Monica Sok is a Cambodian American poet from Lancaster, Pennsylvania. She has received fellowships and awards from the National Endowment for the Arts, Poetry Society of America, Kundiman, the Elizabeth George Foundation, and the Stadler Center for Poetry. She holds an MFA in creative writing from New York University. Her poem “Ask the Locals” can be found here. It appears in the Nov/Dec 2017 issue of the Kenyon Review.
What was your original impetus for writing “Ask the Locals”?
Early on, I made up rules for my work because I was tired of attaching myself to a narrative of trauma. I was tired of this primarily because it’s painful to constantly engage with trauma head on, even in poems. The rule was: Do not give perpetrators of genocide any room in your lexicon, not even their names.
I continue to struggle with the ways I might potentially perpetuate trauma for myself by the sheer act of writing. In “Ask the Locals,” I established mosquitoes as a common reference to the Khmer Rouge, and by writing about mosquitoes . . . I didn’t have to say the name “Khmer Rouge” so many times. In my conversations with Khmer writers, we agree that the “Khmer Rouge” is so overused in Cambodian literature (not to mention the names Pol Pot, the killing fields, Angkor Wat, and perhaps Angelina Jolie now, I’m afraid). At the same time, like many of my peers, I am definitely writing about the Khmer Rouge regime, its aftermath and the inherited traumas. But let me switch to using “mosquitoes” in this conversation now.
I decided to draw on mosquitoes—insects that act as a subtle nuisance, potentially carrying a disease that leads to fatality. We all have mosquitoes in our history, they are also present in our everyday lives even when that history has long passed; we keep scratching our arms and legs. For me, I rely on mythmaking. I have to occupy another world in my mind in order to deal with these mosquitoes. This has been my private rule which I have followed to protect myself from a traumatic history I’ve inherited through familial silence.
By now I’ve said mosquitoes too much. I have written other poems using the name Khmer Rouge because no other substitute or metaphor was necessary. I’m sure that I will always feel conflicted when dealing with the Khmer Rouge in my writing. But I want to believe that my own mythmaking can shield me from actual horrors, even as I unpack my feelings about them. Only through mythmaking do I hope to begin addressing intergenerational trauma directly.
The poem’s title, “Ask the Locals” invites the reader into a consideration of a specific intended place or setting, yet one is never overtly named. How do you hope this occlusion works to either place or displace this poem and its contents?
I chose this title because I imagined a rough voice telling me the poem’s exact words, as though it were an ancestor who reached for my pen and wrote it for me or through me. The nameless speaker is a local persona who insists on this warning and dares the reader to engage. You can choose to ignore a person who’s trying to tell you something, no matter how urgent. But this poem sort of says, Ask anyone . . . go ahead, ask anyone if what I say is true. And in the end, it says, See? I’m right. Because there’s a mosquito on your calf right now. (Slap!)
I wrote the poem from this position because I want people to listen to Cambodians more . . . the people who lived through the Khmer Rouge regime, who still live through it in other forms like PTSD. I’m tired of what history books say, and usually Cambodians—their voices and lived experiences—are left out, or sometimes they are contextualized to fit into an American gaze.
I hope my poems give space to my community to imagine themselves (and our ancestors) in the past, present, and future.
The persona in “Ask the Locals” appears to oscillate between fear and authority, both issuing warnings while being unable to follow their own advice themselves. Do you intend this personal internal fracture in character work to make the mosquitos seem more or less threatening? Why?
Honestly, I imagine the speaker as an old man sitting outside of his shop in Phnom Penh, his shirt rolled above his belly because of the heat . . . and he’s just talking about the past, like any local might. The poem doesn’t need this speaker to have a face. In his rough voice, he’s trying to tell us something important, in the way that most Khmer elders speak of their experiences, the old days, nostalgia, pain. The opening line suggests that the speaker knows what happened long ago for these revolutionaries to turn into mosquitoes. It’s not the distance between fear and authority that this speaker oscillates . . . it’s the trauma, the need to myth-make in order to make sense of the horrors one has experienced or seen firsthand. What you call “personal internal fracture in character” is deeply rooted in PTSD. Trauma. Take some recent epigenetic studies, for example. It all seems like weak science as these studies continue to develop, but scientists claim that trauma is passed down through DNA. Children of survivors inherit molecular scars in their genes. In this poem, I’m interested in discussing the inheritance of trauma as well as survival. The speaker in this poem is passing down these warnings. He exaggerates the danger of mosquitoes, because in his memory, these so-called revolutionaries were torturers in another life, and still a nuisance in this one. Yet, he speaks with such urgency. He tells us to slap these mosquitoes, reminding us that we have agency.
Which non-writing-related aspect of your life most influences your writing?
Self-care. Today I’m going to the beach. I need to be near water. I can’t remember the last time I’ve dipped toes in the ocean or walked in sand. Right now I’m in Long Beach, California for a cousin’s wedding, so I’m staying for the week and hanging out in Cambodia Town. Part of my self-care is to move through the world with other people of color. My partner is here with me, and he’s discovering all this Khmer food. His joy, the joy of other people of color, is also a part of my self-care. It’s wild for me, to see Khmer folks walking around a place that reflects them. For most of my life I never lived in a place that mirrored me, and I’m learning more about myself and where I thrive most.
My self-care routine is not always 100%, though. I am trying to drink more water, eat more greens, cook, go for walks, exercise and do yoga and meditate. I’m staying off social media and limiting my phone use. I have been trying to do all of these things for the past few months and during my stay here. My sleeping habits are terrible, I just don’t get enough hours and I wake up too early. So I’m learning to take naps! Rest is essential to my writing practice. Rest and patience. This is about taking care of the mind and body. I physically touch my own heart for a few minutes, before I sleep each night.
What project(s) are you working on now, or next?
I’m working on a first book of poems called, A Nail the Evening Hangs On. It’s almost complete, but I’m going to take more time with it. “Ask the Locals” is the first poem that appears in this manuscript . . . for now. Before I figure out its structure, though, I want to do some more world-building. I’m working on one particular poem regarding the Octopus Tree, a persona in my chapbook, Year Zero. Now its name is Spung, as in the spung tree. I’m very patient with my process. From here on out, all I want to do is write this one poem. Just this one. I’m having fun visiting aquariums where octopuses are balled up, camouflaging against the glass or actively waving hello to me with their tentacles. They’re such genius creatures.
I’m working on other poems too, which have nothing to do with Spung. I’ve been writing in a voice that feels more personal, more direct—without any persona to guide the work. As a woman of color, as a Cambodian American woman, I’m trying to write about intimacy with oneself, the kind that acknowledges, I’m enough. You know? You’re enough. I’m welcoming both anger and gentleness into my poems, which I will loosely assemble into another manuscript at some point.
I hope to write more about joy apart from the traumas I deal with in my current work. I want to discover that already existing joy that lives inside of me, because I really believe it’s there even when the nightmares of the outside world loom over us. We can make our own worlds as easily as we can laugh, and I insist on laughter, always.