Joanna Catherine Scott

In August of last year I was invited to be the keynote speaker at the Lao Oral History event at the Gail Borden Public Library in Elgin, Illinois. A large Lao community lives in that area and the auditorium was filled primarily with refugees and their children and grandchildren, many of whom had been born in America.

        The room was electrically silent as I spoke about Laos during the Vietnam war years and the savagery that followed the Communist takeover. But as I read an excerpt about the notorious jail at Keng Kahn, the silence stirred to tension and someone in the audience began to sob.

     What transpired next was wonderful. It turned out that many of the older refugees had held the horrors of that time inside them across their years of living in America. Their children growing up in freedom knew very little, even nothing, of their parents sufferings in Laos.

INDOCHINA’S REFUGEES was my first book. I wrote it in the Philippines, sitting in the dust at a refugee camp in the mountains of Bataan. At that time, in the middles eighties, the camp housed 17,000 souls from the three countries of Indochina. They were there for intensive language training and cultural orientation before going to join families and friends in the United States.

    The population turned over rapidly. Every week the rickety red Philippine Rabbits and triumphantly named Victory Liners careered up and down the mountain roads, trailing clouds of stinking black fumes, scattering goats and chickens, and swerving their way around rocks set on the road to protect swatches of rice spread out to dry.

    I first went to this camp as an official “wife of” in March 1985. When we were leaving, I was presented with a painting of Vietnamese boat people on the high seas. Back home in Manila I set about to hang it on the wall and found, handwritten on a scrap of paper stuck onto the back, the words: “A people forced to go a dangerous drama across feats of darkness and turbulent seas, in favor of freedom.”

    In that moment I turned into a writer.

Praise from Critics

“A rare book . . . of the countless number of books containing interviews with refugees, this is by far the most balanced, best written, and most historically accurate.” —Journal of Refugee Studies

“A perspective which is totally new . . . Scott has succeeded in providing some original historical research on a group of people who might otherwise have been forgotten.” —VOYA 

“. . . unique perspectives and details about the political situations of these countries.” —South East Asian Refugee Studies Newsletter

“Offers a wealth of information about traditional Vietnamese culture and society . . . essential reading.” —CHOICE

“Stories that Americans have been reluctant to listen to — non-American participants’ stories of the horrors of the Vietnam war.” —Oral History Review

      Now, though, the damn broke and they were able to speak openly, some tearfully, some in a sense elated by the opportunity. One man asked if he could come to the podium so he could use the map on the screen behind me.

      He hesitated before beginning to speak. “Is it all right to say anything I want?”

      Assured he could, he spoke for a long time with passionate indignation about how the US had carpet-bombed his country while assuring the world they were doing no such thing. It was clearly a relief to get this off his chest, but even more of a relief to know that no retributive government agent was going to show up at his door.       

     The emotional power of that evening will stay with me forever. When I am lying with my toes pointed at the sky I will be able to say, “In my small way, I changed the world with my writing.”