Shawn Sorensen's Reviews > Storytelling in Cambodia

Storytelling in Cambodia by Willa Schneberg
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Sep 08, 2009

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bookshelves: poetry, national-and-international-affairs
Read in September, 2009

[3 1/2 Stars:] A sadness trickled into my heart as I read these poems, leaving a deep well of sorrow and also regret. I finished "Storytelling In Cambodia" looking around for any signs that we are pausing and listening to each other, to the voices of pain, loneliness and fragility behind our voices of gossip and random news.

Schneberg writes chronologically linked poems that start with mythic Cambodian history, continuing with the genocide at the hands of the Khmer Rouge in the mid 1970s and through her time as a U.N. elections officer in 1992-1993 and after. The collection includes many telling poems written from other points of view.

Even though the author has a good grasp of the culture, economy and political situation of Cambodia, she consistently makes clear that she is the outsider, the American helping to bring the modern brand of democracy to a country that in decades past suffered the horrors of colonial intervention, then neglect from those same world powers: in the mid 1970s, Maoist imitator Pol Pot rose to power and turned the country into an agrarian forced labor camp. An estimated 2 million people - 25% of the population - died from malnutrition, poor medical care, exhaustion and politically motivated executions. The United States left the region after losing the Vietnam War but just when Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge came to power. In 1978, President Carter declared Cambodia the worst human rights violator in the world. By then most of the genocide had already occurred.

Schneberg could have flooded her poems with righteous indignation, but instead writes directly and specifically about instances in Cambodia's history and her history there with the U.N., carefully choosing her moments for symbolism but otherwise leaving the reader to make up their own minds. She writes from various viewpoints but always with objectivity in the forefront and compassion written in between the lines. What we don't have to deal with is guilt trips or political points of view, yet from reading these poems it is hard not to feel a sense of grief and anger at Cambodia's history and make a sometimes overwhelming quantity of comparisons with human rights abuse occurring all over the world.

One example of how the author delicately places herself in the poems, writes about an instance that has comparisons to the situation as a whole and leaves an indelible essence of mood is when she writes about being in love with a married man. Schneberg has carefully chosen details in what follows:

"I Look In My Passport At the Triangle Stamped 27 Feb 1993"

when I thought
I would never see you again.

Without you, I occupied myself
with a person no more than a shadow
puppet and a tinkle of bells,
as you sprawled in the recliner of your wife.

After two weeks wrenched apart;
a lifetime then,
you find me
in a cheap hotel
off Bangkok's Patpong Road,
where it is always nighttime.
Outside our window
a boy's nipples are being pinched
by a potential customer.

I finally let myself fall into sleep
with my head
in the small of your back as before,
lulled into a country never found
in a passport.

After reading the previous poems about Cambodia's history and the author's role in the country's first free elections, it is obvious in this poem why she finishes her term as an election monitor despite her need to try to work out the above relationship. The sadness at not finding a true love that will stay mirrors all the unfinished work in Cambodia, reflects all the wounds and loss that linger, that somehow connects the author's need for unconditional love with the country's need to be free of aggression, greed, corruption and ignorance. There is also a bit of anger in the line "...the recliner of your wife", as if real relationships take a tremendous amount of work and openness to progress. As if this is the only kind of work that would move Cambodia towards a meaningful form of democracy.

While the above poems show how carefully the author chooses what she describes, it also illustrates many details that are mentioned, like "Patpong Road" in this particular poem, that need to be fleshed out more to give the reader a better visual image. Most of us will never make it to Cambodia - is Patpong Road dangerous and full of cheap hotels, or a modernized, Western-style street with only this one seedy place? Why did she choose this particular locale and what does it say about her? It would have also helped for there to have been different styles of poems, especially considering modern poetry's overuse of the free verse form. Almost all of the poems here are in free verse, too, with the occasional piece done to fine effect in a prose or found format. With the power of scene and message of this body of work, the author may have found different forms of poems that would have conveyed or focused the power of her words in a more effective way. Finally, the rapid-fire changes in point of view of a couple of poems confused this reader.

In the final summation, however, nothing can take away how important these poems are and how the world needs more brave, detailed, deeply moving books like "Storytelling In Cambodia". In Burma (also called Myanmar by the military regime there), a country on the other side of Thailand from Cambodia, 3,200 villages have been destroyed in the last 30 years, and the killings and displacement continue today. As in Cambodia, the military government in Burma recognizes most outside challenges to its power as a threat to its sovereignty, while the outside world lacks the temerity to intervene based on basic, universal laws of human rights.

Schneberg has compassion for so many different factions of Cambodia's history, for many of the people in her life and finally for herself. What comes from these poems is a deep sense of grief, but also an uplifting style that gently nudges us to open our hearts to reality, to sadness and finally to redemption.

[Reviewer's note: Schneberg will read from "Storytelling in Cambodia" at Barnes & Noble Vancouver, 7700 NE Fourth Plain Blvd., 98662, at 7 pm on Wed., Sept. 9th. The store's only other author reading for the month occurs the next day - Mary Lloyd, who wrote SUPERCHARGED RETIREMENT: Ditch the Rocking Chair, Trash the Remote and Do What You Love" runs a free workshop at 7 pm on Thursday, Sept. 10th.]
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message 1: by Jone (new)

Jone Sounds interesting, Shawn.

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