A Conversation with Monica Sok
BY RISA DENENBERG
Monica Sok is a Cambodian American poet and the daughter of refugees. She is the author of A Nail the Evening Hangs On (Copper Canyon Press, 2020). Her work has been recognized with a Discovery Prize from 92Y. She has received fellowships and residencies from Poetry Society of America, Hedgebrook, Elizabeth George Foundation, National Endowment for the Arts, Kundiman, Jerome Foundation, MacDowell Colony, Saltonstall Foundation, and others. Sok is a Jones Lecturer at Stanford University and teaches poetry to Southeast Asian youths at the Center for Empowering Refugees and Immigrants in Oakland, California. She is originally from Lancaster, Pennsylvania.
In her debut book of poetry, A Nail the Evening Hangs On, Monica Sok re-envisions the history of her family, the experiences of Cambodian refugees in the Cambodian diaspora in the U.S., and the U.S.’s role in the genocide of Cambodian people.
I want to preface this interview with an admission: I was heedlessly ignorant when I opened The Nail the Evening Hangs On and was intensely disturbed when I closed it. I protested the U.S. war in Vietnam while I was in high school but did not pay close attention to the U.S. intervention in Cambodia. This feels shameful. As a descendent of Russian Jews, I haven’t experienced the visceral consciousness of my family’s history—of my grandparents escaping pogroms in Russia. I want to thank Monica Sok for this book, acknowledge the emotional energy it must have taken to write it, and express how much it challenged me.
Risa Denenberg: The poems in A Nail the Evening Hangs On display an imaginative mind investigating a present marked by an inheritance of the past. I know that many first-generation immigrants don’t share their stories easily with their American-born children. In “Recurring Dreams,” the speaker performs the process of piecing together her family history: “Didn’t ask my parents questions.” “Didn’t ask why.” And, “You must know. Your history.” Later in “The Death of Pol Pot,” there is this line: “My mother shoos us away / but I listen by the door.” And in “Song of an Orphaned Soldier Clearing Land Mines,” there is this:
The gods I met
promised me they could make a life happen
after what happened
if I knew who my father was.
In your family, who told you their stories and who never spoke of the past?
Monica Sok: One of my aunts refused to share her experiences during the Khmer Rouge regime. She wanted to keep it in the past. She was very upset when I asked her to talk about it, so I never asked her again. Last year, she visited me in California, and some stories came out unexpectedly while we were driving in LA. traffic.
My parents, over time, began to open up about their experiences too. But when I was young, my mother didn’t want me to believe in my father’s stories. Her protection created some confusion for me as a child. Now that I’m older, and now that they see me writing, they are more willing to share. They don’t know what I do as a writer exactly, taking periods of time to go on residencies and focus on my work. But I sense that they value my love for writing and my love for them. And sometimes it seems that they want to be remembered in my writing.
RD: There is this sentiment in the poem “Americans Dancing in the Heart of Darkness:” “The Americans hate me and I hate them.” In “Tuol Sleng” there are similar observations of tourists in Cambodia and American students visiting the Water Festival in Phnom Penh. You point to the difference between a tourist “coming here” to buy scarves as opposed to the speaker who comes “to look for someone.” Can you say how overt and casual racism affects your daily life in the U.S.?
MS: When I write “The Americans hate me and I hate them,” there is reciprocity in that sentiment, right? But in this poem, I am mostly pointing to the speaker’s discomfort of being in such close proximity to privileged white Americans who take up a lot of space in her ancestral homeland. And perhaps they hate her because she acknowledges their privilege and her own, while attuning herself to being a Khmer person in Cambodia. It makes them uncomfortable, just like when some white people get uncomfortable by the mere presence of Black, Brown, and indigenous people in the room. Racism affects my daily life in the U.S., Cambodia, and everywhere. I cannot shake the memory of the white boy in my exchange program who sat on the steps of Angkor Wat and said, “This kind of stuff doesn’t faze me.” Or how a white poet in New York City once asked me, “Do you only write about Cambodia?” As though centering my people were a limitation. It is not. I can’t begin to tell you how racism has harmed me on a daily basis. It is such a distraction from the real work I am trying to do.
RD: In the poem, “Tuol Sleng,” you superimpose different realities (school, torture prison, museum), different time frames, different events onto this one location. The time compression is very intense. This is reflected in the concept of a museum and the reality of this particular museum. In the final stanza, the poem transforms a teacher handing chalk to a student at the chalkboard into a soldier knocking out his teeth. These are very disturbing images. Can you describe the experience of superimposing these realities?
MS: I have to sit with the idea of superimposing realities. The question that seemed to loom over me the most was: How will I address temporality in my poems? I wanted to honor the complex histories of a place like Tuol Sleng. When I visited the site, I felt the place as everything it had ever been. School, torture prison, museum. The past, present, and future cannot be separated.
