A recent book by an award-winning American novelist takes a fresh look at the trauma of living and loving of a Cambodian girl in the United States post-Khmer Rouge regime.
The book, “Either the Beginning or the End of the World”, shows all of the “multifaceted intricacy” of war, cultural upheaval and love, says author Terry Farish. “It is for war literature, and refugee experiences.”
“I am hoping that when people read this they will figure out the complexity of love and the implications of war on love,” said Farish, 70, who volunteered with the Red Cross in Vietnam in the 1970s.
Driven by her experience in Vietnam and living in Lowell, Massachusetts, working with groups of Cambodian refugees in the late 1980s, Farish was eager to understand immigrant culture and learn the way of life of these “new Americans.”
“They become our neighbors. They become a friend to our kids,” she said. “I think what happened in Cambodia is not known by a lot of American kids. One thing that I tell in the novel is that the novel talks about the genocide to a lot of young readers.”
In the novel, published in late 2015, the main protagonist is a teenage girl learning to love for the first time. Sofie’s mother is a Cambodian refugee who escaped from the Khmer Rouge and married a Scottish-American man in New Hampshire at the age of 16.
As Sofie turns 16 herself, she falls for a young army medic, Luke, who saw active duty in Afghanistan, their love driven by “so much anger,” Farish says.
Luke is dealing with the trauma of war in Afghanistan, while Sofie struggles to come to terms with her relationship with her mother, who suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder and left her at a young age.
Identity is another major theme in the book, with Sofie rejecting her Cambodian heritage. “I am American. I am not Cambodian. I built myself from scratch every day,” she says.
The book’s narrative reflects a reality for many who have experienced war’s impact on relationships. Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge survivors and many of their children today suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety and depression, despite some three decades having passed since the regime was overthrown.
For Sofie, finding love eventually leads her to embrace her mother and her identity.
“Her love to the soldier helps her open her heart and helps her to begin to have sympathy for her own mother who struggled with trauma,” Farish said.
But the “emotional truth” between mother and daughter is what Farish wanted to tap into the most, to reveal the importance of learning where she came from so she can know where she is going.
“Without her mother, I think the girl is lost in the world. The way for her to coming into her own and to seek her own identity requires her to return to her mom and understand her mother,” Farish says.
Farish leads literacy programs for the New Hampshire Humanities Council in Connecticut. She has received critical acclaim for her work on immigrants and refugees. Her other works include “Luis Paints the World”, and “The Good Braider”, which won the American Library Association Best Book for Young Adults award in 2013.