Tuesday, April 10, 2012

To be Cambodian American

Ten years ago, when I received a commission from the Maine Humanities Council under their New Mainers Book Project, my assignment was to create a picture book representing the Cambodian-American experience. 

I considered it an impossible task; that is, on my own, I could not produce an authentic Cambodian-American story. But I thought that if I listened long enough, perhaps a story might come through me. I read every book I could find about Cambodia, the war, the escape, and life in the U.S.; most titles were survivor accounts. The local community was wonderfully supportive, especially my friends, educators Peng and Veasna Kem, who shared their own stories as well as advising me throughout the process; and Pirun Sen, educator and founder of Watt Samaki Temple, who reviewed the final draft and wrote an afterword.

The book that resulted, A Path of Stars, was published in February (see announcement here). There are a few children's nonfiction titles featuring Cambodian Americans, including Who Belongs Here? An American Story, by Margy Burns Knight, which I illustrated; and there are several picture books set in Cambodia, including Fred Lipp's The Caged Birds of Phnom Penh). But to my knowledge, A Path of Stars is the only fiction picture book available about the Cambodian American experience. (Dara's Cambodian New Year by Sothea Chiemruom seems to be out of print, although copies can be found online.) [Please suggest any other titles in the comment section.]

The book's release has created wonderful chances to connect with Maine's Cambodian community, which numbers about 2000, including Portland's Cambodian Dance Troupe. In February my friend Tania Jo Hathaway, who manages the troupe and whose daughter Sophia is one of the dancers, invited me to share the book with them. Taught by Sokhoueun Sok, a classical dance performer trained in Phnom Penh, the troupe includes sixteen girls, ages 4 to 20. Some are 2nd-generation Cambodian Americans whose parents escaped the Khmer Rouge; others were born in Cambodia and adopted by American families.

This week I attended a delightful performance of the troupe, luminous in brilliant traditional clothing, at a New Year's Celebration (the Khmer new year is observed April 13-15). But classical dance wasn't the only item on the menu; there was also break-dancing duo, a band playing Khmer pop songs, and a hip hop group.

When I met with the girls in February, one of the ideas that struck me is that their identity is a relatively new one. Communities of Cambodian Americans, such as ours here in Maine, began taking root in the U.S. in the late 1970's. The oldest American-born Cambodians - in any significant numbers - are in their 30s. What it means to be Cambodian American is being defined now, in all its variety, by these young people, creating a brand-new, unique piece of the American mosaic.

I look forward to the day when books about the Cambodian-American experience will be written and illustrated by the people who are living that story.


betsy said...

Anne, I love everything you've written here! As a mom to Asian daughters, good friends to Tania and Sophia, neighbors to the Sens, and as an illustrator with a genuine investment in multicultural children's literature, I thank you so very much for your sensitivity and honesty.

Tania said...

What a beautiful post! Thanks Anne, and thanks again for A Path of Stars. Happy Khmer New Year!

Anne Sibley O'Brien said...

Thanks so much for your appreciations, Tania and Betsy. This journey of this book is such a rich one so far - and I'm learning so much.

Tania, I appreciate deeply the privilege of connecting with the girls.

Betsy, you and I have a lot of overlapping circles in our lives!

Michelle Cusolito said...

Did you see this Lee and Low list? It's a wonderful collection of multi-cultural books with "Passover Themes." One is titled "A Song for Cambodia."


Philip Barboza said...

I am American and my son is half Cambodian we are moving to Maine from Cambodia next month. my son is 2 and a half.
I am glad this community exists in Maine as it will allow my son to learn about his culture when he gets a bit older.

Anne Sibley O'Brien said...

Hi, Philip,
Welcome to Maine! I hope I get to meet you and your family at some point.