I Am Oum Ry: A Champion Kickboxer’s Story of Surviving the Cambodian Genocide and Discovering Peace by Oum Ry, told to Zochada Tat and Addi Somekh

Afterward by Michael G. Vann, PhD.

I Am Oum Ry: A Champion Kickboxer’s Story of Surviving the Cambodian Genocide and Discovering Peace by Oum Ry

This memoir strikes hard on multiple levels. It is a reflection of contemporary America and the transnational, transcultural, immigrant experience that many Americans live, whether themselves or vicariously (as Zochada Tat did), as the children of immigrants. Migration is a traumatic event, (sometimes positive, sometimes not, but always) one that reaches across several generations. Oum Ry’s memoir toggles forward and back in time, threading a connection in time between father (Oum Ry) and daughter (Zochada Tat). From this perspective, I Am Oum Ry is an emotional read, a subjective vacuum in which the characters are the primary focus, separate from the context of their world in a way. Tat and Somekh portray Oum Ry, his many lovers, his wife, his children, and the myriad of people who came, left, or stayed in his orbit, in all their flawed perfection; the logics behind his and their behavior as consequences of individualized trauma: parental abandonment, grief of loved ones lost or killed, sexual desire and exploitation.

But people do not exist in vacuum. The individuals in these pages are not ahistorical; they are deeply embedded in histories of patriarchy, Colonialism, the Cold War, the Khmer Rouge genocide, the American/Vietnam War, Cambodian traditions, and collective desires for modernity, belonging, and security.

The memoir takes the reader to Cambodia in the mid-twentieth century, beginning just after WWII. The French stubbornly cling to Indochina. Then ahead to the American War in Vietnam a decade later. It lingers on the five golden years of the 20th century when Cambodia perched on the edge of modernity, part of a larger Southeast Asian moment of revivalism and decolonization and prosperity in the early 1970s. After that the reader follows Oum Ry into the dark age of the Khmer Rouge genocide, and the suffering that followed as Oum Ry, like so many thousands of other Cambodians fled to Thailand to seek asylum elsewhere, anywhere. Oum Ry, like many other fortunate refugees makes his way to the United States where he finds both happiness and deep disappointment. The life of a migrant is bittersweet, filled with hope and longing.

The histories I Am Oum Ry excavates are powerful, a fisted punch to the gut. Oum Ry holds nothing back. The currents of forced migration, war, genocide, and racism that underpin Oum Ry’s words and experiences will knock the wind out of readers. This is an important memoir, not because it is unique — it isn’t, there are many Cambodian-American/Cambodian memoirs written by survivors of the Khmer Rouge — but because it neither indicts or glorifies the past or the present. The Khmer Rouge are not the sole villains of the genocide, though they are largely responsible for the horrors Oum Ry and other Cambodians experience; the Vietnamese and ordinary, fellow Cambodians are part of the horrific milieu of that moment too. America is not hailed as the land of milk and honey; it too is a dark land of racism, crime, poverty, and disappointment. But it isn’t all bad either; Oum Ry and his family find a place in California and become new Americans.

It is also significant in that it highlights pradal serey/muay thai, and centers around this sport. It is unique in this aspect. Oum Ry occupies a unique cultural position as a fighter, a sports icon in Cambodian history and 20th century Cambodian culture; his memoir gives us a rare glimpse into a world of sport and celebrity that was exclusive before the war and certainly much more so afterwards as a result of the loss of so many Cambodian stars.

For me, as a Southeast Asian scholar and a historian of Southeast Asian sport, I Am Oum Ry possesses academic significance. Sport is an often overlooked aspect of history and culture, seen as purely recreational. I Am Oum Ry proves how wrong this assumption is; pradal serey deserves attention as a historical artifact of a lost moment and in the present as a vital element of Cambodian-American identity and Cambodian cultural revival.

For almost every reader, I Am Oum Ry will evoke a multitude of emotions ranging from sad to inspired. Oum Ry’s life has been a rollercoaster in and out of the fighter’s ring. It has been dramatic in positive and negative ways. His is a life worth the reading.

Daughters of the New Year: A Novel by E.M. Tran

Daughters of the New Year: A Novel by E.M. Tran

I am a sucker for a slow, immersive, multi-generational historical fiction. I love the unwinding of family secrets and histories. Families are spaces of ordinary and extraordinary trauma; intense love also breeds intense regret, jealousies, animosities. Tragedy binds and creates familial bonds stronger than blood. And, of course, as a historian I love getting a glimpse into a past where the reasons and logics behind piety, duty, and love are complex, sometimes contradictory, colored with personal suffering, traditions, and the institutions of humanity-at-large — as in this case, French colonialism and Confucian patriarchy.

That is the hinge around which Daughters of the New Year swivels. This novel is an honest portrait of the brutal historical and cultural complexities that shape familial love.

The reader is given a privileged view into the minds, hearts, and philosophies of several generations of Vietnamese women. It is a novel about why and how mothering, motherhood, and filial duty are never straightforward, why these acts of love are volatile constructions of history and culture. Time and place alter the modes by which we care for one another, show each other love. What is an expression of affection for one generation is manipulation to the next. What is piety to one generation is an empty gesture for another. The reasons why mothers do what they do, why sometimes their love crushes their daughters, are molded by forces beyond their control: war, racism, patriarchy. Yet, for all those differences, there is one motivation behind these acts: the desire to provide the next generation with more than what the previous had. This is the love embedded in families.

The reader is given a privileged view of an excavation of familial love through Vietnamese and American history. Through chapters narrated by a daughter of this family, daughters descended through a matriarchal bloodline, the reader gets an interior view of the characters’ minds. Each of them has a different voice in this novel. EM. Tran’s prose is a beautiful thread throughout, binding their stories together, but each of the characters speak with their own, unique voice. Each chapter reveals its narrator’s logic, their historical context; explains why they did the things they did — even perhaps knowing that those acts would somehow traumatize the next generation.

