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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Family portrait aims at more collective historical truths

Family portrait aims at more collective historical truths

But at the heart of Sambath Meas’s narrative is a personal journey of survival

Sambath Meas. PHOTO SUPPLIED

Sambath Meas was born in Pailin in 1973 and emigrated with her family to Chicago in 1981, where she still lives. She has a bachelor’s degree in political science and is currently working on her next two books.

Sambath Meas's The Immortal Seeds is not a memoir in the strict sense. The author, a 35-year-old Khmer-American paralegal who lives in Illinois, was not alive during most of the time period covered by her first book, which traces her family's history from the 1800s through the Vietnam War and beyond.  

Even her treatment of the Khmer Rouge years, which dominates the book's concluding chapters, relies heavily on interviews with family members and scholars, as the author was too young to remember much of the period.

Yet throughout the book, regardless of the decade she is depicting, the author imbues her reconstructions of past events with the immediacy of someone who lived through them herself.

Moreover, with regard to content, The Immortal Seeds exhibits a memoir's emphasis on highly personalised, if not fully contextualized, experiences.

For instance, the book lacks a detailed examination of Khmer Rouge leaders' flawed plans to remake Cambodia as an agricultural utopia, but includes vivid descriptions of how mismanagement of the Battambang land to which Sambath Meas's family was relocated led to chronic food shortages.

And it lacks a general account of the challenges facing survivors, but includes a vivid portrayal of her father's attempt to travel to the Thai border to sell the family's remaining gemstones in exchange for food.

This approach suggests the manner in which Sambath Meas wanted her book to differ from much of what has been written about those years  -  in particular, how she wanted to tell her family's story, not the country's.

"Most books are written from the perspectives of outsiders," she said, adding that the nuanced stories of individual families are missing from "other accounts of the period".

And Sambath Meas hopes her effort to record her family's history might inspire other young Cambodians to do the same.  

"I wish there were more young people of Cambodian descent who cared about what happened," she said.

Collective voice

Much of the The Immortal Seeds stems from interviews and research, and this sometimes raises questions about the various voices the author assumes during the course of the book, particularly in passages that reflect a point of view that could be disputed.

Several lines in the book point to a disdain for "snooty city people", depicting an elitist population that was by default contemptuous - even malicious - towards rural farmers and peasants.

For instance, when her father moved to the capital in 1963, Sambath Meas writes: "He couldn't help but wonder if there was something in Phnom Penh's water, because most of its residents seemed to suffer from sense and sensibility deficiencies.... They acted all high and mighty, as if they were dignified and sanctified beings just because they had indoor plumbing."

Who exactly is speaking here - the author or her father? The answer turns out to be neither. Rather, Sambath Meas said, the voice she strives for in such passages is collective.

"My understanding is that city people treated peasants with contempt and disrespect, and possessed a superiority complex," she said. "When such a group of people mistreats another group of people, the latter collectively remember and mistrust them. This is a view from my father, his father and others. It is also based on movies and songs from the past."

Sambath Meas later includes several less-than-flattering descriptions of the Vietnamese, both before and after their toppling of the Khmer Rouge in 1979, that can also be viewed as an attempt to tap into collective opinion.

Family history

But the vast majority of the book is concerned with Sambath Meas's own family members, especially her parents.  

Her father comes across in the introduction as a chain-smoking, melancholy old man who, despite having spent decades grappling with violent memories of the 1970s, remains unable to move past them.

Sambath Meas describes the writing process as an attempt to shoulder part of his burden, one that led to an improvement in their "arduous relationship".

"When he started to open up, he began to feel better because he had suppressed his memories and pain for such a long time," she said.

The extent to which she focuses on her parents leads Sambath Meas to at times include information that will be of little interest to the typical reader, but she should be commended for the broader goal of trying to record her family's history before her relatives are no longer around to reflect on it.

"I hope that my book will inspire others to research their own history and background," she said.

Published in April, The Immortal Seeds is available through: www.wheatmark.com and www.amazon.com.

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