Longtime journalist Lisa Phu has since childhood shared her family’s horrors as genocide victims in Cambodia before some were able to escape, but parts of the story have always been wrong due to confusion and it simply not being something to discuss.
Now, after six years of finally gathering the full tale due to her own life-providing experience she’s offering the ultimate correction.
Phu, a Juneau resident currently reporting and editing for the Alaska Beacon, narrates the decades of history as “Before Me,” a five-part podcast series released online last November. It’s told mostly through the voice of her mother, Lan, from the elder Phu’s early life in Cambodia, to the tyranny of Khmer Rouge regime that killed Lisa’s older sister, the separation of Lisa’s parents as her mother fled to Vietnam in 1974, her fortunes literally turned to gold as a dealer of precious metal before fleeing again to the United States in 1980 while pregnant with Lisa.
It’s a tale full of elements not suited for childhood discussions — or sensitive ears — and it includes torture, starvation and other atrocities, plus an ending where not all the survivors who reunited lived together happily ever after.
Lisa will offer an hour-long presentation of the podcast at 7 p.m. Friday at the Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center, the second of 12 weekly Fireside Lectures hosted by the U.S. Forest Service. In-person attendance is limited to 50 people, but the presentations are available live and on-demand at the USFS Facebook page.
The series, modified into two one-hour episodes, is also scheduled to air on KTOO Jan. 17 and 24.
Lisa, introducing “Firstborn” (Part 1 of the podcast): “My mom’s first daughter, Ah Lee, died years before I was born. I remember writing a story when I was 6 or 7, about meeting Ah Lee on a magic carpet ride. And for my whole life, I’d always know that there was so much I didn’t know about my family’s past. But I never asked my mom the most basic questions about Ah Lee… or anything else that happened when she fled from war, and then genocide, in Cambodia during the 1970s.”
Members of Lisa’s family including her mother arrived in the United States in the summer of 1980, and she was born a few months later in September. What happened before that was largely a mystery while she was growing up.
“Essentially it was like I was born as my family was settling in in America and it was always the backdrop of my life,” she said. “Throughout their lives they were just living their lives. I was curious, but so much of my life I grew up with a different language in my house that wasn’t spoken to me.”
Having other family members talking in their languages from their former region didn’t keep Lisa from sharing certain tales, such as the childhood invention about meeting her older sister on a magic carpet. But she found out gradually about other inadvertent inventions when writing the narrative for other things such as a college admissions essay and when seeking an early newspaper internship.
“Each time my mom would read these essays after they were written and published, and say this or that isn’t right.” she said. “It was little details here and there.”
Lisa long thought her mom was only in Vietnam for a brief period of time after fleeing Cambodia, for example, when she actually lived there and continued her struggles — including communicating with family and friends in her homeland, and trying to help some flee as well — for six years.
“I knew that my family had gone through a lot,” Lisa said. “I’ve loved reading. I’ve always loved writing. It just seemed one day I’d write down my family’s story.”
But when Lisa transitioned from newspaper to radio reporting, her interest switched to an audio narrative of the story. But her mother said no to that idea for years, until she and other family members were in an auto accident in December of 2015. While there were no serious injuries, “visually it looked terrible and I was very scared,” Lisa said.
“I said ’you have to say yes’ to my interviewing her and she did,” she said. “That was kind of the catalyst.”
But initially Lisa would bring her recorder with her when she visited her mother on the East Coast, only to leave it in her suitcase. Things finally changed when she was about to give birth to her firstborn and her mother decided to make the trip to Juneau for three weeks.
“What I didn’t realize was that logically it made sense, but maybe emotionally for her maybe (my) becoming a mom was what made her motivated to share the story,” Lisa said. “She felt that me becoming a mom gave me a level of understanding that i didn’t have before.”
Lan, describing a life-altering moment with her family at home in Cambodia in “Firstborn”: “We were sitting in the living room talking, discussing when we’re going to escape, when we’re going to leave the house, and then a bomb dropped on the street. And a thousand fragments went into the house, and one fragment just came right here, right here. When we heard the bomb, we all leaned down to the floor. I was with your sister, holding your sister, leaning down and all of a sudden I feel wet, I get wet and then I smell blood — I knew somebody died…Oh my god. All the brains, all the blood, just… the whole entire body’s blood came through here, soaked the living room.”
Lisa’s conversations for the series at her home with her mother didn’t begin easily.
“I couldn’t bring myself to treat her like somebody I was interviewing,” she said. “I was kind of apprehensive about it, so I would put the recorder in the same room she was in and press record.”
After about a week Lisa resolved to be more assertive, approaching her mother while she was on the couch holding the newborn.
“I put the recorder between us, pressed record and just started asking her questions,” she said.
That broke the ice, and afterward conversations took place in similar ways throughout the house, providing the answers Lisa had long sought.
“When I finally got to sit down with my mom and ask her questions she not only corrected what I knew, but filled in mountains of gaps of knowledge because I didn’t know that much,” she said.
More conversations took place during a subsequent visit by her mother, including more “recorder in the room” moments, such as her mother cooking while talking with Lisa’s husband.
Lynn, Phu’s cousin who also managed to escape to the U.S with the family, on trying to cook while starving in a labor camp in “Photograph” (Part 2 of the podcast): The Khmer Rouge people walked by. Go to my house. The husband and wife said, “Open up, open.” Then he said, “You know this one you’re not allowed to cook. Do you understand?” I say, “We all very hungry. Have no food. We pulled potato from our garden.” He said, “It doesn’t matter, it’s the public, you should not cook anything.” He put the gun to my head. Oh my God. I told him, “Please, please, don’t kill me.” Then he said, “You know what, if you do it one more time, we’ll take you away.” That time, my God, my brothers, Minh and Quang, we all kneel down to bow, bow, bow to him.
Lisa said ultimately she ended up with “hours and hours of tape” — she doesn’t know how many, but it resulted in nearly 70 pages of transcriptions. Turning those into the five-series podcast took six years, in part because she was busy raising her daughter, working and remaining involved in community activities.
Another key turning point came in 2018 when she successfully applied for a residency at Alderworks Alaska Writers & Artists Retreat in Dyea near Skagway.
“In two years I wrote an episode and a half,” she said. “In one week I wrote four more episodes, so it was so crucial to the project, just that one week to devote to it.”
Still, it took another couple of years to do another episode and a half. Then came the next not-small challenge of recording, producing and — most importantly — figuring out the best way to get people to listen to it.
Ultimately she contacted Self Evident Media, which focuses on Asian American stories, which also elevated the production of the series from an at-home creation based on Phu’s radio experience to a full-blown production with improved music, additional information and — even after all her years of broadcasting — voice coaching to make the narrative more convincing.
Lisa, on reuniting at last with her father in “Head of the House” (Part 4 of the podcast): “Back when my parents decided to leave Cambodia, they’d thought they’d be together, raising the family. Instead, she finally heard that Ky Song had been arrested in Vietnam. For helping others escape. He’d been in jail, ever since.…And in 1990, 10 years after we’d arrived, it finally happened. But after about a year and a half… he left. It turned out that after a decade of only sporadic communication, he wasn’t a close part of our family anymore. And he found adapting to a new life, with us, too difficult.”
While the now-accurate story of how Lisa’s family escaped and started successfully anew in the U.S. also contains the unhappy reminders of her older sister’s death and the imperfect developments, she said her mother is happy with the results.
“Every time she sees me, or almost every time she sees me, she cuts my hair,” she said. “One of the times she was cutting my hair I had her listen to a rough cut of the episode…Once she gave that validation it was great.”