Cambodia is a country of ghosts. Kay Chronister’s short story, “The Lights We Carried Home,” published in Strange Horizons (Feb. 2017), struck a chord with me because I’d just returned home from Cambodia. Chronister’s speculative story takes place in the fictional Cambodian village of Psaodung outside of Siem Reap, the support town for the historic city of Angkor’s thriving tourist industry. Scientists argue that Angkor was the world’s largest pre-industrial city, supporting over a million people with its sophisticated irrigation works. Angkor Wat is still the world’s largest religious structure, but Angkor's ruins encompasses many lesser known sites that are shells of their former greatness, haunted by smiling apsaras and serene images of the Buddha or King Jayavarman Vll.
More recently, Cambodia’s population was decimated during the reign of the Khmer Rouge. In the 1970s, the Khmer Rouge emptied Phnom Penh of the educated class and sent them first to the countryside to work for food and then to the killing fields as Pol Pot declined into paranoia. It is estimated that 1.5 million people, about one-fifth of the population, were killed. The ghosts of that trauma still haunt the national memory of Cambodia.
The ruins of the once-great metropolis of Angkor seems the perfect backdrop, then, for Chronister’s story about the intersection of ghosts and villagers, and the clash of Western and Eastern beliefs.
Chronister’s “The Lights We Carried Home” features two loving sisters: the narrator, Dara, is the elder by a few years, down-to-earth and practical, while her younger sister, Sopha, is frighteningly well-connected with the spirit world. While Dara can see the glow of ghosts at night, Sopha can see the faces and organs of the "aps" well enough to describe them. According to Chronister, while most Cambodians have a shadowy idea of what an ap looks like, aps are believed to come out at night, to glow and to be always female, usually mothers or wronged women.
Dara insists that Sopha wear red knotted strings around her wrists. These were tied on by Buddhist monks during ceremonies and keep Sopha linked to this world, but she is drawn to the other side, and when Dara finds Sopha missing one morning and her red bracelets lying on the floor, she knows Sopha has joined the aps.
The Khmer traditionally maintain spirit houses near their residences and workplaces to lure ghosts away from the homes of the living. Handfuls of fake money are burned and food is offered to keep the ancestors wealthy and well fed in the afterlife. Happy ghosts don’t plague the living. Many Cambodians wear red strings around their wrists to prevent their spirits from leaving their bodies.
The monk who tied my red string on would probably have explained that in Buddhist tradition, the string reminds us to practice compassion, especially to speak with kindness and forethought, because red is the color of bravery and of the tongue. But that’s not really why the characters in Kay Chronister’s story wear their knotted, red strings. They wear them to make sure that they are not carried off by aps into the spirit world, for the village of Psaodung is cursed with angry ghosts.
Dara’s story continues years after Sopha disappeared. Foreigners come to town to film an expose about how the Cambodian government has lied about rural electrification. But the townspeople don’t want electricity; they know they are cursed and light at night will draw dangerous aps. As the foreigners research Sopha’s mysterious disappearance, their inquiries dig up old secrets, and Dara learns that Sopha’s death years earlier was not as simple nor as voluntary as she’d believed.
Chronister examines the clash of the traditional and modern worlds in her speculative fiction, which is populated by characters who deserve our respect, not condescension. Modern high tension lines cross right over Psaodung, but the sisters can climb the towers and wire-hop. They discover that Sopha’s palms glow just like a spirit even after she stops touching the lines. This frightens Dara whose hands never glow, and she makes Sopha promise to stay in our world.
Meanwhile, back in the present, members of the film crew are mysteriously murdered at night. The Khmer translator and Dara know this is the result of an angry ap, but the Westerners won’t believe it, despite seeing a glow. Dara fears the vengeful ap is her sister, angered by the foreigners investigation into her death years earlier.
