When I start thinking about genocide and/or war, I go to the images first. Maybe this is so I can feel as though I’ve survived something. Reading the narratives puts it into perspective, or maybe assuages (or feeds) the guilt, that I feel this way when I’ve never experienced it for myself. Call it whinging, posturing, or vicarious trauma. I don’t know that the impulse goes by a name.
Chanrithy Him’s When Broken Glass Floats is, to date, the most emotionally difficult survivor account I’ve ever encountered. She describes her experience living under the regime of the Communist Khmer Rouge, which instated a policy of social engineering that resulted in genocide. Agricultural “reform” measures and the insistence on total self-sufficiency in the matters of food, water, and medicine led to widespread famine and disease. By forcing the entire Cambodian population to work as farm laborers, the Khmer Rouge hoped to institute a classless society under a totalitarian government. Intellectuals, as well as those who only appeared to be educated, were executed; books were destroyed; money and symbols of Westernization, including Western medicine, were looked down on. This system led to the deaths of approximately 1.4 to 2.2 million people. Half those deaths were likely by execution, the rest by starvation and disease, such as amoebic dysentery, edema, and cholera. The Khmer Rouge ruled from 1975 to 1979. The phrase “Year Zero,” which we use to mean “building from the ground up,” was coined in relation to the 1975 Khmer Rouge takeover of Phnom Penh, as it immediately set about destroying all previous evidence of Cambodian culture and substituting new revolutionary ideals in its stead.
This is political context, but in Him’s account, we see very little of this. Instead, her narrative is delivered in a perfect balance of child-perspective and future-adult-perspective. The prose is clear and direct and peppered with Cambodian, and it switches seamlessly between extremely detailed descriptions of Him’s thoughts and of her environment, condition, and the events at the time. It is as though the Cambodian genocide occurred yesterday for her, and for us, as we experience it through her eyes. In describing death she gives us no more than what she experienced and what we need to conjure the images, such as describing the burnt remnants of a friend’s baby brother as “a blackened piece of a small chest […] with its rib cage still intact” (261). Decapitated heads have faces that “are puffy and purple, their eyelids bruised” (43). Perhaps the most traumatic image she witnesses at the age of nine is her destroyed school, where “before our eyes lie piles of dead soldiers in destroyed bomb shelters […] Big flies with greenish heads and eyes swarm the gaping wounds in the soldiers’ decaying bodies. One blown-away leg lies beside the step to the first classroom” (60). She describes a pregnant woman being beaten to death with a spade in the space of 3 spare sentences. In an account where survival depends on the condition of one’s body–i.e., freedom from infection, edema, dysentery–the detail paid to bodies and its direct delivery do much to make this narrative effective. The delivery does not change as she watches her family members die: her father, executed with a hoe for being educated and for having government ties; her younger sister of edema; her younger brother of amoebic dysentery; her oldest sister, whom she loved and respected deeply, of dysentery; her mother, dying of edema and dysentery in a hospital, thrown into a well full of corpses while still alive.
Perhaps the most wrenching aspect of this memoir is that it at no point makes a bid for our pity. Much of it is an unrelenting remembrance of starvation, of trying to hold the family together, of watching her family members swell with edema and die. We see Him’s process of grieving throughout the narrative as well. We have the sense that she has forgotten nothing, and she speaks solely from her experience. As a child in the labor camps she is not thinking of politics, and she delivers her thoughts and associations as a child would, though we know from the first chapter that she is writing from the perspective of an adult. To added effect, she returns to various Cambodian sayings and cultural ideas and beliefs, using them to refine her thinking as though she is still the child living the experience and attempting to make sense of it. Which is largely the impetus behind this book, along with the thought that “telling my story and assisting the PTSD studies [of Cambodian genocide victims] are my way of avenging the Khmer Rouge. It is also my way of opposing governments that have inflicted pain and suffering on innocent children, whose trust has been exploited time and time again throughout history: during the Khmer Rouge era, the Nazi era, the Chinese Cultural Revolution, and, more recently, amid the ethnic aggression and bloodshed in Bosnia and Rwanda” (21).
In my classes this semester we read Shoshana Feldman and Dori Laub’s “Testimony and Historical Truth” in our unit about bearing witness, focusing particularly on the idea that witnessing is about more than historical fact. Witnesses testify to the honesty of their experience, even if details become exaggerated. For instance, a Holocaust survivor recalls four chimneys being blown up at Auschwitz but doesn’t mention that the rebellion was put down harshly; although the historical truth is that only one chimney was destroyed, the woman may have been testifying to the emotional magnitude of the event itself: it proved that Auschwitz could be destroyed, even if it wasn’t then.
Chanrithy Him is testifying not only to her own experience but also to the experience of those who are dead or otherwise silent. She recognizes the cultural impulse to remain silent, to forget the tragedy, and acknowledges the need to remember the past and those whose bodies were left behind. In her preface she notes that she denied her memories and put off grieving until writing the memoir, when she knew it was time, and “in trying to understand my drive to tell others what was scorched in my mind, I recognizes my fortitude and ambition, which are rooted in the people who gave me life–my parents” (23).
The voice in When Broken Glass Floats is raw, humble, and tenacious. It refuses to allow you to become numb to the relentless suffering it describes. It forces your eyes open, tries to be the hand that blocks the wind as it tries to blow away the history of the Cambodian genocide, the people who were lost, and the people who survived.