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Ambassador of the Silent World:
An Interview with U Sam Oeur
U Sam Oeur was born in Svay Rieng Province in 1936. In 1962, he was selected to attend California State University at Los Angeles to study the teaching of industrial arts. From there he went to the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop and received a master-of-fine-arts degree in poetry. He returned to Cambodia and was elected to Parliament, then served in the military until the Khmer Rouge victory in 1975 ; he survived the Pol Pot regime by feigning illiteracy. In 1992 , he returned to the U.S. and in 1996 published a book of poetry, Sacred Vows, translated into English with American poet Ken McCullough. The following interview was conducted by telephone and e-mail in September 2003 .
SM What inspired you to begin writing poetry, first in Cambodia and now in the United States?
USO The aspiration to be the Ambassador of the Silent World was so profound that I could not sleep without expressing my emotions and feelings of loss, sorrow, pain, and agony on behalf of Nature, the souls slaughtered by the Khmer Rouge, and those who could not express their views for fear of persecution by the Indochinese Communists. I have this special privilege to express the cry of anguish of the Silent World—the world which cannot speak for itself—and the plight of my people and country, balanced by an unflagging belief in our imminent return to freedom and stability.
SM What was the role of poetry in Cambodia, before and after the war?
USO The world changes the poetry, and the poetry changes the world. Before the war, life was peaceful, so our poets wrote pastoral poems about contemplation, admiration, adoration, the female form, blossoms...beautiful things. But when the war broke out, the atmosphere changed, so our poetry became about suffering, loss, pain, grief. We couldn't get the peace back, only pain. We wrote about sorrow, about wailing, using desperate [End Page 189] vocabulary terms like o sen sranoh srok Khmer, which means something like "pity for Cambodia."
SM Do you think poetry or writing can help in healing?
USO In one way, when you sing a happy song, people never feel happy, but when you sing a sad song—like separation from a loved one—people smile, people say this sad song is so beautiful. Poetry is the same way. When we write about loss and wailing, we can heal people's hearts—the people who cannot write, cannot express their pain. When they listen to my poems, they shed tears. So many ladies, several times...after they see my opera, The Krasang Tree, they say, "Thank you, sir; thank you very much." The performance helps them to remember, to cry, to release the pain they experienced. Then they can heal. They don't worry anymore about expressing because I have expressed on their behalf.
Once I performed a reading at the Minneapolis Center for Victims of Torture, I think in 1998 . They invited me there to perform just a short, fifteen-minute reading, so I performed my poem "The Loss of My Twins." After the reading, a female doctor, a professor at University of Minnesota, said, "I thought only medicine can heal the sick. But now I know poetry can also heal the sick people, in a way that heals the emotions, the psychological trauma."
SM You studied in Iowa from 1966 to 1968 and got your MFA there. What was it like going back to Cambodia in 1968 ?
USO I was so ignorant at that time, I didn't understand the world situation. I was a peasant, a farm boy. I wasn't thinking about the war or the future. I only thought about writing. I had a poem in mind—"The Cursed Land," like T.S. Eliot's "The Wasteland." Cambodia is the cursed land. After the ruins of Angkor, the decadence, the decline of the Khmer Empire, the leaders stopped...