My friend Rosemary Rawlins, the author of the well-known memoir Learning by Accident (https://amzn.to/34K3zjO), an account of her husband’s brain injury and recovery, has just this month released her debut novel All My Silent Years (https://amzn.to/34STKQH), the story of a young girl caught up in the terror of the Cambodian Civil War. I wanted to share this interview, along with thanks to Rosemary for the discussion:
As an author based in Nags Head, NC, what first interested you in writing about the Cambodian Civil War, events from years ago on the other side of the world?
All My Silent Years grew out of a friendship that started in Richmond, Virginia, and the story of that friendship is unique. The inspiration for the character of Sokha was my hairstylist, who grew up in Cambodia. She wishes to remain anonymous, so I will refer to her as Sokha in this interview. We would often chat while she cut my hair, and one day I asked her about her life before she came to America. She stopped what she was doing as a look of intense sadness crossed her face. “You don’t want to know,” she said. “My children don’t even know. If I tell you, would you write it down for me?”
Over several months, we talked. Sokha’s children learned about her story, but I wanted to know more about the conditions that led up to her family being forced from their home. I began reading about Cambodia’s history and read several first-hand accounts of Khmer Rouge survivors because I found their stories so compelling. I’ve always been interested in resilience—the qualities, beliefs, and strategies that help people survive and cope with trauma—and I found a common thread in many stories. That thread is family connection and a driving urge to survive for loved ones.
For people who are forcibly displaced, the memory of home may grow in significance, too. Home, in this sense, is a place, but it’s more than a physical house with belongings. It encompasses moments and milestones, sounds, and aromas. To many people, home represents security, routine, and comfort. Home is where we feel a sense of belonging and unconditional love.
Your novel is quite richly imagined, with exquisite, sometimes excruciating details about everyday life on a Cambodian farm and in a work camp during the Cambodian civil war. How did you go about researching all of this?
My research came about organically as I became obsessed with learning more about the Vietnam War, the Khmer Rouge, Cambodia’s culture, Buddhism, and America’s role in this geopolitical quagmire. I read many non-fiction books on these topics. One bit of knowledge would lead to another batch of questions, so I also watched videos, looked up images, and scoured the Internet seeking information wherever I could find it. I have probably forgotten more than I’ve learned, there’s so much information and data out there.
Cambodia is an ancient country with a mystical quality and captivating culture. I could read about the Neak Ta and the meaning of the spirit houses, or see photos of rice fields, but my imagination could take me only so far. My breakthrough for writing this book came when Sokha invited me to join her on a trip to Cambodia. We visited the killing fields, the site of her childhood family farm, Battambang City, and her old temple school, The White Elephant Pagoda. I walked a path that she walked as a laborer under the Khmer Rouge. I was finally able to see, hear, and smell a country I had only been able to imagine before the trip. I gave offerings to monks and received blessings in return; drank coconut milk from hand-picked fruit hacked open by a farmer with a machete, shopped in the street markets, and felt the morning chill burn off by an unrelenting sun. Spending time in Cambodia allowed me to discover a place and culture utterly unfamiliar to me. I could not have made the setting of All My Silent Years as vivid and real if I had not been there.
The novel’s protagonist is a young girl who grows through her teen years amidst the horrors of the Killing Fields. Do you intend this novel for young readers, or do you see its readership more in the mainstream? When you were writing the book, who did you imagine reading it?
The novel is intended for older teens and adults. In my opinion, it’s too violent for elementary or middle school students. I included historical wrap-up notes for readers who wanted to know more about some of the historical figures in the book, like Prince Norodom Sihanouk, General Lon Nol, and Pol Pot. I hope this book will be read by students and people who like learning about history and other cultures. I also feel it will interest reading groups (there is a discussion guide in the back of the book).
Your first book — a memoir of your own experience as the spouse of a man with a traumatic brain injury — has attained a wide readership in the disability community. What correspondences do you see between the two stories?
Both stories have to do with people managing circumstances beyond their control. Fear is a factor in both stories. Although the two books are quite different, they both deal with a quest for independence and belonging. Both stories underscore the incredible capacity for human resilience.
Your novel deals with events from fifty years ago. What do you think this story says to our current day?
Although this story took place fifty years ago, I see parallels playing out today. One point I want to make clear is that I did not write this book to be political, judgmental, or to take sides. I did not include any quotes from American generals, presidents, or Henry Kissinger, but I did that intentionally. Their stories have already been written and shared. This was a chance to explore the living experience of citizens caught up in wars they have no control over, the unintended consequences of geopolitical turmoil.
I don’t wish to argue about who won, or who was right or wrong. Rather, I see how much everyone lost. Lives were lost or forever transformed by injuries, both mental and physical. Honor was lost. Freedom was lost. Ancient temples were destroyed, sacred texts were burned, and Buddhism in Cambodia was nearly wiped out. The collateral damage of war is never-ending, and the horror of what happened in Cambodia still lives on in the minds and hearts of the people who fell victim to these atrocities. Sadly, it goes on today in places like Syria, Somalia, Sudan, and Yemen. There’s an actual website that tracks genocide: http://www.genocidewatch.com. This site exists to “predict, prevent, stop, and punish genocide and other forms of mass murder.” I find it tragic that there are so many countries on this list.
One of the great gifts of your novel is the way it offers a deeply immersive, almost tactile, experience of your heroine’s day-to-day life amidst horrific challenges in a Cambodian work camp. What do you hope your readers will take away, when they turn the final page?
When readers turn the final page, I hope they see all people as they see themselves—not as refugees, or immigrants, as displaced, or illegal—but as people with families who want to live in peace to raise those families in a place they call home. We are all products of an “accident of birth.” We could be born rich, poor, in a peaceful nation or a nation at war, or to parents who nurture us or abuse us. None of us is given a choice of where or to whom we are born. We are, however, ultimately defined by the choices we make, no matter what the circumstances of our birth.
What have you learned in writing this book?
One of the most striking things I learned from my travel to Cambodia was that here in the United States, we talk a lot about sustainability, but many farmers are living a sustainable existence in the countryside of Cambodia. Homes are made of wood, clay, and dried leaves. Fruit trees fill yards; gardens and ponds supply vegetables and protein. There are families who live in much the same way as farmers who lived hundreds of years ago. They manage with little or no indoor plumbing by capturing water in cisterns. They raise their own animals and food, and bargain for essential tools or spices at outdoor markets. People have very little in the way of conveniences, yet they are joyful and generous.
I learned that cross-cultural friendships enrich our lives in ways we never anticipate. I had never imagined that when I asked Sokha about her family in the hair salon, I would later travel with her to Cambodia for the eco-tour of a lifetime. I also learned how difficult it is to settle in a foreign country after enduring unspeakable hardship. For most of us, surviving a war would be unbearable enough, but then to move across the world to an unknown culture when you don’t speak the language and immediately have to find a job and support yourself…it’s a monumental achievement to assimilate and move forward. I have great respect for immigrants who build a new life from the ashes of their lost one.