Cambodian-American poet Monica Sok recalls transgeneration trauma in her debut collection, A Nail the Evening Hangs On. Born in Pennsylvania to parents who have sought refuge in the United States, Sok retraces the contours of a difficult and important conversation on identity. She succeeds in using her Americanness to question her sense of belonging in the Cambodian narrative, while inviting the reader in two countries’ complex political history.
The poems intertwine reveries, memories and historical perspectives on being an insider-outsider. She references the Missing Image of Cambodian-French film and documentary-maker Rithy Panh, affirming an artistic lineage of Cambodian Diaspora creatives memorializing the horrors of Democratic Kampuchea. Her poems creatively play with form to convey rhythm, time and place in an evolving manner, page after page.
“The Death of Henry Kissinger” hints at international complicity and justice. In it, Sok recalls the fateful and absurdly-named Operation Menu (which included other cynical military code names such as Breakfast, Snack and Dessert) when the US covertly bombed Cambodia at unfathomable human and political cost.
Perhaps a giant kite to block B-52s?
Balloons from my birthday party
to bring on your jets? Go ahead.
The poem recalls Kissinger speaking to an aide, quoting President Nixon’s orders “anything that flies on anything that moves.” Sok seems to question whether Cambodian lives are as disposable as food in the land of plenty. Many would argue that the aerial bombing campaign was aptly used by the Khmer Rouge for their propaganda and recruitment needs (one can read Chandler’s The Tragedy of Cambodian History: Politics, War, and Revolution since 1945). Cambodians are still demining unexploded ordinance to this day.
Sok continues to draw on real events. In “Heart of Darkness” she further exposes temporal and cognitive dissonance when she is with a group of Americans during the 2010 stampede accident in Phnom Penh (which killed nearly 350 people during the traditional celebrations of the Water Festival). She follows the group to dance, while Phnom Penh grieves. Heart of Darkness was perhaps best known in the 1990s as a landmark of lawlessness and night-time hedonistic pleasure post-Paris agreements during the time of the UNTAC mission. Confronted with actual and the memory of disasters, Sok questions whether one can ever find stable ground in this troubled land. From over-tourism in Angkor Wat to genocide-themed destinations in “frontier” execution caves and other sites, the latter not always respected as the mourning grounds they are, it can be difficult to fit as a not-so-local, not-so-foreigner. An experience of another brief dissociation is also conveyed in “Cruel Radiance” set in New York City when a girl faints in the subway and Sok struggles with reconstructed flashbacks of heads rolling in the Khmer Rouge killing fields.
The poems dedicated to her visits to Cambodia, and her attempts to recollect and reconnect, are the most moving. In “Tuol Sleng”, she contrasts a boy being a boy in a school, with the crimes which took place in the repurposed classrooms of the S-21 torture centre.
A boy runs through the halls of Tuol Sleng,
his narrow footsteps turn it back into a school.
He checks every classroom for the other kids.
He sits on a chair and waits. When I walk in,
he whispers, ghost. The bell rings and off he goes.
Tourists come and go. “But we come here to look for someone,” she writes, in a touching reminder that the halls of black and white photographs are not abstract. They are relatives and friends of people that for many are still alive. Perhaps the pages and impressions dedicated to Tuol Sleng become more vivid for readers acquainted with the location. In today’s Tuol Sleng school, which is in the middle of a quaint and expat-filled residential area of Phnom Penh, visitors find souvenir stands. At the end of a tour, after the book-, trinket- and krama-filled stalls, whose merchandise likely comes from nearby Psar Tuol Tom Pong, sits an old man. This man is a survivor of S-21. It is hard to imagine the dizziness Sok must have felt walking next to this man, maybe exchanging a heartfelt glance, and for the author to exit Tuol Sleng surrounded by tuk-tuk drivers trying their luck, “To the killing fields miss?”
In a recent interview, Sok shared she didn’t want to explicitly write “Khmer Rouge” concerned that she would surrender power, in a country narrative they vastly dominate. Instead, she preferred the metaphor of mosquitoes—small, annoying, blood-sucking animals, and vectors of diseases. With time and justice, mosquito bites become less itchy. They heal.