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Cambodian-American Writer Reveals Mystery of Father's Death


Cambodian American novelist Variny Yim says, "I only have a few memories of my father and one of the most heartbreaking memories for me is the day that we left Cambodia."

Cambodian American novelist Variny Yim says, "I only have a few memories of my father and one of the most heartbreaking memories for me is the day that we left Cambodia."

Sometimes writing a fictional work can help the writer deal with painful trauma. That was Variny Yim's experience when she wrote her first novel, The Immigrant Princess.

Yim is Cambodian-American. Her book tells about three generations of women from Cambodia’s ruling family who try to rebuild their lives in the United States.

However, it was Yim's father who became central to her while writing the novel.

"I only have a few memories of my father and one of the most heartbreaking memories for me is the day that we left Cambodia. He had taken us to the airport," she said. "I was too young to understand what was happening, and I remember walking up the stairs to the airplane and looking back on the tarmac and my father waived at us. What I didn't realize was that would be the last time that I would ever see my father's face."

Moving to the United States

Variny Yim, her sister and her grandparents escaped before the Cambodian genocide. Her father, who stayed in Cambodia to care for aging parents, was a victim of it.

Over four years, supporters of the Khmer Rouge killed about two million people.

Yim and her family joined her mother, who was studying in the United States. Yim said they owe their lives to her grandfather, who made sure they left Cambodia.

They were all members of Cambodia’s royal family. Yim's mother was a princess in Cambodia, but in the United States she was just another refugee.

Her family had to change their expectations about life. They had no money, and their position meant almost nothing in the United States, Yim explained.

She added that her family tried to keep their royal identity close to themselves. They did not tell many people about who they were.

Yim discovers what happened to her father

As a young girl in the U.S., Yim said, the Cambodian genocide seemed very far away. She did not think about what it meant that her father might have been killed with many other Cambodians.

This changed when she started researching Cambodian history while writing her book. The details of her father's death had always been a mystery -- a mystery she solved while doing research for the book.

Her research led her to Cornell University in New York. The university has records of the statements given by the Khmer Rouge's victims at Tuol Sleng prison. Those held there were questioned, tortured, and killed.

According to some estimates, 14,000 people entered the prison. Only a small number of these people survived.

In Cornell's archive of confessions was proof of what happened to Yim's father during the genocide.

"One of the hardest days of my life was when I got an email from Cornell confirming that they had found my father's name and confession," said Yim. "It was finally wonderful to know the truth. The truth really sets you free, even if it was painful.”

The book's themes

Guided by the memory of the family she had lost, Yim said she needed to write The Immigrant Princess to face the past. She also wanted to remember the beauty in Cambodian culture.

Yim explained that her novel shows universal themes about identity and reinvention. She said the book is about how a person survives a traumatic loss.

"You can be brutal and you can bring terror and you can become a dictator but that's not going to kill the human spirit and that's what I want my book to show," Yim said.

Yim added that she wrote the book for her children so they will know what happened. She also wrote the book for Cambodians, so that they will know that the genocide may have left a scar but does define them as a people.

I’m John Russell.

VOA's Elizabeth Lee reported and wrote this story from Los Angeles. John Russell adapted it for Learning English. George Grow was the editor.

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Words in This Story

trauma – n. a very difficult or unpleasant experience that causes someone to have mental or emotional problems usually for a long time

inspire – v. to give (someone) an idea about what to do or create

tarmac – n. the area covered by pavement at an airport

archive – n. a place in which public records or historical materials (such as documents) are kept

focus – v. to cause (something, such as attention) to be directed at something specific — + on

theme – n. a particular subject or issue that is discussed often or repeatedly

reinvention – n. becoming a different kind of person, performer, etc.

scar – n. a feeling of great emotional pain or sadness that is caused by a bad experience and that lasts for a long time

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