Sophea Lim is living the American dream as an aspiring executive producer at her local television station. But at the home she shares with her Cambodian mother and grandmother, her success is measured by how soon she can find a husband and how well she prepares a spring roll. While Sophea embraces her new life in America, her elders cling to memories of their old life in the Cambodian royal family. They continue to live in the shadow of the genocide that killed two million Cambodians, including their husbands. Turmoil erupts when younger sister Ravy encourages Sophea to move out of the house and forsake her cultural responsibility to take care of her elders. Will Sophea abandon the ones she loves most? Can her mother and grandmother find meaning and relevance in their new country? The Immigrant Princess is a poignant love story about three generations of spirited women learning to navigate a world that challenges their core values and traditions.
The opening pages of Variny Yim's The Immigrant Princess construct a scene of three generations of royal Cambodian women emigrating from their home, culture, and family amidst the foreboding of a military threat in December, 1974. What unfolds is the narrative of these women's stories alternating with glimpses of the past and Cambodia's complex and troubled history. The novel is written in a quick-paced, conversational, journalistic tone, befitting the protagonist's profession as a member of the press. Posed early in the novel is the idea of the Apsara, the mythological female dancers who endured despite the maelstrom of Cambodian politics. There is magic and might in the depiction of the Apsara, a sisterly motif to which the book often returns. Likened to the Greek gods that color Western mythology, the theme of the Apsara threads the novel's narrative with rich and dynamic Cambodian images and symbolism.
Predominantly in the first half of the novel, the narrative establishes a contrast between the present, 1999 Washington D.C., and pre-Khmer Rouge Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Through flashbacks and historical notes, Yim paints, the political struggle dominating Cambodia due to World War II, the Vietnam War, and French colonialism in addition to internal conflicts. A critique might be that the exposition seems at times a bit heavy-handed, though this is consistent with the novel's feel that it is being told by a reporter. Through blending history and a depiction of both the family's royal and common Cambodian roots with the plot of the daughters, the audience observes the daughters' full inheritance, including their independent, hard-working natures.
The Immigrant Princess not only honors the Cambodian culture and heritage but also honors our ancestors who immigrated to the US to flee persecution, starvation, war, or death with only their courage and work ethic as their baggage. In their bold escape they enter a new culture, forsaking their native language, family, way of life, and belongings. The book illustrates that immigrants do not enter the US with the expectation of an easy life but carry with them a staunch work ethic and survival instinct, desiring to contribute to the economy and to support their families. Like the Lim family in the novel, some immigrants might desert a royal lifestyle to embrace a modest one in the US where they might have to clean after wealthy Americans and live in a humble home. They might even have to trade their own name for one which is easier for Americans to pronounce. But the immigrants bring something else with them. They bring a beauty of the music of their language, the palette of their food, the magic of their dance, their spirituality, and a mythology that contributes new colors to their adopted country. In this way, The Immigrant Princess makes a powerful political statement regarding immigration policy: by welcoming immigrants, from whom we are all descended, the US strengthens its base of hardworking individuals who have overcome enormous hardships to attain the American dream.
This novel is a profoundly American story, since the immigrant American dream, American work ethic, and professional and personal dreams are so central to all the characters as is the melting pot theme. It is also an interesting reflection on identity, prejudices against cultural differences to which no one is completely immune, perhaps, and an individual propensity to anesthetize and repress the past and pain rather than to process, accept, and reconcile with it, necessary for a person to grow into her full power. There is also a lesson of letting go of attachment throughout (including misguided romantic relationships), which is in keeping with Buddhist thought, while embracing novel encounters with new connections and discovering new inner strengths buried beneath a polite docility ingrained in so many of us. The Immigrant Princess is for anyone who was raised in an environment where polite, deferential respect to authority is revered. It is for anyone brought up by protective parents with instructions "not to make waves," perhaps to her professional disadvantage in the wake of more vocal, assertive, and flamboyant peers, who, nonetheless, might be less industrious and less valuable. It is for anyone who might have experienced familial claustrophobia and guilt.
