In the late 1970s, Chhay Sophal emerged from a wasted adolescence attached to a Khmer Rouge unit for child workers.
At the time, he had no interest in writing about the insanity of those years. He was intent, rather, on beginning his life.
After all, he was a 16-year-old kid when the Vietnamese invaded in 1979, finishing off almost four years of Khmer Rouge rule and dispersing its fighters into the countryside.
His most pressing concern was getting an education amid a country plunging into another civil war.
Once he finished school, he had a new pressing concern: getting a job. But as he grew older, the impulse to write became stronger.
“You know, time passed by, and for me, I concentrated on my living conditions,” he said. “But I thought to myself that I will print a book some day.”
More than 33 years later, at age 49, Sophal has followed through with Mom & Angkar’s Kid, published in June.
The story is one in a string of survivor memoirs to come out in recent years. They sit in stacks on the bookstore tables of Phnom Penh like a mounting body of evidence.
Observers say that a number of factors, including the prominence of the Khmer Rouge tribunal, the passage of time needed to process traumatic experiences, and Cambodians educated abroad writing for foreign audiences, have all contributed to an uptick in the first-hand accounts.
Youk Chhang, head of the Documentation Center of Cambodia, said in an email that most of the authors whose books were published abroad are the children of genocide survivors who left in the 1980s and started anew in foreign countries.
“They grow up with different culture and obtain proper education and this perhaps forces or encourages them to question why they are in America or Canada,” he said. For them, “[a] book is one of many forms to search for the answer and heal.”
Many of the more well-known memoirs are by Cambodians living abroad, such as Sichan Siv’s Golden Bones and Loung Ung’s First They Killed My Father.
But local survivors like Chum Mey, one of two people still living to have made it out of the Phnom Penh prison and torture center Tuol Sleng, is also putting pen to paper.
Mey, who is publishing a new book with help from DC-Cam, plans to sell it for $10 at his Tuol Sleng stand, next to his friend Bou Meng, who began selling volumes of his own bitter recollections of life as an inmate in the prison in 2010.
He said the act of publishing feels like discarding a heavy stone that he carried for many years. Next to cathartic advantages, he may even make some money.
“My life and my living standard will be better,” he said.
Sophal, a journalist, said he wanted to publish Mom & Angkar’s Kid, which focuses mainly on child rights violations, to coincide with the Khmer Rouge tribunal. In it, scenes of extreme hunger and exhaustion pervade the narrative.
In one anecdote, he describes seeing two boys catch a cat and bash its head on a tree trunk.
“They then set it on fire and tore the meat to eat by sharing with me but this was to be secret otherwise we would be accused of being thieves of Sahakar (collective). We looked like vampires eating such things.”
The question that lingers over the books is why, with all of the Cambodians who came out of the Khmer Rouge years, there aren’t more memoirs.
Dr Sotheara Chhim, the director of the Transcultural Psychological Organisation, a group that counsels survivors, pointed to a 2003 study of people from four post-conflict countries. Cambodians scored highest in “avoidance symptoms”.
“Those traumatized people avoid talking as well as to express their stories in writing,” he said.
Chhim also faulted the state educational system for not encouraging a culture of expository writing.
“They do not develop a habit of reading or writing,” he said. “I think there are many survivors who want to write their stories, but don’t know how.”