My mother sat in the very last row of chairs in the author event space at Powell’s City of Books in Portland, Oregon, the day my memoir, Ma and Me, was officially released. She smiled with pride as her gaze skipped across the room, surely taking in the improbability of the moment: her daughter, a child of Cambodian immigrants and an earnest student of English as a second language, was here to read from her own book in a building stacked floor to ceiling with books. Only later did the amazement of the moment hit me: my mother was seventy-seven years old and this was her first time inside a bookstore.
She can’t read or write English and struggles to speak it, but my mother is the greatest storyteller I know. She spun folktales and myths from our homeland as my siblings and I sat wedged in wonderment on the brown brocaded sofa in our family room in our new adopted home, Corvallis, Oregon. Her world was limited to the dormitory cafeteria where she cooked for students on the Oregon State University campus. And the farm fields that ringed our town, where she worked alongside my siblings and me, inching back-bent across the earth day in and day out to pick strawberries for a stack of cash that would be saved and sent across the ocean to our relatives in Cambodia. And the kitchen in our own home, where she made many of our favorite foods, like spaghetti, tacos, and scalloped potatoes, to reward us kids for excelling in school. With the help of coworkers and a kind supervisor at the campus dining hall, my mother eventually learned to read recipes. Anything with more words than that makes her dizzy. When I sent her a galley of my book, she squinted as she thumbed through the pages.
My parents didn’t read bedtime books to me or my siblings when we were growing up, because they couldn’t. Instead, I fell in love with the stories my mother told us and the ones I would come to know at school. I read Laura Ingalls Wilder and Amy Bloom, then Shakespeare and Salinger, Steinbeck and Hemingway. These authors wrote stories with societal, familial, and economic concerns I shared, but their characters looked nothing like me. In college, curious to learn more about my country and culture, I looked for books about Cambodia at the library and at local bookstores. The few I found, wedged amid books about the Vietnam War on a general “Southeast Asia” shelf, were written by white authors. I realized I had a choice: wait or write. Wait and hope that more books that reflect me and my experiences as a refugee from Cambodia would be published, or write into that void. I have never been a patient person.
I started small. I wrote a letter to my ten nieces and nephews after I watched them struggle to understand their grandmother as she tried her best, with the few English words she knew, to tell them about that other place, far from this one in America, that is one half of who they are; like my mother, I wanted them to know everything they could about Cambodia, our family, how we arrived in America. I wrote a personal essay next, about the struggle I was having with my mother and with myself, over me being gay. And then I wrote Ma and Me, buoyed by an agent who relentlessly believed in me and an editor who gave me the courage to turn toward the story I was too afraid to tell—a tale about debt, duty, and a daughter’s relentless efforts to be worthy in her mother’s eyes.
In the end, I think I finally managed to make her proud. She hasn’t told me so, specifically, but she was there that night at Powell’s Books when my memoir officially entered the world, sitting ringed by towers of books she’ll never read, including mine, but at least she was there to see it: her daughter’s book, and our family’s story, shelved for the next young person curious about Cambodia to come find.