Year of the Rabbit is a graphic memoir that follows the journey of Lina, Khim, their son Chan, and their extended family members, as the Khmer Rouge take over Phnom Penh. Graphic in format, graphic in content, it is a story of resilience and hope, a profound testimony to one of the greatest tragedies of the 20th century.
On 17 April 1975, young soldiers victoriously enter Phnom Penh. Dressed in black, red kramas around their necks, and accompanied by AK47s and tanks, they have come to build a new society, free from capitalists and foreign interference. The day, coinciding with the traditional Khmer New Year launching the Year of the Rabbit, marks the beginning of Year Zero, a notion Angkar (“the organization”) borrowed from the French Revolution.
Three days after the fall of Phnom Penh to the Khmer Rouge, Lina gives birth to baby Chan, the author. The story of his birth sets the tone of the graphic novel (a term which has come to be used for narrative non-fiction as well as fiction). “Chan is the type of tree outside the hut, and Veasna means destiny, in the hope that he’ll have a happy life,” she says. Lina and her husband Khim were helped by a midwife in the middle of the night, in a makeshift shack in Ta Prom village, their first stop after leaving their home in Phnom Penh. They had followed Khmer Rouge instructions to go back to their home village as imminent US bombings were feared, one of many lies from Angkar. “Don’t worry. We’ll be back in three days” a relative consoles another, as farewell is bid to a beloved scooter.
The family will separate and reunite several times during their attempt to reach Battambang, survive the unbearable conditions of forced labor in the rural areas, and make a desperate effort to cross into Thailand when a window of opportunity presents itself. As “new villagers”, urban dwellers uprooted from Phnom Penh as opposed to the peasants established over generations, they are spared nothing in the village they end up in and their work units. Khim is a doctor, Vuthy was a lieutenant under the previous regime, Lina’s father Kongcha was a businessman. After a brief period of innocence, they soon understand the urgency to disguise their former identities to survive.
Centered on family, the persistence of traditional kinship-based relations permeates the story, unbending in the face of the expected new society proclaimed by Angkar, the only family of Democratic Kampuchea. It highlights the strength and resistance of the old ways: a mother who can’t let go of her child, a widow who honors her late husband through forbidden religious ceremonies. Different family members cross paths with friends, family, and acquaintances, often in the most uncanny of circumstances. It recalls a pre-Khmer Rouge society formed on bonds and reciprocal exchange of favors, conveys a sense of smallness despite the vast Cambodian countryside, and bears fruit to the terrible reality that every Cambodian can count victims in his/her immediate social and family circle. The family will also receive help from surprising encounters, a reminder of the drop of humanity which remains despite the prevailing nightmare.
This is of course far from the first Khmer Rouge-era memoir, one of the best-known which is Loung Ung’s First They Killed my Father, later a film produced by Angelina Jolie. Unlike this earlier work, graphic artist and illustrator Tian Veasna maintains an omniscient narrator point of view which lends to discovering the family members’ dilemmas and experiences. The graphic novel format was a judicious choice. It explores the rendering of difficult landscapes, narrative and scenes in a compelling way, reminding me of Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea by Guy Delisle in its mastery to tackle dystopian worlds, through visual artistry. It provides accessibility to a topic which may otherwise be perceived as intimidating. The aesthetic feels accurate to the atmosphere, the muted colour palette immediately evoked the washed-out walls of colonial mansions which can still be found in Phnom Penh. The researched details convey drama, fear, hopelessness, and love. Crows make a regular appearance, ominous animals witnessing the unfolding genocide. Hunger is ever present, faithful to survivors’ accounts.
I initially hesitated to read a book which promised to be such a harrowing dive. Previous documentaries, animated and live movies, personal essays, academic research, and individual accounts on the Khmer Rouge period, had left me aghast. Horror of this magnitude cannot be easily transcribed, nor comprehended by people lucky enough to have escaped this fate. A quarter of the population is estimated to have perished between 1975 and 1979. Tian Veasna recalls that in 2007, 19,733 communal graves had been inventoried, and 150 new graves are found every year in the Kingdom.
Rithy Panh, who prefaces the book and has himself dedicated much of his life to the memorialisation and transmission of the Khmer Rouge genocide, speaks of “an impossible mourning”. How could mere words, situations, and characters express the unthinkable, without falling in the trap of caricature? Tian Veasna pulls it off brilliantly. His book is gripping but never gruesome, it is a page-turner as one develops profound empathy for the family. First released in French, this recent translation published by Drawn & Quarterly offers English readers an accessible entry into one of the world’s major tragedies by an author who directly survived it.
I was in Cambodia when Nuon Chea, former “Brother Number Two”, passed away at age 93, in August 2019. He had been convicted for crimes against humanity in 2014, and crime of genocide in 2018. In earlier court proceedings, Nuon Chea expressed remorse for crimes committed, followed by his denial of the various unspeakable acts he was involved in. Many in the old generation fear the loss of memory, as Cambodia has experienced tremendous socioeconomic transformation in the last twenty years. “Young people may feel more inclined to look forward, to globalisation and opportunities, than stare in the back-mirror of their parents and grandparents,” one survivor told me at S-21, the infamous detention and torture centre in Phnom Penh.
Year of the Rabbit is a timely and crucial contribution, to keep the past alive, to understand what it can teach us today, for tomorrow.
Farah Abdessamad is a French-Tunisian writer who has worked and lived in Cambodia in 2008-2009 and in 2019. She is currently writing a literary fiction set in Japanese-occupied Cambodia, and is based in New York City.