Peauladd Huy Interview, with Monica Mankin
I couldn’t help but notice that your biographical information is strikingly brief, yet it is remarkably revealing. I am deeply sorry for the loss of your family who was among the more than two million people who died before the Khmer Rouge was overthrown in 1979. Coupled with the subject matter of the poems you have published with Connotation Press this month, your biography inspires both my curiosity and my concern:
When did you come to the U.S.? How did your relocation from Cambodia to the U.S. influence your understanding of language and the power that language has both personally and politically? In conjunction with this question, I am considering the following lines from your poem “I am here”: “...you dismissed me, / kicking me in my chest and head, again and again, when I appealed to you / speaking the same language // in the routine of torture.” What, for you, is the connection between “speaking the same language” and “the routine of torture”?
I arrived in the U.S. in 1980 after a series of refugee camps in Thailand.
I can’t say it’s the language per se, which helps me to be more direct, more vocal about my feelings. I’d say it’s through trust and love of a very patient husband that I can now stand up and be loud about my feelings, whereas before I would fold and mull over. Still do it time to time.
As for “speaking the same language” and “the routine of torture”– When I was imprisoned for stealing food, two Khmer Rouge cadres brought me out into the open. It was nighttime. They told me they would let me go if I could run past a certain tree before they could count to ten. I believed them. I took off and reached a tree before ten, but instead I plowed into and bounced off some tree because I could not see. Because I was blindfolded. But I had to at least try. Because I was nine years old, I took things literally, word for word. I found out quickly that those words, theirs, were meaningless, foreign, in a situation where the intent was to harm.
Additionally, do you read and/or write poetry in any language other than English? And, whatever their languages, which writers inspire you to tell your story the way that you do?– which is with a balance of fierce and tamed emotion, and a clear dialogic tone that directly addresses the perpetrators who “...in the routine of torture...” leave the speaker of “I am here” “...beyond reproach” and asking, “What more can you do? / Piss on my bones again?” But your tone also conveys appreciation and love as we witness in your poem “Tuol Sleng - 2010” when you assume the voice of your mother: “What little food they gave us, we made it special / by switching our bowls. My Sweetie had insisted / so I could get more // to our baby. Our semi-miracle, / still hanging on. Our angel daughter / finally asleep and forgotten about hunger.” Meanwhile, you are careful never to forget your readers, warning them “Reader discretion is advised.” Which writers encourage your voice? From where else does your voice come?
I don’t get to read much with a two-and-a-half-year-old who keeps saying, Quick, I need a hug, Momma. I’m just a baby. When I do read, I mainly stick to English. I tried a while back to write in Khmer, but it was just too hard. I had to look up too many words. My formal education in Cambodia is of first and part of second grade. During the Khmer Rouge, all schools were closed. I cannot read Khmer poems: the language is very different from the everyday Khmer. Khmer poetry is very rigid in meters and rhymes and rhythms. It is presented as a song.
My intention for these poems was to say, among these bone piles, there’re families: there’s a mother, a father, and a child, who were never given a chance to see light. Families are still ruined. “I am here” was written after the first verdict of the tribunal court. I don’t want to discredit the effort to finding justice, but the reality is one cannot hope for a full-service satisfaction in a tainted system. I think that voice comes from being a mother.
Why do you choose to tell your story of loss and extreme injustice through poetry and not another genre? In part two of “I am here” you write, “Don’t be alarmed, Reader. / I am here to speak / because they are too afraid / to remember, still too stunned to speak out....” Can you elaborate on this sentiment? Who do you hope will read these poems? Who is your Reader? What do you hope these poems will accomplish within that audience?
I chose poetry because I didn’t have to use too many words. Not so smart a move.
I want people to understand that she, the speaker, is here not to draw blood, just to tell the story because the survivors are still too hurt to speak out. She has forgiven, but she does not forget.
My hope is to be read.
I am here
-for my momma, my hero.
There is a reason I am here
in the world. I can no longer wait
to be acknowledged by someone believing
that this is only for matters concerning the earth
and what’s already done. I am somebody –
once speaking face to face,
man to man, but you dismissed me,
kicking me in my chest and head, again and again, when I appealed to you
speaking the same language
in the routine of torture. You said, shut up,
if you cry, you’ll get more. What was I to do
but stand up for myself. Your threats no longer affect me.
Do you hear me? I am beyond reproach.
What more can you do?
Piss on my bones again?
Don’t be alarmed, Reader.
I am here to speak
because they are too afraid
to remember, still too stunned to speak out
what are making them cry out at night. (Children, mothers
and fathers now, are still shaking
awake between damp sheets
in the a.m. hours. Refusing sleep
to deny a life of nightmares.)
I am not like them. Did you think that I would shut down that easily?
That I would crumble again and yield
(to bury the hatchet) because now you said
impunity for the Khmer Rouge defectors. That their slates are wiped clean,
each killing dismissed, each life meaningless.
Reader discretion is advised.
What do you make me of? An animal
again before my frightened children: a ewe
to be gutted-up for your experimental
eating pleasure. You, you, and you over there
in council chair, do you think I don’t know
how many gall bladders it took to dye
your eyes a permanent yellow?
