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September 3, 2014
By Oren Smilansky
A survivor of the Khmer Rouge genocides writes his memoir, from the killing fields to his new home in America, with a stop along the way on '60 Minutes.'

Author Seng Ty experienced firsthand the terrors of the Khmer Rouge genocides -- horrendous events that left Cambodia ravaged in the 1970s. Within weeks, he and his family went from living a peaceful life in the Cambodian countryside to surviving in conditions comparable to those of a concentration camp. Before Ty turned 10, both of his parents and his younger brother were dead -- his father murdered, and both his mother and younger brother victims of starvation. Separated from his older siblings, he was left to survive on his own by stealing food and eating any scraps he could find.

By 1980, Seng was able to reunite with most of his older siblings, but, unable to connect with them emotionally, he eventually found his way to a refugee camp in Thailand alone. There, he was interviewed by American journalists, featured in a story in Time magazine, and subsequently adopted by a family in Massachusetts, where he still lives today and makes a living as a middle school guidance counselor.

This is the shortened version of Ty’s long journey, of course. His self-published memoir, The Years of Zero: Coming of Age Under the Khmer Rouge, spares none of the details.

“I started this project in 1997,” he says. “I was out of college and looking for a job, and when I found a job here in Lowell, I felt that it was the right time.”

Seng came to the United States with close to no English, but following the advice his mother gave him shortly before her death, he took his studies seriously and put all he had into learning English. “I never thought that I was going to publish this memoir,” he says. “I always wanted to have my history down so that I could pass it on to my children. So my intention was not to get it published at all at the time, but as time moved on, many friends and colleagues convinced me that my story should be read by many people.”

"It didn’t matter to me that the publishers had rejected the book; during the Khmer Rouge regime I said it doesn’t matter how long it takes me, my wish is to write a book someday. "
In 2004, after seven years of writing and editing, Ty was able to get an agent in New York—but he is perhaps living proof that a platform is not always enough to secure a book deal. Many readers will already be familiar with Ty, who made appearances on CBS’s 60 Minutes, and was a subject of a Time magazine profile and The Donahue Show in the early '80s. Ty felt that his story was of great general interest, and he wanted to share it.

“This is the first book about the events written from a young boy’s point of view,” he says. “Most of the other books are written by women or by the foreigners.” Still, publishers rejected his book on the grounds that there were already similar titles on the market, among them Loung Ung’s 2000 book First They Killed My Father. After a round of submissions and rejections in 2004, Ty decided to put the project on hold. 

“I kind of put [the project] behind for a while. But it didn’t matter to me that the publishers had rejected the book; during the Khmer Rouge regime I said it doesn’t matter how long it takes me, my wish is to write a book someday. Now Amazon offers self-publishing, so last year, when I saw that opportunity, I said ‘Now want to get this book out to readers.’”

Seventeen years after starting the project, his story is available through Amazon’s CreateSpace. The book has been received positively. Kirkus, whose editing services he used before sending the work off to the presses, gave the book a starred review. And in addition to speaking at Columbia University and holding several book signings, Ty’s had engagements at a number of high schools and middle schools around the Massachusetts area, some of which have expressed interest in incorporating his book into their social studies curriculum.

At the middle school where Ty now works as a guidance counselor in Lowell, Mass., many of his students are from Cambodia and just learning English. He is surprised to find out that a lot of them don’t know about the events that took place in their native country and hopes they will read his book. “Many of the students I come across, kids, are not aware of the events between 1975 and 1979.”

Ty hopes that his book finds wider exposure. Recently, he was contacted by an agent who expressed interest in pitching the book to publishing houses again. “I’m just keeping my fingers crossed that hopefully one of the publishers might be interested in this book. “