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By **Alice Pung**

From Writers in Motion.

In April 2011, the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa launched “Writers in Motion,” a study tour of the Mid-Atlantic and the American South, where eight international writers are exploring the theme of “Fall and Recovery.” The writers are traveling to Gettysburg, Baltimore, New Orleans, the Gulf Coast, Birmingham, AL, and Washington, D.C. to examine some of the challenges presented by historical crises and upheavals, both natural and social. The piece below was generated from this project.

Alice Pung 1324.jpgIn Cambodia’s Tuol Sleng prison, faces stare at you from the walls, photographs of prisoners before execution. Not just men, but women with babies, children. Some of the faces have bloody noses, others have an eyeball almost beaten out of socket. All are still alive but know they are going to die. I was in Cambodia to visit the prison with my father last year.

We never went in, never even came close to seeing the prison. Halfway there, and entirely unrelated to our visit, I vomited in my uncle’s car. I was just dehydrated, unaccustomed to the climate. The chauffeur drove us straight back to the air-conditioned comfort of my uncle’s bank, where my auntie sighed and said, “See, you shouldn’t visit such bad places. The bad spirits have gotten to you.” They took me instead to the Royal Palace with its floor of silver tiles, to Angkor Wat with its apsaras flying all over the columns, and to their private beach at Sihanouk hotel. They wanted me to see recovery, not annihilation.

Yet how do I know about what is in Tuol Sleng prison? How can I describe the photographs, the bloodstains on the floor, the hairs stuck to the iron railings of the torture beds? These images are readily available to anyone—even a seven-year-old—if you entered in the right Google terms. What makes the eyeballs of us writers more legitimate? The fact that we are more articulate? What makes historical suffering more “real” than historical “joy”? Why do we get to define reality for the poor and oppressed, to interpret their desire for lives of material comfort?

How can I describe the photographs, the bloodstains on the floor, the hairs stuck to the iron railings of the torture beds?

What if all my genocide-surviving father wants to do is invest in a string of properties back home and confine himself in a cul-de-sac suburb, happily believing that the worst thing that could happen to me as a writer is a paper cut, grateful I was brought up in a country where I would have a wealth of words to bend and mold into innocuous nice-sounding sentences?

But let me think about a different kind of writing (one in which I can never do for my lack of life experience); where each word is carefully mustered by a prod to the small of its back, assembled with precision, not artistry; and pushed into the firing line. A tree is simply a tree, though a gun might be something else. The kind of writing that comes from a writer living in the immediate midst of everything we are studying. One of our writers has been in prison, so I suppose secretly I am glad we’re not going to visit Birmingham jail. For some of us, this trip is visceral, for others it’s spiritual and others still, we see places that make your insides feel like they’ve been scooped out with a spoon.

I felt this way in Gettysburg, standing on the battlefields, in a way I had not felt in any other place before on this trip. Almost exactly a year ago, I was standing in another empty field, this time in Cambodia. This field had red dust and yellow sand, not green grass; and it was the field where my father buried the dead starvation bodies under the Khmer Rouge, when the floods came. There were no markers, no bones, just dust. “Human fertilizer,” my father said, “is probably the best in the world, because the following year after we buried the bodies, when the rice grew, it grew twice as high.” Yes, they planted rice on the same field. A human life was compost, and before it was compost it was a slave of the revolution.

Copyright 2011 Alice Pung


This post originally appeared at Writers in Motion.

Alice Pung was born in Melbourne to Cambodian parents. Her memoir Unpolished Gem won the 2006 Australian Book Industry Association award for Newcomer of the Year and other prizes.

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