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Kenny Duran: Sharing the Voice of a Survivor of the Cambodian Genocide

Reflecting on the last four years of my time in the Schedler Honors College, I underestimated how much the program has helped me grow as a learner, a thinker, and a person. With the program’s focus on interdisciplinary learning, I found new interests in a diverse array of subject areas. As I am continuedly exposed to different ideas, my perspective on life expanded and I began to develop a thirst for learning. When it came time to propose a capstone project in Oxford Tutorial, my new-found thirst had instilled within me the courage to do a project outside my comfort zone: writing a work of literary journalism called Thank the Evil, the real-life story of a Cambodian genocide survivor.

I came up with the idea after returning from an Honors TAG funded trip to Southeast and East Asia. I met with an old high-school friend, Amanda Lee, and she told me about how her parents enjoyed seeing the pictures I posted in Cambodia. As refugees of the Cambodian genocide, they hadn’t returned to their homeland. Seeing pictures of visitors smiling behind Angkor Wat showed them that the country is healing and progressing. According to Amanda, her father, Mr. Dereck Lee, frequently recounts his experiences living under the Khmer Rouge regime, and she hinted that Mr. Lee may desire to have a written documentation of those times. Being the owner and operator with his wife at Oriental Kitchen, a small Chinese-takeout restaurant in Conway, Mr. Lee more than likely never had the time nor energy to write. It then occurred to me to ask Amanda if I could write a book about Mr. Lee’s story for my capstone project.

It was terrifying at first to tackle this immense project with no prior writing experience. Luckily, I found a mentor from the creative writing department in Dr. Case who was willing to guide me through both the writing and publishing process. I cannot acknowledge her enough for the advice she gave, her developmental edits, and her patience answering all of my questions. Dr. Case helped me believe that I was capable of finishing this project, which was important because I never realized the amount of time it would take to write this book. I spent the Fall 2019 semester interviewing Mr. Lee while also transcribing his audio recordings. I spent the following six months writing the first draft, and the following six months hiring an editor, book designer and typesetter. Despite devoting energy each day to work on this project, it thankfully never felt like work. It was a pleasure interviewing Mr. Lee; his childhood story felt more real and intense with each Cambodian genocide source I read. This project also kept me from losing my sanity during the first few months of the coronavirus pandemic. Finishing a full manuscript became my goal, giving me a purpose and the energy to wake up every morning.

Almost a year-and-a-half later, Thank the Evil is now available to the public. In hindsight, it feels surreal, but again this book is a testament to the lifelong impact of my Honors education. Writing a book-length work of literary journalism about a major historical event as a pre-physical therapy major embodies the culmination of an interdisciplinary education. Whether or not I continue to write in the future, Thank the Evil serves as a memento to my Honors experience from the courses I took, to the friends I made, and the adventures I had studying abroad. This capstone project and my Honors education made me realize the beauty of knowledge, the awe of curiosity, and the eventual gratification of leaving your comfort zone.