You, you, you, you, you. Whoever is left,
you know who you are. Shame on you,
even now, still having the gall to deny
us our part in our own history book?
We’re a saga, an era of mass slain.
What are you afraid of –
that your own children will see you as monsters?
S-21: soccer ball
Day in day out. Twice a day sometimes three:
after each drill-run, you come back beaten-
flat on your back and tossed in the holding compartment
with the others covered in human filth.
You’ve gone above and beyond what is objectively possible
for a small round thing. You’ve taken so many drop-
kicks, knee-jabs, and head-butts from all
edgy guards, unsteady –
too young to nap standing up,
too restless for prison silence.
In the playing field, each contact
delivered upon your person intended
to bury one more for the home-field.
No fumbled thought.
all forces are sent in with every intent to lift you off.
You’re all net.
In the end, you’re supple,
a mush inside
this confinement of skin,
riddled by punctured marks, possibly leaking
and bleeding internally.
(S-21 (Tuol Sleng), the notorious Khmer Rouge prison, where 12 survived out of the estimated 17,000 imprisoned in this former high school. My older brothers attended this school (I started first grade at Wat Tuol Tum Pomg). And this was where my brothers often took me to kick a soccer ball in the schoolyard. Sometimes, we would drop by our aunt’s, our mother’s older sister, who lived across from the school (she and her whole family disappeared during the Khmer Rouge years). We moved to Battambang shortly before the takeover on April 17, 1975.)
Tuol Sleng - 2010
(high school turned Khmer Rouge prison turned museum)
You may have seen me and not remembered.
I’m that way with people: it’s always been that way
for people like me, who were slaughtered in groups.
Individual faces fade.
Like city crowds, faces blurred, each hardly remembered,
lost, especially in big numbers
staggered in the millions. The Holocaust, and now us;
one out of every four had to die. I was picked.
My husband was picked as well
and our four year old. Would have been thirty-three
this year, the one I carried inside. Three more months
to be born during rice harvest’s considered lucky.
I know you can’t tell from just my mug-shot.
Not even in my full profile. I didn’t show much
in my then loose clothes. Nobody knew; the guards didn’t know
that he’s already six months along. He (we wanted a boy) was small
but kicked a lot. Probably because he
wasn’t getting much to eat because
we weren’t given much for our rations. I grew thin,
even with my husband’s shares. Early on, we had hoped
and prayed that we’d lose him in the first trimester, so he wouldn’t suffer much.
We’d always known he was special because he was conceived
on our fifth anniversary. There wasn’t much except each other
that night. No cake— no flowers
no incense— no monks
no honeymoon suite— no reservation made nor to make
no special dishes, except our portions of the thin rice porridge.
What little food they gave us, we made it special
by switching our bowls. My Sweetie had insisted
so I could get more
to our baby. Our semi-miracle,
still hanging on. Our angel daughter
finally asleep and forgotten about hunger.
Poor girl, most of her life
always remembering the food she hadn’t had yet. Crying
constantly. Nothing staved her off long enough.
At the end, a picture does not say a thousand words.
At least, not in my case.
You wouldn’t have known about our unborn son.
If you made yourself disappear
deep in the green rice field, it’s not hard to imagine
you can hear the grain churning
milky sap into each solid seed,
the grassy blades whispering, giving in to the winds
and weights of the dragonflies, bending
farther from the sun. Hidden from eyesight,
on the dirt division between the rice fields, sunning frogs
belly-plop into the water, erupting
like raindrops tearing up the face of the pond.
The snails uncap their suction-
cupped mouths, letting go
as ankle-deep water rushes up,
ripple after ripple. You tell yourself to hold still.
Crouch low, stay hidden
because you’ve been eating stolen rice.
in a sudden tackle, wrapped up like wriggling eels
tearing through mud. Slip, slap, up the muddy water; limbs writhing,
pinned down. Three against one
holding one helpless
child too shaken to come out. Too stunned,
too mesmerized by the struggle.
Afterward, your ears drum
the beating like a herd of hooves
stampeding out a snake. Crack,
crack, crunch, crunch like brittle twigs,
like hooves on bones,
like hooves shattering a brain, then you know
you’ll never see a rice field without feeling fragile
bone cracked lifeless
somewhere amid the emerald vastness.
What’s done is done. You are nothing to me
but many forms molded by shifting
breaths in my dreams.
Go ahead; say it, say you enjoy coming back
to torment me. I know you. When have you not
taken great joy in getting what you want out of me?
You never knock before entering my bedroom.
Standing by my bed, checking yourself in my mirror,
but your usual smirk, you watch me squirming, backing
my head deeper into my pillow. You know you have me locked in.
You can have me any which way: quietly and calmly
or riled up with insistent sobs, when you take the shapes of my parents.
You know I am helpless for them.
Before the Khmer Rouge, they were my everything.
All my needs to live as a child. Just happy, always
fed and held and warmed. Starved but never starvation,
disciplined but never taught to hate, or hit
and smash to death. You saw me see this killing and
you saw me shaking like a leaf,
playing someone else older than nine, mumbling
awake to my own shouting,
Mother will come back soon.
She’s not killed.