Loss of family history is a sadly quintessential experience for many Asian Americans and immigrants. Migration is necessarily a severing of bonds, which leads to a pervasive silence in so many of our families. There’s not only an unwillingness but also an inability to speak about the place and the history that was left behind, which becomes compounded when that history is racked with the trauma of poverty, war and loss.
Putsata Reang’s memoir Ma and Me resonates powerfully because of how definitively she fills in that silence for her own family. Reang had a long-established journalism career before writing Ma and Me, which makes the book more than just a memoir of her life. Based on interviews she conducted starting in 2011 with her parents, older relatives, and siblings, she pieces together the story of her Cambodian family going back three generations to her maternal great-grandfather.
In tracing her family’s history so far back, Reang uncovers the traditions and the traumas that have crossed generations. Her grandmother Nhim came from wealth but was married off to a former monk in training, the son of a farming family from a nearby area. What followed was a marriage rife with violence and abuse, which gave rise to two competing desires within Reang’s mother Sam-Ou Koh Reang: dreams of completing her education to become something more than a Khmer wife and the inescapable pull of fulfilling her obligations to her family.
Ultimately, war tipped the balance for Sam-Ou. After her drunk father promised her in marriage for the dowry to sustain his gambling, Sam-Ou ran away to eastern Cambodia. But America’s war in Vietnam — which stretched across Southeast Asia, into Laos and Cambodia — quite literally exploded in Sam-Ou’s life, and back she went into the arms of her family who quickly prepared her for the wedding ceremony. In the long years that followed, Sam-Ou ran away more than once, on one occasion at least, taking her children with her. But always, she returned. As Reang writes: “duty was what brought her back every time — because a Khmer wife stays.”
This tension between freeing herself from her family’s expectations and being bound to them by duty, obligation, and debt intensified even further in Reang’s life. Born just as the Khmer Rouge was coming to power across Cambodia, Reang barely survived as her family escaped the communist regime on a severely overcrowded boat. Reang heard this story from her mother repeatedly growing up, how Sam-Ou managed to keep her youngest and most sickly child alive in the most extreme of circumstances. The message Reang internalized was clear: Reang owed her life to her mother, and the only way to repay her was by being the perfect daughter.
That debt — coupled with her mother’s cultural, traditional, and gendered expectations — left Reang in an impossible position, especially as her family grappled with the enduring trauma and grief of surviving war and genocide. As Reang awakened into her sexuality, the tension only mounted, because the Khmer culture she was raised in had no place or space for queerness. Reflecting on a particularly difficult period in her adolescence, Reang observes: “When the pressure in my head mounted, I did what came naturally, what I had learned by watching Ma: I ran away.”
Ma and Me is a masterclass in processing intergenerational trauma. Interspersed through Reang’s narration of her and her family’s lives are deep reflections on how those events shaped Reang and her family for years to come, connecting past, present, and future as Reang takes the reader from her own early childhood through her contentious fallout with her parents when she married her wife.
At times, these open-ended reflections cut right to the core, with Reang leaving her readers to consider the limitations of words when it comes to the lasting effects of trauma. Taking just one of many powerful examples, early in the book, as Reang describes her family’s flight from Cambodia, she juxtaposes the concrete and the abstract:
“It didn’t add up to much, what my family packed in the final minutes before leaving home. But how do you count loss and regret and sorrow? How do you measure the things you carried inside and that you will continue to carry for all of your life? How do you weigh the guilt of leaving and living?”
With passages like these, Reang draws readers into her experience, even if they don’t share her cultural heritage or family circumstances. In addition to immersing its audience in Khmer culture, Cambodian political history, and the refugee experience, Ma and Me effectively makes readers feel the emotional and personal implications that all of those forces had on Reang.
Reang grapples with what it means to carry intergenerational trauma not only as an Asian American, immigrant, and refugee but also as a queer person. Ma and Me is a narration of Reang’s lifelong quest to reconcile the obligation and guilt that is embedded within her family history and heritage with all of the identities she holds, all the conflicting privileges and hardships she was born into and raised in. This memoir is complex and nuanced, showing the many sides of the people and circumstances who have shaped Reang. In spite of the many painful and heart-wrenching experiences depicted throughout, Ma and Me is ultimately a hopeful story about finding one’s freedom as a queer Asian American while staying true to all of those identities.
Reang’s engaging writing makes this heavy book a compelling read. As Reang says in her opening chapter, “We are both storytellers, Ma and I.” Reang’s prowess as a storyteller makes Ma and Me a book that I will keep coming back to.