Putsata Reang’s memoir, Ma and Me, draws on her long experience as an international journalist to piece together a detailed, layered reckoning of her relationship with her mother and Reang’s own identities as a refugee, an American, a lesbian, a Cambodian. We sat down to talk about the writing process and the weight of representation.
The Writer: It wasn’t until I got to the end of Ma and Me that I realized the events you’re talking about are very recent – your denouement occurs but a few years ago, and the book was published in 2022. One thing I always tell my students is that readers can tell when writers are trying to write their way through something and it’s just not ready. It’s half-baked; they’re rolling around in their own pain. That’s not the case with your work. How did you do it?
Putsata Reang: I think that the interesting thing about working on memoir is that your life is still happening. And, of course, you do have to have an endpoint because books cannot go on forever. [Ed. note: Reang’s father-in-law’s death, which provides the resolution of the memoir, occurred as her deadline was approaching. She got an extension.] But when I think back on the timing of all of that, I…I’m so glad that I didn’t finish the book per the book contract because that ending would just not be that ending if it hadn’t been for the fact that I missed that deadline. And that ending, in a lot of ways, felt like a very satisfactory ending to me. And then [it was] also the beginning of healing for my mom and I.
I already knew I wanted to end with him, and I wanted to have that moment during my father-in-law’s party for the end of his life…. As a writer, I felt like as that moment was happening, I was like, Oh, definitely, I’m writing about this.
To your question regarding sort of the immediacy of these conflicts, you know, I would say a couple of things. What really helped me a lot was actually getting a therapist and working through that. And I was really encouraged by my writer friends, particularly in memoir, just to feel whatever I needed to feel. But it was both having a therapist and then [having] my wife really encouraging me, because a couple of different times over the course of writing this memoir, I was really very seriously going to quit. I was just done. I was like, “I cannot possibly feel any more sadness and trauma, being triggered.” And just through her patience and her love, [my wife] kind of just nudged me along, and she would tell me things like, you’re the bravest person I know. And I realized how much we need that as writers because it’s such a solitary experience. We’re just with our words day in and day out, really grappling, whether we’re fiction writers or nonfiction writers.
I can tell you with tremendous certainty that if I wrote this book, say, 10 or even 20 years ago, it would be a very different book. I mean, it would be what you had talked about, which is that it would be a book where you could tell the author is still trying to sort through her stuff. And I think I needed those years. I needed those years to take the edge off some of those emotions. My therapist talks about how anger is sort of like a secondary emotion. The first emotion could be either grief or sadness or something else. And then anger is sort of scaffolding for that other emotion. And when I realized that, I understood myself in a different context because I had carried all this anger toward my father, when really what it was just grief. It was grief.
TW: This idea that your feelings for your father are nonbinary speaks to your career in journalism, to this life where you have to be objective. Can you talk a little bit about how journalism and memoir intersect?
PR: Several times over the course of early drafts of this book, I would write a draft and send it, and the feedback my editor would give me is, “So, Put. I really want to encourage you to take off your journalist hat and put on your writer’s hat.”
I only viewed writing in one way, which is through the journalistic lens, which is very rigorous and very fact-based. Memoir is the opposite. Memoir is very emotion-based. And the power and the thrust of the narrative comes from your ability to dive deep. Whereas with journalism, the power and the thrust of the story has to do with how you construct facts onto the page of what happened and make a compelling case using numbers and data and reports and quotes from your sources.
I would say for this project, it really pushed me to my limits: I’m certain I became a journalist also because of how I was raised, which is to say that I was raised within a family where you were not really encouraged or even allowed to express your emotions or even to access them. If myself or one of my siblings did something wrong and [my father] was punishing us, if we dared to cry when he hit us, he would hit us harder. And so, essentially, he’d beat the idea of expressing emotions out of us. And he made that a very dangerous thing to try to show emotion. In that way, I think that as I grew up, journalism was a perfect place for me because you’re not meant to show emotions in journalism. You’re meant to be stoic, you’re meant to be businesslike. And I found myself at odds with the profession in a few instances where, as hard as I tried as a journalist to compartmentalize stories I was covering, there were those stories that just hit too close to home. You’re writing about the transgender kid in California who was beaten to death by her friends or people who she thought were her friends; or, you know, a little boy who was molested and murdered by a neighbor.
