Memories, Diaspora and Verse: An Interview with Sokunthary Svay
AAP staff report
(Sept. 27, 2017) — Sokunthary Svay is a Pushcart-nominated Khmer writer and musician from the Bronx. Her first poetry collection, Apsara in New York (Willow Books) recently had a successful launch at the historic Poets House in New York. She and her family were refugees from Cambodia who survived the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime.
Among her accomplishments, Svay is the poetry editor for Newtown Literary and a founding member and Board President of the Cambodian American Literary Arts Association (CALAA). She has been published in Women’s Studies Quarterly, Prairie Schooner, LONTAR, and Mekong Review, Perigee, and the Margins. She is a recipient of the American Opera Projects’ Composer & the Voice Fellowship for 2017-2019.
Asian American Press caught up with Svay recently to discuss her approach and what’s next for Cambodian American poetry.
Asian American Press: Congratulations on the release of your new book. Can you tell us a little more about yourself and your family’s journey to the US?
Sokunthary Svay: Thank you! My family came to the US as refugees from Cambodia. My parents and older brother, Thy, had survived the Khmer Rouge regime and crossed through the jungle to reach the refugee camps along the border of Cambodia and Thailand. I was born in Khao I Dang, Thailand, one of the locations of several refugee camps at the time. We were eventually sponsored by the International Rescue Committee and then resettled in the Bronx, New York, which is where I was raised.
AAP: What do you remember most about your early education in literature and the arts?
SS: Music has been a constant in my life – it was actually my first exposure to finding a (singing) voice. I sang in a children’s choir from the age of seven, after which I learned flute and went on to a specialized music, art, and performing arts high school. I remember making “books” in fourth grade about the “war in Cambodia” and they were pretty explicit about death. I loved to read and would hide away or escape through those books. It was my safe place since the Bronx wasn’t so at the time, and place where I could find the words and language my family lacked in the day-to-day.
AAP: Who are some of your artistic role models among the Khmer?
SS: I’ll have to include dead and living since there aren’t as many in our community to create a large list: Arn Chorn-Pond, U Sam Oeur, Peuo Tuy, Ros Sereysothear, Sinn Sisamouth, Lin Da Saphan, Rithy Panh, Him Sophy, Sam-Ang Sam, Bunkong Tuon, Amy Lee Sanford.
AAP: What inspired you to work with the concept of the Apsara for your first book?
SS: It was initially going to be called No Others, after a poem of the same title but I felt that that title was creating more of dark, traumatic, war narrative that Cambodian American literature could use less of. The apsara, the mythical being that is ever present in Khmer classical dance and fashion, that seemed a more appropriate way to speak about its pervasiveness as a representation of the Khmer woman. I have flying apsaras all over my home – you can’t escape them. They are revered but when man sculpts them in bas-relief on the temples of Angkor, they become oily, tainted by the contact. I had wondered what would happen when such a deity falls to earth, if the women of my mother’s generation and mine embodied them, and how they would survive the fall to New York City. I found a photo of my mother’s class, which is all women, in the Philippines after a graduation from her English class. Before the sponsored refugees went to their new countries, they would stop over in the Philippines to learn some English and prepare for what western surprises lay in store for them – such as how to use toilets, etc. My mother is so young in this photo, her early 20s. I saw her and all these other women standing in front of a chalkboard with an intricate drawing of Angkor Wat with an airplane flying away from this national monument and it all seemed to make sense – I decided to go back to my old title, Apsara in New York. This photo is in the book with a dedication alongside it. The cover of my book is an outline of the photo.
AAP: What are you working on for your current artistic projects?
SS: I’m working on a children’s book since I was frustrated at the lack of books about girls who looked like me or my daughter. I received the Composers & the Voice fellowship from the American Opera Projects to learn libretto-writing, so an opera is in the works. Now that this collection is done, I’m also returning to my nonfiction writing, which will talk about music and some other interesting anecdotes, not necessarily about being Khmer.
AAP: How do you envision the next directions for the Cambodian American Literary Arts Association?
SS: I think building up our visibility within the Lowell community and online, perhaps also to New York City so we can bring in some literary organizations as allies. Fundraising, which we know is the backbone for keeping us alive. A poet-colleague just offered a space for CALAA to read at a weekly literary event here in Queens. Aside from having more workshops and perhaps a reading or two, I would like to find out how we can best be integrated into the Khmer American community, whether in afterschool programs or through a curriculum that addresses schools that have a 50% population of Khmer students.
AAP: How has your family responded to your successes in the arts?
SS: I don’t know that I’m “successful” in the arts right now but my parents have been positive and surprisingly (to me) proud.
AAP: What are some of your personal rules for yourself when it comes to writing?
SS: This is the one I struggle with the most – don’t judge what comes out on the page.
Write anywhere and on any kind of paper or device. Don’t force yourself to write. What does my voice sound like? I used to try too hard to be like my hero, Kimiko Hahn, but now I’m seeing that I can reference her and see where the feelings I get from her poem can go in my own.
AAP: What is one of your favorite pieces to recommend for readers who want to get an introduction to your writing?
SS: “Ode to Mother’s Sarong” and “Reincarnation” for their references to Khmer culture and lineage.
AAP: What’s been the most effective setting for your writing process?
SS: Freewriting is surprisingly helpful. Sometimes I just grab a phrase from a poem I’m currently reading, or sometimes I just stop mid-read in a collection when I read something that triggers some ideas for me. I like to get ideas from other poets as I’m experiencing them. There are ideas everywhere. I try not to say “I’m going to write about this” because that makes for a more forced poem. I also like to do a lot of thinking before I put anything to the page; sometimes I sit with an idea for a week.
AAP: Where would you most like to spend time writing, if money were no object?
SS: One of those writers’ colonies somewhere in Provence or some gorgeous view of greenery in Southeast Asia, with mosquito netting, of course. Or some awesome balcony in the West Village.
AAP: What words of advice do you have for aspiring writers?
SS: Find out who you are in life and on the page. Find out what it is you want from your writing – if it’s for the approval of institutions, it will be contrived and no good to anyone, especially not to yourself. Believe in the beauty of your being and let it come onto the page. Don’t be afraid to overwrite, then distill it to just the right amount of words, succinct enough to get your meaning across. And keep supportive writers around you – they are your backbone.