Coming Home: Either the Beginning or the End is featured in NH Humanities’ “Soldiers Home and Away” project

Beg or the End

New Hampshire Humanities writes: For fourteen years, America has been mired in war, war being waged by less than one percent of the population. The relatively small number of active military service members has widened a cultural gulf between the military and civilian sectors. Enter the humanities! 


I’m very excited to work with Leslie Pasternak who’ll lead the discussion of Either the Beginning or the End of the World and pose questions to me and readers.  Leslie  is the director of Kate Wenner’s  Make Sure It’s Me, a play on the subject of traumatic brain injury among returned service members.    With veteran actors, Leslie has presented the play in libraries and on the stage.  She also takes the play to Vet Centers where veterans participate in the presentation.  It is an extraordinary play that has brought veterans, their families, and communities together to talk, to understand, and to build paths toward healing from traumatic brain injury.  I am honored  that Leslie has championed my book as a way to add to the discussion of soldiers coming home. We’ll be at the Hampstead Library, Hampstead, NH  on Oct. 27 at 7 p.m.


Researching a Novel: Either the Beginning or the End of the World


Music was a big part of writing this book!  It begins with Laura Mam’s “Pka Proheam Rik Popreay.” She’s a Cambodian-American singer from California and now Phnom Penh and sings in Khmer.  I don’t speak Khmer, but I listened to her music a lot while I wrote, and her singing crosses cultures and languages.Here’s a playlist I put together with the help of Rosa, Sofie’s friend. It includes Laura Mam and the old Springsteen song, “Drive All Night” that Johnny sings to Sofie when he can’t tell her how much he loves her and wants her safe. And “Spanish Dancer” by Patti Scialfa recently recorded by EmmyLou Harris.  And “Echo Taps,” played  the way I heard it played by buglers at the New Hampshire State Veterans Cemetery.

Folktales were also a large part of my research, including the tale I found in many cultures about the rabbit in the moon. I first heard this tale from the song “Rabbit in the Moon” by Aztec Two Step.

 Either the Beginning or the End of the World delves into a horrific family memory carried over generations. The memory is of family members starving to death during Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge genocide. I’ve been on a long journey into Cambodian history and culture to begin to understand what this could mean to a young girl two generations later. The books I read and survivors I interviewed tell a story themselves about my focus. It wasn’t on the wars, but on living after surviving them. I had read widely on wars in Southeast Asia since my early work in Vietnam for the Red Cross. The stories and history of those wars have shaped my interests as a writer. I’ve been a public librarian and literacy program director, working with new Americans to promote family literacy in English. This work has kept me connected to many noncombatants affected by war, like some who had became my friends long ago in Vietnam. In the 1990s I worked at the Cambodian Mutual Assistance Association in Lowell, Massachusetts, teaching the Young Parent Class. My students were teenaged girls from Cambodia who had babies and needed support to continue their high school studies. Most of them had lived in the Khao I Dang camp in Thailand before coming to Lowell. Later,  I moved with my family to a small New Hampshire town. New to the school, my daughter Lizzie became friends with a 13-year old girl from Cambodia. Her name was Ty. We became close to Ty. She loved rice and our house began to smell like Basmati rice she and her family ate.  (Other Cambodian friends told me no, it is always Jasmine rice Cambodians eat.)  I include the memoir Tye wrote as a child in my reference list, My Trip to America.   Now my daughter’s grown, but I’ve continued to research Buddhism, Southeast Asian culture, and impacts of war on families. Before I wrote Either the Beginning or the End of the World, I wrote a novel about a girl from South Sudan, The Good Braider. That novel ends in a place in which the young protagonist, Viola, is a determined girl, negotiating her mother’s strict African culture as well as the American one in which she lives. I leave her there, okay for the moment. But I know her journey is just beginning. A key resource to me was a therapist I met, Debra Lastoff, who works with Cambodian people struggling with the impact of the Khmer Rouge genocide decades after their escape from the war.

She helped me understand about generational trauma and her work to help people with PTSD see themselves as survivors, to take the experience of the past “out of the dark, put it in the light.” This work of bringing stories out of the dark and into the light is also the work of others I met in Lowell including Chhan Touch at the Metta Health Center and the writer Seng Ty who’s also a guidance counselor at Stoklosa Middle School.

Selected Sources


Cambodia Folk Stories from the Gatiloke, retold by Muriel Paskin Carrison, from a translations by The Venerable Kong Chhean, Tuttle, 1987.

Chigas, George. Chanty’s Garden, Loom Press, 1988.

Him, Chanrithy. When Broken Glass Floats: Growing Up Under the Khmer Rouge, Norton, 2001.

Rosenblatt, Roger. Children of War, Anchor Books, 1983.

Ty, Seng. The Years of Zero: Coming of Age under the Khmer Rouge, 2013

Ung, Loung. Lucky Child: A Daughter of Cambodia Reunites with the Sister She Left Behind, Harper Collins, 2005

Ung, Loung. First They Killed My Father: a Daughter of Cambodia Remembers, Harper Collins, 2000.

Yorm, Ty. My Trip to America, Puma Press, 1990.

War and Veterans

Ackerman, Eliot. Green on Blue, a Novel, Scribner, 2015

Finkel, David. “The Return: the traumatized veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan,” The New Yorker, Sept 9, 2013.

