New anthology of stories from Southeast Asian elders explores joy after grief

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The book of stories is collected by 16 authors from their older relatives who fled Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia after the fall of Saigon in 1975.
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If you could interview an elder in your life, what would you want to know about them? Would you ask about their greatest hardships first — or the moments that brought them joy?

A Minneapolis-based nonprofit is releasing a book of stories collected by 16 authors from their older relatives who fled Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia after the fall of Saigon in 1975.

The book is called “Knowing Our Joy.” One of the people who brought it into the world is Jessica Eckerstorfer, co-director of the Southeast Asian Diaspora Project, or SEAD Project. She joined MPR News host Cathy Wurzer along with Cody Kour, one of the authors of the new anthology.

Use the audio player above to listen to the full conversation.

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Audio transcript

CATHY WURZER: Here's a question for you, if you could interview an elder in your life, what would you want to know about them? Would you ask about their greatest hardships first, or the moments that brought them the greatest joy? A Minneapolis-based nonprofit is releasing a book of stories collected by 16 authors, from their older relatives who fled Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia, after the fall of Saigon back in 1975.

The book is called, Knowing Our Joy. And one of the people who brought it into the world is Jessica Eckerstorfer, a co-director of the Southeast Asian diaspora project, or seed project. She's on the line, along with Cody Kerr, one of the authors of the new anthology. Welcome to both of you, thanks for being with us.

SUBJECT 1: Yeah, thank you so much for having us.

SUBJECT 2: Yeah, thank you for having us.

CATHY WURZER: Absolutely. Cody, I'm going to start with you. I know you interviewed your dad, Chanta, for the book. What do you want listeners to know about your dad?

SUBJECT 2: I think the biggest thing that I want to share about my dad is, that he's a very caring person, he puts other people before himself, and he's very funny. And I want to highlight those things, because he's been through a lot in his life, and then the story that's in the anthology is just one small snippet of that. But he always has a practice of making people laugh, making people feel welcome and comfortable, and he never really asks for things in return. But he's always taking care of himself too, so I really look up to him for that.

CATHY WURZER: His story is just harrowing, Oh my goodness. His journey from a refugee camp to Chicago, and then Rochester, Minnesota, this was a really tough trip. And I know he's probably mentioned this to you over the years, but did you learn anything new when he told you the story again for the book?

SUBJECT 2: Yeah, just primed us to dig a little deeper, because I had known--

[AUDIO OUT]

--but I asked a lot of the key details. He told me things as they happened, but some of the new things that I learned was the transitionary camp in Thailand, Lumpini. So, originally, my father had told me, so we were in a refugee camp. And then we flew over to California, Chicago, Rochester. But when we just stayed in that place, I'm talking about the refugee camp, and really learning about those conditions, that uncertainty, that, no, you were not guaranteed--

[AUDIO OUT]

--that was a big maybe, and you might be shuttled in a bus to a camp miles away, and then you might be taken back, there's just no certainty. It's a lot of just sitting, waiting, and hoping, and that really, that was new to me, I guess, for me to--

[AUDIO OUT]

--given that I'm older, and also details about my grandfather, who I've never met, my paternal grandfather, and then how he shepherded and took care of everybody in the family while they were traveling.

CATHY WURZER: Wow, it sounds like it was really maybe a life changing opportunity for you to talk about this with your dad. Jessica, I want to bring you into the conversation here, I don't want to leave you out of it. You ran a writing workshop for the authors, I bet that was fascinating, what were you trying to help them with?

SUBJECT 1: Oh gosh, yeah, Cody was interesting too, because we did theirs online. But we had a series of workshops, actually. We did everything from memory mapping, which is a process that we regularly do at SEAD, where we look at a time period, and have people literally map out their memories in relation to that time period. And so we use this as a tool too for the writers to approach, asking their elders their stories, is, think of a time period, maybe it was like when you were leaving the country.

With the writers, we did COVID, so the two to three years of very serious quarantining, and had people actually go through their cell phones, and look at pictures, and find things in there that were moments of joy and happiness in the midst of all of the isolation, and the hardship, and the riots and things that were going on.

