A Khmer-American recalls life under Khmer Rouge
Posted by khmernews on November 17, 2006
Daughter of the Killing Fields
By Theary Seng
Available at Monument Books
Reviewed by Ayelish McGarvey
Though first-time author Theary Seng did not include an official epilogue chapter in her new family memoir Daughter of the Killing Fields, the book’s Cambodia launch at the FCC in Phnom Penh on the breezy evening of December 11 might as well have been a real-life substitute.
Nearly one hundred people packed the rooftop restaurant as the 35-year-old Khmer-American attorney and Phnom Penh resident gave a reading and signed a neat stack of books.
The audience – full of Seng’s own friends and relatives – was a convivial jumble of young and old; chic and plain; Cambodians, Europeans and Americans.
Perched on a stool overlooking the crowd, the petite Seng was serene as the wind whipped her hair around her face. In Daughter of the Killing Fields, published in September in Britain, Seng sedulously recounted her family’s travails – including her parents’ murders, and her own eventual escape to the United States – during the Khmer Rouge regime.
Just four years old when the Khmer Rouge forcibly evacuated Phnom Penh’s residents to the countryside in 1975, Seng’s recollections from that period are those of a young child; sometimes incomplete, and often rooted in emotional impressions. She addressed this challenge – the tricky nature of early memory – at the book’s outset.
“In recalling my early memories, I found that many times, rather than sequential and profound recalling of situations, stray memories floated in and out of my head, giving me a glimpse here and there of my past,” she wrote.
To fortify her childhood memories for the book, Seng became an informal archivist and virtual ethnographer for her family, tape-recording interviews with relatives and long-lost acquaintances in Cambodia, France and the US. Her efforts yielded richly detailed accounts of her parents’ courtship and marriage, in one example. (That particular chapter is one of the book’s finest.)
Seng’s words also paint a vivid, often gruesome, picture of her time as a child laborer in Cambodia’s killing fields. After her father’s death in 1975, Seng and her siblings stayed with their mother in a Khmer Rouge prison in Svay Rieng province.
At age seven, Seng’s day job outside the prison was to collect buffalo dung among the hastily covered mass graves. Each day en route to the fields, she passed by a tree strung with various body parts from people murdered the day before.
Seng’s recounting of details like these – and wrenching stories such as the one about her mother’s murder while her daughter slept at her side – is heartfelt without ever becoming treacly. She has a gift for recalling her innocent, sometimes petulant, responses to the dire hardships she faced during her early childhood.
Though stories like Daughter of the Killing Fields continue to reverberate across Cambodia, relatively few survivors experienced such a rapid, disorienting transformation as the Seng children: Orphaned at seven after months of work in the prison camp, Seng and her three older brothers landed in Grand Rapids, Michigan, in late 1980 after an uncle there co-sponsored their immigration with a local church.
Just two decades later, a fully Americanized Seng had earned prestigious degrees from Georgetown and the University of Michigan law school. But Cambodia was never far from her mind. She began work on the book in 2000, and returned to Cambodia for 2002’s commune elections as a consultant to the International Republican Institute.
Seng shrewdly closed the book with an extraordinary encounter that took place during that trip. Nearly 21 years after her mother’s murder, Seng came face to face with Khieu Samphan, the aging former head of state under the Khmer Rouge, at his home in Pailin. She holds him accountable for the death of her parents, as well as countless other relatives.
“I stood face to face with evil incarnate, my parents’ murderer,” she wrote about the meeting. But Samphan surprised Seng. “[I found that] evil was not mad, but charming, gracious and grandfatherly,” she wrote.
“Do I look like a mass murderer?” Samphan smiled.
Remarkably, Seng remained composed, even detached, throughout her audience with Samphan.
“It wasn’t as if I was going to be the sleuth or the person to stump him,” she wrote.
“I wanted to show him I was a survivor of his Khmer Rouge, not a victim, but an equal,” she continued. “I felt morally superior.”
In the face of raised eyebrows from certain close friends and relatives, Seng returned to Cambodia permanently in 2003 and made her home in an apartment overlooking the riverfront. She completed work on her memoir in 2004, and since then has set about to establish herself as an attorney in Phnom Penh. Though she is accredited by the New York State Bar Association, which boasts perhaps the toughest entrance requirements in the US, she continues to wait on the Cambodian Bar Association to grant her the necessary credentials to practice law in Cambodia.
“I came back to Cambodia for no other reason than to be a good citizen in my home country,” she said recently.