancers were ignored and never had opportunities to dance in the front. After training with me all of a sudden, everyone that knew them, just became surprised because the dancers woke up basically.I think that as a teacher, your job is to wake people up. Michael: While watching the performances, I realized that these dancers are really juggling many different skills that go beyond just danc-
ing. There’s dancing, there’s singing, and as you already touched upon, acting- emulating their roles. Out of all the roles you performed, which one is your favourite? Prumsodun: I’ve performed male roles, females roles, demon roles. I wouldn’t say that I have a favourite role, but I can say that I gravitate towards more sacred dances. To me, the sacred dances embody the beauty, the magic of Khmer dance. Michael: I can’t word it as eloquently as you, but after your show you mentioned using Khmer dance to re-choreograph the heavens. Can you explain that in further detail? Prumsodun: So Khmer classical dance is more than a thousand years old but it is also a ritual mirror of heaven. So the dancers transform themselves via movement, via costume, via language into the gods. The idea is that when you recreate heaven on earth you also recreate the order, the beauty, and the well being of heaven. So if you look into this ritual mirror and you don’t see a reflection of yourself, it means you don’t exist. And because you’re not visible, you’re misunderstood, stigmatized, beaten,burned, thrown off of buildings -cruel things that LGBTQ+ people all over the world experience. To create a space for LGBTQ+ people within this tradition is nothing less than forging,carving a space for LGBTQ+ people in heaven itself. The act of re-choreographing heaven is therefore an act of re-choreographing society that both shapes that image of heaven as well as model itself after that image. Michael: I just wanted to thank you again for all that you’re doing. You know, when I came across your dance in some youtube video during highschool, it made me feel so comfortable and proud in my own skin. Representation is so important in the LGBTQ+ community because like you mention there’s this negative stigma around queerness because there’s this fear of the unfamiliar I think. At that time seeing queer reprsentation was so important for me as I was grappling with my sexuality, but seeing you and your dancers perform hit so much closer to home because it was representation within my own community. Seeing men who were both gay and Khmer doing what they loved to do was what I really needed. And I can’t thank you enough for that. I was wondering if there were any queer Khmer individuals in your own life that you looked up to? Prumsodun: There was never really a figure in Khmer culture that I could look up to. Michael: Well now you’re it! He chuckles.
Prumsodun: Yeah I think for many people I am it now. You know growing up, there was never anyone I could look to for things like that. Just to give you an example, I love my teacher so much, but she could never make anything that reflects my experience, and so I have to do it. I think we all have this responsibility to offer ourselves and be honest with the world. To have that courage, to have that bravery. Even turning on the TV, it was rare to see Asian Americans on TV, let alone a queer Asian American, let along a Khmer gay American. So there really was no one. Michael: So the theme of our first edition is “VOICES” and we’ve been encouraging artists to kind of take that theme in any direction. For you as an artist, what is your voice within this generation, and what are you trying to say with it? Prumsodun: I think for myself, as someone who is practicing Khmer classical dance, this art form is me, but it’s also so much bigger than me. When I am on stage, or when I am creating, or when my dancers are on stage, it’s not just about us. It’s about our ancestors, our teachers that came before us. It’s about unborn children, masters and artists of the future who live through us. The voices of the past, the present,and the future are channeled in our bodies. What I want to do is give this art form that was nearly destroyed during the genocide, this art form that still remains fragile, new life and new possibilities while maintaining its spiritual core. The spirit of Khmer dance is very important to me. In that process, I want to elevate the quality of life and expression for LGBTQ+ people in Cambodia. Whether that be working to give them a liveable wage, working to empower them, working with them to give them the vocabulary to ask questions or express themselves, working to give them opportunities to see the world and be seen by the world. And in that process of caring for Khmer dance and LGBTQ+ people, I hope to create a more equitable world. A world where all people are seen, heard and valued. A world where everyone can blossom into their fullest selves. Michael: What’s next for you? Prumsodun: So right now the dancers and I are collaborating with the ensemble in Berlin on project that is looking at the cycle of pain and renewal by using metaphors of rain. Metaphors of a comic hitting the earth in order to speak about the Cambodian and the human experience of life after pain. We will premier that work in Berlin late January, early February. Other than that, I will be going to Japan to understand Buddhism more deeply. To learn more about Prumsodun and Natyarasa, visit: prumsodun.com
“... this art form is me, but it’s also so much bigger than me. When I am on stage, or when I am creating, or when my dancers are on stage, it’s not just about us. It’s about our ancestors, our teachers that came before us. It’s about unborn children, masters and artists of the future who live through us. The voices of the past, the present,and the future are channeled in our bodies... in that process of caring for Khmer dance and LGBTQ+ people, I hope to create a more equitable world. A world where all people are seen, heard and valued. A world where everyone can blossom into their fullest selves...”
