The New Year that begins for Cambodians in April is called Chaul Chnam Thmey in Khmer language, which literally means “Enter the New Year.” April 13-15, 2013 marks the end of the year 2556 BE (Buddhist Era) and the start of 2557—a sacred festival of an ancient culture.
White Center in southwest Seattle, just a hop and a skip from our Southwest Branch, is the center of the festivities this year with a New Year Street Festival on April 27, 2013, sponsored by the Cambodian Cultural Alliance of Washington.
Cambodian stories were prominent in the literature this past year with two notable books, receiving high praise: In the Shadow of the Banyan by Vaddey Ratner and Never Fall Down by Patricia McCormick. Ratner’s book, though a novel, is drawn closely to the author’s childhood life when the Khmer Rouge came to power from 1975-1979. We see the reign of terror when the Khmer Rouge emptied cities, closed schools and hospitals, and forced ordinary people into labor camps–all through the eyes of a little girl. The utter hopelessness born out of the terror, the executions, the brutality of the soldiers, the survival on leaves and bugs, finally mutes her voice. She survives with resilience and grace, though the reader, ensconced in technology driven modern day America, is shamed to ask, “How?” Ratner’s prose is poetry as she describes growing up when atrocity is the norm.
In Never Fall Down, Patricia McCormick tells the true story of Arn Chorn-Pond life as a novel for young adults. Arn was 11 years old when the killing started. Over the four years of Khmer Rouge’s reign, one-fourth of Cambodia’s population was killed from executions, hunger, overwork or disease—1.7 million people. Arn is forced to survive by guile, cunning, luck, alliances, and even cruelty as he faced the unspeakable weight as a child solider of “kill or be killed.” This story ends on a note of hope with a first speech that Arn gave in New York City, where he told his traumatic tale through redemptive tears. Today, he continues his cause of reviving the music and arts of Cambodia, which the Khmer Rouge brought to near extinction. It is the same music and culture of Cambodia that will be celebrated at the Cambodian New Year this year–never again to be taken for granted.