There is Nhi and her sisters, the American generation. There is their mother, Xuan; their aunt, Xuan’s sister; there is their grandmother; a line of women, as if holding hands, unbroken, their spirits resiliently swaying in the winds of change and time going all the way back to the epic and legendary Trung sisters. Daughters of the New Year is about these women.

Fans of Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing, Amy Tan’s Joy Luck Club, or Min Jin Lee’s Pachinko will enjoy Tran’s Daughters of the New Year.

Bronze Drum: A Novel of Sisters and War by Phong Nguyen

Bronze Drum: A Novel of Sisters and War
by Phong Nguyen

Phong Nguyen beats out a strong, feminist song in Bronze Drum, one that makes my Southeast Asian woman’s heart swell and weep and soar all at the same time. It is a rare moment when a book makes me feel seen. As a historian of Southeast Asian history, I am deeply grateful for this rare and unique novel that so brilliantly and beautifully captures an often overlooked era and people.

Southeast Asia’s ancient history is little known outside of academic circles. Even within that small enclave, many scholars of the region focus on contemporary Southeast Asia or modern Southeast Asia from 1300 onward. Many students, especially American students, see Southeast Asia through the American-centric lens of the Vietnam War (Note that the Vietnamese call it The American War). I, myself, as a scholar focus on the region’s post-colonial period, the peak of the Cold War between 1950 and 1970. Bronze Drum, by highlighting a much earlier colonization of the region by China, both appeals to my decolonizing spirit and makes visible my own historical blindspots.

The world turned its attention to Southeast Asia when its spices and trade with China made it an easy backdoor into that empire’s markets, around the 1300s. But, of course, Southeast Asia existed before then, had a history before then. But excavating that history has always been problematic. For one, in the post colonial world, history has become a contested domain. Its function as a tool of nation building and national identity, coupled with the need to appease various ethnic and national factions for the sake of collective peace has obscured some histories, elevated others. The demonization of the Han Chinese in Bronze Drums would not have gone over well in another time and place, and even today, the influence of China on the region’s economic and political stability cannot be easily dismissed. Southeast Asia has ever been and remains, whether we like it or not, in some condition of thrall to China.

But back to history. Another reason for overlooking ancient history is that nature has not been kind to historians of the region. Much of the region’s ancient histories have been difficult to document. The moist and hot climate of the region does not lend itself to the preservation of wooden or plant-based artifacts, only that which was hewn into stone has survived. Archaeology informs us there were many vibrant ancient civilizations here: the Dong Son, whose drums are those featured in Bronze Drums, the Majapahit in what is now Indonesia, the Sri Vijaya in what is Malaysia, Singapore, and Indonesia. There were Muslim sultanates in the Philippines and the Tai Kings in Thailand, and the ancient origins of the Court of Ava in Burma (today, Myanmar). Stele and monumental building like that at Angkor or Borobodur remind the world of these past eras and peoples.

The sisters in Bronze Drum are the Trung Sisters of Vietnamese mythology and ancient history, Trung Trac and Trung Nhi, who dared to subvert the Chinese Han invaders. Bronze Drum is a real history, though it is also Nguyen’s fictionalized retelling of it in the form and in the style of a mythic epic. The novel unfolds the fabric of the Dong Son/Lạc Việt world as it weaves through the Trung sisters’ fight for their kingdom and culture’s independence. The strength of Bronze Drum is that it reads as an epic should: it begins with the heroines just before they realize their fates, it recounts their moral turnaround, the moment they knew they had to be the leaders they became. The novel then impresses the reader with their triumphs. The novel then turns to their downfall. (I am giving nothing away here, it is well known the Viet fall to the Han and later, the French. History is the spoiler.) There is a sense of Joseph Campbell’s classic hero/epic narrative structure in Nguyen’s retelling, something that is sure to feel familiar to readers of Greek and Norse mythology.

But Nguyen provides the reader with more than just a myth here. Nguyen gives us insight into the interiority of the Lạc Việt actors, including the sisters who become female kings and warriors atop elephant backs, their courtiers and allies. The highlanders, Degars — also known as người Thượng — are featured too in Bronze Drum and the peasant community is not ignored or invisible as they are in so many heroic epics. They are as much the heroines as the Trung sisters in this novel.

If there was one flaw, I wished for more discourse on the larger political context and history of the Lạc Việt. The neighboring princes and chiefs and villages made appearances in the book, but I wanted more of that political intrigue, real politik dialogue, and sparring between characters. (I will not lie, for all their orientalist bungle, I enjoy James Clavell’s Shogun and Taipan and Gai Jin, for that kind of in depth political maneuvering.)

Nonetheless, Bronze Drum is epic. And this is not its only strength.

Its characters were mostly strong women and I deeply, deeply appreciated Nguyen’s feminism, bringing matriarchal lineage and culture to the forefront. The women of Bronze Drum are not frail, delicate flowers. They are not sexualized pussy cats like Richard Mason’s Suzy Wong and the nameless sex worker of Full Metal Jacket fame. The women of Bronze Drum are real Asian women, made of fire and water and air and metal all at once. They are sexy and sexual beings, they have inner strength and outward muscle, they think and speak for themselves. Even as they are mothers, wives, daughters, sisters, and nieces, they are denizens and creators of their own worlds and desires.

Phong Nguyen’s prose brings these heroines, these mythological warrior women to the center of the Lạc Việt world with ease. The novel flows, riverlike towards rapids, smooth and fast. The reader will want to surrender themselves to the story and let it carry them to the end.