WASHINGTON DC —
[Editor’s note: Princess Norodom Serei Soma, the daughter of Prince Norodom Vatvani, third cousin of King Norodom Sihamoni, is a newspaper columnist and philanthropist. In 1975 her family moved to the United States, where she went to university and worked in media and marketing before returning to Cambodia in 2010. She began writing regular columns for the Phnom Penh Post, drawing the ire of the government with a 2012 article which saw her charged with incitement. She returned to the US in 2014 and wrote a book about her experiences, titled “Royal Rebel”, which was released on October 21.]
Princess Norodom Serei Soma was interviewed by VOA Khmer’s Seourn Vathana via email.
VOA: When did the idea for writing “Royal Rebel” first come to you? What was the inspiration?
Norodom Serei Soma: The inspiration of Royal Rebel came when I left Cambodia in February 2014. I went back to the U.S. because my mom needed me as she was about to have surgery. Coming back to the U.S. made me realize that I needed time to mourn the death of my father, alone, and not in the public eye. The book was my medicine to heal, to forgive those who hurt me, and to pray for Cambodia and our people.
VOA: What do you want to let the public know through writing this book?
Norodom Serei Soma: The public will get a better understanding of my hopes and dreams for Cambodia. We must have hope for a better future for all Cambodians. Also, to stand up for what you believe in even if nobody is on your side. Be honest and truthful to yourself and have faith in your decisions, and be ready to take criticisms from all sides.
VOA: How important is this book to Cambodian Americans and Cambodian people?
Norodom Serei Soma: The book is important to Cambodian Americans because they can relate to me as I was [among] the first group of refugees to arrive in … California in April 1975. It is a personal account of my adventures stepping foot onto my homeland after 35 years living in the U.S. I had to learn to speak Khmer, learn the culture, and become acclimated to my new home, Cambodia. People who have never been to Cambodia can read my book and this can help as a guide book of what to expect, places to go and visit, and just know the culture, and especially the history of Cambodia. For Cambodians, they will have a better understanding of our history, the royal family, and ways of life in the U.S. as I recount my childhood in the U.S. as a refugee.
Princess Norodom Soma and Apsara Dancers during “Royal Rebel” book launch, at Smittcamp Alumni House, Fresno, California, on Friday, October 21, 2016.
VOA: How long have you spent on writing “Royal Rebel”? And is there anything you find particularly challenging in your writing?
Norodom Serei Soma: When I returned to the U.S. in February of 2014, I started compiling my notes and information to start writing the book. But it took two years, and I had the challenge of writing, called "writer's block". I couldn't even write one chapter. I had to do a lot of soul searching and prayed a lot. One day I woke up and just started writing. The hardest part was going back to those moments and writing the details, and going through that painful time again. It happened when my father died, and I had to write from the time he died to the cremation ceremony. As a writer, it is easy to write about topics once you have done the research and interviews, but it is harder when the topic is close to you.
VOA: Why do you launch this book in the U.S.? And are you planning to publish it in Khmer?
Norodom Serei Soma: I launched the book in the U.S. because I was here and did self-publishing, which meant I paid for the publishing and distribution with my own money. It's better to self-publish as you have full control of your book, from the chapters, to the pictures, and to the creation of the book cover. I'm thinking ahead as the book will become a movie, and this is where self-publishing is more beneficial than traditional publishing. You don't have to buy out your contract from the publishing company and you can negotiate 100% with anybody to produce the movie.
VOA: Personal growth is a theme throughout the book. How did your experiences while living in Cambodia help you grow as a person?
Norodom Serei Soma: I learned meditation through the Buddhist religion. My father was Buddhist and we had to fulfill his last wish by going through the Buddhist rituals and ceremonies. But it was living in Cambodia, and not taking things for granted, like food on the table, a roof over your head, which made me appreciate the little things in life. It’s not the material things that matter, but why you are here, and what is your purpose in life.
VOA: Have you had any challenges, being a Cambodian American and a Cambodian royal family member, in expressing social or political opinions?
Norodom Serei Soma: Yes, as you recall, back in October 2012, my Phnom Penh Post column annoyed the Prime Minister and the Government, and I was accused of “incitement” as they accused me of dividing the country during the time of mourning for King Father Norodom Sihanouk. I wrote the truth and defended my freedom of expression, which we don't seem to have in Cambodia. It's hard to be in the public eye and have everybody scrutinize everything you do and what you say. You lose your privacy if you are a public figure. You know who your real friends are during these tough times.
The interview has been edited for length and clarity.