‘Apsara In New York’ is a beautiful tribute to the Khmer American community

Tuesday, April 2, 2019 - 4:33pm

Sokunthary Svay

Sokunthary Svay Buy this photo
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In the next week, the Book Review will be featuring works from Willow Books, an imprint of the Detroit-based small publisher Aquarius Press. Aquarius was founded in 1999 by Heather Buchanan, a University of Michigan-Dearborn alum and former Poet-in-Residence at the Detroit Public Library. In 2007, Aquarius Press launched Willow Books, a project “to develop, publish and promote writers of color” that quickly became its flagship imprint. Willow Books publishes over 40 single-title authors a year and uplifts writers through an impressive network of funds and resources. Writers were recently recognized at Willow Books’s annual LitFest readings, which took place in Portland, Oregon on March 30.

 

“Don’t let your heritage be past tense.” It’s a warning and a plea, the title of the last poem in Sokunthary Svay’s “Apsara in New York,” a collection of poems in which Svay does just that: Fight to keep her culture a part of her present while exploring her roots and their intersection with her life as an immigrant living in the Bronx on an intimate and moving level.

Svay and her family came to the U.S. as refugees from the Khmer Rouge regime, which held power in Cambodia from 1975 to 1979. The regime, guided by its communist philosophy, sought to turn the country into a self-sufficient agrarian society. People were forced into the countryside to work as laborers on farms, where many died from starvation or overwork. By the time the regime was overthrown by the Vietnamese in 1979, it was responsible for the deaths of just under two million people.

Central to many of the poems is, as Svay puts it, the Khmer American communities’ struggle with the dark legacy of the Khmer Rouge. Poems about the genocide and its aftermath are interspersed among those detailing Svay’s life in the Bronx, giving readers the distinct feeling that while the lives of the Khmers continue on, they are never really free of the aftermath of the regime.

The crossroads of Svay’s identity as a Khmer and American are reflected in the title of the work. An “apsara” is a female celestial figure in Buddhist and Hindu religions, something that is placed among food vendors, one dollar pizza and the 2 Line in “An Apsara in New York.” Svay’s poetry depicts her experiences in a startlingly vivid and emotional way. It is easy to feel her annoyance at being repeatedly mistaken as Chinese and her pain from the loss of her brother, who readers know is dead but not exactly how or why. Svay is a gifted writer who transports readers from the Bronx to Cambodia with ease.

A highlight of the collection is the focus on Svay’s relationship with her mother. As her mother’s only surviving child, the two share a special bond which Svay communicates flawlessly. In “Mother’s Call,” the strong personality of her mother and the dry, witty humor Svay employs throughout her poetry are fully showcased. The “Mother Monologue” poems also provide a more serious but touching insight into the relationship between the two women as they grapple with issues like money problems and marriage. Svay portrays the personalities of herself and her mother in such a realistic way they feel familiar and known just a few pages into the collection.

Svay, a singer herself, reveals her love of music through poems like “Diction” and “Music Doesn’t Put Food On the Table,” as well as her mother’s occasional exasperation with that love. The influence of music on Svay’s life is a subtle trend throughout “An Apsara in New York.” One notable poem “No Radio” details the death of the famous Khmer singer Sinn Sisamouth at the hands of the Khmer Rouge regime. It’s a heart-wrenching and beautifully constructed piece that highlights the powerlessness of even fame and celebrity in the face of a brutal regime like the Khmer Rouge.

In “Apsara In New York,” Svay has masterfully woven together a blend of Khmer and American culture. Svay’s poems not only provide insight into the lives of those in the Khmer American community, but manage to do so with a tactful wit and humor that make the collection all the more enjoyable. Svay is an incredibly talented writer, and “Apsara In New York” is a work that should not be missed.