At the beginning of his life, Bunkong Tuon was caught in the takeover of Cambodia by the Communist Party of Kampuchea under Pol Pot. At three, his mother died from starvation, his father remarried and remained in Cambodia. His grandmother carried him out of Cambodia to a UN refugee camp in Thailand when he was six or seven (he cannot remember precisely). From there, a Christian sponsor brought him to Massachusetts. He has no specific memories of his parents. At the beginning of his life, Bunkong Tuon was caught in the takeover of Cambodia by the Communist Party of Kampuchea under Pol Pot. At three, his mother died from starvation, his father remarried and remained in Cambodia. His grandmother carried him out of Cambodia to a UN refugee camp in Thailand when he was six or seven (he cannot remember precisely). From there, a Christian sponsor brought him to Massachusetts. He has no specific memories of his parents. On the cover of the book, there is a photo of his parents on their wedding day, the confidence of his father and the lively happiness of his mother, “Thirty years later, my fingers trace the worn-out texture [ . . . ].” The photograph brings perspective to the horror of the genocide; one to three million ethnic Khmer were killed. The world is now dealing with more and more displaced political refugees losing their homeland, their culture, their language to survive in other cultures and lands. Gruel provides a window to see what that feels like.
The poems proceed in the form of memories, not chronology. In the poem, “The House of Many Voices,” he tells his wife, do not look:
over your shoulder, or you will be snagged
by a ghost of rice paddies and water
buffalo, its heavy black hair still wet
from the mist of yesteryear, or a ghost [ . . . ]
He begins the book where he ends it, “as you [Grandmother-Mother] carried me on your back. / In Pol Pot’s time, I was protected, sheltered, loved, always.” She gave him the thickest part of the rice gruel as she carried him to safety: “gruel,” her love gave him life. In the new land of America, he was taunted at school: “Why don’t you go back to China?” “Do you eat dogs where you come from?” ”You use grass and leaves to wipe your ass, right?” ”Do you know Kung fu?” The foundation of love from his family and his imagination conquers:
I jumped and turned,
Thirty feet straight into the air,
Took out my sword, [ . . . ] saw heads roll,
[ . . . ] red blossoming concrete.
He was a college dropout, worked as a custodian, worked in warehouses, until one day he walked into a Long Beach library and “picked a random book off the shelf: a book of poems by that drunken old man [Charles Bukowski] / a book filled with social misfits / and outcasts [ . . . ]” “I was gasping for air. / I felt my own sweet suffering in others. / Loneliness was extinguished, / [ . . . ] in the worst storm of your life this mad love / can hit you, smashing you into a billion pieces, / connecting you with everyone and everything.”
He went back to college, got a PhD and became a writer and professor. Not remembering his mother and father specifically, missing them when he gets married, imagining them, longing for them and knowing the horror of the time he was born into shows how important for our lives human connection and love are for survival. Not just physical survival, but meaningful survival. Tuon’s upfront story is the loss of his heritage, but he does see life in-itself that we all share no matter our personal histories. In the poem “Fishing with My Cousin,” he writes of a pure existential moment:
[ . . . ] Those crappies—
they bite, they pull, they turn, they twist
this way and that, blue flashing, tail lashing,
making waves over a half-torn worm,
which by some miracle is still alive, twirling
endlessly in its brownness on a hook.
Tuon tells us the important things about life, the love and care of his Grandmother-Mother; a desire to “return to the beginning” to know his mother; to know his dad “just to talk”; political transience of war, now “with the Middle Easterners as political refugees, I guess the United States was no longer at war / with Southeast Asia”; growing up alone and different, “what did we do to make them [Americans] hate us so much?”; losing his name, he was called “Sam” in grade school (easier to say) . . . on and on, loss of one’s homeland and a struggle with alienation to learn the cultural landscape of the new home, he moves to the future having nightmares that he will lose his Khmer past. At every turn, Tuon takes nothing for granted, he feels “lucky” getting his due, a teaching job, a wife, survival in the face of Pol Pot. He meets life with gratitude. As we move into a turbulent global society in which refugees enter and leaven set societies, Tuon shows how much strength it takes to bridge two cultures—and, what we all share in common.