Life is funny.
Judith Dickerman-Nelson earned a MFA from Emerson College with the goal of teaching writing to college students.
The next thing she knew, the pale-skinned red-head was clad head- to-toe in traditional Cambodian dress, performing centuries old dances as part of a Cambodian dance troupe, the only white face in a sea of beautiful young Cambodian women.
She never felt that she did not belong.
Judith Dickerman-Nelson’s foray into Cambodian culture began in 1995 when she volunteered to teach a writing workshop to young Cambodian parents at Lowell’s Cambodian Mutual Assistance Association.
“The people were just so incredibly warm, gracious and welcoming,” she said, adding she was amazed by their strength and faith as they began sharing their stories of escaping the genocide of the Pol Pot regime, which left nearly 2 million of their family, friends and countrymen dead and nearly wiped out art and culture in the Southeast Asian nation.
In 2008, Judith had the opportunity to visit Cambodia with friends. They hit up the usual tourist spots like Angkor Wat, but also spent time in the home of her friend’s grandmother in rural Cambodia.
Sharing a homemade meal in another person’s home brings a real sense of intimacy, a sharing of culture and humanity that cannot be recreated at Epcot Center.
“I fell madly in love with the people and their culture,” she said.
Being a writer, Judith expressed her love in prose. At first, she felt slightly uncomfortable about telling other people’s stories, but as she became more immersed in the culture and grew to know more Cambodians in the U.S. that uneasy feeling waned. She knew she could tell their stories with the respect they deserve.
Her poems have recently been published by Paul Marion’s Loom Press in a book titled “Spirits Dancing Into Light.”
It is broken into two sections: “Cambodia and the Camps,” focused on the barbed wire, the fear, the death; and “Lowell, Massachusetts,” focused on their new home, the fear of government in the form of census workers, the red tape, homesickness for the rural farming villages they left behind, and hope in bringing their culture to America through events like the Southeast Asian Water Festival.
There is also a poignant piece about the senseless 2009 death of 17-year-old Tavaryna Choeun, who was shot in the head while a passenger in a car, her body left on the curb on Willie Street. She was an innocent victim of an argument that spun out of control.
On the opposite page of each English poem is its Khmer translation, done by Boroeuth Brian Chen, of Lowell. Judith is quick to point out her’s are not Cambodian poems, which have a very regulated structure, but English poems translated into Khmer.
The book’s inner design was created by Derek Fenner and the cover art by Jim Higgins and Joan Ross.
The book is available at the Umass Lowell downtown bookstore (the former Barnes and Noble) in the Bon Marche building on Merrimack Street. Judith will hold a book signing there from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. on October 13.
Judith Dickerman-Nelson lives in Vermont with her husband and two grown sons. She is also the author of Believe in Me: A Teen Mom’s Story, a memoir published earlier this year by Jefferson Park Press.
Lost Dancer by Judith Dickerman-Nelson
She used to dance
in silken skirts of gold.
rolling her long black hair
into a bun and becoming
an Apsara goddess
gliding across the stage,
across a bridge
to a past nearly lost
because she knew
the Blessing Dance,
because she knew
when to be silent,
when to answer,
and when to move slowly.
The lithing sound of music
and the beat of her feet
padding across a floor