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Sestina of the Cambodian American Girl

Written by Vannida S. Kol | @amorevxni on Instagram | Vannida S. Kol on Twitter, Facebook, & Blog

Graphic by Safa Michigan | @safamichigan on Instagram

Tonight, the songs of Cambodia linger in my mind—

A refugee travels to America, the rich country,

having crossed forests and battlefields, a trial

blessed by gods and witnessed by spirits.

The war is over, yet the people still speak its language,

no time to grieve what has been lost.

In death’s aftermath, the Buddha deems nothing is truly lost—

Only the Dharma verses can balance the restless mind.

The refugee changes his name, learns the new language.

When his daughter is born, he sees the colors of his country

in her black hair and golden complexion. He implores the spirits:

I have already suffered much. Let her face no difficult trial.

Yet the father knows even his child is not exempt from her trial—

She will suffer once she learns the songs of generations lost.

Her mother tries to hush the singing of spirits,

their ancient voices trespassing the mind.

The mother worries that in this unfamiliar country,

her daughter will never dream in her native language.

In adolescence, she begins to dream in her mother’s language—

English-tuned ears stumble with Khmer, a humbling trial

when her parents take her home, to rediscover the country

that still speaks in war. Tones and syllables are assembled, then lost.

Daughter, voiceless within her own mind,

searches across lifetimes to listen to ancestral spirits.

Past lives, devas, asuras, gods, and spirits—

They gather to teach the girl their language,

sacred verses blooming in the meditative mind.

She learns the Buddha’s ultimate wisdom: Life is a trial

beget by ignorance, resolved by its absence. Her voice is no longer lost.

The soul, renewed, remembers the suffering of its country.

Tonight, I, daughter of immigrants, dream of my country—

I feast upon poems and feed songs to spirits.

When we gather at temples to honor those we have lost,

our voices in the present lead them home. They whisper the language

of mountains and monsoons, to witness us at our most arduous trial.

The grief of generations past echo in the mind.

Cambodia, country of resilience, relearns its language.

The spirits separate love from war. They bless the trial

I once walked, lost — I return to the clear mind,

to remember them by this song.


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