Tuesday, 19 February 2008

Memoirs of a boyhood among monsters

S.J. interpreter chronicles life in Cambodia's killing fields

By Scott Smith
Record Staff Writer
February 18, 2008

Rattana Pok's "When Slaves Became Masters" is available online at Amazon.com for $17, or directly through the publisher at Authorhouse.com for $12.25. The paperback book has 274 pages and includes personal photos of Pok's family.

STOCKTON - Stories told in the pages Rattana Pok's book chronicling his boyhood in Cambodia may be hard for most people to imagine.

As Pok began his teenage years, millions of people around him were dying under Pol Pot's communist regime that purged the nation of its educated upper classes. Many were executed, while others starved or were worked to death in the country's notorious killing fields.

Now 43 and raising his own family in Stockton, Pok has published a memoir of his youth in a book titled "When Slaves Become Masters: A true-life story of a little boy before, during and after the unfathomable evil of Pol Pot's regime."

The book is a long time coming for Pok, who said he decided to spend his own money to publish the book after he couldn't draw interest from a major publishing company. Pok wouldn't say how much it cost him, but breaking even isn't his first goal.

"I'm not going to worry about it," he said. "I want people to understand our people and the horrible things we went through."

Pok, a Cambodian-English interpreter in the San Joaquin County Superior Court, was born in Bommak Choeung Eur, a city in the south of Cambodia. The country fell to the brutal communist regime when Pok was 11.

In the short chapters of the 274-page book, Pok describes the gruesome moments in life he experienced as seen through the innocent eyes of a boy.

In some playful passages, he describes his grandmother giving him a banana leaf that he pretended to ride as a motorcycle, blowing through his lips to imitate a motor's sound.

In darker passages, Pok recalls the long hours he was forced to work in government camps as a child laborer and how he risked his life passing through armed checkpoints to visit his dying father in a neighboring village.

He once came across blood in an orchard left from a pregnant woman murdered by government officials in retaliation for her husband, who ran away. Pok and a group of children at play once came across skeletal remains of others killed in the genocide.

"Not many people know about the suffering," Pok said.

Pok spent many late-night hours writing the book, sometimes staying up until 3 a.m. He wrote for several years, but his plans for publishing it turned serious in early 2007, with some encouragement from friends, he said.

One of those who encouraged Pok was Stockton attorney David Wellenbrock, who read an early draft and gave Pok some suggestions. Wellenbrock even traveled last year with Pok to Cambodia and visited a former Khmer Rouge prison where thousands were tortured and died.

Pok's book is important for local residents to read because of Stockton's large Cambodian community, Wellenbrock said.

"It's important for us to understand this," he said.

Jonathan Pearce, who retired from the Lincoln Unified School District and is a writer himself, is reading Pok's book. He knows Pok as an interpreter for the school district.

"He puts a really personal touch on those terrible experiences," said Pearce, who also read an earlier draft and offered some encouragement. "I told him that he should proceed."

Pok's family finally escaped Cambodia in 1986 to a Thai refugee camp, where they lived for two years before moving to the United States. Stories his wife, Sokeo Chhit, has are equally chilling, Pok said. The couple has four children from the age of 4 to 17.

Pok said he hopes his book is well-read - especially by his own children. Pok said he is proud that his oldest son recently started it.

Most of the time, his children have little patience for hearing his stories.

"In their minds, I don't think they believe those horrible things I went through," he said. He then smiled, describing their response to his tales from long ago and far away. They say, "Dad, this is not Cambodia. This is America."

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