I was honored to learn that students at Louisiana State University are reading my novel Dragon Chica in Penelope Dane’s English 2025:Fiction class this semester.
I recently participated in a Q&A with them about the novel via email. I thought their questions were so good that I’m posting them online—with their permission– in case other students reading Dragon Chica were interested. (Some of the questions may also be helpful to students writing papers about my short story, “Saving Sourdi,” as the novel and the short story are about the same family.)
I’d like to thank the following students for their questions: Courtland Douglas, Frank C. Wilson, Steve Ochsner, Sydney Carlton, Alfonso Croeze, Brittni Naylor, Megan Templet, Caitlin Waldo, Katie Jenkins, Sara Sonnier, Megan Prudhomme, Gretchen Goodman, Danielle LeBlanc, Morgan Matthews, Maddy Womack, Tyler Harris, Caroline Lero, Chelsie Draughter, Adi Brannon, Blake Broussard, David Bastien, Paige Smith, Stephanie Harper, and Alise Stauder.
And many thanks to Penelope Dane for teaching Dragon Chica and arranging this exchange! I’m always excited to hear from students from around the country.
SPOILER ALERT: if you haven’t read the novel yet, plot points are revealed in the following questions and answers. You may want to stop reading here.
Q1: Do you believe memories and time spent together are more important than biological links? If so, would you reveal the truth to Nea if you were placed in Ma or Sourdi’s scenario?
1) I believe there are many kinds of families: the people you are biologically related to, the people who rear you, and the people you choose to have be your support network. Sometimes one family can be all three, but not always. I know why Sourdi told Nea—she loves Nea and believes she should have this knowledge. In this sense I do believe that knowledge can be empowering. I felt Ma was afraid to tell Nea—afraid it would hurt Nea and afraid it would hurt her relationship to Nea. Whether Nea can forgive Ma (and what Nea does with the secret Sourdi told her) are actually the subject of the sequel!
Q2. Is Nea overreacting and spoiled at heart or do the people around her make her life more unbearable due to their opinion and views on revealing the truth?
2) I am completely biased in this regard: I think Nea is great and do not think she is spoiled. I think she has to fight for some very basic rights and she is willing to fight on behalf of her family against injustice, which makes me like her very much. 3) I think Nea’s family members just really have difficulty understanding her. They are caught up in their own emotions and are often overwhelmed by their own traumas and memories of the past. This makes it very difficult for them to be present for Nea and try to understand how she is processing the world around her.
Q3.I would like to know if you agree with Ma’s decision to marry off Sourdi?
3) In real life I would be totally against marrying off a young teen to anyone, much less an older man. As a teacher, I believe it’s most important to stay in school and get as much education as possible. HOWEVER, in real life I do know of many girls who married quite young, some even younger than Sourdi. I’ve also met many women who came to America as refugees and who were put in arranged marriages as teenagers by their parents. So Sourdi’s plot line is to honor these women and girls I’ve known and their particular life struggles. In the novel, I’m not trying to render a judgment so much as illuminate why such choices were made at a particular place and time. I’m hoping it will create understanding and discussion. I am not advocating for such early marriage any more than I’d be advocating for a hurricane or an earthquake or murder if I were writing a book in which one of those events occurred.
Q4. What kinds of discrimination did you face when growing up?
Q5. What do you think about the current state of race relations in this country?
4) Ah, these are huge questions. Let me just say I faced different kinds of discrimination at different times in my life depending on where I lived. When I was very young 6 and under, I lived in a university town in Southern California, and felt very safe and protected from the outside world. From 6-12 I lived in a diverse, immigrant community in Northern New Jersey in the New York City metropolitan area. There were race riots—literally—at my father’s school in NYC yet again I really didn’t face much discrimination. When I was 12, we moved to a rural community in South Dakota. No one had seen a mixed-race Chinese-White family before. Now people followed us down the street or turned and stared at us. Men drove by our house in the countryside and shouted names out their windows. Eventually men shot and killed six of our dogs over the years. My brother was attacked physically time and time again. I was called every name possible by classmates and even random adults. I was told mixed-race people were a sign of the Devil and the coming End Times. It was pretty awful. I also witnessed terrible discrimination against other people—including Cambodian refugees who’d moved to our town to open a restaurant. So these things did inspire me to write this book. I wanted to bear witness. Speaking up is one way to help overcome prejudice.
5) As for race relations in this country, we’ve made a lot of progress and there’s still a long, long way to go. I think we need to get to know each other—as real people—not as “types” and show respect for our histories and our experiences. Then we can stop being afraid of each other. I know that sounds very kumbaya-esque, but I believe it’s possible!
Q6. Why did you pick the story to take place after the Khmer Rouge and not during? Do you think this affected the reader’s view on the book especially if they did not know about the Khmer Rouge?
6) I really like this question! I thought a lot about this issue actually when I was working on the novel. I decided I wanted to set it in the US *after* the family has already survived the Khmer Rouge for a number of reasons. 1) Plot-wise it’s hard to compete with the Khmer Rouge for drama. If I put those scenes in, they tend to overwhelm everything else. 2) In real life, most Americans knew next to nothing about the Khmer Rouge when Cambodian survivors started arriving in the US in the early 1980s. Therefore, starting the novel with the family already here mirrors the real-life experience of Cambodian refugees and the communities they ended up in. It was like suddenly here are these people and no one in the town apart from the families themselves really knew the history about WHY they were here. The American bombing campaign of Cambodia had been kept secret from the American public during the Vietnam War. Most schools taught nothing about Vietnam and how the violence spread to affect Cambodia and Laos. There was very little media attention—the media were obsessed with Japan in the 1980s and the Soviet Union, not that much introspective stories looking back at the American War in Vietnam and its lingering consequences. I wanted to reflect this historical reality in the novel.
Q7. Does Ma make up the dreams that she has that prompts them to move?
7. No! In my mind, Ma takes dreams very seriously. She has had to follow her instincts and “trust her gut,” as we say these days, because she had very little objective information to go on her whole life, not during the war or under the Khmer Rouge nor afterwards in America.
Q8. Did you know someone who experienced the Khmer Rouge Regime?
8. Yes! I first met Khmer Rouge survivors when I was fifteen. A Sino-Khmer family moved to our town in South Dakota to open a restaurant. The mother was very nice and kind to me and she ended up telling me about how her children died under the Khmer Rouge regime. Later, when I went to college in Iowa, which was a designated refugee relocation state in the 1980s, I met many more refugees and KR survivors. As a journalist after I graduated, I interviewed survivors for the AP. I still know many survivors and their children. What’s really interesting is how the American-born generation is now going back to Cambodia to both seek their roots and help their families’ ancestral homeland. What’s cool is that nowadays many children of survivors and survivors themselves are going back to enjoy the resurgence of Cambodian traditional culture. Pol Pot tried to destroy the arts and culture of Cambodia, but now there is a thriving arts scene with new music, dance, literature, etc. and there are also many business opportunities, all of which is appealing to a new generation world-wide.
Q9. Do Cambodian families arrange marriages often to benefit their families financially?
I’m going to end with this question because I think it lends itself to some interesting cross-cultural comparisons that would be great for discussion. Throughout human history, most marriages were probably arranged. I think non-arranged marriages and the whole concept of marrying someone for love are relatively recent ideas.
My suggestion: please discuss the following couples and the rationale (stated and perceived) behind their marriages.
1) Kim Kardashian and Khris Humphries
2) Royal couples: Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, Charles and Diana, William and Kate.
3) George Takei and Brad Altman
Thanks, everybody, for your questions!