As a child growing up under the Khmer Rouge, I clung on to life when there was no hope to survive, as I suffered from starvation, forced labor, and a broken heart. But I did it for my beloved parents, so I thought. I never knew until I came to America, then I felt it in my heart that I'm telling my story to protect the human family in our world since mine was taken away from me.
So winning the Oregon Book Award from the Literary Arts for When Broken Glass Floats was a symbolic victory for me as a child survivor and author, as well as for the other victims of the Khmer Rouge. I always dreamed of escaping that oppression, to tell my story, to expose their horrific crimes against humanity, and to give voice to the millions who suffered and died under them, including my beloved parents and siblings.
My memoir stands as a monument to those who perished under this brutal regime.
THE COVETED AWARD
Judge Kathleen Norris
In selecting my memoir When Broken Glass Floats over the other three memoirs (Counting Coup by Larry Colton, Blackbird by Jennifer Lauck and The Happy Bottom Riding by Lauren Kessler), literary judge Kathleen Norris remarked: "An extraordinary book that retains the freshness of a child's perspective even as it describes the unspeakable horrors of life under the Khmer Rouge. In giving witness to the persistence of hope and the strength of a family's love, Him reminds us that despots and ideologues do not have the last word.
While I had to fulfill a prior commitment to giving a talk on When Broken Glass Floats and a performance of the "Blessing Dance" at the University of Montevallo, my friend Dr. Sopha Hang kindly accepted the Oregon Book Award on my behalf on November 8th, 2001 at the Scottish Rite Center.
Dr. Hang said that the ceremony was impressive. She likened it to the Oscar ceremony. Under the literary non-fiction category, the four finalists were announced. Then the MC began to read an excerpt from the winning memoir. As soon as Dr. Hang heard the beginning of the excerpt, she knew that I had won the Award, beating those finalists and other authors whose books competed with mine statewide.
As soon as the excerpt was read, my photo and book were projected on the screen above the stage....
My friend, Dr. Sophal Hang, holding my memoir and the Award on November 8, 2001, at the Scottish Rite Center in Portland, Oregon.
Excerpt from When Broken Glass Floats that was read at the 2001 Oregon Book Awards ceremony.
"In 1969 war came, and I was only four.
Loud rumbling noises wake me. I fumble in the dark, trying to open the mosquito netting around my bed. I run in the dark toward the living room, searching for my mother and father. "Mak! Pa!" I scream with all my might, trying to compete with the raucous sounds.
From the living room, I hear my oldest sister, 12-year-old Chea, screaming: "Mak! Pa! Yeakong chol srok Khmer! Yeakong chol srok Khmer!" The Viet Cong are invading Cambodia! Her voice itself is a blast of terror."
MAKING FRIEND WITH A NICE STRANGER
Michelle Gillette & Chanrithy Him
(Portland international airport on November 9, 2001)
Michelle Gillette was a lifesaver when I ran into her in the women restroom at the Portland international airport on November 9, 2001, after a cousin told me over the phone
that I had won the Oregon Book Award the day before.
The amazing news shot me to cloud nine! And I had no one
I know to give me hugs and scream with me! So I, who have become Americanized, needed a hug from somebody in the airport, but asking anyone randomly sounded screwy and I might get committed. :-) So I just walked around in a circle, and said to myself, "I won, oh, my God. Why didn't she [Dr. Hang] call me? She was supposed to call me if I won...."
When I told Michelle my story, she excitedly hugged and congratulated me. Then, I was cured. :-)
What an honor! I never thought I survived to tell my story, let alone winning the Award. I wished I could have been there to receive it myself, to celebrate the recognition for a very painful and lonely journey to reach my milestone.