Forche, Carolyn, ed. Against Forgetting: Twentieth-Century Poetry of Witness, Norton, 1993.

Gopal, Anand. No Good Men Among the Living, Metropolitan, 2014.

Kyle, Chris, American Sniper, Harper, 2013.

Nakashima, Rita. Soul Repair: Recovering from Moral Injury After War, Beacon, 2012.

Wood, David. “Moral Injury” Huffington Post

Yunger, Sebastian. War, 2010.


Raymond Kong, Lowell High School student, Lowell, MA

Deb Lastoff, therapist, interview, Kittery, Maine

Mike Pawluk, fisherman, Portsmouth, New Hampshire

Veterans at the Manchester Community College Vet Center


Three Hares Project

by Terry Windling “The Symbolism of Rabbits and Hares”

Laura Mam, Cambodian-American singer. “Pka Proheam Rik Popreay”

More Cambodian-American Writers and Artists

Many Ly

Seng Ty

TalkStory, sharing stories, sharing culture.  Children’s and young adult books about Cambodia and Cambodian-Americans. 

Welcoming Refugees: Books on the Cambodian American Experience

Children’s book author and illustrator Anne Sibley O’Brien writes a column, “Connecting Through Story,” for Welcoming America.  Here she focuses on the Cambodian American experience in books for children and young adults.

I’m Your Neighbor – Children’s Books and Reading Projects Building Bridges Between “New Arrivals” and “Long-Term Communities”

Writing Our Cultural Mosaic

I continue my research on writing across culture.  I’m approaching this work with the soul mates – hope, responsibility.  Writer Daniel J. Older posted that our task is to recognize “the societal context our work takes place in.”  As a white writer, I see my work taking place in the world of:















Our world is one in which white writers can no longer not see this boy. We  can’t not know that this boy’s  in greater danger walking than a white boy walking. Because we’ve seen




I’m about to present a workshop for children’s and young adult book writers on the subject of placing our stories within the cultural mosaic in which we live, writing characters who are face to face with the societal issues in which we live.  I love to read books like that.  I’ve always wondered how someone could write a story set in 1962 and not talk about the Cuban Missile Crisis. David Almond’s novel The Fire-Eaters turns on the impact of that event on a boy’s life.  Read anything by the short story writer, Lucy Honig, and you’ll read a protagonist always face to to face with the events of her world.  The issue for me has nearly always been new Americans coming to the U.S. and a hunger to understand their experience of war and later their experience of America.

Back to Older’s challenge to write with an awareness of our “societal context” – our context is that the children above with placards tell the truth of  treatment of Americans based on race by police and by the institutions the country stands on.  Whites are being challenged to talk about race and their historical privilege.  Whites are being challenged to stop talking and listen.

#ownvoices is a twitter tag of authors of color writing their own books for children.  The hashtag gathers messages about books and authors who are telling the story of their own culture as a  corrective to the  children’s publishing industry that is vastly white, white writers, white agents white editors.  Writer Elizabeth Wein describes the hashtag as saying to whites,  “Let others speak.” For those of all colors who’ve been fighting for racial justice, some since the civil rights marches in Montgomery and Selma, these are the times we’ve been fighting for.  We are seeing a white industry that had put white characters on the jackets of books about people of color because, they argued, white people buy books, we have to appeal to the white reader. Today agents and editors are eager to see manuscripts of people of color!  They seek #ownvoices submissions.   Cheers to the heavens for all people who’ve been set aside for generations to tell us truths.

My workshop’s topic, Writing Our Cultural Mosaic,  is about writing characters who cross cultural borders in their lives, about a time when two cultures or multiple cultures live side by side (America).  Is this possible in our “societal context” to write multiple cultures, one not being one’s own, and therefore writing not our #ownvoice at all, but writing the one we seek to understand.  Is it our responsibility to continue to deeply imagine, as writing fiction requires of us, in order to build bridges of understanding within our cultural mosaic?  Is it a failure if we stop?

I’ve thought of fiction writing first as journalism.  We go where we see the important stories to be; we seek to be a witness to the stories of our times; we bring the stories home.

In the name of that kind of truth telling, I’ve been compiling exercises and resources for writers who still want to cross borders in their writing.  The bar is high.

Some new links:

Fundamentals of Writing the Other by Daniel J. Older

Reclaiming Identity:  Dismantling Arab Stereotypes

“Voice Appropriation” by Canadian writer, Rukhsana Khan

“Mind the Gaps:  Books for All Young Readers” by Vaunda Micheaux Nelson

“Certainly an author writing about his or her own culture can bring personal experiences and sensibilities that offer insightful authenticity to the work. But as long 
as a writer of any color does the research, the homework, and has the talent and sensitivity necessary to create believable/credible characters and worlds, why not? Andrea Davis Pinkney noted in School Library Journal’s May 2014 Diversity Issue: “Authenticity comes from the author’s pen.”

Restricting creativity in this way undermines the sense that there is universality among human beings. Isn’t that one of the reasons we read — to find that connection? If we constantly draw lines, will we ever come together; will we ever find unity?”

Authoring Stories About Cultures Not Our Own by Katie Quirk, author of A Girl Called Problem set in Tanzania