On Fear, Fearlessness, and Intergenerational Trauma
When we speak we are afraid our words will not be heard or welcomed. But when we are silent, we are still afraid. So it is better to speak. – Audre Lorde
My mother doesn’t dwell in the past, so she smiles and shakes her head when I ask about her life during the Khmer Rouge regime. Mom, what did you do? Did you have to work? She shrugs. Her eyes are soft, then perplexed by my eagerness to bear witness to her story. What story? What do you want to know? In order to live her life and support me and my brother, she explains, it is necessary to move on. Forget the past. Don’t think about it. But I am not like her. I can’t forget the past and I always think about it. Yet, my mother seems to evade my questions on every rare visit home. Sometimes I give up asking. Her silence around her personal history often leaves me with doubts on how to begin telling my own.
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I experience fears in my writing; in school, I would withhold certain poems from workshop, afraid that my classmates wouldn’t know how to respond to the history behind my vulnerability, afraid that I would have to explain stories already so marginalized only to discover that my words, after speaking them aloud, didn’t hold space with others.
Once, I cried in class, explaining my historical trauma to a room of mostly white women. Overwhelmed by my responsibility to tell my family’s story, I told my classmates that I had trouble writing about it, that of course I had dreams of a first book but that a first book wasn’t the point. Well meaning and supportive my professor said, “but you should be fearless.” Who can be fearless confronting a history of genocide? The fall semester was almost over. But after trying to explain a very specific trauma to a room of people—aware or unaware of my pain—I had isolated myself in the spring.
My silence is a different shade of fear than that of my Cambodian immigrant parents. Even though their lives in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, are physically and emotionally distant from the Khmer Rouge regime, I’m not convinced that my parents can be “fearless” when confronting their history. My father loves to tell stories though. But when I look to my mother, she might try to recall something to share, and if too exhausted, she’ll shoo me away and say, “Go ask your father.” For the past fifteen years, my mother has worked at the DART Container factory, inspecting foam cups and plasticware. I find her on the couch with a blanket, watching Khmer-dubbed Thai soap operas. The last thing she wants to do after work is process a horrific era.
Her deferral to my father comes from the underlying gender norms that are so typical in the traditional Cambodian family. Who gets to tell the story? Who doesn’t get to tell the story? Who is heard? Who is not heard? The manners in which my parents enable and disable one another’s voices deeply affects my own writing. Over time, the details in my dad’s stories have changed. The language has been manipulated again—expanding and shrinking at the same time—and this also affects the ways I choose to write, uncertain of any known fact. But I yearn for the stories my mother alone can pass down to me. And it is my mother’s reluctance and silence that influences my craft the most.
The fact that we are here
“Don’t tell her those things,” my mom interrupts my dad, standing in the doorway. She waves her finger at him. “That’s not true. That’s not what happened.”
“Thoch…” my dad begins, his voice sinking. “You don’t say that.” Sitting next to my dad, and watching my mom disappear into the hallway, I am suddenly eight years old again when I was not allowed to hear about the past. Disheartened by my mother’s quick remark, my dad does not continue the story. He knows that later I’ll ask him again. What happened? And then what? And then?
Now that I live in Brooklyn, I try to visit Lancaster some weekends, with the intention of interviewing my family. I listen for anything from my mother. Anything from my aunts. My mother’s older sister insists on keeping her experiences locked up. Why say them now? She has spent thirty some years trying to forget them. Years ago, I found my oldest aunt weeping in front of the mirror as she was getting ready for her second shift at the Reeses’ Peanut Butter Cup factory. When I walked in, she told me it was her son’s birthday—Kasaul, a cousin I never knew I had. He would have been in his thirties by now. The persistent trauma that fills my family life, is staved off as work at the factory goes on, and time goes on, and life goes on. But that period of history is not over for me, and I am drawn incredibly and painfully closer to it in our silence.
According to a recent study conducted by the National Institute for Mental Health, about 62% of Cambodians have PTSD and 51% have had serious depression in the past 12 months. These statistics are way above the national average. My community alone suffers this much from trauma.
A while ago, I read “The Science of Suffering” in The New Republic, which claimed PTSD as a genetic inheritance. The article featured a Cambodian family from Lowell, Massachusetts––their trauma grounded in the Khmer Rouge regime, amplified by poverty. But PTSD as a genetic inheritance? This was a new discovery, an entire finding I never thought about regarding my biological make-up and my day-to-day life as a daughter of survivors. I felt some sort of relief, but I still have several questions about what this means for me. I lingered on a few sentences in the article, reading them again, studying them closer: “By far the most remarkable recent finding about this transmogrification of the body is that some proportion of it can be reproduced in the next generation. The children of survivors—a surprising number of them, anyway—may be born less able to metabolize stress. They may be born more susceptible to PTSD, a vulnerability expressed in their molecules, neurons, cells, and genes.”
