Bunkong Tuon's debut novel due out this summer

Publication Date

Associate Professor of English Bunkong Tuon’s debut novel, “Koan Khmer,” which celebrates the power of literature to rescue a life from despair, is due out from Curbstone/Northwestern University Press in August.

It tells the story of Samnang Sok, an orphaned child survivor of the Cambodian genocide who sets out to make a new life in America with his extended family.

The following image is the cover artwork for Professor Tuon's debut novel

Struggling to cope with the traumas of his past, Sok feels alienated from his American peers at school and disconnected from his aunts, uncles and cousins at home. Inspired by the books he discovers along the way, he begins piecing together information about the past through stories told by elders, family photographs, and his own memories and dreams.

Based loosely on Tuon’s life, the novel “gives an unflinching voice to a distinctly Cambodian American sensibility,” the publisher writes. “Tuon creates a refugee space that all Americans can visit in this bildungsroman that breathes life into cultural knowledge disrupted by loss and grief.”

Tuon was born several years before the radical communist Khmer Rouge regime took over Cambodia in 1975, brutally killing up to 3 million people. He and his extended family left their homeland in 1979, and he spent several years in refugee camps in Thailand before immigrating to the United States in 1981.

He earned a B.A. in comparative literature from California State University, Long Beach, and a master’s and doctorate, also in comp lit, from the University of Massachusetts.

He turned to literature for guidance and wisdom as he navigated the difficult journey of rebuilding his life after genocide and displacement.

“Writing is a way for me to honor my family, to share their stories of survival and love,” he said.

Tuon joined Union in 2008. His research interests include Asian American studies, Southeast Asian American literature and history, contemporary ethnic literature, trauma studies, creative writing, translation theory and practice, and folklore studies.

A prodigious poet, writer and critic, Tuon is the author of three full-length poetry collections, and his work has appeared in Copper Nickel, The Massachusetts Review, The New York Quarterly, The American Journal of Poetry, Diode Poetry Journal, and The Journal of War, Literature, and the Arts.

He is also poetry editor of Cultural Daily, a digital magazine on contemporary arts, culture and politics.