Beginning at age 11, Arn Chorn-Pond experienced firsthand the worst atrocities of Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge regime. Taken to a work camp, where his talent for playing the flute helped keep him alive, Chorn-Pond witnessed torture, starvation, mass murder, and cannibalism.
He was later rescued from a Thai refugee camp and brought to America by the Rev. Peter Pond, a New Hampshire clergyman, whose family adopted him. Chorn-Pond went on to graduate from Providence College, live in Lowell, and work against gang violence.
Now a thinly fictionalized biography of Chorn-Pond and his escape from Cambodia’s Killing Fields is among five finalists for this year’s National Book Awards in the young people’s literature category. “Never Fall Down,” written by Patricia McCormick, packs an emotional punch whose impact has surprised even Chorn-Pond.
“I didn’t think American kids would care about what happened to my family and my country,” he said during a recent visit to the Boston area. “They’re busy going to the mall, the club. But I was wrong.”
Today, Chorn-Pond, 48, lives in Cambodia running an organization that supports and promotes native artists and musicians. Internationally, he has become a symbol of courage, resilience, and reconciliation as his country continues to heal from genocide’s wounds. The Khmer Rouge regime killed an estimated 2 million of his countrymen in the 1970s.
He returned to Boston to see old friends and to speak with high school students. “Never Fall Down” — the title refers to his knowledge that any stumble in the fields of the Cambodian camp where he toiled would mean instant death — has influenced his work and life in significant ways, according to Chorn-Pond.
It has brought his story, previously told in newspaper articles and the documentary film “The Flute Player,” to a larger, younger audience for whom the events described are in the distant past. McCormick spent months interviewing Chorn-Pond and traveled to rural areas of Cambodia, seeking others who could corroborate, and sometimes add to, what he remembered of his childhood.
Appearing together in New Bedford last month, author and subject spoke to a group of teens who, when they hear about genocide, are more likely to think about what happened in the Holocaust during World War II or in Rwanda in the 1990s — and not what happened in Cambodia four decades ago.
“This book fills a black hole between the two” episodes of genocide, says McCormick, who lives in New York City. Winners of the 2012 National Book Awards will be announced Nov. 14.
At times Chorn-Pond found it difficult to tell his story, vividly remembering some details — like the sound of a land mine detonating underneath a young girl — and others more vaguely, one factor in McCormick’s decision to novelize the tale. But any difficulties in gathering the material were minor compared with his generosity of spirit.
“Arn’s belief in the power of forgiveness is amazing,” says McCormick, who already knows of two schools, in New York and Connecticut, that have incorporated “Never Fall Down” into their lesson programs. “And when he speaks about the way music saved his life, it’s incredibly moving.”
The book’s publication has also aided Chorn-Pond’s own emotional healing, he says, a process that continues to this day as he grapples with survivor’s guilt and other symptoms of posttraumatic stress.
The novel helps explain why, recounting a litany of horrors that any young reader will find difficult to wade through. In one scene, Chorn-Pond describes undressing other children moments before they are killed by their captors with ax blows to their heads.
“You not living. And you not dead,” Chorn-Pond observes at one point in the book “You living dead.”
Even the novel’s final chapters, after he has come to America, bring little in the way of a happy ending. Cruelly teased by schoolmates for his mannerisms and skin color, he describes the trouble he had controlling his pent-up anger, to the point where he considered running away from his adopted home or killing himself. Only in 1984, when he began to speak publicly about his experiences, including fighting alongside the Khmer Rouge and committing atrocities of his own, did Chorn-Pond begin to heal.
Chorn-Pond sat for an interview in the offices of US District Court Chief Judge Mark Wolf, a close family friend. He and Wolf met 20 years ago, through Wolf’s work with worldwide refugee organizations. While in Lowell, Chorn-Pond and Matthew Wolf, the judge’s son, helped launch Light of Cambodian Children, an educational and advocacy organization serving the city’s large Cambodian-American population.
Wolf stays in close touch with Chorn-Pond — “my other son,” judge Wolf calls him — and says Chorn-Pond’s willingness to share his story has global importance, beyond what it means in terms of its personal therapeutic value.
“In my experience, Jewish Holocaust survivors will talk about what happened, but Cambodian survivors are remarkably unwilling to,” said Wolf, who has helped sponsor a photo exhibit of Cambodian war refugees on display at the John Joseph Moakley United States Courthouse. “This book gives a generation of Cambodian-Americans their story, in a way they probably have not heard from their parents.”
Many young people who have read the book or hear him speak react by openly weeping, Chorn-Pond says, a response that allows him to grieve — again — for all he has seen, done, and lost. Nightmares, headaches, and stomach ulcers are part of that legacy, he adds, calling his guilt “the tiger in my heart” that he must tame.
A slightly built man with soft brown eyes, Chorn-Pond noted that many young Cambodian-Americans whose families survived the Khmer Rouge have drifted into gang activity, or worse, as they have struggled to assimilate into a different culture. He saw the human cost firsthand in his work as youth program coordinator for Lowell’s Cambodian Mutual Assistance Association, where his work focused on gang members and antiviolence initiatives.
“That’s why I think this story could help, not only American children but their parents, too,” Chorn-Pond reflected. “And not just Cambodian refugees but refugees from other countries” who want to share their stories “before they die.”
His humanitarian work has earned Chorn-Pond numerous honors, including a Reebok Human Rights Award and Kohl Foundation International Peace Prize. He counts among his friends and supporters Jimmy Carter, Nelson Mandela, Bruce Springsteen, and Peter Gabriel.
Yet his greatest pleasure, he says, is finding and nurturing young musicians who are reclaiming a part of his homeland’s heritage.
Ten years ago, Chorn-Pond left Lowell and moved back to Cambodia, building himself a house outside Phnom Penh on land donated to him. In that house live eight orphaned Cambodian children whom he is training as musicians and musical ambassadors and taking them to remote areas of the country — still dangerous travel, due to land mines and other threats — to give free concerts.
Why is music so important? Because, according to Chorn-Pond, 90 percent of the artists and musicians alive in Cambodia in the 1970s were targeted for murder. His family owned an opera company, one reason they were driven from their village by soldiers and dispersed to the countryside, where most of his relatives either vanished or perished.
Back then, it was his ability to play the flute that helped keep Chorn-Pond alive. Today, he says, Cambodian children enter a world that would have no music unless efforts were made to preserve it. That’s the mission of Cambodian Living Arts, an organization he founded in 1998.
“If nothing else,” he said, “at least they’ll have music in their lives.”