Draft after draft
Discussing a poem in workshop about an executed family member is the worst feeling in the world. What triggers me along with the ignorant and hurtful things people can say, is the part in the 15-20 minute conversation where you must stay silent. So I had developed a fear of sharing poems about my family history within the traditional MFA setting. It was the linguistic surface. The over-emphasis on craft. The distancing technique from the actual lives, bodies, and histories. I can never forget how a white classmate said, “I just want to know if the son is dead or not.” Another white classmate said, “But there’s so much rich history to explore. I think more can be said.” (Or explained, they mean.) Or the whole class agrees on a poem about the evacuation of Phnom Penh, “I think you can turn the volume up in language.” A POC friend tells me, How much more can you turn up the language? When a boy is evacuating the city on a bicycle with loose organs on his handlebars? In turn, I ask myself, What did I want to know by coming here? The most difficult workshops tug and pull at an underlying trauma without anyone—including myself—knowing how to acknowledge it.
I move away from my poems. I abandon them for some time. I turn to my family for a little encouragement. I turn to my partner, a Salvadoran immigrant, who my father loves to share stories with. Strange but I like to hear from my boyfriend about my father. He tells me about the the time that my father saw a peacock that landed in a field, the field blown to pieces by the peacock’s landing on a mine. I imagine my father witnessing this, my father building fires in the jungle to ward off jaguars and other animals. What about the bullet that grazed him underneath his right armpit? I had never heard about that until my partner told me. Usually, my dad tells me about Claire LaBelle, a woman he dated when he was a refugee in Toronto—my dad does not tell me about the Khmer Rouge forcing him to fight against the Vietnamese in 1979 when they invaded Cambodia. My dad tells my boyfriend and my boyfriend tells me. My dad tells me about old girlfriends. He tells my boyfriend about war. Maybe the information I always long for has already been filtered before it reaches me, and behind this truth, I discover that I am not chosen to hear the story even though I am his daughter.
Shuffling back and forth
There are times when my mother is compelled to say something, entirely unexpected and purely out of unresolved grief, a restlessness that expresses a world of things my mother keeps inside herself, and away from me out of love, fear, and protection.
“I don’t know what happened to my brother,” my mom says, washing the dishes one afternoon. She rinses plates bordered with gray flowers. I don’t know what reminds her of her brother in this moment washing dishes—what brother?—or other times when we’re driving in the rain, wipers clearing the windshield, back and forth sweeping across glass.
Her oldest brother, Samon Yuos, was a high-ranking lieutenant in Lon Nol’s government (the U.S.-backed government that overthrew Prince Norodom Sihanouk, which was eventually overthrown by the Khmer Rouge). My uncle, I learned, was studying and training in the U.S. during the years leading up to the Khmer Rouge takeover. In my grandmother’s living room hangs a black and white photograph of him and other Khmer officers, enjoying dinner with an American—most likely a military leader—and his curly-haired daughter. Samon left behind his wife and two sons those few years he spent in the States. He could have extended his stay to continue his studies, or he could have returned to Cambodia. He returned, of course because, my youngest aunt says, his sons pleaded with him to come home. I imagine a short happy time reuniting with his wife and sons at the airport. The rest I can’t imagine.
I don’t know why my mother opened up to me then. I don’t think she even knew she was breaking the silence. Of course, she knew she would have to tell me about her life, silenced by war, men, immigration, and trauma, and before she could tell me these things, I’d have to prepare myself to listen about her childhood in Chambok, how she ran from village trenches to tell her father the planes were coming, how she discovered fish fried in the pond upon returning to her family’s burnt house, her days spent hiding in a hole her father dug, so she would not be sent to another village, then running back when she was sent away, how slowly she walked with her mother behind the rest of her family as they evacuated Phnom Penh. And it has taken me a long time to understand my mother’s suppression as her way of coping with trauma. I’m still trying to understand today.
“She’s writing down his name,” my mother says to her sisters. “Look, she’s writing down our brother’s name.”
Here the women in my family remember together. Undoing the alone time spent inside of themselves. One sister opens up, and another can begin. In my grandmother’s kitchen, I listened to them chatter, correcting one another’s details about where Samon went to school, recalling the time they went to Tuol Sleng prison to look for his face, his face which was not among the photographs.
