Wednesday, October 25, 2006

JCLC Conference Notes, Day One: Opening Session

(Sessions' date: October 12, 2006. This would be Day One)

The opening session featured Loung Ung. From the program notes,

"Loung Ung is a survivor of the killing fields of Cambodia, one of the bloodiest episodes of the twentieth century and has devoted herself to justice and reconciliation in her homeland. The World Economic Forum selected Loung as one of the '100 Global Leaders of Tomorrow." Her bestselling memoir, First They Killed My Father: a Daughter of Cambodia Remembers, (Harper Collins 2000) was the recipient of the 2001 Asian/Pacific American Librarians' Association award for 'Excellence in Adult Non-fiction Literature' (APALA)"

As usual with this type of event, there is a lot of kudos giving and patting on the back to all who made the event possible. As I sat there waiting and listening to the representatives, I could not help but get the sense that there was something historic going on. I am not quite sure what I came to get, but I am sure whatever I do get out and learn from this experience will be good.

Notes and impressions from Ms. Loung's speech:
  • English is not her first language; it is her fourth.
  • Books are a map to the human heart, complicated maps that can heal and save lives.
  • Her city was "evacuated" by the Khmer Rouge in 72 hours. What would you take with you if it was your city? They got sent to work camps as the KR moved to genocide. Today, 20,000 mass graves have been found in Cambodia. At age 7, her mother sent her children to "the four winds." By the time the Vietnamese defeated the KR, about 2 million were dead, too late for a conflict that lasted three and a half years.
  • There is a contrast between movies that detail lives in refugee camps, mostly in L.A. and N.Y. She ended up in Vermont, then in Maine. Her story in the 1980s became one of survival and fitting in.
  • War is hell. It is difficult, especially for a child. If war was not hard, we would not practice it (I think this was the line).
  • Her writing began as a journal at age 16 as way to pour out the toxicity of the war.
  • She is involved in campaigns against land mines. Land mines continue to hurt people long after the war is over. For children, amputation can be worse in terms of the pain given that an extremity will continue to grow, requiring further amputation in order to keep the extremity "even." Land mines are a weapon of mass destruction in slow motion.
  • Peace is a choice. She has seen the worst and the best of humanity to man. We only have to choose peace.
Overall, this was a passionate and moving speaker. Some of the audience members were brought to tears. One member of the audience asked why do people not pay attention to issues like the land mines.
  • She was told that, while she was an "expert" on the issue, she was not maimed, so would not make a good "poster child." However, she refused to be a victim of the society that thinks a victim should remain a victim. We need to connect at a human level. Partners and allies are necessary, not the "pity checks" and charity. The media is failing to cover the good efforts as they are more interested in the sensational.
Loung speaks without anger, which leads another audience member to ask how she can do that. Her initial answer is that we, the audience, are all nice people, so she feels no need to push back. But the anger is still there. The anger now is directed at the perpetrators. It is directed at situations that deserve it: the wars, Iraq, the Congo, so on. She makes us think and ask what makes us angry, in part, to make us think how to redirect that in constructive ways. If asked, what makes me angry? Probably poorly educated people due to lack of resources and support, the poor situation with education. If readers want to know what makes me angry, among other things, go read some of Jonathan Kozol's books.

Loung ended with this thought: a successful book will make your heart beat and your heart remember.

The publisher was generous enough to give away copies of her memoir, so I got a signed copy. As soon as I read it, I will post a note here.

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