by Greg Bem
Cambodian American Chath pierSath is both a visual artist and poet. He was born in Banteay Meanchey province, Cambodia, before he escaped the Khmer Rouge with some of his family. As a refugee Chath was relocated to the United States, where he has lived off and on since. His most recent move to the Lowell, Massachusetts area has influenced a major output of paintings, collages, and other tactile art, as well as his long-term writing projects. Through his intense personal history, as well as his leadership in social work and independent ethnography, Chath has channeled community and identity into all of his creativity.
Chath’s most recent book, This Body Mystery, was published by Abingdon Square Publishing in 2012. The book of poems focuses on narratives of AIDS victims in Cambodia during the 1990s; over ten years in the making, the poems are both haunting and redemptive portraits of universal figures from everyday life. Chath’s visual and written work often intersect, and no clearer is this relationship relayed and reinforced than by the twenty or so paintings included in the book. Bringing multiple visualizations to the harrowing and empowering lives of those who have lost, suffered, and rebounded, this powerful collection reflects Chath pierSath’s growing maturity as a documenter and storyteller. I had the opportunity to interview him in Phnom Penh during his recent trip here.
Greg Bem: Why did you come to Cambodia this time?
Chath pierSath: I’ve been coming to Cambodia off and on, six months of the year usually, and this year I have come because I’m doing a collaborative project with another artist, Mary Hamill. My project is to gather the oral history of war widows, starting with the women of my village, Kop Nymit.
The family I grew up in had three generations of widows. I met Mary in New York at my exhibition and when I told her about my oral history project she asked, “Would it be possible to incorporate visual art?” My sister stitches pillowcases, which led to Mary suggesting using cyanotype on them. I originally thought of the idea of pillowcases because when people get married, they have the bride and the groom lay their hands on each other’s pillows while their relatives tie ribbons on their wrists. And then on the bed you usually have two pillows—one for yourself and one for your loved one—so when one is gone, one pillow remains. So I thought of the pillowcases as a symbol of love and loss, of retaining the memory of your loved one.
The first stage is to get women who are widows from the Khmer Rouge to tell me their stories, and from their stories I will get them to think of ways to retain memories of their husbands through the use of cyanotype on pillowcases. I will have to teach them about the process as well.
GB: With your own story and the stories of those who have survived the Khmer Rouge, is memory strong?
CP: Some people have witnessed the killing of their husbands, or they survived other horrific things. My sister is a widow but her husband was killed after the Khmer Rouge. There are different periods in which violence has occurred, and differences in how these women became widowed and how they survived afterwards. In Cambodian culture the male figure in the family is important; when you lose your husband you lose your economic ability to survive. So these widows had to readjust their lives accordingly. My interest is to look at how they adjusted their lives to these losses and how they manage to survive, and what lessons other people in the world can learn from them.
GB: Have you worked with stories of the Cambodian people a lot? Have you communicated with people who have been victimized or gone through tragedy before?
CP: All throughout my work, even in the United States, I have worked with the greater Cambodian community. I am a community social psychologist and a lot of my work deals with social work and helping people overcoming addiction and trauma. I’m very connected to the story, the history, and the trauma people experience. For this project, I’m also developing my own narrative, because I’m the son of a widow. And so, while working with women and gathering their oral histories, I’m taking a step back to do my own art book and visual work.
GB: That brings us to the idea of education. You mentioned working to create this art with these other people, but you’re also educating yourself. Can you talk a little about the process of learning and education in your life and how that’s reflected here?
CP: I think that through the narratives of other people you get closer to your own. You get closer to your own humanity by understanding the stories of other people and the struggles they have. I think every person has a unique story to tell and we each have the different life events that happen to us and sometimes we may feel sympathetic toward a certain aspect of that life event. For me, the more I understand the story of others, the greater I am able to learn and help other people. Often when people tell their story, they talk about their strengths and resiliency. It’s really about their determination and their aspiration to survive and live.
GB: That’s also what you were touching on in This Body Mystery.
CP: Yes, in This Body Mystery, even though it was written in the voice of people with HIV/AIDS, it’s about how people come to accept their fate and their sickness. It’s about accepting the way your life is.
GB: Have you found similar acceptance in your own life up until now, as an artist moving back and forth between Cambodia and the United States?
CP: I think so. I used to despair about the condition of the world, to feel a sense of hopelessness; now I find more and more that I need to focus on what I can do, however little it is, to help others. Whether I affect one person or an entire family, or even a group of people, I feel like I have resources and education and ability and skills that some people may not be fortunate enough to acquire. But by sharing and inquiring, being a listener, and being interested in the stories of other people and their lives, I can also pull things out and say “What can I do for them? What can I share with them that may alleviate some of their suffering?” Sometimes the mere connection we make with each other can change people’s lives. It doesn’t have to be something big. The mere fact that you’re interested in them makes them happy.
