It all started in 2011, when I was assigned to write a profile for HER Nashville on the partnership between Chantha Nguon, a Cambodian social entrepreneur, and Ann Walling, a Nashville Episcopal priest and philanthropist whose family foundation helped launch the Stung Treng Women’s Development Center in 2001.
Here is that story:
“At the confluence of the Mekong and Sekong Rivers…[in] tiny Sre Po village, shimmering silken threads flow from hand-built looms, clacking into life as women at the Stung Treng Women’s Development Center (SWDC) demonstrate what real empowerment looks like.”
Later that year, I met with Walling about a bigger storytelling project with Chantha. After several meetings, Walling agreed to hire me to write a memoir on Chantha’s behalf. She and I began corresponding, and I flew to Cambodia in fall of 2012.
On that trip, I took many photographs, ate delicious food, made amusing errors in bathroom etiquette, wandered a bomb-cratered jungle, and listened to Chantha’s stories. And then one night in a tiny village, Chantha explained to me that she was not eager to share her painful past with the world.
“‘We don’t lift our shirts to show our scars,’ she tells me. In Cambodia, she explains, the suffering of those years is universal, and thus rarely discussed. ‘Besides, she says, laughing in the boggy darkness, ‘nobody care about some woman named Chantha. Who will read?'”
*I* would read, that much I knew. But I could understand her concerns. And besides, we were facing a backlash against “savior memoirs,” following the revelation that both Greg Mortenson and Somaly Mam, in their bestselling books, had distorted some facts of their lives and their humanitarian work. Clearly, even well-meaning people were tempted to sacrifice the truth for the “greater good” of publicizing a worthy mission.
That night in a moonlit village, we made our pact: We would tell the truth as we knew it. We would not write a “misery memoir,” nor would we portray Chantha as a one-dimensional saint. We’d infuse plenty of laughter and sweetness into the telling, to soften her bitterest recollections.
It struck me on that trip that Chantha spoke the most vividly when she was describing recovered recipes from her past. After the wars, she’d spent years learning to replicate her mother’s exquisite dishes, the single surviving artifact from her childhood. Those recipes became the foundation for the beautiful new life Chantha created for herself, her family, and the women of SWDC.
That night, I proposed that we weave a thread of those remembered meals through her memoir. She agreed. I went home and got back to work.
I transcribed interviews and wrote drafts, and we continued to correspond. Her daughter Clara came to the US to attend college nearby (and wrote this gorgeous, award-winning essay for the Scene about her hopes for SWDC). Clara spent many nights with us in Nashville, cooking her mother’s (and grandmother’s) recipes and teaching me to assemble a legit spring roll.
Chantha visited us, too, and we hosted scores of dinner parties and pop-up scarf sales at our house. I made another trip to Cambodia, studied, read, and explored. Along the way, Chantha was my cultural translator. I learned how to figure out which vendors’ morning glories may give you cholera (because they are grown in sewage ponds). I learned that some Buddhist monks drive luxury cars. And I learned why village girls think that running away to be a garment factory drudge or a “bar girl” sounds like a big adventure that surely won’t end badly, not for them.
I also learned that the best people for the job of helping people escape poverty are people who once made that journey themselves: Chantha and her husband Chan have lived in wartime Saigon, under communist occupation, in squalid refugee camps, and in a remote jungle mining camp. They have subsisted on garbage rations and foraged for forest greens and frogs, just to survive. And after all that, they somehow managed to will into existence a beautiful little oasis of safety in a remote, desperately poor part of Cambodia.
Only someone with a fierce and fearless resilience, born of surviving unimaginable hardships, could achieve this:
It’s a beautiful, hopeful place, and a triumph of optimism—and sheer stubbornness.
There’s a lot more to this story, as you’ll discover very soon. We’re close now. In the meantime, here’s a taste of what’s to come: It’s a story about one of Chantha’s favorite noodle-soup recipes, one that her mom used to spend long Sundays preparing. You’ll not only learn HOW to make this dish, but WHY: because the best noodles of all are the opposite of instant.
“She pats the dough into ovals and instructs me to cut it into thick noodles with scissors. ‘My mother would never—’ she says, shaking her head. We are doing it wrong. Her mother consumed a whole day in this process, rolling each noodle by hand into a perfect cylinder—no scissors allowed. To Chantha’s mom, the best dishes were the ones that required the most effort, and she despised the flavor of short cuts.“