The Immigrant Princess possesses poetry in its messages both in the women's cultural inheritance and in the protagonist's, Sophea's, fearless journey toward empowerment and the fulfillment of her ambitions without sacrificing her ideals and integrity. Throughout the novel, Sophea reflects on her cultural past. The author alludes to the struggle for women everywhere to overcome subjugation in their roles with men, be it romantic or professional. There is a parallel between the doomed love story of Sophea's mother, whose husband sacrificed everything to preserve his family, and Sophea's romance tainted by disrespect. However, the prevailing lesson from Sophea's heritage is not to succumb to the loss of self for an unworthy partner, who might enter deceptively robed in the trappings of an attractive appearance and successful career. Her father, who was a commoner, did not possess the royal blood of her mother but instead wore the crown of a noble interior, education, and work ethic, which he passed on to his daughter.
Yim broaches an interesting angle on feminine beauty. Although the Lim women religiously follow international beauty pageants (though they do mock them some), which feminists traditionally might judge as archaic and sexist, Yim conveys a sense of a continuity in a woman's beauty throughout her life, even in the aging generations. The beauty which the women in the novel worship is more individualistic and less conformist to a Hollywood ideal. Beauty is treated as a celebration of femininity rather than a denigrating objectification. The treatment of beauty is more empowering and inclusive than degrading and exclusive, suggesting that true beauty includes working hard, integrity, ambition, and appreciating physical beauty but of a more natural form rather than an anorexic mold. And in one character's makeover, Yim illustrates that any woman can find her beauty and that it is not just the providence of movie stars and models.
There is so much diversity in the roles in the book, anyone can find pieces of herself amidst the mosaic of characters and food (including Greek, Indian, Mexican, French, Italian, Thai, and Cambodian), which itself is almost a character in the novel with its power both to soothe, nourish, and yet also to numb. I've held a lifelong interest in Asian aesthetics, philosophy and religion, and culture, and realize, on one hand how superficial my exposure is, to the point where I worry about being offensive, and, yet, on the other hand how I am not as divorced as I had thought I am because of the commonalities, not just from being raised in an immigrant environment, but by nature that despite differences we all share central experiences by virtue of our humanity. Through the blend of cultural backgrounds in the characters, Yim encourages the sharing of cultural traditions and indicates that we can all learn from each other, commune, and celebrate our commonalities and differences while retaining our own inheritance. The book engages throughout and resonates with truths about human connections. Its conclusion satisfies without being trite.
At the core of the novel is the discovery of identity through one's family. The Lim family might be unconventional, as it consists at first only of women, and the eldest daughter lives at home well into adulthood. However, as the novel develops, the Lims welcome diverse new members into their coterie, into their family, which parallels the dynamic notions of how we view family in the twenty-first century. The prior family paradigm in the United States has evolved to no longer exclusively mean a father, mother, children, and perhaps ancillary extensions such as grandparents. As with the Lims, the family construct encompasses many variations transcending tradition. And as the book alludes, family and close human connections are crucial, be it a traditional family, a sisterhood (or brotherhood) of those you have adopted into your inner circle, three generations of women, or any permutation of this. And through your connections with the people in your life you espouse as your family, through the history and legacy of your ancestors, you will grow as a person and develop an identity, one both individualistic as well as one more robust from the influences around you, as the Lim family did. As you read the Lim family story, you learn how identity is not static and that unearthing the truth about people and about yourself and embracing your family, whatever that means to you, only strengthens your development into the person you were meant to become. The Lims truly represent any family connected by blood or friendship and illustrate an institution, people who care about each other, which powerfully opposes the aggression and oppression in the world. The novel offers us perspective: the Lim's family and country were subjected to genocide, and though their tragedy influences their identity, they do not surrender to anyone the permission to rob them of their integrity, love, dreams, memories, or spirit, which, too, powerfully contributes to who they are.
