This is kind of a fun post for me since my guest is one of the authors whose short story is in the new anthology, Fatally Haunted, from the Sisters in Crime/Los Angeles chapter. I happen to be the chapter president at the moment. Fatally Haunted was officially released just yesterday and we’re really excited about it. And a big thank you to Alison McMahan, who wrote the story King Hanuman, for sharing the experiences that led her to write her story.
In 2004 I made the first of several trips to Cambodia to produce a train-the-trainer film for an NGO. We filmed in a remote jungle village called Veal Thom, carved out of the jungle by landmine survivors. As Chhem Sip, a Khmer-American lawyer and social worker said to us, “they created this village with their bare hands and wooden limbs.”
Gradually we understood something even more special about Veal Thom: it was half made up of people connected to the former Lon Nol government, and half former Khmer Rouge. In other words, the two groups that had been killing each other for the previous several decades had set their enmities aside. Rather than fight each other, they work together to eradicate and survive the landmines (placed by every party involved in the war) that made them amputees.
In addition to the educational film we’d been hired to make, we made our own documentary that highlights their challenges and their struggles toward economic, emotional, and psychological recovery: Bare Hands and Wooden Limbs, narrated by Sam Waterston, now available on Amazon. https://barehandswoodenlimbs.com/
It took me years to complete the documentary, but finally Veal Thom’s example of how to heal and reconcile was out there for all the world to see.
I moved out of film production and wrote screenplays and fiction. I stayed friends with Chhem Sip, who had returned to the US to raise his family. Every time I visited him I learned a little more about the Khmer-American communities in Rhode Island, Florida, and Long Beach, CA.
I was born in Los Angeles. My maternal great-grandfather brought his family from Missouri in a covered wagon and settled in Long Beach in 1908. I’d toured the Queen Mary with my tenth grade class. Now I was learning about things that had happened in Long Beach after I’d moved away.
The Khmer-American community in Long Beach inspired me. Some built Buddhist temples and opened Cambodian restaurants and grocery stores. Some brought their guerilla savvy with them and formed gangs that competed with the already established gangs.
I wanted to write about someone who, like Chhem, who had experienced the war in Cambodia as a child, the forced labor and refugee camps as a teenager, then somehow made it to America. Someone, who, like Chhem, wants to give back but also has to work through her own war trauma. But unlike Chhem, my hero would have to do that emotional work in a Long Beach ripped apart by gang wars. A devout Buddhist who carries a gun.
That’s how Thavary Keo was born. The theme of FATALLY HAUNTED pushed me to clarify my thoughts, do more research, get a clearer picture of Thavary. My story, “King Hanuman,” is test, to see if I can pull it off, to see if readers want more before I commit to a series. I’m very grateful to the editors for the opportunity.
You can pick up your own copy of Fatally Haunted by going to our chapter’s website and clicking through to the Anthology page.