- Iterations of War and Its Literary Counterforces:Vaddey Ratner’s In the Shadow of the Banyan and Kosal Khiev’s Why I Write
While in Phnom Penh recently, I witnessed the Cambodian government’s escalation of violent tactics against a new generation of workers and labor activists, hundreds of thousands of whom had taken to the streets in the largest pro-democracy protests in the country’s history.1 Alvin Cheng-Hin Lim argues that such repressive actions on the part of the Cambodian state represent “the latest iteration of Cambodia’s history of violence, a spiral repetition whose previous iterations can be observed to extend back not just to the genocidal violence of the Khmer Rouge or the Siamese and Vietnamese invasions of the nineteenth century, but even further back to the Angkorean period” (2). Denoting the repetition of a process, the concept of iteration, when applied to Cambodian history over the longue durée,2 usefully expresses the historical succession of state violence that has led up to the present-day context in Cambodia. While it remains true, as Noam Chomsky notes, that for various ideological reasons “there has been more investigation of Cambodia from April 1975 through 1978 than for the rest of its entire history,” scholars have also begun to call attention to the presence of regimes of colonial, humanitarian, imperial, or authoritarian state violence before, during, or after the much studied Khmer Rouge era.3
The issue of wartime as an ongoing subjective condition for the refugee has been at the center of critical discussions in the field of Southeast Asian American studies. On the legacies of the war in Vietnam, Yen Le Espiritu argues that
it is imperative that we always look for ‘something more’ in order to see and bring into being what is usually neglected or made invisible or thought by most to be dead and gone—that is, to always see the living effects of what seems to be over and done with. We need to see, and then do something with, the endings that are not over.(xxi) [End Page 96]
Mimi Thi Nguyen theorizes the concept of the “gift of freedom” as the core proposition of liberal war waged by the US empire in the name of refugee rescue and human enlightenment. The urgent task we face as critics, Nguyen argues, “is to theorize the significant ways in which liberal war and liberal peace as conjoined operations proceed under the signs of exception and emergency, and which are neither” (Gift xi). Viet Thanh Nguyen importantly reminds us that the refugee condition does not begin and end in the United States, for “even before Southeast Asians fled the United States, there were already hundreds of thousands of internal refugees in Viet Nam, Cambodia, and Laos” (930). Lastly, Cathy J. Schlund-Vials challenges conventional narratives that bracket the discrete “end points” (War 6) of the Cambodian genocide, theorizing the “Cambodian Syndrome” as “a transnational set of amnesiac politics revealed through hegemonic modes of public policy and memory” (13). As a political analytic, the “Cambodian Syndrome” encompasses both the memory politics of Khmer Rouge authoritarianism and the United States’ denial of culpability in creating the conditions for the Cambodian genocide (13).
Informed by these discussions in the field of Southeast Asian American studies, this essay explores the notion of iterations of war—the historical repetition or continuity of state violence—and its literary counterforces in recent Cambodian American writing. I employ the term counterforce to suggest the way in which recent Cambodian American writing self-consciously thematizes the ability of art, through its aesthetic, political, and therapeutic dimensions, to assist the refugee subject in transforming or escaping the temporality of war. Just as Friedrich Nietzsche saw art as counteracting nihilism, sustaining and making life possible and endurable,4 Vaddey Ratner’s In the Shadow of the Banyan (2012) and Kosal Kiev’s Why I Write (2011) articulate the despair engendered by continuous war while simultaneously asserting the role of art as affirming and enhancing life that has been targeted for disappearance.
As the first work of fiction written by a Cambodian author in the diaspora, Ratner’s In...