You can try as hard as you can as a journalist to block and prevent those stories from seeping into your heart and affecting you. But they eventually catch up with you. And there were a lot of times when I thought, you know, maybe I just don’t have the guts and the grit for this line of work. And then I realized, working on the memoir, the same thing: Maybe I don’t have the guts or the grit to work on memoir because all I’m doing is over here is crying.
I’m either a journalist and I’m working on journalistic stories; or I’m a writer and I am a teacher. And going down that path, it’s hard for me to imagine or to envision both of those worlds coexisting because it’s almost like two different parts of my brain. One is facts and figures and data, just very hard information, and the other is feelings and emotions and all that stuff.
TW: You’ve had to tell a number of stories in this memoir over and over again – the story of your mother begging the ship’s captain to hold onto you until you could get to land, even though he thought you were dead; the story of your coming out to your mother – how do you keep those stories alive for yourself after so many retellings?
PR: I’m so over that [boat] story. But it’s still a really emotional scene for me. One of the things that I really challenged myself to do was to actually put myself in the shoes of other characters on the boat. So, for example, putting myself in the shoes of my mother. And I try to put myself in the shoes of my father working on the boat. His job was to go around and make a list of all the people and their family members, their ages, everything. Or my older sister, who was 7 years old, 8 years old on this boat. When I do that, I can see it with a fresh lens, and I access those emotions again. It’s actually hard for me to hold back my emotions because when I do that, there’s a collective sadness there. We only think about it like you’re being wrenched from your land so suddenly. How many people will feel this, how many others actually know what that is like? To be severed from one’s land in such a violent, sudden, drastic way like that, and then to be thrust out to this tremendous uncertainty of the sea.
Having said that, part of my resistance to writing this memoir is that I’m not interested in my life. I told my editor that. This is not the book that she bought, by the way. The proposal that my agent sent focused on my parents because of survivor’s guilt. [But] my editor convinced me that what felt more urgent was me exploring my relationship with my mom. And I said, Oh, no, no, no, that’s so boring. Nobody wants to read that. Well, you know, she’s an acquisitions editor for a reason. The journalist side of me was resistant throughout this process. You have to hold the mirror up to yourself and examine your flaws and examine your hurts and look at those existential wounds. Who the hell wants to spend time doing that?
TW: You’ve talked about how some younger folks have felt bolstered by your work to come out to their own communities and families. What’s it like for you to be a standard-bearer for the queer community?
PR: I very much think [Ma & Me] is an American narrative because of all of the different jumping off points: there’s the refugee issue and then there’s the LGBTQ issue and then the mother-daughter issues and all of these different themes coalescing into a single book. Having said that, the other part of me will readily defend that this is only my story. I don’t speak for other refugees, and I don’t speak for other LGBTQ folks or even other Asian American LGBTQ folks. It feels like a fine line to walk: On the one hand, so much of the feedback I’ve been getting from the book, whether from LGBTQ folks and/or refugees and/or Asian American folks, is “I see so much of my story.” And that’s what we crave in terms of memoirs: connection. But at the same time, it is only one story. It is only one book, one experience. [For instance, the example of] growing up in Corvallis. To me, it was a very beautiful, idyllic place, and I don’t remember experiencing overt racism in Corvallis. But it’s also not to say that racism and prejudice didn’t exist. With memoir, I feel like I’m being forced to stand by my experiences.
The best that we can do is just write our own truths. We can have different truths. And some of that gets to the heart of this question of representation. Because I have put this narrative out there, do I feel like I represent LGBTQ folks; the Asian American experience? The refugee experience or the mother-daughter experience? They can be both at once. Yes, I do speak for the LGBTQ experience, but I speak for my own personal LGBTQ experience, not everybody’s. There’s a lot of people who are gay. I’ve had a very different experience than a lot of people who are Asian American have had.
The kids who are my generation, who escaped with my family on that boat, have read the book, many of them, and they have been struck by it. And one young woman who’s a couple years younger than me, and she was a baby, she was three months old on the boat when our family fled. She did tell me it was really hard to read those sections of my father’s abuse, but that it was…refreshing. But she said it was something along the spirit of she was glad she engaged with and came into contact with the book because that was her experience, too, and it hasn’t been discussed and talked about because it’s hard to talk about intergenerational trauma. It’s hard to talk about trauma, period. So in that respect, I do wonder if I speak for her and for a lot of other refugees who’ve had a similar experience with their fathers.