A powerful debut novel about war, immigration, and home
Celebrating the power of literature to rescue a life from despair, Koan Khmer is the story of Samnang Sok, an orphaned child survivor of the Cambodian genocide who sets out to make a new life in America alongside his extended family. Struggling to cope with the traumas of his past, Samnang feels alienated from his American peers at school and disconnected from his aunts, uncles, and cousins at home. Inspired by the books he discovers along the way, Samnang begins piecing together information about the past through stories told by elders, family photographs, and his own memories and dreams. Based loosely on Tuon’s life, the novel traces Samnang’s difficult journey toward an answer to the question, How does one rebuild a life after genocide and displacement and create a home?
Koan Khmer gives an unflinching voice to a distinctly Cambodian American sensibility. Tuon creates a refugee space that all Americans can visit in this bildungsroman that breathes life into cultural knowledge disrupted by loss and grief.
PART I: A Cambodian Family Portrait Under the Tamarind Tree Birth Leaving Cambodia Lok-Yeay and Her Children Bopha Yellow Bird The Old Man and the Mermaid
PART II: Surviving in America Dust from the Sky Lucky Dawn We Were Refugees Tom and Jerry American Dream Lok-Ta Friends Pu Vaesnar Enclosed Paradise The Old Woman and Her Dog A Simple Misunderstanding The Doyles A February Evening The Keys Where is Samnang? Exposed The Letter The Letter # 2 Rage Rat Boy Graduation
PART III: A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Cambodian American What Are You Doing With Your Life? Going West “Ana-herm” Street A Dream Br_ndon Lieu The Writer’s Club Another Beginning A Dream on Fire A New Family Why Write? Dear Mr. Sok
PART IV: Koan Khmer Letter from Koan Khmer Epilogue
BUNKONG TUON is a Cambodian American writer and poet. He is the author of three full-length poetry collections. His writings have appeared in Copper Nickel, Massachusetts Review, New York Quarterly, The American Journal of Poetry, Diode Poetry Journal, among others. Tuon is poetry editor of Cultural Daily. He teaches at Union College, in Schenectady, NY.
“Koan Khmer takes us to the edges of interbeing. We travel with an orphan child named Samnang Sok, who has survived genocide—as legions of children around the globe do, and do not—as he tries to piece together a story strong enough to hold his life. With the generosity of a poet of witness, Tuon carefully and lovingly opens the space of refugee long enough for us to bear witness to the full brutal and beautiful experiences of Cambodian Americans. I feel like I have a new heart tattoo. I am grateful.” —Lidia Yuknavitch, author of Thrust and The Chronology of Water
“Koan Khmer gives light to the Cambodian immigrant/refugee experience, which is unlike any other, and challenges the easy narratives we are fed by mainstream media about the immigrant experience. Transcending the survival narrative, Bunkong Tuon’s debut novel presents to readers a narrator who is not merely the keeper of stories but also the one who seeks, who endeavors, who is more than witness. This is not a book about survival. It is a book about striving.” —Ira Sukrungruang, author of Buddha’s Dog & other Meditations
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