Art of storytelling: stories of survivors of the Khmer Rouge, Documentation Center of Cambodia sifts materials to curate, share

I recently had the opportunity to interview Documentation Center of Cambodia Executive Director Youk Chhang.

According to Chhang’s Wikipedia page,

‘Chhang is a survivor of the Khmer Rouge’s killing fields. He became DC-Cam’s leader in 1995, when the center was founded as a field office of Yale University’s Cambodian Genocide Program to conduct research, training and documentation relating to the Khmer Rouge regime. Chhang continued to run the center after its inception as an independent Cambodian non-governmental organization in 1997 and is currently building on DC-Cam’s work to establish the Sleuk Rith Institute, a permanent hub for genocide studies in Asia, based in Phnom Penh.’


Storytelling is an art: notes on having frank conversations about very hard subjects

I’d heard it was hard to get a meeting with him. Fortunately, I could. I’m feeling lucky about this.

Turns out, the interview was really much more extraordinary than I could have imagined. This, I think, was thanks to mutual interest in sharing stories of what happens in a life, how it feels, how it is perceived, how we change our ideas as we go through the months, years, and decades.

How we felt about it, and what we’ve come to understand.

This kind of thing. Certainly I made a few blunders, not being trained in trauma, psychology, or history. But I am a curious person. And, I approach from a place of openness. It helps that I’ve been here ten years, too, I think, and also that he is quite comfortable speaking with a U.S. citizen (me) as he went to Dallas when he was young, as a refugee, to start a new beginning in his life there. That was before returning to Cambodia, years later. We talked about why.

I asked.

I listened.

Through this afternoon of exchange, I came to learn so much and am compiling my notes and research from this, and other observations over my ten years in Cambodia, with respect to time and memory for an issue of our weekly e-mag S P A C E. It’s called S P A C E | ‘A June Afternoon.’ (See link at the end for more.)

Sitting quietly, absorbing stories of the survivors of the Khmer Rouge

According to its website, the Documentation Center of Cambodia (DC-Cam) was established in 1995. DC-Cam is a non-profit, non-governmental, non-partisan, non-political and independent research institute in Cambodia and dedicated to documenting the History of the Democratic Kampuchea (DK) regime, between 1975 and 1979.

The point that I was asked to go to was next to DC-Cam’s buildings, and is called, “The Queen Mother Library.” I disembarked from my tuk-tuk, which had circled about for a couple of streets, as is common when there are guards at the main streets to see who is turning into them, as these side roads aren’t for everyday thoroughfare. There is a quiet mood here, which is hard to find in Phnom Penh if you don’t know where to look. This seems fitting.

Working cover image for S P A C E | ‘A June Afternoon’ / Augustine Wong

Stories of Khmer Rouge survivors, documented at DC-Cam + website

I don’t know if you are aware of this, but there is a range of curated pieces at this space in Phnom Penh that students and researchers from around Cambodia and abroad come to, to read and learn and see. Online, there’s also stuff to discover. Those who might not know that this exists may appreciate this link to stories of some of the survivors of the Khmer Rouge.

For now, I am reviewing everything with care. My notes. My research online. The snippets from times past that people I knew who were Cambodian-American or who were Cambodian and emigrated to that country and elsewhere, making up a great diaspora elsewhere, have shared with me in confidence and at those moments that S P A C E sets the table for and invites, authentically, sincerely, and for no reason other than to seek to understand.

I am almost there. To gather my explorations and share what I understand, one person’s take, on this gigantic, complex, and difficult-to-speak-and-write-about chapter of Cambodia’s history. But, me being me, I will take one slice of that big story and expand on it. The personal perspective. First-person narrations, like some of my past stories in S P A C E. This is going to be one of those, based largely on the conversation I got to have with Director Chhang. This weekend, I am studying up on the exact nature of the work that the Center is doing. For background. For research. More to share, soon, in the spaces of S P A C E, where we go into the quiet, more personal, and more in-the-moment conversations, sometimes punctuated by stillness.

To be continued.

Join S P A C E to get all issues of the zine. You can also get this one in our shop, see details  at this post on my personal site, ‘A June Afternoon.’