Writer Sokunthary Svay’s poems “The Khmer Speaks through Palms” and “Common Ground” were featured in Issue #7 of Newtown Literary. We interviewed her about her writing, and her answers are below. You can follow her on Twitter @SokSrai.
What is your relationship to Queens?
I lived in Astoria from 2003-2006, and moved to Forest Hills (where I currently live) in late 2006 after I became pregnant.
What is your favorite memory of Queens?
Not a fair question since there are too many. Not specifically a memory, but my impression of living in Astoria just out of college and the freedom I enjoyed before the responsibility of being a parent to my terrific kid, Soriya, who’s turning 9.
How would you describe the writing you do?
The majority of my writing identity is a mix of my Cambodian heritage with my urban, New York City upbringing. I tend to discuss issues of hyphenated identity, mixed with class and gender. I was born in a refugee camp in Thailand and have always felt displaced from most settings in my life — academic, literary, social, etc. In the past I felt disgruntled by it, this feeling of not belonging anywhere since I was born seeking refuge, but now I’ve come to see that “outsider” mentality as a source of strength. It allows me to be more open to taking in the new and keeping what works for me. I don’t feel quite as entrenched as those who are more definitive in their nationality. I also enjoy breaking stereotypes and stomping on the assumptions people have of someone who looks like me – brown and Asian.
How did you come to writing?
Quite naturally, I guess. I have a second grade report card with a comment that says “Sokunthary enjoys writing about Cambodia.” That set the stage for it. I remember making a homemade book as part of a 3rd or 4th grade project and I wrote about the “war” in Cambodia (my parents survived the Khmer Rouge regime). I drew a picture of a dead person in a lake with blood seeping from the body. Nothing I write now is quite as violent, but I do enjoy a bit of shock value, though maybe more nuanced.
What inspires you?
People and music. My husband tells me I’m an optimist when it comes to people, though it’s sometimes put to the test. I love connecting with strangers. I make it a point to remember the names of people I encounter on a regular basis. There’s nothing like calling someone by their name and seeing their otherwise bland-New Yorker expression light up. That moment of recognition is what I look for. New York City is sometimes a hard place to be in, but we can share moments with people and feel a little less alone in our struggle. In addition, my parents and other Cambodians, whether in Cambodia or the American diaspora, continually inspire me to remember the unseen. I care about the stories of unsung heroes and forgotten people. My mother cleans hotel rooms in Times Square. My father worked as a porter (manual labor) at a university. People easily overlook them because of their jobs. Because of this, I have a soft spot for doormen and I always leave a good tip for room attendants (and bartenders).
I grew up in the Bronx and I have a special kinship with the borough and its people although I’m a Queens resident now. Hip hop, R&B, and Soul are in my blood along with Cambodian ’50s surf rock, and classical music from my years in music school. All these aspects of who I am that don’t seem to go together remind me of the cultural exchange we make on a daily basis. It’s what sets us apart as a city — we negotiate the boundaries of what it means to be an individual in a setting where our definition of ourselves shifts everyday.
What does it mean to be a writer in Queens?
It means being on the brink of NYC and the world, and open to the languages and cultures that have come to define and differentiate it from other cities in our country. On my block alone, I can count 11 different languages spoken on a daily basis, sometimes three in one household. Imagine the different thinking processes involved, the clash of cultures and misunderstandings that ensue? I love the humanity of it all, even if I sometimes find myself a bit disoriented by it.
What writing project(s) are you currently working on?
My Cambodian heritage is a source of strength and pride for me. Like many people, I have a lot of ideas and plans, but not enough time. I’d like to do some interpretations of Cambodian folktales, either in prose or poetic form. I like that idea because it can be an educational experience for me and the reader, whether they’re of Khmer descent or not. I’m also fascinated by speculative writing, and having had some of my “speculative” poetry published in LONTAR, a Southeast Asian-based journal that specializes in that field of the fantastical writing from that region, I want to explore the spirits and ghosts that make up so much of the storytelling I’m accustomed to from my childhood. And as an active musician, I’m starting to understand that my music and writing world don’t have to be separate but can come together. I’m a big fan of Schubert art songs, having sung some of them myself. The text of his lieder (art songs) tend to be taken from famous German poetry, which he then sets to music. On that note (ha!), I’d like to take some of my work and thematically create a song cycle about Cambodia as a collaborative effort with a composer. This way my work could be breathing, existing not just on paper but in a temporal art. I’d also like to write a collection of essays about various incidences of music and its effect in my life. I’ve got a draft going right now about my obsession with Jeff Buckley, which led me to revisit music school as an adult. Lastly, I’ve got a draft of a chapbook that I’d like to submit sometime this year.
What should I be asking you that I didn’t?
“What do you wish had been different about your life?”
I wish I had met my other three grandparents. Two on my father’s side died a long time ago (my father is the youngest of several siblings) and my grandfather on my mother’s side died of cancer. I also wish my spoken Khmer was better and that I was literate in the language as well. I wish I had followed my instincts to continue singing in my undergraduate years rather than waiting until after motherhood to allow myself that indulgence. I wish I had taken more risks with my education, but I think I was a late bloomer. An important poet in the field told me a long time ago to write in another genre (this is after he read some of my work). I stopped writing for a few years because of his comments. I wish I had a network of writers then who would’ve told me that he was an old fart and to keep writing anyway. But alas, I found my way back and my life worked out the way it did and it’s better for it.
Readers, mark your calendars:
- Join Poetry and Coffee at Communitea on June 27 at 6 p.m. for a reading and discussion on “Men!” Tickets are free but required.
- Join Poetry and Coffee at the Queens Lit Fest on July 16 at 6 p.m. for a reading and discussion featuring Connie Salvayon, Ingrid Gociu, Sandi Leibowitz, Richie Alexandro, and Valerie G. Keane. Tickets are free.
- Join the Risk of Discovery Reading Series on June 21 at 7:30 p.m. at Astoria Coffee for a writing workshop followed by a poetry open mic and show led by Micah Zevin and featuring Lisa Marie Basile, Richard Jeffrey Newman, and J.T. Price. There is a $10 cover charge, which will serve as credit toward food or drink.
- Join the Risk of Discovery Reading Series on July 31 at 1 p.m. as part of the New York City Poetry Festival. The reading will feature Susan Weiman, Peter Marra, Jared Harel, Abigail Welhouse, Ron Kolm, Craig Kite, and Valerie G. Keane.
- Join Boundless Tales on July 31 at 1:30 p.m. as part of the New York City Poetry Festival. The reading will feature Sydney Hartlove, Catherine Fletcher, and Andres Castro.
- The Jamaica Center for Arts & Learning is calling for artists to apply for a free one-month residency. For more information, and to apply, check out the JCAL website. Applications are accepted on a rolling basis.