Newtown Literary contributor: Pichchenda Bao
Writer Pichchenda Bao’s work was featured in issue #11 of Newtown Literary. Here, she writes about what drew her to write the poem we published.
The 2016 presidential election and the elevation of xenophobia in our national discourse triggered something latent inside me. I was born in Cambodia at the end of the Khmer Rouge, and my family came to the United States as refugees in the 1980s. I grew up grappling with the issues of preserving my heritage and history and fitting into a dominating American culture. That is likely familiar to many immigrants and first- or 1.5-generation Americans. The process is undoubtedly ongoing, but after the election, I found myself posting pictures and stories of myself as a refugee child. As if showcasing the extraordinary arc of my personal narrative could get people to see that they were supporting inhumane policies and damaging rhetoric, putting my human face on these alienating discussions.
The poem featured in the eleventh issue of Newtown Literary arose out of the distance between the present and the past, how the past is almost unbelievable, except we survive it, remember it, and retell it. I think about how my father and my mother built a new life in the United States and, in doing so, turned the horrors of their past ordeals into a kind of phantom background for us. Growing up in America, I have no real context for what my parents went through, but children pick up on incongruities, perhaps intuiting how we like to have tidy narratives but can seldom achieve them. This friction may be what propels my writing.
This isn’t really a refugee success story. Our relationships to each other, to our native cultures, to America continue to be fraught. I’m almost unsure why I wrote the poem. Except I’ve felt the pressure from certain portions of this country carrying on as if my story, and many others like and unlike it, don’t exist. I suppose writing is my opposing force.