When I got to Transom, I knew that I wanted to do a story on a person or community of color. I started researching refugees in the area and eventually stumbled on a book about a small local Cambodian community. I found out about the Cambodian American Rescue Organization, which led me to their president, Ricky Tith.
As is often true when starting out to do a story, I didn’t know exactly what I was going to get. I followed Ricky around for two days, hanging out with him while he did whatever he normally did. This led me to many other people in the community, and I wound up interviewing seven people. The more people I talked to, the more nuanced and complex the issues within the community became, and I was no longer sure of my story focus.
I dug myself into a hole, partially because I wasn’t exactly sure of what the story was when I went out into the field. I intended to show this community through Ricky’s lens, but in early drafts, I felt conflicted about how much I should delve into these big subjects with others, and how much of the fraught Cambodian history I should cover. It really was a pile of mush. I tried to make sense of it all by mapping out my story on a big piece of paper — I would highly recommend doing this if you feel stuck. I needed to find the threads in what everyone else had told me, and connect those back to Ricky and his life.
In the end, I decided to take the listener through Ricky’s day, while weaving the meaning of his actions in with his tasks. The narrative became so much clearer once I made that decision. I was ultimately able to echo the sentiments others had expressed by funneling their ideas through Ricky. This experience forced me to shift perspectives and start thinking of this piece as an impressionist painting, using broad strokes to give the listener a sense of who these people are.
An aspect that I didn’t cover is the trauma that many Cambodian people, especially the elders in the community, suffer after surviving the Khmer Rouge. Many told me that their painful history contributes to the community remaining insular. I kept trying to shoehorn this into the piece, but it wasn’t working; I realized that would be something to explore another day in a different piece.
Thanks to J.S. Matthew for audio from Fall River’s Cambodian Cultural Festival.
Diana’s Sonic ID
I profiled Bobby Miller for WCAI’s Creative Life series. He’s a photographer in Provincetown, MA with an extremely colorful history. We talked for nearly three hours — this is only one of the many memorable things that he said.