A central message in The Immigrant Princess is the dishonor of silence. What might be present in the public's mind regarding Cambodia is the country's history of political turmoil and genocide. Variny Yim introduces the often neglected aspects of the culture, the Apsara, the swirling colors of its dancers, the care in preparation and flavors of the culture's cuisine, the quiet Buddhist traditions and temples, including the Angkor Wat, a World Heritage Site, and the universality of human desires and needs, especially for love and family, be it one forged by blood, romance, friendship, or a sisterhood of Apsara. The Immigrant Princess not only voices a universal immigrant story, but also dispels the silence and, in doing so, honors Cambodia and makes the culture come alive.
LOS ANGELES —
Sometimes fiction can tackle trauma that is too painful to be spoken out loud. That was Cambodian American Variny Yim’s experience when she wrote her first novel, The Immigrant Princess.
Inspired by her own family, the story is about three generations of women from the Cambodian royal family who tried to rebuild their lives in America. It was Yim’s father however, that became a focal point for her while writing the novel.
"I believe I could not have written this book without the soul of my father, the soul of the Cambodian people," said Yim whose earliest childhood memories were filled with a loving family life, but they are overshadowed by loss and pain of the Cambodian genocide.
"I only have a few memories of my father and one of the most heartbreaking memories for me is the day that we left Cambodia. He had taken us to the airport," remembered Yim." I was too young to understand what was happening, and I remember walking up the stairs to the airplane and looking back on the tarmac and my father waved at us. What I didn’t realize was that would be the last time that I would ever see my father’s face."
Cambodian American novelist Variny Yim says, "I only have a few memories of my father and one of the most heartbreaking memories for me is the day that we left Cambodia."
Yim, her sister and grandparents escaped before the Cambodia genocide. Her father, who stayed behind to care for aging parents, became a victim of it. Over a four-year reign of terror, members of the communist Khmer Rouge and leader Pol Pot killed roughly two million people.
Yim and her relatives joined her mother who was studying in the United States. Yim said they owe their lives to her grandfather who made sure they left the country. Unlike other Cambodians, they were all part of the Cambodian royal family and were related to King Norodom Sihanouk. Yim’s mother was a princess in Cambodia, but in the U.S. she was just another refugee.
“This is the life they had in Cambodia and when the war came, when the genocide came, they had to completely reinvent themselves. They had to just drop the idea of what their life expectation was and come back to America and start from square one. We had no money. We had nothing and the title means nothing really here in America,” Yim explained. “This is something that they kept very close to themselves so even me saying something is a big deal for our family.”
A Daughter's Journey
Yim said as a young girl in the U.S. the genocide was far away as she tried to adapt to American life. She didn’t internalize what it meant that her father was killed in a genocide until she started researching Cambodian history while writing her book. Until that point, the details of her father’s life during the genocide and death had been a mystery.
Her research led her to Cornell University’s archive of confessions from victims of the Khmer Rouge at Tuol Sleng prison. It was Pol Pot’s secret prison where people were interrogated, tortured and killed. According to some estimates, 14,000 people entered Tuol Sleng also known as S-21. Only a small handful survived. In Cornell’s archive was proof of what happened to Yim’s father during the genocide.
"One of the hardest days of my life was when I got an email from Cornell confirming that they had found my father’s name and confession," said Yim as she remembered years of speculation about what might have happened to her father. “It was finally wonderful to know the truth. The truth really sets you free,” even if it was painful, said Yim.
With the memory of her father and her mother and grandmother as inspiration, Yim said she needed to write The Immigrant Princess to not only face the past and not let the genocide be forgotten, but also to remember the beauty in Cambodian culture.
“My upbringing, there was so much joy and appreciation and love and gratitude and just the Cambodian culture rich in music and art and food and family, and I wanted to write a book that exemplified that,” Yim added the book also had to explore more serious themes.
“It is a story about self-identity issues and reinvention. And all those themes are universal because it’s really about the human spirit, and how does one survive traumatic loss. How do they rebuild, and how do you lean on the people closest to you to help you rebuild yourself and your role in the community.”
Yim says she wrote the book for her children so they will know what happened, to honor her loved ones who were killed, and for Cambodians to know that the genocide may have left a scar but it does not define them as a people.
“You can be brutal and you can bring terror and you can become a dictator but that’s not going to kill the human spirit and that’s what I want my book to show.”