Greetings, commies! Harriette Rinaldi is a fellow author from Fireship Press. Even though we write on different subjects, we share a commitment to illuminating historical episodes and figures which for whatever reason do not receive sufficient attention from the media. Today she joins us to discuss her novel Four Faces of Truth depicting the Cambodian crisis.
MJN: Many of the Fireship authors have led professionally fulfilling lives that are as exciting as those of their characters. You are a former CIA officer. Many of them have served in the military and taught at college level, including the founder of Fireship Press, our beloved Tom Grundner. Does your previous professional activity affect your worldview and your style of writing?
HR: Having served in many parts of the world and learning new languages, as well as the history and culture of those countries, undoubtedly enhanced my worldview. Prior to joining the CIA I taught French language and literature, and studied at the Sorbonne in Paris (where all key leaders of the Khmer Rouge had studied a decade earlier.) My father, a private school headmaster and scholar of ancient languages, also inspired my love for languages. I always told my students that learning another language saves one from having a myopic view of other cultures and makes one a true citizen of the world. As for writing style, my years of writing reports and analyses for senior US Government policy makers instilled in me the value of a journalistic style using an economy of words and strict adherence to precision of language. In writing my nonfiction book, Born at the Battlefield of Gettysburg; an African-American Family Saga, I was able to draw upon this experience. Writing Four Faces of Truth, however, was more liberating. Writing historical fiction allowed me to combine techniques of fiction (dialogue, dream sequences, poetry, suspense etc) with the conciseness of fact required for nonfiction.
MJN: You spent several years in Cambodia during the Khmer Rouge regime. Did you feel that a certain period of time had to pass before you started writing your novel covering that historical episode?
HR: During my three years in Cambodia I never considered writing about my experiences there. After retiring from the CIA I spent several years teaching leadership seminars and, later, writing my Gettysburg book. More recently, I realized that there are too many parallels and lessons from my time in Cambodia that apply to what is happening elsewhere in the world today. In my book events and talks this past year, I have stressed to audiences the uncanny parallels between the leaders, ideology, and brutal tactics of the Khmer Rouge and the group known as ISIS.
MJN: On your website you feature a photo that looks, at first glance, like a stonehenge, but you can make out human faces. The photo is from Barry Broman's book Cambodia: the Land and Its People. Can you briefly tell us the story behind the monument?
HR: The photo on the cover of my book is of the great Bayon monument at Angkor Thom built by King Jayavarman VII (1181-c.1220). In fact there are many of these immense pineapple-shaped stone towers in the form of human heads, with four faces—each looking out in a different geographical direction. Although I could not visit either Angkor Wat or Angkor Thom, which were then in the hands of the Khmer Rouge, I did meet a former guide at Angkor who told me that these serene Buddhist-inspired countenances represent “faces of truth” that have borne witness to all the good and all the evil which has occurred in Cambodia over the centuries. I chose to have four narrators for my book, each representing another perspective of what happened during the Khmer Rouge reign of terror. Viewing events from four points of view seems in keeping with traditional Khmer symbolism. My four fictional narrators are also “Four Faces of Truth”, compelling readers to listen and learn from what they have witnesses.
MJN: As a Russian born author writing about Irish history I've encountered my share of perplexed stares. I imagine, same is true for you, as a Caucasian author writing about Asian and African American history. Do you find that you have to frequently advocate your choice of subject matter?
HR: Writing instructors often tell students to write about what they know. My Cambodia book is obviously based on my own experience and research. My Gettysburg book is also based on a unique story I learned about as a young child. That book was based on letters written to my great-grandfather in 1931 (a 93 year-old Union Army veteran who fought at Gettysburg) from a man named Victor Chambers who was born on the battlefield of Gettysburg to a runaway slave. His beautifully written letters speak with great love and passion for his courageous mother who walked over 200 miles from a tobacco plantation in Virginia where she was a slave for 37 years, to her home state of Pennsylvania so that her unborn child would be able to live in freedom. Mr. Chambers’ letters also trace his family’s history from freedom in Dahomey (now Benin), to slavery on a French sugar plantation in Haiti, and to ultimately to freedom in Pennsylvania. Sadly, however, his mother was kidnapped when she was only five years old and sold into slavery. But her grueling walk to freedom that began when she was seven months pregnant is a testament to the resilience of the human spirit in search of freedom (much as we see today with the thousands of people fleeing the Middle East for a better life in Western Europe.) My mother read Victor Chambers’ letters to her children each year on the birthday of President Abraham Lincoln. So this story is also an important part of my own family history.
MJN: You mention on your site that many disasters fall under the radar of global media. Some conflicts get more coverage than others. You mentioned that the suffering of Cambodian people was largely ignored because there were more prominent conflicts going on, involving the US in Vietnam. Your mission really appeals to me, because I also believe in highlighting underexposed tragedies and unfairly obscured figures.
HR: When I mention the words Khmer Rouge or the name of its demonic leader, Pol Pot, the most frequent reaction is a blank stare of non-recognition. When Pol Pot was plotting the revolution and eventually overthrowing the Cambodian government. America was focused on extricating itself from neighboring Vietnam and reeling from the Watergate scandal and the impeachment of President Richard Nixon. During Pol Pot’s reign of terror, all contact with the rest of the world was largely inexistent—much like North Korea today. Because Cambodia was not the victim of a major matural disaster, to which the world usually responds with great outpouring of support and sympathy, the sufferings of its people are still largely ignored today. Yet millions died at the hands of the Khmer Rouge, and tens of millions remain traumatized today. I wrote this book because, as I stated above, there are too many parallels between that regime and others in the world today. To ignore the past is to repeat the same mistakes over and over again.