This is my grandmother. I took this picture during spring break, when I had time off from work as a professor at a small liberal arts college in Upstate New York to visit family in Malden, Massachusetts. Grandmother had just returned home from a stay at the hospital, which kept us all on edge, unable to concentrate on work during the day and sleep during the night. When I set foot in the Malden house, my uncle exclaimed, “Look, Grandma. Your medicine is here!” My grandmother looked up. “It’s your grandson,” he said. My aunts and uncle laughed. Seconds later, a glitter of recognition sparked in her eyes, followed by a weak smile on her tired face.
This is a theme in my life, and my writing: family is the anchor that holds us together, that gives us stability, hope, and strength to continue. Life has been difficult for all of us. We are survivors of the Cambodian Genocide. My grandmother lost a brother, although she still holds on to the belief that he is alive somewhere. No one had seen his body, she reasons, so he is still alive. I lost my mother, my grandmother’s oldest daughter, to the regime. After my mother’s death my grandmother became my mother.
When the Khmer Rouge came to power in 1975, I was too young to understand how our world could turn upside down, a world where, like guards for Pol Pot’s newly-erected temple, hunger, sickness, and death were everywhere. But I was lucky. I was shielded from the horror and the hunger by my grandmother’s love. To honor her and express my gratitude, I wrote this poem.
We were talking about survivalwhen my uncle told me this.“When you were young,we had nothing to eat.Your grandmother saved for youthe thickest part of her rice gruel.Tasting that cloudy mixture of salt,water, and grain, you cried out,‘This is better than beef curry.’”
All my life I told myself I never knewsuffering under the regime, only love.This is still true.
After the Khmer Rouge regime collapsed in 1979, our family decided to cross the Thailand-Cambodia border for the UN refugee camps. My grandmother went to my father and said, “I understand that you are about to be married to this woman, and with marriage comes children. Your son, Ah-Kong, is all I have of my daughter. You have your new wife and the children you’ll have with her. Let me have my grandson.” With these words, my grandmother left. The next day, she carried me on her back, and with my uncles and aunts, we walked across the border to the UN camps.
Listen, I wouldn’t be here, writing in this blog, teaching college students about the importance of literature, if it wasn’t for my grandmother’s love. She is not the only real person that appears in my poems and nonfiction. There are aunts, uncles, cousins, and others who have suffered under the Khmer Rouge regime. I write about them with the same care, respect, and tenderness that my grandmother had when she took care of me when I was young and starving.
For me, writing is healing, a way to recover what was lost in war, genocide, and migration, to suture the wound, to memorialize and honor family members and friends. I write out of love, honor, and obligation. It’s all I can do to thank her, my grandmother-mother.
Bunkong Tuon teaches literature and writing for the English Department at Union College, in Schenectady, NY. Originally published in Numéro Cinq, “Gruel” is the titular poem from Tuon’s first poetry collection (forthcoming from NYQ Books). He is developing a book with Bittersweet Editions based on his experiences.