It was second grade. A girl named Thida joined our class a few weeks after the year started. She was from Cambodia, and shockingly, I could find Cambodia on a map then. Our teacher taught us the concept of “refugee” throughout the year. I didn’t really grasp the concept of “refugee” until years later.
It was in high school. We were in the second semester five-weeks-until-school’s-over rush to get through U.S. History. We were discussing the end of the Vietnam war and the fallout in Southeast Asia. We were introduced to the Khmer Rouge and it’s leader, Pol Pot.
Even later, when I was in college and had joined Netflix, that I saw a documentary called, “The Killing Fields.” It’s at this point that it hit home the context for why our teacher had taught us about “refugee” and some of the horrors Thida’s family had faced.
So as I prepared to teach a world literature course, I challenged myself to read some works that came outside of the western European, Anglo-Saxon cannon. Never Fall Down was recommended because it’s from Southeast Asia and it’s nonfiction. A twofer basically. The novel is a retelling of a man’s account of coming-of-age under the Khmer Rouge regime. I was shocked each chapter at the horrors these butchers committed against THEIR OWN PEOPLE.
The author wrote the account using the man, Arn Chorn-Pond’s own words. This means that the grammar does not follow standard English. In other words, the book reads as if someone who isn’t completely fluent in English is narrating the story. This bothered me at first. But as I got into the flow of the book the language wasn’t a barrier. In fact, I grew accustomed to it; as if the Arn was sitting there telling me the story himself. I still don’t know if this isn’t racist. Is it ok for a white author to write an Asian character’s story using non-standard English?
It’s a moving story overall, but not for the audience that I thought it was intended for. Young Adults might be uncomfortable by the gruesome murders, morbid torture, rape, and language that are used in the story. None of which are gratuitous. Just heavy to handle for immature individuals. In fact, the raw descriptions made the book that much more powerful because you could tell these things, REALLY happened.
For anyone who’s interested in world literature or the Khmer Rouge in general, this is a good read to edify readers’ understanding of one of the darkest moments in Cambodia’s (and humanity-in-general’s) history. I’m interested in reading other accounts and histories to find out how and why this happened. And where was the rest of the world?
One of the most moving moments was when he was separated from his only family, his aunt and five sisters. His aunt tells him to be like the grass. To stand tall but to move with the wind. Go where they send you, do what they tell you and keep quiet. But most of all, never fall down. For if you do, you’ll be trampled. What sobering words for a ten-year old to hear and to ultimately keep at heart in order to survive.