- From The Land of Shadows: War, Revolution, and the Making of the Cambodian Diaspora by Khatharya Um
The history of Cambodia is complex as it is entangled with the history of Vietnam and overshadowed by the rule of the Khmer Rouge, a brutal revolutionary group that aimed to radically transform the country. Under the leadership of Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge took control of schools, hospitals, and communal labor in order to turn Cambodia into an agrarian state based on the Maoist-Communist model. Subsequently, Cambodians were forcefully relocated and pressed into servitude on collective farms in labor camps. Those who could not work for the regime or opposed it were immediately killed, and thousands fled the country and sought refuge in the neighboring countries as well as in the United States, Europe, and Australia. In the relentless pursuit of their ultimate goal, the Khmer Rouge committed one of the most severe genocides the history of humankind. After the collapse of this regime, those who had survived in Cambodia as well as those who had fled had to find a way to cope with the legacy of its history.
Khatharya Um’s book From the Land of Shadows: War, Revolution, and the Making of the Cambodian Diaspora traces the tragic history of Cambodia and closely examines the Cambodian diaspora, revealing how these people struggle to cope with and make sense of this historical trauma. In seven chapters that are divided in three parts, the author analyzes more than 250 first-hand accounts of survivors in Cambodia, the United States, and France and contextualizes their stories within Cambodian history. Giving space for formerly unheard Cambodians to tell their stories, Um places her book within the theoretical framework of transnational studies, memory studies, as well as new historicism. This approach to the (hi)story of Cambodia has been long overdue, as this nation has [End Page 92] still been mainly exposed to the colonial gaze and continued to be rendered a “[…]small Buddhist kingdom suspended in antiquity, frozen in time, and fixed in the imaginary of the outside world” (2). Um’s approach is very timely and necessary given the global refugee crisis. From the Land of Shadows impressively investigates what it means to be a refugee and discloses the traumatizing experience of having to leave one’s home country stating, “for many survivors, the ability to move on is hindered by the remembering of things left unresolved” as “many are plagued by the tormenting self-questioning about what they could have done to save their loved ones […]” (185). Questions of identity, belonging, and reconnecting with one’s roots are addressed as well as the ideal of collective national healing.
Despite all the tragedies recalled and recollected, Khatharya Um’s book also reflects a notion of hope and resistance. As she insists in the Epilogue, these narratives are not only about the tragedies but also––or even more––about “[…] the heroism in the daily acts of living, the ability to retain one’s dignity…humanity in the moral abyss […]” (259), thus surviving and remaining human, remaining Cambodian, and not being destroyed by an oppressive regime.