Work Title: Storytelling in Cambodia
Work Author(s): Willa Schneberg
124 pages, Softcover $13.95
Reviewer: Camille-Yvette Welsch
In Cambodia, storytelling is a brutal business, rife with violence, starvation, and unrest. The author, who worked with the U.N. Transitional Authority there during the early 1990s, tries to give voice to the people hunted by the Khmer Rouge, abandoned by the U.S., attacked by the Vietnamese, colonialized by the French. After all the wars waged on the country, Schneberg writes to show the people behind the victimization. Often employing found poems and the masks of persona, the poet voices Sita from the Hindu epic The Ramayana, the Phnom Penh refugees, and Pol Pot's wife, Khieu Ponnary, among myriad others.
The book begins with an introduction by Cambodian poet U Sam Oeur and translator-poet Ken McCullough. The two offer a guide for reading the book, suggesting how the parts assume the whole. Schneberg, winner of the 2002 Oregon Book Award for Poetry, possesses the ethos of having lived and worked in Cambodia, although that ethos occasionally thins.
Schneberg writes of speaking to a Khmer Rouge survivor, who tells her story because the poet is Jewish. Schneberg tells a Holocaust story, hoping that although the story is not her own, it will soothe the survivor. This self-awareness makes an interesting tension---what is it like as a white, female Westerner to be the voice for an ancient Asian culture? The book does not ultimately answer this question, but Schneberg asks and answers a number of others.
What constitutes the story of Cambodia? Is it the early myth of the Ramayana with its violence that foreshadows...