Recipes for success: Some stories beg to be told, regardless of who reads them

Apr 2, 2014 at 5:00 am


Half-moon light paints a scattering of stilted village huts in blurred lines of quicksilver and shadow. I sit cross-legged in a deserted market stall, drinking a can of Angkor beer with a tough Cambodian broad and social entrepreneur named Chantha Nguon.

I initially met Nguon when I interviewed her for a magazine story many months earlier, and was subsequently hired by a local family foundation to help write her memoir. So I've come to this rural corner of Southeast Asia to gather material for Nguon’s life story.

And what a life it's been: Born in Cambodia in 1961, she fled the troubled country as a child, lost her entire family and endured two decades of exile and deprivation in Saigon and in Thai refugee camps. She finally made it home in the early ’90s to a country she hardly recognized, a once-thriving culture largely annihilated by mad and murderous Khmer Rouge ideologues.

Multilingual and resourceful, Nguon found work with medical NGOs and then founded a silk-weaving social enterprise, a ladder upwards for rural Cambodian women. A way out of poverty and dependency, built from Nguon's own memories of hunger and loss.

It's a story I find both unfathomable and inspirational. The only problem is, Nguon isn't sure she wants it told. "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 understand her point. In the zero-sum Survivor game that is modern publishing, the most lurid story often wins. If James Frey and Greg Mortenson are any indication, when it comes to memoirs, there's pressure to sex up the "truth." As if real life weren't gripping enough without made-up train wrecks or Taliban kidnappings. It's a game Nguon doesn't want to play.

Maybe the odds of bestsellerdom are against us. But if tackling long-odds causes like poverty and sex trafficking doesn't intimidate Nguon, why should the statistical improbability of literary success faze me? Attention and celebrity, she would say, are the wrong goals entirely.

“'Successful' is only the means," Nguon told me earlier in the day as we sat with village women who were weaving traditional straw mats. "I don't want that word to blur my vision. What I have done is not enough."

For Nguon, success isn't a measurable endpoint, but a series of signposts reading this way, keep moving. When she was 25, succeeding meant surviving one more day of poverty and exile on her own. Now in her 50s, Nguon measures achievement by how many women her Stung Treng Women's Development Center can employ, how many rural mothers can escape lives of domestic violence or drudgery in the garment factories or sex trade, and how many of their children are well-fed, vaccinated and schooled.

Success isn't the accolades, says Nguon. It's the work itself, and it's ongoing.

As for me, I can't help but feel that these kinds of stories are the ones worth telling — stories of resolute, outspoken feminists who've lost everything and thus fear nothing. They're worth telling regardless of whether The New York Times best-seller list affirms the finished products. I want to read these books, and for me, that's reason enough to press ahead with this story.

Sparks of moonshine alight upon a narrow river; standing sentry by the bridge is a gilded, many-headed serpent — a neak, Nguon explains. According to legend, these serpentine water guardians gave birth to the Khmer nation — mother figures of a sort, keeping eternal watch.

It's difficult for Nguon to speak of her own mother without tears. Until recently, her happiest memories were of her first nine years, spent mostly in her mother's kitchen — delicious with aromas of pork and fish, rice and noodles. Her mother's death in Vietnam left Nguon desolate, alone in the world, painfully vulnerable.

Nguon doesn't like to cry. She can't see any reason to revisit such abject histories, and does not abide weakness. Why send some "poor-me" memoir into the world, she snorts — a barbed joke.

"OK, so what makes you happy?" I ask her, emboldened by darkness and cheap beer.

She loves her work guiding women toward lives of their choosing, she tells me. "I know how, because I've been through all of it," she says. "That's my happiness." She loves cooking for her own kids, re-creating for them the dishes and aromatic memories her mother used to make, in those fleeting years when Nguon last enjoyed the refuge of happy childhood.

"What if we write a book that isn't sad?" I say. A book about losing everything and fighting to get it back. A book about re-finding your happiness and showing women how it's done.

"Your mother gave you the recipe," I tell her. "Don't you want to share it?"

A long silence. "OK," Nguon finally says. "Let's do it." We clink our Angkor beers and press ahead.

To learn more about the Stung Treng Women's Development Center (and their Mekong Blue silk products), visit mekongblue.com.