In classical Cambodian myth, an Apsara is a divine entity often likened to angels and muses. In many tales they embody the ideal woman, beautiful celestial dancers presiding over fates and chance. But what happens when an Apsara finds herself in the Big Apple? That’s the question Khmer American writer Sokunthary Svay probes in her impressive debut collection Apsara in New York. This slim volume from Willow Books makes an elegant foray into the world of the arts and modernity through the lens of the Southeast Asian American experience.
Apsara in New York is faced with a daunting challenge as it finds a space for itself four decades since the end of the Vietnam War. For poets with roots in Cambodia, there is often a tension between creating works actively responding to the 20th century genocide and verse that moves their community beyond that era to heal. What are the possible literary strategies for an author who wishes to embrace, examine, and expand her heritage, while also seeking to heal the wounds of conflict?
The past year has been a remarkable period to observe the emerging voices of Southeast Asian American poets in diaspora. Hmong refugees saw the release of Khaty Xiong’s Poor Anima, and Mai Der Vang’s Afterland was the recipient of the 2016 Walt Whitman Award from the Academy of American Poets, examining the little understood Secret War for Laos between 1954-1975. Vietnamese American poet Bao Phi’s Thousand Star Hotel was recently released, as was Jenna Le’s A History of the Cetacean Diaspora, and Do Nguyen Mai’s Ghosts Still Walking, each artfully interrogating what might be central to a Southeast Asian American life today. Apsara in New York is a significant addition to these texts, providing complementary but distinctive additions to many of the themes explored.
Artistically, Sokunthary Svay has a background as well-versed in classical music as hip-hop, and she was recently selected for the American Opera Projects fellowship. These influences show throughout her poems. There’s a keen wit and intelligence on display, at times playful and intimate; at others, spacious and incisive. Standouts include the titular “Apsara In New York,” and poems such as “At Least Prostitutes Bring Home Money,” “No Radio,” and “This is Your Inheritance,” that encourage both performative readings and an appreciation of the form on the page. Svay has not written the last word on the Khmer experience, but has opted to open the conversation to go in newer directions than many might otherwise consider.
One doesn’t need to know the full history of Cambodians in America to appreciate Apsara in New York, but it helps to have some familiarity with it. There are approximately 277,000 Cambodians in the US with some 3,488 living in New York City including Svay. New York City has the 20th largest concentration of Khmer in America. There is tremendous diversity in the lived experiences of the Khmer in diaspora, and Apsara in New York provides a compelling, unflinching glimpse into one family’s journey with a distinct East Coast inflection throughout, from “Postcard From the Bronx Zoo” to “Her American Life.”
Many Americans were first familiarized with Cambodia through the film The Killing Fields, which has become something of a double-edged sword as Khmer refugees rebuild their lives after the conflict. This has involved a complex process of reclamation, often necessitating interpolation and innovation. For perspective, by the end of the Khmer Rouge era, an estimated 1.5 to 3 million people were killed by their own countrymen, enough to form a city the size of Philadelphia or Chicago. Few Americans realize the Khmer experience in the US includes significant struggles with depression, anxiety, intergenerational disconnect, culture shock, gangs, and untreated post-traumatic stress disorder. In America, almost 22% of the Khmer live in poverty and only 16% successfully graduate college in stark contrast to the “Model Minority” myth of the late 20th century that painted Asian Americans as consistently successful, wealthy and education-driven. In the last 20 years, it has become clear many youth were unaware of the roots of their family’s diaspora to flee the genocide, or how to come to terms with that. Apsara in New York does not shy away from these issues, but neither is it fixated on them. That’s vital, if a community is to heal.
Svay’s verse is elegant without being baroque, imaginative without being maudlin or needlessly florid. In this collection, her poems are often direct and frank without being vulgar, at times sparse, effectively acknowledging the many gaps and empty spaces in the Cambodian record created by the 20th century turmoils. A reader will likely be able to pick out Svay’s poetry when presented alongside her contemporaries such as Anida Yoeu Ali and Kosal Khiev, or the work of older Khmer poets like the acclaimed U Sam Oeur and the late Buddhist monk Ly Van Aggadipo. Apsara in New York works in a particular harmony with creations by Svay’s fellow New York Khmer poets Peuo Tuy and Bunkong Tuon that’s well worth consideration.
As a text, Apsara in New York takes many risks, rewarding the careful reader with many layers to consider. In her closing poem Svay writes, “He says, I wish I could be here / when the apple trees bloom.” It’s very clear the blossoming has just begun, and might well soon turn into an orchard.