I talked to Chronister about the use of folklore traditions, a topic we've addressed before, in a story set in a world where Western and Southeast Asian beliefs clash. She is currently enrolled as a Ph.D. student, and is studying folklore, among other things. Folktales interest her, she says, because they are “organic and old” and serve some kind of “cultural or emotional purpose” for a people. The stories resonate with a culture. Much of Cambodian culture “was done away with” during the Khmer Rouge era, she explains, but the oral tradition about aps predated that era and still lives on. During her year in Cambodia, people told her stories about aps they’d heard, mostly second-hand.
What interests Chronister about Cambodian folklore in particular is how it is “being retooled to go along with the way the world is changing.” I asked if she’d felt a part of the speculative literary trend of remaking of old fairy tales, but she says she’s not interested in modernizing traditional tales. Rather, she’s interested in how the old stories are changing. For example, aps now eat garbage out of polluted rivers, a change spurred by urbanization. In Chronister’s story, we follow the sisters across the power lines where they first fled to escape boys harassing Sopha. Chronister is careful, she says, to write respectfully when incorporating a people’s beliefs, even though the stories may be speculative fiction. It is this tension between what is “real” or “false” within the context of the story that made it so interesting to me.
Through much of “The Lights” we, as Westerners, are inclined to disbelieve in aps like the film crew, but Chronister feels confident that by the end of the story readers will understand that Dara is right that she must deal with her sister if the murders are to stop and justice is to be done in both worlds.
Sisterhood is a theme Chronister visited in another of her recently-published stories, “Further North” published in Clarkesworld (July 2015). Two sisters must flee Turkey for Alaska after one sister contracts a disease called “the hook.” The healthy sister, Hafsa, works outside in the cold and snow to harvest helminths from frozen animals, a process not fully explained, but which provides revenue for the sisters and the family back home. Again we see Chronister’s interest in conflicting folk beliefs and Western science; the girls believe Aliye is the first person to have contracted the hook from the family livestock until a Western doctor explains that Aliye is actually suffering from polio.
Chronister has a sister and two brothers. She and her sister are “polar opposites,” she says, but they get along better now that they’re grown. In Cambodia, she worked for a year at a children’s home, teaching by day and acting more like an older sister at night. Survival by whatever means necessary, especially when adults aren’t responsible, is another theme in these two stories, and one that must have been brought home to her while at the children’s home. It wasn’t an orphanage, she explains: the kids often had a parent or families. The children would come and go, depending upon whether or not a parent was able to take care of them right then. A parent may have been abusive or addicted.
“In the West,” she explains, “these kids would have been taken away by the courts and would be living in foster care.”
In Chronister’s story “The Lights,” the sisters live with their aunt (Ming) who doesn’t want to notice Sopha’s bruises or that the girls climb electrical towers and wire-hop to avoid trouble in town. In ghost-infested Psaodung, “pride has always been too precious for anyone to afford.” Hunger and rewards of big bags of rice inspire Dara and Ming to cooperate with the filmmakers despite their fear of aps and their indignation that the Westerners aren't listening to them.
Cambodia is “a graveyard of failed charities,” and do-gooders like the film crew don’t hang around long enough to understand the Khmer. They make promises they can’t keep for long and split when the going gets tough. In “Further North,” the sisters support themselves and their faraway family, but are not welcomed home after Aliya’s treatments.
Finally, Chronister’s stories are populated by strong female characters, be they sisters or mothers. In her story, “The Warriors, The Mothers, The Drowned,” published in Beneath Ceaseless Skies (May 2015), a mother rides with her sick infant into the land of the dead, while being stalked by a talking coyote, in a desperate bid to outsmart death. The men of the family, as in “The Lights,” are irrelevant. This story, set in a US Southwest-like desert, addresses conflicting Aztec and Catholic beliefs about the afterlife.
Chronister started grad school last fall so, she says, she hasn’t had much time to focus on publishing more speculative fiction because school is overwhelming. She is, however, working on more stories and also on a novel which she describes as a “weird fiction horror western.” We can’t wait to see it!