Geoff Ryman's Cambodian Tales, Part 2
Ryman lives in the United Kingdom, is currently teaching in San Diego, and has Canadian citizenship. As he told Locus in an earlier interview, "Canada spends an inordinate amount of time worrying about its national identity, which is a really boring topic. I got kind of narked because for some time they would never call me a Canadian writer, though I carry a Canadian passport and I feel Canadian. It's because I've lived out of the country. You could never have a film called A Canadian in Paris.”
Here's Part II of Ryman's essay on his Cambodian experiences. Check out all of Ryman's fiction available through Amazon.
Stories. Cambodia. Later. (Part 2)
2004. On the roof of my hotel in Battambang, once Cambodia's second city, I met on the rooftop cafe a huge, meaning very fat, black American. We look out over the flat riverside plain palm trees walking all the way into a distant hazy blue horizon. During the wars I know that all the trees in Battambang were cut down. Now we look out over the market that was once a bus station still one of the biggest buildings in town, French and art deco. The American tells me that he was soldier, who served here in the 1970s, and who fell in love with the country. He keeps coming back. His wife divorced him, his children have left home. He is coming to Cambodia to live. It gets in your blood, Cambodia, I say. It's the stories, he says, everybody has a story.
Just outside the city is a huge statue of an unmistakeably black man. The motoboy explains that Battambang is very proud that it was once ruled by a legendary black king. Cambodia is full of unexpected resonances, as if reality were punning, as if the world really ran on luck, an a-causal principle of resemblances, prophecies, and coincidences.
The motoboy's name really is David, and he explains to me how he came to have a Western name.
His mother was shot and dying, his aunt snatched him from her arms. The family fled in the chaos that followed the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia to the jeum-room in Thailand, the camps. His uncle named him David after an aid worker. That story became part of William's tale in The King's Last Song. I wanted one of the characters to have a Western name, to make it easier for airport readers.
David and I drive into tropical rains and wait it out first in a roadside shelter, then a covered bridge. The sun suddenly comes out, and we visit another ruined wat. Next to it, as all over Cambodia, a new wat made of smoothed concrete stands in scaffolding. And over it, a rainbow, like a bridge between worlds.
2006. In the big riverside restaurant Bubble Tea, a university colleague explains why he has not yet married. He was engaged to a girl of good family, but when he went to a fortune teller, he was told that if he married this girl, she would be dead in two years. He had no doubt that the fortune teller told the truth. For whatever reason he found that the most comfortable way to end the engagement was to go to study in the Philippines for two years. Quietly, gently, the engagement ended.
I wondered why such a modern fellow would tell me such a story. To show the power of traditional beliefs. To establish that he was ethnically Chinese.