I recently had the privilege of interviewing Sambath Meas, a Khmer American writer based in Chicago, Illinois. She is the author of two books, “The Immortal Seeds: Life goes on for a Khmer family” and “The Governor’s Daughter: The Scribes of Brahmadhan, Rise of the Eugenicists.” As a fan of her work for a while, I was excited to learn more about her connection to Cambodia, her passion for writing, and her views on reading. Sambath shared with me that she finds reading to be a source of inspiration, saying, “Reading generates ideas, and story ideas are flowing out of me like the Tonle Sap River.”
An interview with Sambath Meas, a Cambodian-born American writer
Tharum: Please introduce yourself in 3 tweets.
Sambath: My name is Sambath Meas, which means treasure or wealth and gold in Khmer. My friends call me Sammi and my family and relatives call me Sros. I love going to the theater, traveling, reading, researching, and writing.
Tharum Bun: Sambath Meas, what’s in a name?
Sambath Meas: Are you going Shakespearean on me? Or do you mean it in a modern day sense? My name matters greatly as I am trying to build a brand and everything great that comes with this name.
Tharum: Please tell me about your childhood and your connection with Cambodia.
Sambath: I was born in Pailin (Gem City), Battambang during the third year of an acrimonious civil war between the Khmer Republic and the Khmer Rouge. By the time I became aware of my surrounding I was already living in a draconian and agrarian society that was run by the victor of the war.
When the Khmer Rouge and their former allies the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (North Vietnam) and the Viet Cong clashed over political and territorial issues that led to the latter’s invasion on December 25, 1978 and not too long thereafter, my family decided not to stick around to witness or experience another stage of Cambodia’s death and destruction.
My father wanted a better life for our family and an education for my sister and me. Therefore, he and my mother took great risks by leaving their ancestral homeland, the only place they knew and attached to, and dodging bombs, bullets, landmines, and human predators, whether in Cambodia or Thailand, to find the land of abundance where people could live in peace and harmony with liberty and justice for all.
My family was displaced for two years in Thailand’s refugee camps before my father’s hard work and prayer were answered. We finally received sponsorship to the United States of America.
After many interviews and physical tests, the authority took us to Bangkok where we, carrying our ICEM bag, boarded a giant metal bird to the United States. We arrived in Chicago, Illinois on a frigid night of September 1981. We survived Cambodia’s civil war, the Khmer Rouge, the refugee camps, but it was a whole new type of survival for us on the streets of Uptown, Chicago.
My father registered me for school and they put me in the third grade. I did not know a word of English and I was one of the few Asians in that school. My parents, going to school and looking for labor work, pretty much left me, an eight-year-old girl, to walk the streets of Uptown to and from school on my own and to fend for myself. Unbeknownst to my parents, other kids, specifically boys, taunted me, threw spitballs at me, beat me and routinely called me “Ching Chong.” They would pull up their eyes to look severely tight and slanted while they pretended they were speaking to me in my native tongue. They told me to go back to China. Not the one to cower from a fight or harassment, I fought back. Unfortunately, instead of my bullies getting in trouble, I got in trouble for my outburst and self-defense. My teacher yanked me out of the classroom and threw me in the principal office.
My father didn’t find out what I went through until they called to lecture him about my bad behavior. They reprimanded me. Unbeknownst to me, my parents also received physical threats and verbal assaults and told to go back to China.
My father was forced to carry a rock or hammer when he returned from work from the night shift or just walking the streets. However, just like Cambodia and Thailand’s refugee camps, we survived the mean streets of Uptown, Chicago. I continued my education and went through the growing pains of childhood like normal American kids, my parents worked hard to put food on our table and a roof over our heads, and just like other Americans, we saved enough for small vacations to other states.
My connection with the people and country of Cambodia stems from the Khmer language I speak at home, the family and relatives living in the country, the wonderful history of my native ancestors, and my love for Khmer ancient ruins and philosophy of life that had long been forgotten by Khmer people but now is being practiced by successful people throughout the world. I will have to write a book about it.
Tharum: Who inspires you to write and to become the person you are today?