“I think that that environment really gave me a warrior spirit and really taught me how to fight for what I believe in and what I want. No-one likes to say that their mom threatened to disown them, but I wouldn’t change my experience. Because it really gave me the strength and the courage to be who I am today. It really gave me the sense that I need to get the hell out of Long Beach and a hunger for the world, and I wouldn’t be here in Phnom Penh if it weren’t for what I’ve been through.”
“It’s not enough to have beautiful bodies. I need to know if they’re good people, I need to know if they’re brave people, if they’re curious and open minded people.”
“The idea is that when you recreate heaven on earth you also recreate the order, the beauty, and the well being of heaven. So if you look into this ritual mirror and you don’t see a reflection of yourself, it means you don’t exist. And because you’re not visible, you’re misunderstood, stigmatized, beaten,burned, thrown off of buildings -cruel things that LGBTQ+ people all over the world experience. To create a space for LGBTQ+ people within this tradition is nothing less than forging,carving a space for LGBTQ+ people in heaven itself. The act of re-choreographing heaven is therefore an act of re-choreographing society that both shapes that image of heaven as well as model itself after that image.”
â€œMany of the dancers were ignored and never had opportunities to dance in the front. After training with me all of a sudden, everyone that knew them, just became surprised because the dancers woke up basically.I think that as a teacher, your job is to wake people up.â€?
“So the dancers were initially very afraid. Since I’ve come here, many people have seen the transformation of these young men around me, they went from being invisible to being some of the best dancers in the country...it’s opened up a lot of acceptance for the company.”
“I tell my students that, ‘people can call you whatever they want, they can say whatever they want. Just make sure they don’t say that you can’t dance beautifully.Because you can’t please everyone. Just make sure you’re at a level, at a point where they can’t say you didn’t dance beautifully.’”
â€œUnderstanding a role with your brain is not the same as understanding it with your heart and your body.â€?
Letter Home, Seng So
Forty four years ago on April 17th, 1975 Khmer Rouge forces entered Cambodia’s capital seeking to implement an agrarian revolution. Families were torn apart and forced into labor camps throughout Cambodia’s countryside. Between 1975 and 1979 under Khmer Rouge rule, over two million Cambodians perished from torture, death, starvation and forced labor. The Cambodian Genocide also known as “The Killing Fields” has shaped the lives of Cambodians home and abroad. Today, Cambodians in the diaspora are emerging beyond the identity of the genocide. We are in a moment of a cultural renaissance— from music and the arts, to food and crafts, to education and tech. There is an energy and life that is taking shape in our community. I wrote this letter to Cambodia, reflecting on our growth as a community in America.
Last night I saw you sitting next to my bed, whispering lullabies in a language that has since left my tongue. Momma was in her late twenties the last time she pressed her feet against the softness of your soil. When the Red Soldiers arrived, the cities burned. Mama had no choice but to flee. I imagine Mama cried her heart out when she left. Or maybe she held those tears in and kept them away, safe in the deepest part of her chestâ€” saving them for the day sheâ€™d return.
Back in those days, I was too young to understand concentration camps, families starving to the bone, child soldiers with AK-47s, monks in saffron burning in the streets, Chankiri Trees with babies smashed against the trunks, skulls piling to the sky while the Mekong ran red. I was twenty-five when we finally met. I had traveled across the Pacific to bury my grandmother. And there you were. You were smiling. But there was a deep sadness in your eyes. You missed us, it had been too long. I saw the scars they left on you and dropped to my knees. Youâ€™d fought tooth and nail to keep the Red Soldiers from capturing your soul. You told me that you kept us in your heart to survive those times. Oh how much you must have suffered. We had fled when the dark clouds rolled in. You stayed because you were resilient. You knew that the nightmare would soon fade.