RD: In the poem “Cruel Radiance,” the speaker is observed looking at a “photograph of a girl / the Khmer Rouge executed” as she “takes the R train” to teach a poetry class. The poem’s penultimate lines are:
I see how the distinction between
victim and executioner becomes blurred.
I want to cancel class. Because why? So I can sob
about the killing fields and how aneakajun feels?
These words make me wonder how are you reacting to images of the current political violence in the U.S.?
MS: I’m overwhelmed trying to share how I feel about images of current political violence. Current, yes, but also ongoing. Black people in America are trying to survive genocide. I’m angry and full of grief. I don’t have the language for this rage or this loss, but the knot in my throat is real. I just sat on a virtual community panel hosted by the Center for Empowering Refugees and Immigrants and Asian Prisoner Support Committee, both organizations based in Oakland. Many Khmer elders who survived the Khmer Rouge regime were present. Nate Tan, an anti-deportation activist, did a presentation on Oakland’s history. He showed us a map of prisons built all over the U.S. during the 1980s. Then he showed us a map of cities where Southeast Asian refugees had been resettled in the U.S. also during the 1980s. Both of these maps showed us that our people were resettled in the same cities that were also being heavily policed. We drew similarities between the struggles of Southeast Asian refugees and Black people in this country, especially around mass incarceration. This deeply resonated with our Khmer elders who are genocide survivors, standing in solidarity with Black people.
RD: In the last poem in the book, “Here is Your Name,” we see again how your writing occupies more than one place and time simultaneously. The voice with its anaphora of “heres” is a culmination of the work of memory and story and imagination that went into uncovering the history of your ancestors. The last few lines retell this history:
and here you are still writing your name
and your brother’s name, now your mother’s
and father’s name, as though writing them
might make your names true.
Can you talk a bit about how you prepared emotionally and mentally to do this work of moving back and forth through time and place?
MS: This kind of movement you describe is a part of who I am as a daughter of refugees. I have entered my writing through the language of my parents. We’d be talking about the past while sitting together at the kitchen table, but they would begin to feel distant and go elsewhere in their minds. I realized that sometimes my parents were reliving their past experiences. They were time traveling. This didn’t necessarily happen in structured interviews either. Just our everyday conversations. I listened as much as I could and heard not just their stories but also their craft. I have studied their storytelling longer than any other poet I grew to admire. My poems move back and forth through time and place because my parents do. And so do I.
I don’t know if I prepared myself to do this work emotionally or mentally or even physically. I tried to listen to my body and its memory. I learned a ton about myself while writing this book. I changed and grew as a person and learned to value my process of becoming. The same is true for my poems. What my family lived through during the genocide is a part of who they are. It is also a part of me. But their history and what I’ve inherited from them is not all that we are. Anyways, I didn’t write this book all in one sitting. I lived my life between each poem.
RD: I heard you read from A Nail the Evening Hangs On at the Copper Canyon Launch Party—a livestream event that took place on April 2, where you answered a question about what gives you inspiration about writing these days. This was your response:
“While I’m under shelter in place, and I live alone, one of the things I’m tapping into are my dreams, where I think my ancestors talk to me and I have my own rituals where I give offerings to my ancestors, that’s very present in my poetry. Dreams are my way of going outside, into places where I can’t go right now. That’s where I’m grounding my poems right now. … I feel like I’m a thief going into a museum and stealing things and opening the safe, doing forbidden things. But only in my dreams.”
Can you say more about the ritual of giving “offerings to my ancestors”?
MS: My family is culturally Theravada Buddhist. Growing up, we would leave offerings of fruit and water on the table. We would add any dishes we had made that day. And we’d pray, burn incense. Outside of this, I’d like to think that every ordinary thing we do is ritual. My poems, the act of writing itself. Laughter. Nourishment. Any kindness. Anything that opens up a portal.
RD: Can you talk about your dreams, what you are reading, and what you are working on now?
MS: Almost every morning, I write down at least one line of poetry. Usually it is about a dream I just had. Or a nightmare. I appreciate being able to access my dream space while sleeping. I get valuable information this way. Sometimes my grandmother visits me there. Most of the time I’m searching for something and can’t remember what. I laugh when I wake up, realizing that I just had a whole conversation with someone and completely forgot what it was. But sometimes I remember the whole dream, and I write it down or speak it aloud so that it doesn’t come true.
I like that I can experience my dreams without a screen. I spend too much time on my phone and on my computer. I have to rely on technology to feel connected these days. It’s late August, there are wildfires in California, and I’m not able to go for a hike or sit outside on my patio due to the unhealthy air quality. So I’m digging into books. I’m spending time with Sunisa Manning’s A Good True Thai and also figuring out which poems to teach for my first quarter at Stanford. We’ll see.
As for what I’m working on now… I’m in the gathering phase. You’ll have to wait for more new poems. I hope you like them by the time they decide that they are ready.