Thursday, May 10, 2012

Celebrating Asian/Pacific-American Heritage Month

In 2002 the Maine Humanities Council, through their New Mainers Book Project, commissioned me to create a picture book about a Cambodian American family.

The task was a daunting one. "Who am I to undertake this," I wrote in my journal at the beginning of the process, "to presume the ability to know, to understand, to represent?" I knew that I couldn't create such a story myself, but I thought that if I immersed myself in the experience of Cambodian Americans and listened long enough, perhaps a story might come through me.

I read stacks of books detailing the Cambodian experience, nearly all survivor accounts. I learned from a specialist in torture and genocide about how trauma is repressed yet lodges as "shards of memory," evident in "a silence, a gap, an absence," and how that memory is often retrieved by the third generation. I looked at Cambodian art, listened to Khmer music, watched Cambodian dance.

Sketches of Dara from A Path of Stars
And finally, I sat in the living room of my friends Veasna and Peng Kem as they graciously shared their own memories. They talked of their beautiful homeland, of the roses and hibiscus, the coconuts and mango trees, of favorite recipes and games, of family star-watching and the star stories elders would share.

Veasna remembered her own escape from the war, lost in a bamboo forest, fearing wolves and other wild animals, saying to herself, "I'm going to die here." She recalled praying to Buddha and to her ancestors for help. "Your parents are the ones you respect the most," she told me, "the ones who gave birth to you and took care of you since you were 'red' (a baby). They mean more to you, more than the big ocean. The spirit of my parents protected me."

Having gathering all of this, I waited. And waited some more. And finally one day, an image came, of a girl in a garden picking a tomato and a single yellow rose.

Ten years later, A Path of Stars (Charlesbridge) has just been released. In words and oil paintings, it tells the story of young Dara and her beloved grandmother, Lok Yeay, who escaped from Cambodia with the only two survivors of her family, one of whom would grow up to be Daras mother. Lok Yeay passes on to her granddaughter stories of the beauty of Cambodia and her survival and flight from her homeland, but when a loss triggers her traumatic history, Dara must use what shes been given to help her grandmother heal. To my knowledge, its the only available fiction picture book about the Cambodian American experience.

The book's release has created wonderful chances to connect with Maine's Cambodian community, which numbers about 2000, including Portland's Cambodian Dance Troupe. Taught by a classical dance performer trained in Phnom Penh, the troupe includes sixteen girls, ages 4 to 20. Some are 2nd-generation Cambodian Americans whose parents escaped the Khmer Rouge; others were born in Cambodia and adopted by American families.

Portland's Cambodian Dance Troupe
When I met with the girls in February, one of the ideas that struck me is that their identity is a relatively new one. Communities of Cambodian Americans, such as ours here in Maine, began taking root in the U.S. in the late 1970's. The oldest American-born Cambodians--in any significant numbers--are in their 30s. What it means to be Cambodian American is being defined now, in all its variety, by these young people, creating a brand-new, unique piece of the American mosaic. I look forward to the day when books about the Cambodian-American experience will be written and illustrated by the people who are living that story.

The book is also creating opportunities to connect the wider community to their Cambodian neighbors. In April I shared A Path of Stars with 3rd-5th graders in Westbrook, Maine, and Framingham, Massachusetts. The students then created Happy New Year cards with a drawing of a lotus and greeting in Khmer, which were mailed to local Cambodian temples.

Happy New Year cards
This spring I'm helping to develop a project, "New Neighbors," to promote reading projects with children's books like A Path of Stars. Such books can spark conversations in which differences of language and culture, race and religion, can be explored through the lens of what we have in common--grandparents, family stories, immigrant journeys, special foods, love of the natural world. The "I'm Your Neighbor" website, currently under construction, will contain a list of recommended books and an evolving list of engagement materials for educators, librarians, and community organizations who seek to build bridges. (Sign up at to receive email notification of the project launch.)

Anne Sibley OBrien ( has illustrated thirty-one books for children, fourteen of which she also wrote. The Legend of Hong Kil Dong: The Robin Hood of Korea won the Aesop Award, the Asian/Pacific American Award for Literature, and was named to Booklists Top 10 Graphic Novels for Youth. After Gandhi: One Hundred Years of Nonviolent Resistance, which she co-wrote with her son, Perry OBrien, won the Maine Literary Book Award and was named an IRA Teachers Choice. She blogs about race, culture and childrens books at Coloring Between the Lines (

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