By Kathreen Harrison
Marpheen Chann’s debut book, a memoir titled Moon in Full, is due out from Islandport Press on June 21. Chann, a second-generation Cambodian American, has endured more than his fair share of troubles in his 30 years. But Chann also has worked very hard to overcome his childhood trauma, and has gone on to build a life of purpose and community engagement.
Moon in Full takes the reader through his very unstable childhood, spent in poverty and foster care in various communities in Maine, often separated from his Cambodian roots, as well as through the struggles of his young adulthood, which included coming out as a gay man. The recounting of experiences of Chann’s life are interspersed with ruminations on memory, code switching, forgiveness, the transcendence of borders, understanding and tolerance, religion, and the intergenerational transmission of culture, as well as the intergenerational impact of stress and trauma.
Chann was abandoned as an infant in the U.S. by his mother. She was a survivor of the Cambodian Genocide, who was permanently scarred by her childhood under the Khmer Rouge. Unable to emerge from her trauma, her struggles impacted Chann’s life and the lives of his siblings. Her immeasurable suffering – as well as that of his maternal grandmother – form the backdrop of Chann’s story.
It seems counterintuitive, but I would say that processing trauma is quite different from dwelling on it. Recognizing this brings freedom, because no matter how much you want to run from a trauma or ignore it or seal it away, it is a truth that is a part of you. It is something that happened to you, and nothing in the world can rewind and change that. If you run from something you fear, it gives that fear power, which means that it will continue to chase and haunt you. But if you turn around and face it, only then can you begin to see it for what it is; only then can you see it in the light, rather than having it lurk in your own shadow.
– Moon in Full, pages 32-33.
But above all, Moon in Full is a story of hope. Chann’s wise narration carries the reader along through this contemporary coming-of-age story so that we emerge at the end convinced that, in some cases at least, significant trauma need not be the sole determinant of one’s life story.
Currently, Chann lives and works in Portland. He serves as At-Large Charter Commissioner for the City of Portland (an elected office); is president of the Cambodian Community Association of Maine; and is a member of Maine’s Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, a member of the Planning Board for the City of Portland, and a board member of Equality Community Center in Portland. He holds a bachelor’s degree from the University of Southern Maine and a law degree from the University of Maine School of Law.
Chann said he worked on Moon in Full off and on over a period of eight years. “I would write a section, then go off doing other things for a while, come back to the project. This gave me time to fact check my memories, which was important. To keep our brains from exploding, our memories have to be compressed, and filed away. So sometimes, you can misplace them on the timeline of life.” He added that he is constantly writing – poetry, prose, journals, notes jotted down on the computer – and while he has no clear thoughts on exactly what book he will write yet, he knows there will be another. One idea is a second memoir.
“I haven’t been to Cambodia yet. If I do end up going, that would be a natural sequel. ‘A Cambodian American returns to the roots of his parents, and takes his next step in exploring his heritage and ancestral roots,’ ” he said.
For Chann, the act of writing his first memoir has been cathartic, and has helped him heal from his childhood and adolescence, both of which were full of devastating experiences. “In the process of writing and reflecting, I started to take the sting out of the memories, and the trauma out. I learned to build armor, and started to see things in a different light. I could be angry at particular people or situations, but while writing I could also think about why people acted the way they did, and trace where behavior came from … survivors blame themselves. But processing [through writing] helped me look at trauma from an outside perspective. Take a step out, and view as if a fly on the wall – realize that the things that happened weren’t my fault.”
Chann credits cognitive behavioral therapy for helping him to heal, and advises, “Don’t bottle things up. Talk to someone.” But he also notes that western ideas don’t work for everyone, and said connecting to his Cambodian heritage has also helped him to heal.
“The get togethers, holidays, ceremonies, commemorations of the genocide – these bring people together. It’s group therapy in a way, and builds community. They are opportunities to share culture, and the good things that existed despite the genocide,” Chann said.