Chanrithy Him – When Broken Glass Floats
Growing up under the Khmer Rouge
Eager to learn more about Cambodia (my new country of expatriation), I jumped on the first book I could read: “When Broken Glass Floats” by Chanrithy Him.
The author is a Khmer Rouge survivor, living in Oregon. Trained in biochemistry with the intent to become a medical doctor, she happened to assist the University’s department of psychology in interviewing Cambodian refugees who survived the Khmer Rouge, in order to study their trauma. Having herself grown up under the Khmer Rouge, liberating other victims’ words helps her to gather her own. In 2000, 20 years after the end of her ordeal, she published her account of life under the regime.
Born in 1965, she was only ten years old when the Khmer Rouge came to power. As soon as she had escaped Phnom Penh, she witnessed death – crude and violent. For four years she lived in the hell of the camps. The book relates her craving for survival in the aptly-named “Killing Fields”. She experienced hunger, sickness, and horror and most of all, death. Most of her relatives died in the camps, starting with her father, assassinated by the Khmer Rouge.
Her writing style is astonishing: she puts words to the unspeakable, in a restrained yet powerful way. While reading the book, I starved, chilled and shivering, unable to put it down. The strength of her tale, along with the power of her words made me read the book all at once.
In addition, she reinforces her book with Khmer words and in a very didactic manner provides foreigners with an introduction to Khmer culture. I particularly enjoyed this aspect of the book. There is no need to bind with Khmer culture to feel and understand the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge. Yet she subtly inserts the Khmer Rouge period in a larger cultural context, explaining more accurately the shock such a brutal regime inflicted on the people of Cambodia.
This book is the account of a single individual and does not aim at being a history of the Khmer Rouge era. However on finishing book, I wish I had learnt more about the political and social impacts of the regime, notably on how survivors dealt with their trauma. Given that the latter subject is her area of specialty, as she studies post-traumatic stress disorder among Cambodian refugees, I can only hope she’ll publish another book soon.