How many ways can you say “I love you”? Maybe it’s cooking your loved one’s favorite meals, buying a gift that’s been on their wish list for years, or saying “I’m proud of you” and really meaning it. For author and journalist Putsata Reang, it started when her mother was fleeing Cambodia and held her lifeless body while aboard a crowded navy vessel and searching for sanctuary. Against the captain’s orders, Reang’s mom held on to her small body — and hoped that she was still alive. When they arrived at an American naval base in the Philippines, military nurses and doctors helped save her life.
Throughout her memoir “Ma and Me,” Reang dedicates herself to repaying this debt by becoming a good Cambodian daughter. She works in the berry fields in Corvallis, Oregon, every summer; builds her career as an award-winning journalist in the U.S. before turning her focus to training journalists across Asia; and puts family first at every corner. She also explores her own queerness, a phase in her ma’s eyes, when in reality, a part of her that’s here to stay. Reang discusses the weight of cultural and familial duty and where she’s at now.
The interview has been edited for clarity and length.
I’ve always believed that there’s a difference between being pushed away from something versus being pulled toward something that’s better for you. Throughout the book, when did you feel like you were being called to something versus running away from something?
Cambodia as a country was a calling, specifically as a journalist. On my first trip to Cambodia at the age of 16, I visited the Tuol Sleng torture prison with my mom. It was a former high school turned torture prison under the communist Khmer Rouge regime. I learned that the communists specifically targeted and murdered journalists during the genocide. During that time, I had a feeling of certainty: I realized that I could never look away from war again.
I’ve dedicated my career and the rest of my life to writing these stories that explore not only displacement and trauma, but also people trying to reach for something better. This book is not only a story of queer love, but also being a child of refugees and exploring the layers of war.
A pervasive theme in your book is hope as the thing that you can hold onto. What gave you hope when you were writing this book, and what gives you hope now?
The journalists that I’ve worked with, and their courage to shed light on the brutalities of regimes in their countries, give me so much hope. I worked in the Philippines, which has one of the highest rates of journalist murders in the world. I remember talking to a radio journalist that said, “when I leave my house, I’m looking over my shoulder to make sure that I’m not being followed and will get assassinated.” That was a completely different reality for me being a journalist in the U.S. where I’ve never once looked behind my shoulder after writing a story that was critical of the city government, or whatever I was covering. The fact that even danger did not deter these journalists filled me with hope.
When I think of hope now, 10 nieces and nephews kept to mind. They kept me going when I wanted to give up on writing this book. This memoir started off as a love letter to them so they could learn more about their Cambodian side. I’m grateful for the way they’ve supported me in my relationship with April and came to our wedding, which was important for me and them.
Where is home for you then? Is it in Cambodia, America, or somewhere in between?
I refer to Cambodia as my homeland. Part of that has to do with feeling like a fraud in my own country because I am American too. I still struggle with this idea of claiming Cambodia as home because while I was born there, but so much of me is American. Home is so much more of an emotional container than it is a physical one. In recent years, I feel like home is wherever my wife April is. It’s a feeling of just being held and feeling safe.
Your memoir is dedicated to your wife April. Reading the book, I kept waiting for her name to show up, and it didn’t happen until well into the story. What did you want people to know about your love story, and even having this story in The Seattle Times where you worked 20 years ago?
It’s so rare to find someone who just brings such lightness into your life. I have been lucky enough to feel that twice. Both times did happen in Seattle — once in my early 20s, when the first time I fell in love with my girlfriend, I was a reporter at The Seattle Times at the time. And then I messed up so terribly that I left for California and then Cambodia. I don’t want to call it a coincidence that I’ve returned to Seattle and fallen in love. Finally, the ancestors were saying, “you deserve to have this love story.”
When I met April, I was determined to never come to America again. I had plans that I was just going to live abroad and continue to work with journalists in different countries for the rest of my life. It was a complete shock to myself and my family when I came back to Seattle. I have never been in a single place for this long. The act of staying is my growth curve, and the act of feeling settled within myself and within relationships is a very revolutionary thing in my worldview.
In the book, you talk about how narratives have the power to frame, contain and drown us. How has your deepened understanding of your mother’s story helped you know yourself?
Food continues to be a way to show love, and I’ve had to learn not to be my mom in that way. I go to great lengths to show love by cooking my wife’s favorite foods. but she needs to hear it in words. It’s the same way I need to hear my parents say “I’m proud of you,” but I don’t know how to ask for that. It’s a generational and cultural divide.
As adults, we may have to learn a different way of communicating than what we grew up with. This question is timely because I gave my students at the University of Washington the following writing prompt: “How do you want to be loved?” We’re all connected by the same desire to be seen and cared for in the ways that we need.
What do you want readers to remember after reading your memoir?
I am a living example and the living embodiment of hope. If my mother did not have hope that I was still alive, I would have been tossed overboard. We also must talk about genocide because that’s part of how my family fled Cambodia and came to the U.S.
There’s something much bigger and more profound than merely surviving. After reading this book, I want people to look at Cambodia and know that we are more than genocide and trauma. We are journalists, dancers, athletes, musicians, chefs and more. We all have a story, and we should take advantage of our own agency to put our own stories out there.