Mother and the Tiger: A Memoir of the Killing Fields by Dana Hui Lim is a very important book with much to teach us within its spellbinding beautifully crafted pages, deeply felt, very personal account of one of the darkest episodes in post W W I I history. Before I try to talk a bit about why I admire this book so much, I want to set out briefly the historical background as sadly many or perhaps most do not know it.
In 1975, Cambodia was taken over by a group called the Khmer Rouge, led by Pol Pat. He had a vision of turning Cambodia into a purely agrian society, starting over at "year zero". He ordered all residents of cities to vacate. Under armed guard, often by children, millions were forced out of their homes to work in agricultural projects. Iintellectuals, ethnic Chinese, business people, those who wore glasses, those who gave the slightest resistance were executed. This continued from 1975 to 1979. As Lim explains in her narrative, it was in large part the destruction, destabilization, and atmosphere of terrible fear and suffering created by the senseless American bombing of Cambodia which created a society where this could happen. About two million, twenty five percent of population, died from disease, starvation, exposure and execution from 1975 to 1979. It ended when the Vietnamese, the traditional enemy of the Cambodians, invaded the country in 1979. One of the most exciting episodes in Lim's book was the time those in her slave labor camp realized the Khmer Rouge guards were all gone and they were free.
As I read Lim's narrative, I of course knew she had survived to write her book and was relocated in Australia. I knew the basic outlines of the history (I visited Siem Reap in 2001 to see great temple. The carved murals there are among the most amazing cultural entities I have ever seen) but as the terrible events of this story begin, I totally mesmerized by a desire to learn her story and find out how she survived.
The story begin's at Lim's family home in the third largest city in Cambodia. Her family were Buddhists of Chinese heritage, fairly prosperous, lighter skinned than ethnic Cambodians. The parents, as was normal, had an arranged marriage, the husband was twenty years older. Lim was among the youngest of several children. In 1975 armed men show up at her door and tell her parents to vacate the propery in a few hours, they are being moved out of the city. The pretence given is that a huge American air raid is imminent. They, along with 1000s of others were force marched to remote jungle camps where children were taken from parents (and rewarded for informing on them), boys and girls were separated. The children were told their parents were now the leaders of the Khmer Rouge. Lim straight forwardly narrates a horrific account of terrible labor in the rice fields, starvation diets (much of people's energy and thoughts center on the search for food, nothing that might be eaten is overlooked). Many nights after 12 hour plus work days there were "re-education meetings" in which children were singled out for harsh criticism for deviant thoughts and lack of dedication. Many girls were taken from the meetings never to be seen again. What Lim relays is a tale of amazing courage buttressed by a deep love of family. There is too much in the narrative to summarize and I really think this book should become a classic. One day in 1979 a girl notices that the guards are all gone. At first the people are too scared to run, thinking it is a trick and they feel anyone who leaves will be shot in the back. Then one girl gets the courage to run and soon all run. Shortly after this millions of former captives are on the road. Lim desperately wants to find her family, she is 13 or so. Through incredible luck the family is united. The father can hardly walk and her older brother, a truly wonderful person, looks after the family. The father insists they return to their old home but when they get their another family lives there and they have no proof of ownership. Things are never again as bad as they once were but Lim and her families ordeal was far from over. Lim and her siblings had missed years of school. Lim desperately wanted an education but her parents could hardly pay for lessons. Her mother wanted her children to get out of Cambodia. One of the most joyous and very positive parts if the book lie in the account of how she got to Australia. I can only try to imagine how she felt when she landed. I could not help but feel tremendously proud of the accomplishments of Lim and her siblings.
One of my Australian Facebook contacts, a writer, recently posted a status report on Facebook about a festival event she attended. Her post said, "where do all these f***ing immigrants come from?" I think if she read Lim's book, she would feel a deep sense of shame and mortification when she learned the answer.
Mother and the Tiger: A Memoir of the Killing Field is a tribute to to the power of the human spirit. The true wonder of Lim's marvelous book is letting us see the incredible hard times she went through without becoming hard. Her prose is simple and beautiful. Anyone who ever hated someone for their skin color, the birthplace, their language or religion should be required to read this book.
Bio of Dana Hui Kim (from publisher, Odyseey Books)
Dana Hui Lim was born in Cambodia and was only six years old when the Pol Pot regime seized power. She survived the rule of the Khmer Rouge through a combination of good luck, and a determination to survive that she had not previously known she possessed.
Dana arrived in Australia when she was eighteen years old. She was unable to speak English and had virtually no formal education. She began high school in Year Ten, went on to complete a university degree and began a career in the Australian Public Service.
Dana wants to share her story with others to encourage them to persevere in the face of adversity. She would also like to urge her countrymen to discuss their experiences, or set down their own stories so that they are not lost forever. Her book serves as a warning to people of all nations and races, to be wary of the danger than can occur when ideology is not subjected to reason.
Dana Lim has agreed to participate in a Q and A session on The Reading Life soon so please look for it.