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In ‘Landbridge,’ Y-Dang Troeung unpacks her childhood in small-town Ontario as a refugee from post-genocide Cambodia.

Y-Dang Troeung 29 Aug 2023The Tyee

Y-Dang Troeung was assistant professor of English at the University of British Columbia. She passed away in November 2022, after completing the final draft of her extraordinary memoir, Landbridge.

[Editor’s note: In anticipation of the release of ‘Landbridge: Life in Fragments’ by Y-Dang Troeung, we share an excerpt with permission from Alchemy by Knopf Canada.

In precise, beautiful prose accompanied by moving black-and-white visuals, Y-Dang weaves back and forth in time to tell stories about her parents and two brothers who lived through the Cambodian genocide, about the lives of her grandparents and extended family, about her own childhood in the refugee camps and in rural Ontario, and eventually about her young son’s illness and her own diagnosis with a terminal disease.

Through it all, Y-Dang looks with bracing clarity at refugee existence, refusal of gratitude, becoming a scholar and love.]

When Alice Munro won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2013, I couldn’t help but feel a twinge of pride that a writer from the place where I am from had received such worldwide recognition. This place where I am from is often referred to as “Alice Munro Country.”

After spending nearly all the first year of my life in my birthplace, camp Khao-I-Dang, I spent the next 17 years in Goderich, Ontario. The wide-open spaces of the forest, the roads and the lake shaped my identity, made me feel free to eat, sleep and try new things, anywhere I pleased. When I was old enough to read Alice Munro, I was immediately immersed in the world of her stories.

Goderich, a remote town known for its salt-mine industry and its famous tractors, often appears in Munro’s fiction disguised as Walley or Tupperton. Somehow, in the turmoil of my adolescence and the alienation I felt as one of only a few Asians in a town of 7,000 people, I took refuge in Munro’s tales of family betrayal, sexual rebellion, and the strangeness of familiar places.

Hiding away reading in a corner of the public library in town, I was carried away by how Munro portrayed the landscapes, rhythms and feelings of my own small-town life. Munro was well-known for drawing inspiration from historical sources. My family’s story has made national headlines and is in history books. I often wondered if our story would ever make it into her fiction.

In many small towns across Huron County, from Goderich to Vanastra to Exeter, there have lived many Cambodian, Lao and Vietnamese families who crossed the Pacific as refugees. Within our communities, stories circulate about the forms of kindness shown to us by our sponsors, as well as the cruel forms of hate and aggression we have had to steel ourselves against. I often imagine our stories put to the page, stories of humour and gossip and bitter divisions, just as in Munro’s work.

The line “Who do you think you are?” was the title of one of my favourite Munro collections, about a rebellious girl named Rose who leaves her small town for Toronto. I identified with Rose, her careful intelligence, her constant questioning. Her story expressed my own longings for escape.

Now, over 20 years since I left Goderich, I have stopped waiting for stories like mine and my family’s to be written by the national artists. When, little by little, these stories do emerge, they come from refugees who write in poems and fragments. We, the children of refugees, let the stories we never could write drop through our fingers.

‘Landbridge’ by Y-Dang Troeung is available now, in stores and online, wherever fine books are sold.  [Tyee]

Read more: Books, Rights + Justice

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