Bring a strong head and soft heart when you read Luong Ung-Lai’s “The Freedom…Cage.” Although the production costs for the book were low, Lai’s story of deep personal loss is not just about economic loss. This book is mostly set during the reign of the terrifying Khmer Rouge. “The Freedom…Cage” is about paying tribute to loss in all its forms, but mostly to pay tribute to the whole family — her own, as well as that of all who labor under autocratic rule.
Ung-Lai begins her book with a tribute in pictures. Following her cultural tradition, Ung-Lai puts a portrait of her mother, Keem, since the book is dedicated to her, followed by Ung-Lai’s grandfather, Wong Lai. The book then moves into a brief explanation of Cambodian culture and history, but the story really begins on Feb. 13, 1964, around the time of the Lunar New Year, when Ung-Lai was born.
Midway in the book, there is a short mention of Moy’s father, in her mother’s recollection: “When you five month old, Luck [the father] come home. He buy two tiny dress for you. He take you to picture booth and take your picture. You too little to sit. He pull your dress back behind chair, to hold you up. He stay few day. Then he want to take us to Phnom Penh with him. But I not want to go.” The picture is the same as the one that begins the novel.
The novel itself is a slim 120 pages, but we learn that this is merely the first part of a longer story. At first, I was afraid that Ung-Lai would concentrate solely on the pain and suffering of living through the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. Rather than allow dry facts and numbers to dictate her story, however, Ung-Lai instead transforms her life experiences, as she says, into fiction. Through the persona of Moy, meaning younger sister, Ung-Lai tells her story with a voice that appears almost child-like, particular with the use of broken English, yet is anything but simple. For instance, the characters refer to each other as buddy big brother and sister, which could sound unassuming to those unaware of the way these terms were used by the powerful to control the weak.
The story moves in fragmentary episodes, mimicking memory in the way the novel jumps narratives from one chapter to the next. We go from focusing on radio programs that broadcast mass eviction notices to laying down with the characters in shelters with hammocks tangled in mosquito nets and no indoor plumbing. Grandpa Wong, mother Keem and Moy spend their days fetching water from wells, rationing handfuls of salt and working on farms separated from each other. And then there’s the constant fear of the Black Shirts, a band of law enforcers. It’s a hard and brutal life, interrupted only for the briefest moments by kind souls and a gentle rabbit that comes across Moy’s path in the forest.
The book begins and ends with many “Spirit Stands,” a common tradition found across Asian households with a portrait hung in front of a table of offerings, including fruit and incense. Like a book, it doesn’t move. So, Ung-Lai also ends with an image of a bird. It could be a vulture, or an eagle, or it could be a hawk, “looking a bit stronger” day by day. Read this story to gain strength.