Note: I read this book as part of the #DiversityDecBingo reading challenge. You can find out more about it here.
My Summary: Nakri is trained in classical Cambodian dance and idolizes her older sister who dances like a goddess. However, her family’s life in Phnom Penh is disrupted when the Khmer Rouge takes over. They evacuate their home in the capital, but they are soon separated, with Nakri, her sister, and her brother going to a labor camp. The family reunites to flee to a refugee camp on the border withThailand before finally emigrating to the U.S., where Nakri must learn to cope with the new environment and the trauma of her past.
I found this book at a used book store, which is a prime location for scouring the shelves in search of old/obscure books by Asian authors. The cover illustration captivated me and I was excited to find a book featuring a Cambodian character because they’re rare in fiction.
Based on the synopsis, I knew this story was going to be an emotional one. It is dark, as a book about genocide and refugees inevitably is. Nakri suffers many losses: the comfort of her home and all that’s familiar, her material possessions, her family, her sense of faith. She becomes physically malnourished and fatigued and emotionally numb during her time in the labor camp.
However, the darkness is balanced by bursts of light and hope. Her older sister continues to dance in secret, even though it is forbidden by the overseers. Her sister also tells stories and legends and shares memories with her so they won’t forget their past life. Her brother sneaks food to her, looking after her even though they are not supposed to have family, only comrades, under the Khmer Rouge’s law. The volunteers at the refugee camp show her kindness, as do her family’s American sponsors.
Nakri’s spirituality takes a blow as a result of the Khmer Rouge’s takeover. In an effort to stamp out the old culture, the Khmer Rouge destroys a statue of the Buddha and bans the classical dance that was intimately tied to their religion and the gods. After the Khmer Rouge is defeated and she leaves behind that oppressive environment, Nakri is free to dance again. However, the dance and music carries with it a lot of emotional baggage, so she must find healing before she can find the inspiration to dance again.
The author has a knack for describing dance, both the physical and emotional aspects of it. When I read it, I felt connected to something greater than myself. In general, I was immersed in Nakri’s experiences, both the beautiful and the ugly, and I was surprised that the author wasn’t a Cambodian refugee herself. However, she does have a personal tie and experience with the real life events that inspired the book. She grew up next door to everything, in Thailand, and volunteered at a refugee camp in 1980, after the fall of the Khmer Rouge. Her own family also experienced displacement due to political turmoil, so she writes from a place of deep empathy.
In January, I’m planning to read an #ownvoices book about the Cambodian genocide, In the Shadow of the Banyan by Vaddey Ratner. I also have two middle grade #ownvoices books by a Cambodian American author, Many Ly, on my TBR List, so stay tuned for reviews of those.
Recommendation: It might be a bit hard to find this book since it’s a bit old (from 2003), but if you can, go read it. It’s a great book for middle grade readers; Nakri is 12 at the beginning of the book and is 16 or 17 by the end, but the content of the book is fine for younger readers.