Reflections of a Khmer Soul
by Navy Phim
(Wheatmark /1-587-36861-7 / 978-1-587-36861-5 / August 2007 / 164 pages / $14.95)
Reviewed by Malcolm R. Campbell for PODBRAM
Navy Phim was born in Cambodia in April 1975 as the insurgent forces of Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge seized control of the country bringing to an end a brutal civil war against the US-backed government of Lon Nol. However, the brutalities did not end with the war’s end: two million Cambodians would die at the hands of the Khmer Rouge during the next 45 months through starvation, execution and torture.
Pol Pot proclaimed 1975 as Year Zero and began his "purification" of the country, ridding it of city dwellers, capitalists, westerners, banks, stores, hospitals, churches and other purportedly unnecessary organizations, while forcing mass numbers of people into agrarian work camps. Those who did not survive the work and the torture, those who were often forced to dig their own shallow graves, ended up in what Cambodian photojournalist Dith Pran called "the killing fields."
Reflections of a Khmer Soul is a collection of stories, "snippets," travels and contemplations representing Navy Phim’s inner and outer journey away from that Year Zero. Her outer journey began when her parents left Cambodia for Thailand for economic reasons in 1979. Swept up in a mass exodus of some 600,000 people, Phim’s life for the next four years was largely defined by refugee camps and the roads between them.
At six years of age, Phim helped the family earn a living in the camps by selling bread at a marketplace stall and nearby neighborhoods. "When I returned to Cambodia and saw young merchants touting their produces," Phim writes, "I remembered my life as a peddler in the refugee camps and how much I hated walking around with my merchandise, being afraid of meeting Thai soldiers."
Finally, after a year in the Philippines in a refugee status, her family was sponsored to the United States, ultimately settling within the large Cambodian population of Long Beach, California.
This beautiful, well-written book also explores Phim’s inner journey, one concerned to a large degree with identity. She asks questions and tries to understand how and why Khmer could kill Khmer. Phim lives within the very long shadow of the Killing Fields and the near-requisite negative connotations for the word "Khmer." While that shadow is real and persistent, Phim did not see, much less know about, the Killing Fields as a child in the late 1970s.
"To think of myself as a survivor of the Killing Fields is strange," writes Phim. "I did not live through the Killing Fields per se, but I am trying to understand the pain, loss, dehumanization and post-traumatic syndrome that lingered in the minds of many survivors."
Some people assume that because she was born in Cambodia, Phim is Khmer Rouge or that her parents were Khmer Rouge. It’s as though an entire people have become tainted in some way or held to be complicit in the actions of Pol Pot’s political party. Phim’s inner journey brings her to the realization that while she does not carry shame for being born when and where she was, "being Cambodian requires a lot of explanation."
Phim’s journey took her back to Srok Khmer, the country of Khmer, the motherland, four times. She writes that the "kind of love, heartache, and pain I feel for Srok Khmer is deeply imbedded within my soul; these feelings are suffused with glorious memories and stories that are real, even if they are stories and distant memories that may not even be mine."
Reflections of a Khmer Soul is a rich tapestry of memories, dreams and reflections of the tragic yet wondrous Srok Khmer into which Phim was born on Year Zero and the America where she grew up and makes her home. Phim’s soul is "poetically Khmer," and this book shows us that she has found joy and hope and peace in that ultimate reality of her world.