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Story of survivor translated to boost Cambodian literacy

The Khmer edition of a book that follows musician and Cambodian Living Arts (CLA) founder Arn Chorn-Pond during the Khmer Rouge era was launched yesterday.

The translation of Patricia McCormick’s Never Fall Down was organised by CLA and funded by the US State Department. Yesterday’s event took place at Pannasastra University and included a talk by Var Sam Ath, who edited the Khmer edition, as well as CLA and US State Department representatives and Pond himself.

Arn Chorn-Pond, whose story is told in Patricia McCormick’s Never Fall Down
Arn Chorn-Pond, whose story is told in Patricia McCormick’s Never Fall Down. Chean Long

The purpose of the event was to encourage young Cambodians to read and write, Sam Ath said.

“I hope this book will help young Cambodians gain more knowledge of the real situation of the Khmer Rouge period of history, and the importance of Khmer culture, because this book gives value to people, as well as the culture in this country,” he said.

Sam Ath, who is president of the Khmer Writers’ Association, added that connecting with Cambodian youth through books can be a challenge.

“Because of the rise of modern technologies, [young people] are not interested in reading books,” he said, adding that yesterday’s event could expose nonreaders to different stories, which might encourage them to start reading more.

Never Fall Down tells the story of Pond’s ordeal in a Khmer Rouge labour camp for children, where he ended up playing propaganda songs on a flute for the soldiers. He was taught by music master Yoeun Mek, who he said saved his life many times, before being forced to become a child soldier against the Vietnamese army.

Pond said he was thrilled to be able to share his story with more of his fellow Cambodians. “It’s like a lifetime dream,” he said.

Following his ordeal, Pond escaped to Thailand and was adopted in the United States. He returned to Cambodia in the mid-1990s, when he found Master Mek in Battambang. It was a meeting that would inspire him to start the Cambodian Master Performers Program, which later became Cambodian Living Arts, an organisation dedicated to reviving and developing arts and culture in the Kingdom.

Pond, who doesn’t know his exact age but believes he is approximately 50 years old, said that his journey proves the capability of human resilience. “I made something out of that story. I don’t dwell on that story. I’ve been focusing on helping others. Hopefully many of them will read it and focus on helping others as well,” he said, speaking of young Cambodians.

Sam Ath agreed that the book shows people how they can overcome obstacles to bring about change. “It shows human life experience – he can survive from those dark things”, he said.

Following the book launch, attendees, who were mostly students, were asked to discuss change-making on Facebook, using the hashtag #NeverFallDown.

Pond said that he hoped his story and the event would not only encourage young Cambodians to read and write, but also to understand the power of Khmer culture, which was devastated during the Khmer Rouge era.

“The New York Times said that I am saving music, but I say music saved me!” he said.

“The arts saved me in the first place. I just keep coming back to Cambodia to hopefully contribute to my art, and hopefully it can save others’ lives too.” .

ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY VANDY MUONG

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