And it was really interesting to see ways in which people connected, and then were able to turn those memories into anecdotes that they shared with each other in the workshop. And so those were the ways that we broke down a lot of the scariness of approaching writing and storytelling, to just talk about favorites, and memories, and things that made people laugh, and those more simple moments throughout the day that were really important to people.

CATHY WURZER: So Cody, let me ask you about joy, because, of course, that is the title of the book, Knowing Our Joy. When you talked to your dad, did you hear about any moments of joy in the story, because it sounds like it was, again, very difficult.

SUBJECT 2: Yeah, a lot of the things that, perhaps, we might take for granted, we're moments of joy. But there was more joy from the process of talking about the stories, so I asked my dad, and my mom was also there too. So they teased each other when talking about the past. They asked each other to bring up new memories, like my mom saying, Oh, wasn't one of the greatest things in coming to Rochester meeting me?

[LAUGHS]

So that's just how they like to laugh and have that optimism. So having that moment, the interview between us three, and then also looking back and seeing all the, what we would say, tragedy in a new light, that is its own joy. My mom and my dad, they probably would have never met if not for the Khmer Rouge, which is this weird mind-numbing thing to come to terms with not existing, if this didn't happen, but then also being grateful, so there is that joy as well. And I'm beyond grateful that they've not held these stories, they've told me them, growing up.

CATHY WURZER: Wow, Jessica, why is it important to have some of these stories written down?

SUBJECT 2: So as we approach the 50th anniversary of the fall of Saigon, which will be in March of 2025, we're in our third generation now of having our Southeast Asian diaspora folks spread out throughout the world, and we have over 100,000 people here in Minnesota alone. And so we want to make sure that our generations have these stories, especially ones that celebrate tradition, personhood, the full humanity, and not just like the refugee experience, like Cody was talking about, but the joy of his parents having met here in Rochester.

And so these things, we don't have a lot of representation of our elders, especially in a capacity of happiness, and joy, and celebration. And so having these stories, not only for our people, and for the generations to come, but for others to learn about who we are, and how we can celebrate one another, that's really important.

CATHY WURZER: So Cody, given all that you've learned now from your parents, do you think you'll be able to visit Cambodia and maybe look at it with a fresh eye?

SUBJECT 2: Yeah, actually a fun fact, I'm going to Cambodia in a couple of months for the first time with my parents, and it'll be the first time that they've gone back since they left as refugees. And everything that I've heard about Cambodia has just been through stories, and then, of course, through the news, growing up,

Cambodian news and news passed on from my parents. So we get to share this experience of seeing it, well for me, seeing it for the first time, but I'm sure it's going to be brand new for them as well, and to make new memories there, and to visit family, my dad still has family there. So I'm looking forward to that, and I'm a little nervous, but I'm very excited to go to Cambodia.

CATHY WURZER: Oh gosh, Cody, we're going to have to go ahead and get in touch with you, and maybe give you a tape recorder or something, so you can record your experiences, and maybe have them back on the air here next year. Jessica, before you go, how do folks find the Book

SUBJECT 1: Yeah, so we are actually having a book launch this Saturday, December 2, at Public Functionary gallery in Northeast Minneapolis. You can register on our website at the SEAD, which is seadproject.org. Or else, after the book launch, we'll be putting the book up on our Soon shop for people to purchase, but we just want to make sure that those who attend the book launch are able to get a copy first.

CATHY WURZER: And by the way, isn't that gallery at the Northrup King Building in Minneapolis.

SUBJECT 1: Correct.

CATHY WURZER: Yeah, OK. Well, you two were wonderful, thank you. What a great project, and thank you for talking about it with us.

SUBJECT 1: Yeah, thank you so much for having us.

CATHY WURZER: Absolutely. Jessica Eckerstorfer is the Co-Director of the Southeast Asian Diaspora project, or SEAD project. Cody Kerr is one of the authors of this new anthology called, Knowing Our Joy. Again, it's out Saturday, December the 2nd. The SEAD project is hosting this reading and celebration Saturday at 2:30 at the Northrup King Building in Minneapolis. Details, go to the SEAD project's website.

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