Sambath: My mother and great authors such as William Shakespeare, H. G. Wells, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Patrick Rothfuss, J. K. Rowling, Jane Austen, George Eliot, Henry James, Mark Twain, Leo Tolstoy, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Carl Sagan, Stephen Hawking, and self-help gurus such as Napoleon Hill, Bob Proctor, and Rhonda Byrne.
Tharum: Why this book, The Governor’s Daughter: The Scribes of Brahmadhan?
Sambath:The Governor’s Daughter, which took me five months to write, came to me while I was writing Rise of the Eugenicists. I am hoping to finish Rise of the Eugenicists this year, 2016. The Governor’s Daughter is supposed to be series of The Scribes of Brahmadhan that explains back stories and events that are taking place in Rise of the Eugenicists. Plus, I love Sherlock Holmes and I thought I would write my own detective stories that take place in Cambodia.
Tharum: What’s next? Tell me some more about it?
Sambath: I am working on two science fiction novels right now: Rise of the Eugenicists and Tommy’s Mind Palace. The first one consists of grown-up themes—politics, social issues, regeneration, wars, destruction, free will, men v. men, men vs. nature, dystopia, utopia, etc.—while the second one consists of an adolescent theme of having to deal with the loss of a parent.
In Rise of the Eugenicists, my idea came from our Khmer ancient ancestors who built temples to align with the cosmos and cities on which they built on top of other cities, wars, destructions, and present day political and social problems not only rooted in Cambodia but also around the globe.
The premise of Rise of the Eugenicists: The Scribes of Brahmadhan is this:
We are living in a dangerous cycle. Evil is spreading fast. All of us might not survive it. According to Brahmadhan chronicles, as shown in the Angkor Wat temple, our world is transformed during four eras: krita yuga, treta yuga, dvapara yuga, and kali yuga.
The span of krita era lasts 1,728,000 human years, treta is 1,296,000 human years, dvapara is 864,000 human years, and kali yuga is 432,000 human years. These quartet cycles repeat themselves over and over again for 4.54 billion years now.
The human life span is the shortest in kali yuga, because the planet is plagued with never-ending wars, ongoing natural disasters, famine, immorality, greed and lack of ethics. All tolerable religions will disappear and be replaced with fanaticism. Evil roams the planet until everything is completely destroyed.
We’re currently living in kali yuga. The battle had begun a few thousand years ago, starting with the Kurukshetra War, which took place in northwestern India, with the fates of the Kauravas and the Pandavas, as described in the great epic of the Mahabharata. Will we survive the kali cycle, as the most evil mind on Earth, arms with newly discovered technologies from the denizens of Brahmadhan, wants to start a new type of the greatest eugenics war, which was disrupted in World War I and World War II?
Tharum: If you’ve 3 wishes for Cambodia, what are those?
1- I wish … actually, I want to appeal to all Cambodian leaders to put aside their differences and act as the healing and uniting force instead of instigating and creating hyperbolic politics to cause people to destroy each other verbally and physically. They should look out for the interests of the people and country for now and for the future to come and not their own personal and short-term gains. We should have learned our tragic lesson when we let hatred consumed us like when the Khmer Republic trashed and abolished the monarchy and the monarchy in turn called out for the people to go into the jungle to form and side with the Khmer Rouge to destroy each other and the country. We still experience its aftermath until this day.
2- People in Cambodia have been injected with negativities since the fall of Angkor to the point of becoming fearful, complacent, and having no sense of purpose in life. What I see on Facebook and other social media most of the time is, people—especially young people—complaining about boredom, having no money, and having no sense of direction or purpose in life. It’s a waste of human energy to have 80 percent of the Cambodian population not having a sense of purpose and contributing to their own growth and that of the country. I would like to one day, like the Cave analogy in Plato, to lead them out of darkness and into the light, to help them help themselves, to teach them to be positive and great members of their society. I wish…I want Cambodian people to wake up to help themselves and help their country prosper. They have a lot to learn about positive mental attitude and attracting positive energy.
3- Cambodia has been severely deforested. I wish … I would like to call out for like-minded people to come together to reforest Cambodia. Also, from city to countryside, Cambodia is littered with garbage. I would like for us to make Cambodia green and clean again.