Molecules, Neurons, Genes, and Cells
The conversation about my uncle took place three years after my grandmother passed away. I have to mention her name, Bun Em, because when she came to the U.S. sponsored by a church in central Pennsylvania, she believed Samon was alive. She thought he never left the country she now found herself living in. When she discovered her eldest son was killed, she grew depressed. Her husband was gone. She didn’t know English. She missed Cambodia. Her silence is the greater silence behind my mother’s silence. To ease my grandmother’s pain, my mother and aunts raised money for a loom, so she could weave again. Maybe I am a poet because my grandmother was a weaver. She made the finest silk dresses and traditional Khmer skirts. In the basement, my cousins and I used to strum the loom like a guitar while she pushed the blocks together. Because I couldn’t communicate with her fully in Khmer, I could never ask her directly what it was like for her to come to the U.S. after such a turbulent past. Going into her room, sometimes I’d see her praying to the Buddha poster taped to her wall, the same one I accidentally knocked down as a kid, ripping off the bottom corner.
Like many Cambodian immigrants, my mother suppresses her memories, but she can be fearless, and not without deep-rooted vulnerability, which means in fact she is not free of fears at all, but rather goes toward that suffering, pain, and remembering that I’ve come to recognize as fearlessness. The words of my professor: You should be fearless. She meant go toward that suffering for your poetry.
But I can’t pretend. I never thought of fearlessness as an option in the context of intergenerational trauma. If fearlessness, in this case, means going toward that trauma then, it means writing about Tuol Sleng, about a country ridden with land mines, about the Khmer Rouge, without letting those same narratives overpower the poetry that must be written. My trauma is that historical trauma, that family trauma, and yes, that biological trauma.
How do you go toward that suffering in your writing when it also leads you and others to trauma? How do fear and trauma work in different ways?
Once I dreamed that my parents were sending me away—to where? I didn’t know. They kept feeding me at the dinner table. My mom spooned more rice on to my plate and salaw ka go. My brother from his usual chair was missing—where was he? I was not allowed to stop eating. My father said, “Here’s more” and stuffed my plate. I was forever full, wouldn’t have been hungry for days, months, years. My dad went to work. My mom took me to the bus. The bus took me to another country. The country took me to its fields. The fields took me to its people. The people gave me black clothes.
In the dream, I ran back to my mother. Confused, she asked me, “Why are you here? You must know your history.”
Who gets to tell the story
Can I ask a question? I want to address this to my fellow Cambodians in particular. Fellow Cambodians! Those of you, that is, who are affected by your parents’ history (all of us) do you have nightmares too? What fears do you have regarding our shared history? How does trauma come out in various ways?
I am especially interested to hear from anyone who happened to visit Cambodia, at any time, particularly during the Water Festival in Phnom Penh in November 2010 when there was a stampede on Diamond Island. I wandered in the streets where people from the provinces were selling balloons and fried banana. Too tired from walking in the heat all day, I decided not to go to the fireworks at night, and ordered room service instead. The next morning, 30 missed calls from the U.S., a few from Prek Eng, and Siem Reap, Kandal—my whole family calling for me to make sure I had not gone to Diamond Island.
“Did you hear what the prime minister said?” a white student on exchange asked me.
“No…what?” I asked.
“That this was the worst thing to happen since the Khmer Rouge.”
I shook my head. The worst thing to happen?
“It’s true…it is the worst thing to happen since the Khmer Rouge.”
For years now, I have remembered this conversation. My classmate was so insistent. Why did I stay so silent when deep down I was full of rage? This is the first time I’m vocalizing this. Even writing this essay has taken me more than a year, a shuffling back and forth between saying it not saying it, saying it, not saying it.
This is me saying it: I am afraid of the history I have inherited. Trauma resurfaces in my life in all kinds of ways, as it does for all children of Cambodian immigrants. The oppression continues in my community through gang violence, high school drop out rates, poverty, etc. I ask this again. Who can be fearless confronting the history of the genocide? As a poet, I’m afraid of misrepresenting my family’s stories, the general history as well—though I believe the risk of going there is greater than the fear. A big part of me is afraid of perpetuating the brutality through language, and repeating the narrative of a politically oppressive regime instead of subverting it. Draft after draft, I cross out my poems, several pages of poems.
