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How one Cambodian-American poet is filling gaps in the diaspora story

Writer, teacher and musician Sokunthary Svay will be speaking about her new poetry collection at Java Creative Café on Saturday evening. Photo supplied
Writer, teacher and musician Sokunthary Svay will be speaking about her new poetry collection at Java Creative Café on Saturday evening. Photo supplied

How one Cambodian-American poet is filling gaps in the diaspora story

The first published collection of poems by Cambodian-American writer Sokunthary Svay begins where so many diaspora writers have left off: after fleeing the destruction of the Khmer Rouge.

Svay was born across the border in Thailand in the Khao-I-Dang refugee camp, the second camp to receive her parents after the Vietnamese invasion. In 1981, the International Rescue Committee placed them – Svay, her mother, father and brother – in New York City public housing, alongside just one other Cambodian family in the Bronx, in a poor and chaotic part of the city.

Many of the 51 poems in the book, Apsara in New York, focus on this world, in which she navigated her youth, poverty and her complicated relationship with her mother, who came from a vastly different world than the one Svay was growing up in.

The collection’s second poem and one of its most striking, Jungle Crossing, describes her parents’ flight to the border after life under the Khmer Rouge in Battambang, but from there Svay makes a point to move away from war-time Cambodia.

“I feel like there are so many Cambodian-American narratives that are all war-based or start from the point of the takeover,” Svay said in an interview in Phnom Penh this week. “My youth was spent wondering why there isn’t more literature outside of the Angkor Kingdom and the Khmer Rouge.”

In one poem called Her American Life, she describes life in the Bronx for her mother, who works as a cleaner.

“She prays to her altar / says God, means something else . . . / . . . Khmer karaoke blares through a steel door. / Down the hallway, neighbors mistake it for Chinese”.

One of the most striking aspects of Svay’s writing is her ability to depict a range of voices that reflects the diverse backdrop of the Bronx, and of her own apartment. In The Fresh Oriental, she shows others’ impressions of her as she moves through the neighbourhood.

“Damn girl, why you ain’t stomping roaches? / You so light when you jump Double Dutch”, she writes.

And the voice of her mother, in direct and unfiltered broken English, is peppered throughout the book, including in one poem in which she scolds her daughter for coming home late from a rave when she was in her early 20s.

“At least prostitute bring home money”, her mother tells her. In another poem called First Generation Cambodian American Mother Facebook Typo, the only line is simply: “Good luck, homey.”

Svay says that she originally wanted to “immortalise” her mother, and decided not to water her personality down.

“I don’t need to sanitise her. I don’t need to translate her in a way that is friendly,” she says. “The poems in her voice have been the most popular and gotten the most attention.”

In town to see her extended family in Cambodia, and for a discussion of her book at Java Creative Café on Saturday evening, Svay is honest about the limitations of her writing and admits poetry is not going “to change the world”.

“I think it’s one vehicle,” she said.

Fortunately, she has many vehicles in her arsenal, including music (she is currently training to be a librettist), teaching (as a writing instructor at City College in Harlem) and through the Cambodian-American Literary Arts Association, which brings diaspora writers together. Svay also is not shy about using her heritage to her advantage, as an identity and a way to differentiate herself from other artists.

“I’m that Cambodian poet from NYC. I’m not stupid,” she said. “When I was researching Asian writers it was like ‘where are we [Cambodians] at?’ Those are things I want to talk about. I want to be that person because nobody else is going to do it.”

Sokunthary Svay will be speaking with So Phina, a writer and founder of Slap Paka Khmer, on Saturday at 6:30pm at Java Creative Café on Sihanouk Boulevard. Her book, Apsara in New York, can be found on Amazon.

A previous version of this article incorrectly stated Saturday's event will be held at Java's Tuol Kork location. It will take place at Java Creative Cafe on Sihanouk Boulevard near Independence Monument.

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