by Carol DeMent
Guest Post-Genocide of the Cambodian People
Multicultural fiction provides a gateway for exploring, risk-free, another way of living and thinking. In this day and age of racial disharmony and misunderstanding, that opportunity is more important than ever. In writing Saving Nary, a novel about the genocide of the Cambodian people and their subsequent resettlement in Western countries, I chose fiction as the vehicle to tell the story in the hopes that such a format would be more accessible to the general public and reach more readers.
The tale of Cambodia’s woe is a largely forgotten story. Even among my own contemporaries, people like me who’d witnessed the carnage on the TV news, the fall of Cambodia to the Khmer Rouge was a blip on the radar, consumed by the larger conflict of the Vietnam War.
And so it has been very heartening to me to hear from readers that Saving Nary has awakened their interest in and compassion for not just the plight of the Cambodians, but for refugees in general. Readers have said the book spurred them to action-some did research on the Khmer Rouge to find out more about what really happened in Cambodia. Some looked with fresh eyes upon their immigrant coworkers and colleagues and inquired about their customs, their countries, their impressions of America. Some visited mosques or temples for the first time. In all of these instances, readers said their lives had been enriched by reaching out to a new culture.
The best multicultural fiction not only teaches us about a new culture, but makes us question our own, for no culture yet exists that has gotten it all “right.” Some may excel in scholarly pursuits but lag in civil rights protections. Others may soar to spiritual heights but lack basic education. Cultures that pride themselves on manufacturing and technology may downplay the importance of protecting the environment. What drives these differences in cultural development is usually due in part to both core values and economic or existential reality. And without new perspectives and insights, cultural attributes may become rigid, unyielding and entrenched.
Enter the multicultural novel. As readers become engaged with the characters, they begin to root for them, and to see a new culture through sympathetic eyes. They may learn ways of thinking or behaving that surprise or inspire. We may particularly admire the way a character’s culture promotes graciousness or bravery, and hope to cultivate those qualities in ourselves. By opening our eyes to new belief systems and different modes of problem solving, multicultural fiction can spur discussion and enrich the way in which we perceive and relate to the world around us.
Now, more than ever, such openness is needed as we bumble our way through issues and challenges that are increasingly global in nature. By combining the best of a myriad of cultures, we may someday get it right. Indeed, our very survival may depend on it.
A Finalist in the 2017 Next Generation Indie Book Awards, Saving Nary explores the losses, loyalties and secrets held within families broken by war and genocide. This compelling novel presents a palette of unique characters who struggle to make sense of the events that led them to America, even as they ponder the bewildering culture and lifestyle of their new homeland.
Refugee Khath Sophal lost everything when the Khmer Rouge swept into power in Cambodia: his livelihood gone, his family dead or missing; his sanity barely intact from the brutality he has been forced to witness.
Now resettled in the Pacific Northwest, Khath treads a narrow path between the horrors of his past and the uncertainties of the present. His nights are filled with twisted dreams of torture and death. By day he must guard constantly against the flashbacks triggered by the simple acts of daily living, made strange in a culture he does not understand.
Then Khath meets Nary, a mysterious and troubled Cambodian girl whose presence is both an aching reminder of the daughters he has lost, and living proof that his girls, too, could still be alive. Nary’s mother Phally, however, is another matter. A terrible suspicion grows in Khath’s mind that Phally is not who or what she claims to be. A split develops in the community between those who believe Phally and those who believe Khath. And those, it seems, who don’t really care who is right but just want to stir up trouble for their own personal gain.
Khath’s search for the truth leads him to the brink of the brutality he so despises in the Khmer Rouge. His struggle to wrest a confession from Phally ultimately forces him to face his own past and unravel the mystery of his missing daughters.
“Go back to Cambodia?” Pra Chhay stared at Khath with puzzled eyes.
Khath nodded. “What choice do we have, brother?” he said. “Our people are being forced back across the border into the arms of the Khmer Rouge. My daughters will have no chance now to get into Khao I Dang. We must go back to continue our search for them.”