The Khmer Rouge and the stampede are two different things. But I don’t want to measure one tragedy against another and ignore others. I will say, there’s been a slow perpetual stampede in Cambodia, yes, since the Khmer Rouge. I wonder if some of you feel this way, Cambodian Americans in my generation, if you look back on your experiences in the homeland and are only now reacting to the underlying fears of history, the reductive ways your history is told, the old pain reminding us of war and violence underneath everything—underneath all language spoken about the Khmer Rouge and present-day Cambodia, even when the names of our oppressors are not spoken aloud.
There is often a lack of awareness
Before my last day of class, I approached someone I trusted with my poetry, someone who I thought understood what I was struggling to do in my work. High off reading Matthea Harvey’s Modern Life and the translated poetry of Borges, Amichai, and Herbert, I wanted to revisit a fantastical poem I had written about a girl who could remove land mines to help her future-father walk across the country after the war—a father that she could choose to be hers in the next life. The person who I shared it with thought it was great, and then immediately pointed to the parts of the poem that confused him. In fact, there were many parts of the poem that confused him, and by the end of our discussion, it was the entire poem.
“Is the speaker you?” he asked.
I met that question with silence, shrugging. Well, sure maybe it was some version of myself or someone who died, like a ghost. I’m not sure how to put it. Someone negotiating her life with the gods?
“I didn’t get that at all. A ghost? Well, maybe you need to decide who the speaker of the poem is first.”
My face grew hot. I met that comment with more silence.
“In this part of the poem,” he continued, pointing to the first stanza, “don’t you think the speaker and the father would die if she actually ‘kicked the road / land mines ready to burst at their feet?’”
I felt stupid. Said nothing. He had read the poem so literally. But of course that’s not what I meant. I spoke up, saying I shared this with a professor of mine and she thought it was my strongest poem, that I should consider submitting it to a contest.
“Are you sure she understood the poem correctly? She must have not known what you meant.”
I stared at the floor. Silence.
“I can tell you’re getting frustrated with me.”
I was frustrated. The tears came. In my own way, I excused the man and hiccuping, said, “No, that’s all right. I’m just frustrated with this poem now.”
I did not know how to explain those moments in the poem that were confusing to him, but his comments and questions rubbed friction against my trauma, triggering it. I felt ridiculous not being able to explain my trauma, or felt like I even had to! Maybe the poem was just a bad draft. Our meeting made me second-guess the story and craft, as if a girl could really remove a land mine to help someone survive. Our conversation made me question the way I had chosen to tell my story. My silence, my inability to speak up for myself, wounded me most of all.
A few weeks passed after that incident, I graduated from my program. Months later, I went to San Francisco for my birthday. My partner had given me the gift of Audre Lorde’s Sister Outsider. I kept returning to her essay Transformation Of Silence, in which Lorde writes, “We can learn to work and speak when we are afraid in the same way we have learned to work and speak when we are tired. For we have been socialized to respect fear more than our own needs for language and definition, and while we wait in silence for that final luxury of fearlessness, the weight of that silence will choke us.” I had read these words before, but by the time they reached me again, I felt Lorde’s teachings much more deeply. I will not say that I have found out how to be fearless or that I have simply broken the silence, only that there is much work to do.
She continues, “The fact that we are here and that I speak these words is an attempt to break that silence and bridge some of those differences between us, for it is not difference which immobilizes us, but silence. And there are so many silences to be broken.” Nowadays, I turn to Lorde often.
Going toward that silence
I think about the time my mom and I went for a morning walk around the block, past the cornfields on Windy Tor Road. It must have been August. I was deciding on whether or not I should pursue an MFA degree. What should I do? I asked her, not knowing if she—my mother being so tough on me, my mother being an immigrant mother—could really understand my love for poetry. It wasn’t law school or medical school or a responsible job. Of course not. But I presented the idea of pursuing my passion in New York City. Walking at the same pace side by side, my doubts flooded the space between us. Maybe I shouldn’t do this. I have student loans. What about finding a job? Should I move back to DC or go to Philly? We walked past houses on our street, approaching ours.
Mom, swinging her arms, smiled toward the road and said, Just try.
MONICA SOK is a Cambodian poet from Lancaster, Pennsylvania. She is the author of the chapbook Year Zero, winner of the 2015 PSA Chapbook Fellowship 30 and Under, selected by Marilyn Chin. A Kundiman fellow, Sok has received scholarships from MacDowell Colony, Hedgebrook, Squaw Valley, Napa Valley, and Bread Loaf writers’ conferences. Her poems appear or are forthcoming in Crab Orchard Review, FIELD Magazine, Narrative, Ninth Letter, and The New Republic, among others. She is the 2016-2018 Stadler Fellow at Bucknell University.