CDE student’s book bridges generations

I first encountered Utara Norng, a Center for Development Economics graduate student from Cambodia, through a chance meeting. The typical Williams academic grind demanded that I return to campus on Easter, so the family of a close friend took me in for the day, and it was at their Williamstown home that I first met the soft-spoken and unassuming Norng. Our spontaneous acquaintance mirrors the random encounter that introduced her to Ginger, the central figure in her recently published book, Broken Glass: A Young Girl Named Ginger. A beautiful firsthand account of Ginger and her mother Malis as told to Norng, this short book presents a poignant look at life in Cambodia after the genocide of the Khmer Rouge regime, as well as a universally moving story of a mother-daughter relationship.

Broken Glass almost seems as if it couldn’t be based upon a contemporary true-life narrative. One of few to publish a major work as a current student, Norng has written an important and original piece. She analyzes the hardships of growing up and interpersonal relationships in Ginger’s and Malis’ lives in the wake of the genocide, an oft-overlooked tragedy. While in some ways it is difficult to relate to – most notably, the oppression and social upheaval experienced by Malis’ family and subsequently Ginger – Norng intertwines the life stories of Ginger and her mother to create a single narrative that transcends cultural barriers.

The story of Ginger’s life is simple enough to follow chronologically, and Norng’s straightforward writing style is a perfect match. As the story of Ginger’s early teenage years unfolds, parts of her story sound familiar – including dissatisfaction with her school; passionate, almost fanatical, relationships with boys; strain on family life; and her emotional well-being – but the world of gangs, drugs and sex she finds herself in is less well-known territory. The story of Malis, whose chapters alternate with Ginger’s, provides a riveting personal account of her family’s upheaval at the hands of the Khmer Rouge regime – a visceral crash course in the harsh reality of Cambodian history.

The process that created Broken Glass was a logical combination of Norng’s love of writing with her experience with the Victims of Torture Project through the Documentation Center of Cambodia. “The purpose of the Victims of Torture Project is to identify victims who are traumatized by the Khmer Rouge regime,” Norng said. “We work with psychologists to go treat these people by medication and counseling.” Her telling of Ginger’s story filled what Norng sees as a gap in focus on those affected by the genocide. “Usually, people only focus on that generation and forget about the younger generation,” she said.

Before meeting Ginger, Norng’s passion for writing had already led her to publish articles and short stories. Norng and Ginger began their relationship with a series of casual interviews and then became close friends over the three-year writing process. After translating Ginger’s and Malis’ interviews, Norng eventually settled on an alternating first-person format as the most effective way to tell their stories. “I got to know Ginger as a friend to get the pure story from her and to not be judgmental,” Norng said. “The most amazing thing I learned in the process of writing is the big impact Ginger plays on my life and me on hers.”

Norng found that getting to know Ginger increased her own appreciation of education and its ability to change one’s life, a theme she suggests is especially powerful for current students. “To me, I think it’s really significant because a lot of students at Williams are in their early 20s and this book is all about the younger generation,” Norng said. “Also, a lot of students here are academically strong but went through a lot of problems in their youth.”

Norng hopes that this book will inspire many to consider the same universal questions that she and Ginger have faced: What is the reason for doing your best to get the things you want? While her background differs with Ginger’s, Norng still feels she has been influenced by their time together. “She has a big impact on me because I’ve been surrounded by really hardworking students that are very competitive and it’s very stressful. You can feel a lot of pressure, especially parental pressure.” Through Ginger, Norng realized the significance of her education as an opportunity to escape the life many had to face in the wake of the Khmer Rouge genocide. “For this first time, I felt really happy when I applied for the Fulbright,” Norng said. “I wanted to do it for myself, not for my father.”

In spite of its dark moments, Broken Glass is, as Norng believes, primarily a story of hope. “This book is all about hope – hope for your generation,” she said. “Some people think that it is only about Cambodia. I think it’s not.” Despite all of the adversity that Ginger and her mother have endured, her life is now headed for a brighter future. At the book’s conclusion, we learn that Ginger is now enrolled in school and learning to speak English.

Just as Norng feels that Ginger has changed her perspective and opened her eyes to a new way of looking at the world, meeting Norng and reading Broken Glass has done the same for me. The book offers a new perspective on the struggle of growing up and finding one’s place, while also providing an enlightening look at the history of Cambodian genocide and its contemporary implications. Norng’s first published book is now available at Water Street Books. I encourage all to read this moving story of hope that these remarkable women have been brave enough to share with the world.