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One Family's Story

Cover of The Immortal Seeds The Immortal Seeds by Sambath Meas
Wheatmark, Tucson, AZ, 2009

"It was twenty-nine years ago when my family trekked through the dangerous jungle of Cambodia to escape the communists," Sambath Meas writes in the Prelude of The Immortal Seeds. "We thought we could put our pasts behind us and move on with our lives. Unfortunately, it wasn't that easy."

The Immortal Seeds is Meas' attempt to fathom the chaos that ravaged her family.

Her father, Meas says, "no longer believes in the one thing that makes us go on: hope -- a hope that his fellow Khmer and motherland will see true sovereignty, prosperity, and democracy. Now that his hope is gone, so are his dreams and sense of livelihood."

"It seems like only yesterday," she writes, "when he carried me on his shoulders as he and my mother walked side by side to find a safe haven. Now, a few years shy of his golden years, misery and hopelessness are his frequent companions."

Often memoirs focus on the extraordinary. Tragedy is inevitably a component of the survivors' tales. At times, however, it's difficult to grasp the context of these tragedies. Meas' book gives us a good sense of everyday life in Cambodia in the Fifties and Sixties. Many observers commenting on Cambodia present a falsely idyllic portrait of the years before the war. Meas, by contrast, does an excellent job of presenting different facets of prewar Cambodia, giving us a sense of real people, living real lives.

The Immortal Seeds reads as oral history; its presentation of the context of its events is sometimes flawed, and some of its details seem to reflect historical animosity rather than historical fact. (The Viet Minh, for example, are said to have had filed black teeth; Viet Cong, meanwhile, are said to have been "ordered to kill a hundred enemies, and even women were not allowed to live if the grenades they hurled did not explode.") This, however, is a minor flaw. This is not a book about Southeast Asian history; it's a book about one family's experiences, and their interpretation of those experiences.

The book is at its best in the vivid depictions of the anarchy and confusion as the Khmer Rouge regime collapsed. Most families were split apart during the Pol Pot time, and even those who had remained together risked the same fate as they struggled to escape. Fleeing toward Thailand, the Meas family was among a group of refugees who came under fire as the Khmer Rouge and Vietnamese battled for control:

"[G]renade blasts and gunshots came at us from the direction of the city. People hysterically dispersed and ran to get away from the dangerous scene. In a panic, we followed the sea of people who headed south as the blasts and shots traveled in our direction from the north. The crowd bumped into my mother and me. The oil in the pot she carried on her head shook as a result of people pushing and shoving, causing it to drip all over her. When she finally realized we were farther away from where we had been, she turned around to look for my father. Neither he nor our relatives were anywhere in sight.

I realized my father no longer drove his oxcart behind us, and as I watched other people fleeing in terror, I began to cry.

'I want to go to Pa. I want to go to Pa. I want to go to Pa,' I desperately cried to my mother as if she could make it happen.

'We will see him soon, my daughter Sros.'

Soon was not what I wanted to hear. I continuously cried until my mother picked me up and carried me on her hip to make me feel safe and protected. She had no idea where my father was either."

It is possible to believe in haunting, without believing in ghosts. The Immortal Seeds is about the memories that haunt the survivors: some tragic, some terrifying, some mundane, all distant. The book is clearly a labor of love, and as such, it serves as an admirable demonstration of the strength of family ties in Khmer culture.

The Immortal Seeds can be purchased from Wheatmark Book Publishers.

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