After the mass destruction of books during the Cambodian Genocide in the late 1970’s, it is imperative to regain a culture of reading in Cambodia. Today, book fairs are promoted, and a number of new bookstores have opened in Phnom Penh. International schools in the capital city provide students with access to libraries, and it seems that the general population wishes to grow literacy. Several survivors of the genocide have also published their memoirs.
As Cambodia tries to regain it’s academic footing, support for reading, writing, and publishing is vital for the future of the country. With this in mind, I’d like to share three books that have given me valuable insight into Cambodia’s culture, history, and socio-economic position.
‘First They Killed My Father’ by Loung Ung
Written by a survivor of the Cambodian Genocide, this memoir is filled with both heartbreak and hope. Loung Ung, her family, and her fellow Cambodians, endured unbelievable suffering at the hands of Pol Pot’s communist regime. Ung’s story details her experience from the day the Khmer Rouge took control of Phnom Penh to the day she found refuge in America. Ung provides a day-to-day account of what life was like during the war. The horrors of starvation, forced labour, torture, and death, are explained with sorrow and respect, in this autobiographical book.
‘Cambodia’s Curse’ by Joel Brinkley
Brinkley is the Pulitzer prize-winning journalist who covered the Cambodia genocide in the 1970’s. In his non-fictional book, ‘Cambodia’s Curse’, he expands on the war, and writes about other socio-economic factors affecting Cambodia’s progress towards stability and safety. He dives into the topics of trafficking, sex work, drugs, the baby trade, and other crimes. Though published in 2011, this book continues to provide insight into present-day problems in Cambodia.
‘Afterparties’ by Anthony Veasna So
In this anthology of fictional short stories, the narrator chronicles his experiences of being a homosexual Cambodian-American. Within a contemporary setting, the effects of the past come back to haunt the characters, whose lives in America, still remain tied to their Cambodian heritage. Questions about identity, traditional family structures, drug use, sexuality, generational trauma, and religion, play into the short narratives to provide a glimpse into the minds of first generation Cambodian-Americans.
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