GB: I think that you have affected a lot of people’s lives, including those people you interact with as an educator and through social work, but also those people that view your art and your writing. I’m curious about how you look at your audience and look at your readership. Do you think a lot about audience when you create new works of art and new poems and other writings?
CP: I don’t approach my writing or my work from an academic or analytical point of view. I do it for myself. How am I placing myself in the world of other people around me? For me, I feel that I am not really alone, that others can feel it too. I see art in this way. I think that there are certain feelings and things you can convey in a simple form that people can see and understand. A lot of my work is process-oriented. I delve into my work and sit alone in silence and work with the material and process it, like talking to yourself.
Sometimes it may be something I hear in the news that affects me. There are multiple things entering in your mind. When you make art, those things change shape into something else. It’s transformation into a body of different visual elements. Every day you are bombarded by so many different things. When you sit down to process everything, it can become interesting visually. You can incorporate a lot of those things that you internalize.
GB: Is it easy to go through this process with collaborators, like Mary Hamill?
CP: This is my first collaboration so I’m going to learn how it’s going to work. I’d like to do more collaborations because collaboration creates different viewpoints. Mary’s working from an outsider perspective and I’m working from an insider-outside perspective. In this case, it will bring an added dimension to the visual aspects of the work. Also the processes and approaches that I’m thinking are about learning. I’m playing it by ear to experiment and see what happens.
GB: It seems like experimentation is a big part of your artistic journey, your process as an artist.
CP: You have to experiment with different mediums and things around you. Art is really about how you capture different things you see around you and bring them into forms and words and shapes and meaning. Everything around you can use. It’s like your tools and your material. Whether it’s in performing arts like dance, or visual arts, or poetry, a lot of those elements can come and help you, can trigger your creativity. But you have to be open, be aware, and you have to be ready to look.
GB: Can you talk a little bit about your experimentation in writing and where you learned your skills in writing poetry?
CP: I read a lot when I was in school in the United States, and even though writing in English is very difficult for me, I wrote in journals. I tried to write poems in rhyme. I tried writing songs. Sometimes I jotted down a thought. I would keep a log of spontaneous thoughts. I think every writer has their waves of inspiration and their ways of doing things. But writing is very difficult for me. It’s something I haven’t practiced as diligently as my visual art. I’ve been doing visual art because I think it’s easier for me to construct, whereas words are very difficult. It’s hard to choose the right word, the right line. This Body Mystery is a small book, but it took me over ten years.
GB: How long have you been doing art in general?
CP: I started to paint in the year 2000. I never thought of going to an art school, even though I loved art. I liked museums but I wanted to be a dancer, I wanted to go into performing arts, or be a writer. When I was in the sixth grade my friend and I always won writing contests, and we read a lot of books. We were always the ones that read the most books in class. I thought about writing but visual arts weren’t part of my vocabulary.
It’s really hard when you read literature in a language that’s not your own. There are all these cultural references you have to be born into that particular language to get. Even if you look in the dictionary you know the meaning of the word or phrase, but there’s still the feeling of it. When I hear Khmer poets, when they recite their poems, I know what they’re talking about, I get it right away. When you’re reading from a different language that’s different from your own, it’s not the same as being fluent. If I were really fluent and born into the English language, I would probably become a greater writer. But on the other hand, I have a great advantage: I write from the perspective of my own voice. I’m not copying anyone’s voice. It’s my voice. I have the advantage of being a writer of English as a second language.
GB: Where does English and Khmer intersect for you?
CP: I think there are things I can’t write in English that I wish I could write in Khmer. And sometimes I fantasize about learning to write in Khmer. Because if I could write in Khmer, my perspective would be very different, because I’m both an outsider and insider and I see the writing in a different way. My description would be different from, say, a local writer.
I have some advantages of viewing from the two lenses, the two perspectives. I think that a lot of visual artists who come back here from the United States and are Cambodian also write from their American references—looking inside the old culture, and looking at themselves as an American looking into the country where they were born. The dynamic sometimes pulls them this way and that way and it’s a struggle. Some people choose to go to the extreme. Their perspective and view on the culture might be that of the colonizer and might be more judgmental and dominant. You have to be aware and conscious of those things, when you write and look at a culture—especially when you’re bicultural, and you’re returning to that place from a different place where you’d been shaped.
I write and I write and a lot of times I go back to the American lens, though sometimes it’s a struggle to come from that perspective. Even though I’m not privileged in the money world, I’m privileged in other ways: I had greater access to education, I can travel, etc. It’s the same with writing: the freedom to move in and out of different places, of different realms of existence, of different life forms. It’s like you’re organically developing yourself, moving out, metamorphosing into other forms depending on where you are, what you’re doing at the time, how you want to play on things.