Bunkong Tuon. Gruel.
My tongue has been cut to fit the meter of another world. The words bounce off walls, deflated, a dead poem.
Excerpt from "Dead Tongue"
Babaw is the Khmer word for rice gruel, the quintessential Cambodian breakfast served with fried garlic, cilantro, chopped scallions, sliced chili, and a variety of other local flavors. It's a way for Khmers to start their day; it's also nourishment for loved ones when they're sick. The word for rice itself, bai, even doubles as the word for food in Khmer. It's telling that food is ingrained into the language, that the concept of taste and tongues extends beyond the culinary sense and into the cultural. In Gruel, Bunkong Tuon writes about episodes that feed his existence as a Cambodian American. We experience the components of his life that flavor his being, namely the loss of his parents and the complexities of his relationships with language and heritage.
The book's publication is timely; 2015 marked the fortieth anniversary of the Khmer Rouge takeover in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, in April 1975. Nearly two million Cambodians died during this failed communist experiment of an agrarian utopia. The horror of the four-year reign, though not the focus of the book, serves as a backdrop for Tuon's experience in Cambodia to his adjustment and life in the United States.
This debut poetry collection takes us on a journey of Tuon's life as a member of the "1.5 generation" of Khmers in America--born in Cambodia but coming of age here, dealing with the struggles that come with refugee status and a lower socioeconomic class to eventually becoming an English professor. Interspersed are the few memories of his parents, and retellings by his relatives of sacrifices by the woman ever present in his young life--Key, his grandmother-turned-mother.
One gets a strong feeling of Charles Bukowski in this book, whom Tuon has alluded to being his "literary father." The book is separated into seven sections, titled after geographical associations and important personal relationships. Nearly all the poems deal with a memory, with devoted descriptions of surroundings. Similar to Bukowski, the poems themselves are a straightforward read, confessional and familiar, providing scenes of life on the margins, whether as a refugee, writer, or poor person. Tuon's longer poems build on images of everyday life, and at times, adjustment to humbling economic circumstances. His shorter poems are powerful in their brevity, revealing the humor of situations, to the ache of loss and loneliness underlying the entire book.
A notable theme in this book is the loss of taste and tongues. For example, first generation Khmers (such as his parents' generation) in this country stress that to lose one's mother tongue is to lose one's "Khmerness." In "The Pavilion Dream," the author wakes from a dream exclaiming to have forgotten his Khmer:
I tried to recollect that dream where I lost my mother tongue, but before anything could happen, my body tensed, my heart ached, a fist-sized stone.
Having lost his own mother, he physiologically embodies loss of his mother tongue.
In "The Day My Worst Fear Came True," he writes from a more culinary standpoint after losing his ability to handle spicy food:
I don't want to be walking on the streets of Portland announcing to the Pacific world that I have lost my Khmer tongue.
First, this idea of a Khmer tongue is literal, referring to losing his taste in the culinary sense. Secondly, it poetically expresses the loss of his cultural and linguistic tongue. His inability to handle the spicy chili, that which defines so much of Cambodian cooking, is a deeply personal failure.
On the impacts of being brown in America, he speaks rather succinctly to himself:
settling for invisibility disappeared into the whiteness became an absence, desired to escape the brownness that was always yours, a brownness that didn't exist before.
This is from the poem "Losing One's Name," in which he writes of adopting "Sam" in favor of his given Khmer name. Because Americans mispronounced his name so often, he settled for a nickname that would serve as a constant reminder of his otherness.
At the opposite end, in "Coming to Terms," after a hard semester teaching English at a small liberal arts college in upstate New York, at the office to input his grades, a weary staff person assumes he is a student fifing a complaint:
You wonder what students think when you unmistakably Asian, perpetually foreign, economically uncertain, set foot in their English classes.
His place in this country, in the college, in the department, as an inheritor of the Khmer and English languages comes into question.
At a more subdued level is the theme of his profound and overwhelming love for his grandmother. He plays with images and realities that he may have had if his parents survived. But ultimately, as his final poem "Gruel" concludes, he never questioned that he was loved through his hardest, darkest times. Particularly under the regime when they had nothing to eat, his grandmother "saved for [him] / the thickest part of her rice gruel."
There is an absence of poetry from Cambodians in the United States, aside from U Sam Oeur, who authored Sacred Vows (Coffee House Press, 1998), translated by Ken McCullough. Oeur writes as a first generation Cambodian whereas Bunkong Tuon writes from a more ambivalent place of the 1.5 generation. Tuon is in a position to gather aspects of both homelands (original and adopted) to form an identity that extends beyond a historical narrative. For him, home isn't easily defined. He creates boundaries and (poetic) lines, negotiating the violence of his country's past and his own personal loss, to the experiences gained as someone who came of age in this country, with all its complexities as a brown Asian refugee. In Gruel, the poet is, once again, a storyteller.