Trigger Warning

It seems that

in America,

there are two things that Cambodians are known for:

1) genocide,

and 2) donuts.

Let’s talk about genocide.

You don’t want to?

Me neither,

but on occasion it’ll get pushed onto me

the most shameful thing is that I don’t want to

because I don’t know how

yet sometimes I feel

it’s the only thing I can latch onto–

another scar to round out my collection.

But you see, you read me wrong

I’m not the book you’re looking for

these pages, missing from mine

and stolen from my mother’s

whose silence speaks volumes

because sometimes a condition of knowing

is not being able to tell

and it’s telling how I have nothing to show.

Truth doesn’t always translate over generations

and it seems a perverse act of overcompensation

to memorize the logistics of a genocide by heart,

just so I can try to impress with my best rhetorical dress

and a historically accurate palette of depressing facts

to paint our small talk in shades of pretense.

At the end of the day, I’m not the one

My mother is

one of many

and to this day, I still can’t say how it was

or who she was

when and after it happened.

It’s not a conversation to be had.

We don’t have that many conversations to start with,

but that’s another story of loss I’ve told in other places.

I did ask her once,

the end result a hastily written essay (B+)

about an experience that had been diluted,

all the grit washed out.

Later, I wrote a slightly more meditative poem (A+)

about the experience of writing a diluted essay

about my mother and her experience, all washed out–you see how far removed I am?

It’s hard to transcribe trauma when you haven’t survived it,

when you don’t know the right words–no, literally you don’t know the right words

because understanding each other is always a game of tug o’ war.

But how many ways can you unpack a genocide?

How many times can my heart break in the same place,

or does this open a fresh wound every time?

3 years ago I watched Enemies Of The People.

I hated how one of the perpetrators could sit there at the very end,

old and fragile and weak,

and say he had no idea

no idea

that the murder of his people was happening right under his nose.

But he is very sorry, he says–

an afterthought in the guise of an apology,

a sentiment that rings hollow like the human skulls he scattered,

an excuse he made himself believe.

Just last month, I watched The Killing Fields of Dr. Haing S. Ngor:

his journey from doctor to victim to survivor to celebrity

And I wondered how hers compared to his.

Given his class and profession,

perhaps for him, the trauma cut deeper

perhaps for her, already in the throes of poverty,

the Killing Fields were more or less the same:

grueling labor and hunger pains.

I don’t know.

I will never know.

Ngor brings up the rape of children and women in his clunky English;

rape’s always a part of it.

My mind goes there

the sinister recesses of my imagination

forced onto my mother in broken possibility–

that’s when I start crying.

Because the truth is,

I don’t know,

I will never know,

I would never ask

and she would never tell.

Following that, I watched Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten:

the story of Cambodia’s rock ‘n’ roll scene and how genocide ruined it.


but through a softer lens,

highlighting the death of not only a people, but a culture.

My ears heard familiar songs

recalled from a time when I was young

and my mother still believed in me

These songs came from colorful compact discs

with vintage faces belonging to those

whose lives were extinguished in ways my kid self could not fathom.

I never felt what death meant, let alone murder

let alone murder one million, two million times over,

or maybe falling in between

or even stretching beyond–

an elusive number that changes

but not the tragic outcome.

It seems that,

when it comes to the Cambodian Holocaust,

there are two questions people keep asking:

1) How could this happen?

and 2) Why did this happen?

People and narratives chasing each other in circles

round and round

but isn’t the answer obvious?

I think to myself.

It’s blind obedience to authority

It’s lack of accountability, blame forever being displaced.

It’s the same configurations of power

masculinized ideas of glory

enacted through violence




Why is history always the same?

It’s colonialism, imperialism, nothing new:

White people saving brown people from themselves.

The shadow of France and the bombs of the U.S.

tucked away in the backdrop of these retellings,

barely implicated.

But the Khmer people did it to themselves, someone would say.

And I would ask, what usually happens when you have no power,

when you have nothing to lose and everything to gain,

when living already feels like death

and your entire world

is slowly erased

and being made in another’s likeness?

This is not validation or vindication

in any way shape or form,

I repeat,

this is not


or vindication

in any way shape or form,

but maybe this is another case of brown people

wanting to be the center of their own story

even if it meant being the villains.

But what would I know?

I speak

from the subaltern mother

who has a daughter

who has a degree

in the colonizer’s tongue.

But I will end with this:

It seems that,

in my mind,

there are two truths about genocide:

1) it’s the fault of no one,

and 2) it’s the fault of everyone.

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