Traces of Trauma: An Interview with Boreth Ly

Boreth Ly is Associate Professor of Southeast Asian Art History and Visual Culture at the University of California, Santa Cruz and author of Traces of Trauma: Cambodian Visual Culture and National Identity in the Aftermath of Genocide, recently published by University of Hawai’i Press.

To begin with, please tell us what your book is about.

My book considers how contemporary Cambodian artists and photographers, filmmakers, court dancers, poets, and writers—both in Cambodia and in the diaspora—produce(d) “traces of trauma” that shed light on how a morally shattered culture and nation found ways to go on living after the civil war, the U.S. bombing, and the Khmer Rouge genocide (1975-1979). I argue that these traces are remains of an irrecoverable whole that lend themselves to a sustained study of trauma, visuality, and the body. The traces are fragmented, as are the acts of remembering and forgetting. However, when they are analyzed in their historical and cultural contexts, and coupled with local and cosmopolitan theory, these traces provide us with an understanding of culturally specific symptoms of trauma: broken body and spirit, pain, mourning, melancholia. These traumatic symptoms of the Cambodian nation and its diaspora contribute significantly to the reclamation of national identity. They need to be reconfigured after an atrocity of such magnitude as genocide. The visual examples covered in this book include ancient art, court dance, pop songs, films, and everyday material culture, as well as contemporary art forms.

What inspired you to research this topic?

In this case, “inspired” is the wrong choice of word; “compelled” more aptly describes my motivation to research this dark and difficult topic. To this point, Amy Lee Sanford, one of the artists whose work I discuss and whose art graces the cover of my book, texted me after she read it: “I love that you’ve created an academic book about such intense emotions.” In many ways, the book is a memorial and a requiem to the many Cambodians who died in the Khmer Rouge genocide. Moreover, it is about the potential benefits and limitations of the arts in healing the personal and collective wounds of the Cambodian nation and its diaspora. It is about how the arts mediate our understanding of memory, trauma, ethics, and morality, and the ineffable sense of loss.

What obstacles did you face in this project?

One of the major obstacles was practical. Obtaining some of the copyright permissions for images/photographs of art objects and images included in this book was painstaking. I took some of the photographs reproduced in the book, but others were taken by other photographers and the artists. In fact, one of the photographs reproduced in the book took one year to clear the copyright permission. Even though I faced delays in securing the rights to the photograph, I was determined to keep negotiating because I believe this is an important artwork by a Cambodian-American artist that merits visibility and I wanted it reproduced in my book.

What is the strangest story or scrap of research you encountered in the course of working on this book?

One of my most humorous experiences along the way was an attempt to track down a Khmer journalist who took a series of photographs of a political protest in Cambodia that I initially saw published in a Cambodian newspaper. I wanted to include these photographs in my book, and the University of Hawai’i Press was very strict about copyright clearance. Unlike their U.S. counterparts, many Khmer journalists don’t answer email. On a visit to Phnom Penh in July 2017, one of my research tasks was to clear the copyrights for these photographs. The photographer had a very busy schedule during the week of my visit, and it was virtually impossible to make an appointment with him. Finally, he phoned me and said, “I am at the court house right now; please come by and we can meet.” I took a ramock (also called tuktuk), a three-wheeled rickshaw to the courthouse that afternoon. I arrived and waited for him while he and a few other journalists were photographing two alleged criminals coming out of the courthouse. After that, he hopped onto my tuktuk; we chatted for five minutes, he signed the permission form, and then he ran off to cover another story. In retrospect, the experience was surreal because it took place under the scorching noonday sun in late July, in a ramock, with very little formality. It was both highly unexpected and anticlimactic.  

What are the works that inspired you as you worked on this book, and/or what are some other titles that you recommend be read in tandem with your own?

The books that inspired me during the writing of this book were:

Italo Calvino, Six Memos for the Next Millennium (Mariner Books, 2016)

Marguerite Duras, Writing (Translated by Mark Polizzotti) (University of Minnesota Press, 2011)

Toni Morrison, “Altruism, Goodness and the Literary Imagination”

Rithy Panh and Christophe Bataille, The Elimination: A Survivor of the Khmer Rouge Confronts His Past and the Commandant of the Killing Fields (Other Press, 2014)

Two books I recommend to be read in tandem with mine are by two Cambodian scholars:

Katharya Um, From the Land of Shadows: War, Revolution and the Making of the Cambodian Diaspora (New York University Press, 2015) and Krisna Uk*, Salvage: Cultural Resilience among the Jorai of Northeast Cambodia (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2016). One can teach an entire undergraduate or graduate seminar by assigning these three books. I might add that it is a very exciting moment to see these three books addressing the aftermath of the traumatic and violent events that took place in Cambodia; they complement each other across three very different academic disciplines: Ethnic Studies, Anthropology, and Art History and Visual Culture.

What are you working on now?

I have two writing projects at present. One is tentatively titled Specter of Visuality: Photography and the Politics of Representations in Southeast Asia, and the other is a collected volume of essays called Fragments. The former is a book about archival, iconic photographs and how they haunt the collective consciousness; the latter is about intersection of lives, history, and memory.

*Editor’s note: Krisna Uk is a consultant to the AAS Board of Directors.