Vichet Chum’s ‘KWEEN’ Playwright’s Debut Novel Delights and Educates

By: Laura Moreno

“Kween” is the welcome new novel by debut author, playwright and actor Vichet Chum, the Texas-born, Lowell, Massachusetts-bred son of Cambodian immigrants.

Although written as Young Adult fiction, readers of all ages will find “Kween” a compelling story told in a refreshingly honest voice. Chum offers an easy read, important content, life-like characters, and snappy dialogue peppered with endearing expressions, like “for the love of gods.” Fans of author Elizabeth Acevedo will adore Vichet Chum’s “Kween.”

Meet Soma, the book’s main character, a bright 16-year-old high school girl who is left at home in Lowell, Massachusetts with her dictatorial, largely absent older sister while her parents are abroad. Actually, her father “Ba” has recently been deported.

In an email, Ba reminds Soma that her name means legacy. Suddenly, for the first time in her life, she takes her name’s meaning to heart. And suddenly all she can think is that she must step into her legacy, now: “It felt loaded. Like it was a challenge. Not necessarily from Ba, but maybe from the universe.”

On pure instinct, Soma gives herself permission to vent her feelings artistically. She puts together some beats and rhymes and “presses that red button.” Unedited and very unrehearsed, to her great surprise, and despite considerable apprehension, her spoken word piece goes viral.

Soon she considers entering a spoken word competition at school and begins to find herself.

A memorable scene is when Soma comes out to her parents. It’s interesting to see how differently her parents now deal with coming out, as opposed to a generation ago when major family trauma loomed. Parents now know they are supposed to be supportive, even if they are fearful for their daughter’s future.

After responding joyfully, even offering to buy Soma a new wardrobe or throw her a party, the following scene reveals their hidden strain:

“I could hear them talking in their bedroom. Ma was crying. I spit into the sink and crept toward their door, which had accidentally been left open a crack. Ba sat next to Ma with his arm around her shoulder. He was comforting her.”

Perhaps in the near future there will be no need for anyone to come out. We’re all just human.

What I love about this book in particular is that while it is not about Cambodia’s history, it doesn’t shy away from it either. Soma and her friends must come to terms with the elephant under the carpet in the room: the wartime atrocities that so terribly affected their families in Cambodia. Chum handles very difficult material masterfully as they discuss their “parents’ time in dun dun dun . . . the genocide” not so long ago in the 1970s.

One of the most exciting things about “Kween” is the attention the cover photo has garnered from the Southeast Asian community. Chum insisted on putting a dark-skinned Cambodian girl on the book-cover to represent Soma.

To that end, he hired Cambodian photographer Mel Taing of Boston, and they cast Thatiana So, also of Boston, who is not only Cambodian but Khmer as well.

An excerpt:
“Sure, there were content warnings, but Evie was unabashed about detailing every sad, scary, horrible moment. She even soundtracked it with a cinematic score, as if to rattle those heartstrings like she knew what she was doing. The story ended in an epic, emotional conclusion with her parents being reunited at the refugee camps in Thailand as little kids. Everyone was crying (me included!) … she was bringing us back to the seventies, unafraid to share our people’s history as if it were her own. Maybe it was hers to share, but I couldn’t help but be reminded that it was emotional territory I still hadn’t developed a relationship with yet.”

Author Vichet Chum

‘Kween’ by Vichet Chum, Quill Tree (HarperCollins) $15.99 www.harpercollins.com