Saturday, January 19, 2002

Chanrithy Him

In making these introductions, I usually try to keep it light. In the case of Chanrithy Him, I won't even make the attempt. She is a survivor of a Twentieth Century event so incredibly insane that there is almost no historical yardstick available to measure it. Hitler killed to exalt a master race. Stalin and Mao Zedong slaughtered all who opposed their extreme communist ideology. The Rwandans and Serbs joyfully butchered their enemies in an explosion of ancient feuds. In a perverted sense, there was almost a certain twisted logic to their viciousness.

Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge, on the other hand, had almost no perceptible ideology, no plan, no goal, unless it was to destroy an entire culture and people, his own people. He armed the poorest and most ignorant and set about killing the intelligent and educated. Two million people, or about thirty percent of the Cambodian population were slaughtered. The country became a huge prison camp of unchecked disease and suffering, without medicine or industry or an economy or even the suggestion of civilization. A list of occupations available in Cambodia during the years of the Khmer Rouge would be short: demagogue, soldier, informant, slave, corpse.

Chanrithy Him, recounts her grim childhood years in When Broken Glass Floats, Growing up Under the Khmer Rouge, winner of the 2001 Oregon Book Award for Non-fiction. She works as a research associate at Oregon Health Sciences University School of Medicine, performing work on a long-term study on post-traumatic stress disorder among Cambodian refugees in the U. S. When Broken Glass Floats was also a finalist for the Kiriyama Pacific Rim Book Prize, finalist for the PEN USA West Literary Award, and nominee for the Barnes and Noble Discover Great New Writers Award.

The book is a work of art. Chanrithy Him writes in a plain, forthright style surprisingly free of embellishment and emotion, taking you to a place no sane person would ever willingly go. Yet, you are compelled to turn page after page, fascinated and humbled by the overwhelming strength of character displayed by a remarkable human being trapped in one of the most horrific moments in human history.

U.S. Indochina Educational Foundation

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