Monica Sok on Writing the Cambodian Story Beyond Trauma

Monica Sok’s debut poetry collection, A Nail the Evening Hangs Ongrew from her reflections on the Cambodian diaspora and experience as the daughter of former refugees. Sok, a 2018–2020 Wallace Stegner Fellow at Stanford University, spoke with Louis Elliot.

Louis Elliott: A Nail the Evening Hangs On covers such vast physical distances and space between the living and the dead. I read you were working on it as early as 2016. The book is a beautiful accomplishment, Monica. How did the poems here begin to take shape for you? Was there an originating moment?

Monica Sok: Thank you so much for reading my book. It’s hard to say when I began to write the book. I didn’t know that it was possible for me to do such a thing. I had so many questions about my experience as a Cambodian American woman. I needed to write poems to understand my collective history. I had written some poems earlier than 2016, but that was a significant year for me because I had taken a trip to Cambodia. I started in Siem Reap to visit Angkor Wat and other temple sites, specifically Ta Prohm Temple. I had been there before with my family, as a child. This time felt less enchanting as I witnessed levels of tourism that disturbed me. I had put together many versions of my manuscript but felt that something was missing.

The poems I wrote during this trip focused more on my own experience as a daughter of survivors, as a person of diaspora. I wrote poems like “In a Room of One Thousand Buddhas,” “Self-Portrait as War Museum Captions,” and “Self-Portrait in Siem Reap” as I reflected on my history. I wrote early versions of “ABC for Refugees” in 2012 and it took me six years to fully realize it.

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