Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Bleeding Rouge: Lessons from Cambodian History

By Supriya Savkoor

There are novels that take you to a fictional world you feel you’ve been to, with fictional characters whom you feel you know personally, even wondering what happens to them after you close the book. Then there are novels that you have to readthe ones that plunge you in a time and place that open your eyes to realities so large, you are changed by them.
If you read my post from 2 weeks ago, you know that, for me, a stunning example of such a book is In the Shadow of the Banyan, a somewhat fictionalized version of author Vaddey Ratner’s childhood in Pol Pot’s Cambodia. Books like these make you realize that human history is vastly more bizarre, more tragic, and more perplexing than any plot an author could conceive.

This incredible novel made the Cambodian genocide so real for me, in a kind of “no way could this have really happened” way, I gobbled up all of Ratner’s interviews, as many articles about Cambodian history as I could read, and even watched a couple of documentaries about the country. Heck, I even went online, googled “Cambodian people” to see their faces and find out, a generation later, how they’ve been holding up.
Anne Frank’s diary had been required reading in my eighth-grade English class in Texas. That first time I and my classmates learned about the Jewish Holocaust, we all turned to look at each other in utter disbelief, as though the teacher might have made the whole thing up. I learned a little more about the holocaust in high school, but that was the sum of my education about this facet of history. The takeaway for my young self back then was that, however catastrophic and appalling I understood this act of genocide to have been, it was the type of event that couldn’t happen again, definitely not in these modern times when we humans were supposedly smarter and more civilized than generations past. After all, photos from that era were in black and white, the police and SS uniforms looked like something out of a Charlie Chaplin movie, as did the Führer’s goofy mustache and bizarre Nazi salute, which made him seem more like a caricature than a real person.

Of course, we all know  genocide and other mass atrocities occur all too often—anywhere, anytime. Consider Rwanda, Bosnia, Somalia, Sudan, Iraq, Libya, and now Syria. And just as often, we tend to avert our eyes and keep ourselves blissfully uninformed. Educators can and should change this, and making Ms. Ratner’s powerful novel required reading in history classes (not just the specialized ones, but the general ones) would be a great first step. No other novel in recent memory so aptly drives home the tragedy of such large-scale injustice—as well as the need for us to harness our collective responsibility and strength to prevent and end them.


  1. I agree that books like this should be required reading in school. The modern conflicts you list are a reminder how how we never seem to learn from the past.

    1. Absolutely, Heidi. The entire time I read the book and for so long since then, I felt like I had to do something about it (ie, updating curricula, though I have absolutely no expertise or pull in that area). I've learned of at least one university in Toronto that's added this book to its history curriculum, which is an excellent step in the right direction. Hope more educators follow its lead.

  2. I'd like to recommend another must-read, nonfiction, on this topic: A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide, by Samantha Power. Definitely another one to add to the required reading lists, if it hasn't been already. Find it here: