Refugee Lifeworlds: The Afterlife of the Cold War in Cambodia. Temple University Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
This review was one of the most difficult pieces of writing I’ve had to compose because it kept wanting to become an obituary. Y-Dang Troeung, the author of Refugee Lifeworlds, tragically passed away on November 27, 2022, less than half a year after the book’s publication. She was a close friend and mentor. We referred to each other as “big sis” and “little bro”—we were like family. Reading her words has been both painful and inspirational. I felt closer to her personally while my intellectual landscape expanded. When it came time to write about the book, I asked myself: Do I speak as a friend or as a colleague, a confidant or an evaluator, an admirer or a peer? That is, do I follow the dictates of a genre or do I write from the heart? But the thing is, life is complicated and messy and my relationship with Y-Dang did not follow such hard distinctions. So why should my writing?
And what’s the difference between a book review and an obituary anyway? One details a book and the other a life. And often book and life overlap and align. They merge. And Y-Dang’s book, which beautifully weaves her own family history with cultural criticism, reminds us that a writer’s life and work, thinking and being, are sometimes inseparable. I thus write as someone who knew intimately the struggles Y-Dang experienced writing this book and also as a critical refugee studies expert. (I never use that word to describe myself, but let me claim it here lest a certain kind of reader scoff at my attachment and what I have to say.) My assessment is both a result of sustained study of a subject and sustained love for a person.
Refugee Lifeworlds is that rare book that stimulates the mind and stirs the heart. Y-Dang masterfully moves in and out of cultural criticism, literary analysis, theory, and autobiography to offer unique perspectives on the afterlives of the Cold War in Cambodia. The book’s overarching analytic—that of “refugee lifeworlds”—seeks to illuminate the array of refugee thinking, sensing, and imagining that cannot be contained by the archives of power and the dominant discourses of war and migration. In particular, the book is concerned with making sense of the long-lasting legacies of disability and debility that mass bombing, war-making, genocide, and displacement leave in the lives of ordinary people. In doing so, Y-Dang provides us with a rich set of vocabularies and concepts to push beyond the standard lenses of trauma, memory, and loss so prevalent in the existing literature.
Identifying Cambodia’s “minor anecdoting” (42), which employs Cambodia as metaphor and warning for some other place, war, or future, the book goes on to centre Cambodia and its people on their own terms. Through analyses of novels, documentaries, films, photographs, short stories, and works of art, Refugee Lifeworlds embarks on an ambitious tour of the real and imaginative landscapes of Cambodian refugee life, which must endure militarism, authoritarianism, injustice, racism, and death to exist and bring forth beauty.
Many of the writers and artists Y-Dang takes up are people she respected and loved: Madeleine Thien, Rithy Panh, Viet Thanh Nguyen, Kosal Kiev, and Masahiro Sugano, to name just a few. They were the community she cultivated and nurtured. But the people at the centre of this book are Y-Dang’s parents, Yok Troeung and Heung Troeung. The stories they passed on to her animate Refugee Lifeworlds. In Y-Dang’s dazzling retelling, the historical and social currents of the Cold War, Pol Pot terror, refugee “crises,” Canadian humanitarianism, and resettlement find anchor in real people eking out a life for themselves and their children. Refugee Lifeworlds is a monument to the fortitude of those whom history weighs down upon but often never records.
Y-Dang was the first person in Canada to do critical refugee studies. She broke ground for people like me. With Refugee Lifeworlds, she has forged unexplored paths in blending autotheory, critical disability studies, transpacific studies, and critical refugee studies into a thoroughly original project. I will mention here only three major contributions the book makes to our readerly communities.
First, it models an explicit and sustained autotheoretical approach to the study of refugees. The field of critical refugee studies has long been concerned with subjectivity, personal experience, and situated knowledge—it is no accident that many of its trailblazers are themselves refugees or descendants of refugees. But Y-Dang’s book is the first full-length study both to conceive and then to perform autotheory in a way that insists on its central place in refugee knowledge production. Each chapter begins and ends with anecdotes that elevate the ideas discussed, allowing the reader not only to know but also to feel. Second, Y-Dang brings critical refugee studies and critical disability studies into conversation to move beyond trauma and models of wartime damage that see refugees as suffering victims. Through concepts such as refugee race-ability, Khmer cripistemology, and refugee aphasia, the book focuses on the structural forces of debility that produce the conditions of violence and its aftermath. It shows how the “Cold War in Cambodia endures as an imperial knowledge formation, a system of endemic debilitation, and a cripistemological way of knowing and living the afterlife of displacement” (166). Third, Refugee Lifeworlds routes theoretical insights through Cambodian folk knowledge and lived experience. Y-Dang avoids the trap of mapping Eurocentric theory onto Cambodia and its people. Instead she finds meaning, for instance, through the kapok tree, a source of livelihood and a metaphor for (on)going silence, which allows her to examine the forms of silence as well as resistance during and after genocide as historically and politically produced. Such moves to root theory in different sources aren’t just cultural relativism, but urgent calls to reorient our ways of doing meaningfully committed and impossibly difficult work.
In writing about refugees, war, disability, and ultimately the strength of Cambodian people, Y-Dang was writing about herself. It’s hard to resist viewing the cancer that took her life as a shadow of this book. But illness also drove Refugee Lifeworlds forward to triumphant completion; it lends the writing another level of insightful, tragic meaning. This book will, of course, be valuable to those in critical refugee studies, Cold War studies, critical disability studies, critical race studies, genocide studies, Canadian studies, and Southeast Asian diaspora studies, to name but a few areas. It will continue to extend the life of its author as readers and scholars engage her ideas. But read Refugee Lifeworlds not because it is first-rate, path-breaking scholarship, which it is, but because it is one of the wisest and most compassionate books to come out of the terrible embers of war in Southeast Asia.
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