Pra Chhay, dressed in saffron monk’s robes and cracked rubber sandals, stood framed by the setting sun outside the open doorway of the bamboo and thatch shelter he shared with Khath and ﬁve other families. The odor of too many human bodies crowded into a small living space hung heavy in the air spilling across the threshold.
The rectangular shelter was partitioned by side walls into six open-faced cubicles, three to a side, facing a center corridor running the length of the shelter. There was no privacy other than what could be attained by turning one’s back to the open side of one’s cubicle or crawling inside a mosquito net hung over the thin kapok sleeping mattresses on the ﬂoor. The shelter’s only doors were located at each end of the central corridor, opening directly to the outside.
With no way to secure themselves or their meagre belongings, the refugees lived in helpless fear of night visits by bored Thai soldiers, whose transgressions ranged from theft to rape. Pra Chhay and Khath occupied an end cubicle by the door, making them even more vulnerable to unwanted attention from the soldiers, but because of Pra Chhay’s position as a monk, they were usually left alone.
As Pra Chhay slipped his calloused feet out of his sandals, stepping barefoot into the corridor, a gentle breeze puffed out the hem of his robes and blew camp dust into the shelter.
Khath motioned to Pra Chhay to shut the door. Careful not to waste a drop of the day’s ration of precious water, he barely moistened the corner of a rag and ran it over random surfaces in their cubicle that might attract and harbor dust: the wooden altar in the corner, the cracks and edges of the bamboo slats that formed the walls of the hut, the straw mats that covered the ﬂoor. A squat wooden bench, left behind by the prior resident, completed the amenities of the living space.
Pra Chhay took off his outer layer of robes and hung them on a sliver of bamboo pulled out from the wall to serve as a peg for clothing. Turning, he watched Khath rub his cloth over the wooden bench, back and forth, back and forth, harder and harder, the knuckles gripping the cloth turning white with effort.
“Khath, stop it. You will polish our only seat away to nothing,” Pra Chhay said. “Tell me exactly what you heard today that makes you say we must return to Cambodia.” The monk settled himself comfortably on the ﬂoor.
With an effort, Khath slowed his rubbing and carefully folded the rag and laid it on his lap. His eyes followed the tiny particles now dancing in the single ray of golden sun that slipped through the crack between the outer door and its frame. He laced his ﬁngers tightly together to stop their reaching for the rag as, mesmerized, he watched the motes settle onto the areas he had just cleaned. The sight of dust on surfaces where it ought not to be was still intolerable to Khath, though nearly six years had passed since his obsession was born on the day the Khmer Rouge killed his wife and son.
“Silence that boy,” the soldier had said to his wife on that awful day. Khieu gathered their son Bunchan into her arms, but how is one to soothe a toddler who cries from hunger when there is no food? Khath, Khieu and their three children had been walking for three days in the heat and humidity, shoulder to shoulder with thousands of other refugees inching their way out of Phnom Penh by order of the Khmer Rouge. Already hunger, thirst and exhaustion had thinned their ranks: the elderly and the ill simply dropped along the sides of the road, patiently awaiting the mercy of death.
Given only minutes to prepare for their exodus, the food Khath and his family carried was gone in a day. After that, they bought, scavenged and bartered for whatever nourishment they could ﬁnd along the way. Now, they stood next in line before a table of grim-faced cadres in the simple uniform of the Khmer Rouge: black cotton shirts and pants with kramas, red-checkered scarves, wound around their heads or necks. The cadres were checking identity papers and quizzing the refugees about their prior occupations.
Bunchan’s incessant crying enraged the soldier. “Silence him or I will,” he warned Khieu.
AUTHOR Bio and Links:
Carol DeMent worked in the field of South East Asian refugee resettlement for seven years, and completed master's level research into international refugee resettlement policy. She lived for two years in Thailand as a Peace Corps volunteer and has traveled extensively in South East Asia. Her first novel, Saving Nary, was a Finalist in the 2017 Next Generation Indie Book Awards.
GIVEAWAY INFORMATION and RAFFLECOPTER CODE
Carol DeMent will be awarding $10 Amazon/BN GC to a randomly drawn winner via rafflecopter during the tour.