By Chath pierSath
As a Khmer writer and poet living in the U.S., I straddle two worlds. I write while torn by confusion about where home is, the risk of stagnation, and the danger of being a body in stasis, writing with a mind in constant grief and a heart often too heavy to carry around. There are other writers in the diaspora like me. They offer me encouragement, strength, and understanding.
Kho Tararith is one such writer and his work deserves our attention. He started the magazine Nou Hach Literary Journal, which he later abandoned after experiences of threat. He is also one of the initiators of the Cambodian branch of PEN. PEN International is a global association of writers, founded in 1921, to campaign for freedom of expression and uphold literature as a force of world culture.
Tararith, known as Rith, immigrated to Lowell, Massachusetts in 2010. We knew of each other from afar. When I met him, he told me that he couldn’t go back home after he had sought asylum in the US but it was clear how he still clings to his beloved homeland.
Born in 1974, his life in Cambodia was shaped by war, poverty, death, landmines, the Khmer Rouge, and US bombings. The boy/child who witnessed the unimaginable grew up to be a writer of poetry and short stories, a recipient of a fellowship into Brown University in their International Writers Program and the Harvard Scholars at Risk. He now teaches Khmer to students of Khmer parents and Americans interested in learning the Khmer language at Middlesex Community College.
We have shared the stage for various panel discussions and he once asked me to read his poem, Fish, translated into English by Bunkong Tuon.
He read it in Khmer and I, in English. The English version didn’t do justice to the sound and the rhythm of his poem. Khmer poetry is sung into the mood of the writer. It’s often sorrowful and rich in metaphors. The fish he was alluding to was Cambodia being baited by hungry neighbors.
The familiar theme of his writing wasn’t surprising. I have read it before in the work of U Sam Oeur, the first Khmer poet to translate Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass into Khmer, and the first Khmer poet to venture into free verses like those of Walt Whitman’s.
The fish struggles out of the water, evading all sorts of predators, snakes, and egrets within the natural construct of the food chain. Cambodia’s predators are her neighbors who hoard territories, invade, and grab land and resources. Her foes are the stronghold of tyrants who came to power, one after another, taking Cambodia deeper into miseries, ignorance, and impoverishment.
Fish dart left and right in the lake
Leaping to escape their predators
They rush against eddies, caught in whirlpools,
Struggling to find a way to survive.
On Tararith’s blog, the poems embody these historical themes of Cambodia caught between a tiger and a crocodile, like a little fish out of the water at the mercy of various predators.
The drowning water convolvulus is sorrowful;
The water rises, and it must struggle to reach.
When it breaks the surface with its new, fragile leaves
Life is safe for the night.
In the morning, only the old growth is left standing,
And the jealous people eat the new shoots.
While the drowning water convolvulus mourns the loss,
For it had believed that its struggle would win it life.
Like U Sam Oeur and Yin Luot, the idea of motherland and Khmerness echo throughout their work. Those writing in exile look in and out, free, but still afraid of someone, somewhere coming to punish them for what they can pen down on paper.
Tararith isn’t a man of many words. He’s quiet and reserved, especially when talking about taboo subjects and the things that irked him and left him feeling judged for his truths and opinions.
For him, writing is a tool, often ladened with tartness and longing for a Cambodia at peace. Yet, Cambodia has never been at real peace. We have always been at war with ourselves, our neighbors, and Western powers – whose weapons and cruelty have arrived in various disguises, taking what they needed and leaving us in disarray with little but abstract notions of nationhood, of pride and prejudice, and questions of what to call ourselves, and how to govern as a unit for our land and resources.
The literature of Cambodia stemmed from these sources of sorrow and pain that inhabit our existence. In writing, the author looks away, and inside and out, reflecting belonging and searching for narratives and stories we would like to tell our children. We long to forge an identity - a hope and a dream that would guarantee our continuation beyond all the stakes we inherit and pass on.
The literature of Cambodia is growing, but in silence, often untranslated to the powerful English reader. Her writers exist in obscurity, limited by her light and shadow, the pause in historical violence and inhumanity, the great purge of the Khmer Rouge that took us back to the dark ages. Yet, these writers persist, even during the Khmer Rouge, they had to write on sand only to be erased, they wrote and wrote in memory.
They won’t stop in their 50s, 60s, and 70s. A writer like Tararith will go on, writing in Khmer, for the changing Khmer readers, figuring out what memory to augment, what events to tell, what stories to factionalize . The young writers in the US and Cambodia are learning to use writing as a source of redemption and transformation.
A new way of writing will inhabit the artistic Khmer soul, in rhyme or free verses, the changing language will power the next greatest writer to be unleashed to humanity.
It is our task to read them.