Even in the whirlwind you made sure to shelter us. You gave rise to a people that withstood. That carried you with them. A people that remembered to dance—fingers twisting into lotuses, Apsaras moving to the rhythm of Ancient Angkor. To celebrate— yellow strings tied around wrists, hoping the blessings of the generations before us would continue forward. To love— babies wrapped in krama carried on Mother’s back in rice fields and factories, listening to ancestor songs.
Some four decades later, here we are. Did you get the last postcard I sent you? Our family has grown. The last time you saw Momma there were only four of us, now there are eight. We’ve become activists, artists, doctors, lawyers, renowned chefs, engineers, musicians and working-class folk raising our families the best we know how. Some of us are still trying to find our way. The bad dreams haven’t left, they’ve followed us here. Not all of us are able to let go. Some of us are lost in the streets, stuck in steel cages, and destroying ourselves because we look so much like those demons that chased us from our homes. Yet through it all, we still keep you in our thoughts.
The old folks are still gossiping, still waiting for the green grass to grow. When Grandma was alive she’d ask me to walk her down Dixon Street to stretch her legs and watch the busyness of life in this small part of America. The streets were concrete and cracked-- nothing really bloomed here but the children. When Grandma’s friends visited us, I’d eavesdrop. They’d talk about home, about you, about the children. Last month we were all in the streets, from Oakland to Providence, trying to keep our families together. Can you believe it? After all the storms we’ve weathered, they want to tear apart our home again.
The monks are praying. In April we celebrated the New Year. I saw Momma dancing. Do you remember the last time she danced? I even heard her singing. She sang a lullaby in a language that has since left my tongue and I fell asleep dreaming of our tomorrows.
Take Action Since 2002, Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has carried out a series of devastating raids on Southeast Asian refugee communities. The current administration is ramping up deportations of refugees. Many across the country have been mobilizing to end deportations. Grassroots organizations such as the Southeast Asian Freedom Network (SEAFN) and the Southeast Asia Resource Center (SEARAC) are working nonstop to keep families together. If you or a loved one is facing deportation proceedings, please call (415) 952-0413 or visit searaids.org for more information. #KeepFamiliesTogether
Seng So was born in in a refugee camp in Thailand in 1985. His family arrived as refugees in 1989, settling in the Bay Area. Today he spends time between the Bay Area and Los Angeles. He currently works for the Asian Pacific Environmental Network, striving towards environmental justice for immigrant and refugee communities. He received his BA from the University of California, Los Angeles. He is at work launching an arts collective called Cambo! Cambo! To learn more, visit www.cambocambo. com, or follow him on Twitter @seng_so.
A special thanks to …
ZEYNEP GÜRSEL, KATE REILING, JODY EMMINGS, THE MACALESTER LIVE IT FUND, THE JGS IMAGINING AMERICA FELLOWSHIP, KARI SHEPHERDSON- SCOTT, ERIC CARROLL, VIMUOLEA & THE HANG FAMILY, AMRITHA SUBRAMANIAM, OLIVIA ROBERTSON, COSIMA SMITH, CAITLIN CONRAD, SOPHIA SCHLESINGER, TONY FRANCIS, SHAUNA O MAHONY & KBACH ARTS, GRACE EUNG-HENG & THE CAMBODIAN STUDENT ASSOCIATION OF MINNESOTA, EM RIEM, PRUMSODUN OK & NATYARASA, MONICA SOK, LA FAMILLE KOY, SAYOM & THE MCINTOSH FAMILY, PHATRY DEREK PAN & KHMERICAN, JOAN CHUN, SANARY PHEN & THE CAMBODIAN AMERICAN LITERARY ASSOCIATION, MALVIKA SHANKAR, LONG NGUYEN, TOAN DOAN, BINA JOHNSON, SUENARY PHILAVANH, JONATHAN GOH, BILLAN OMAR, REVA DALELA, ANDREA SALAS-DE LA O, WINTA SO, BADE TURGUT, VICTORIA-JO GAPUZ, SWOPNIL SHRESTHA, ALL OF OUR LOVELY CONTRIBUTORS, AND MY FRIENDS & FAMILY. Without your help, guidance, and love somewhere along the way, this project wouldn’t have been possible. Thank you all again. -MICHAEL KHUTH
Generation Magazine is an up and coming publication that seeks to engage with Khmer diasporic communities to establish a thriving network of...
Published on Sep 7, 2019
Generation Magazine is an up and coming publication that seeks to engage with Khmer diasporic communities to establish a thriving network of...