Poet Bunkong Tuon has lived a life of extreme contrasts, and his first collection, Gruel, takes us through the many phases of his journey in the book’s seven sections. When a young boy, the author is part of the exodus out of Cambodia in 1979 — fleeing dictator Pol Pot’s murderous regime — as his grandmother carries him on her back through the jungle to a refugee camp in Thailand. There, Bunkong and his family struggle to survive — but there isn’t enough food for everyone and the author’s mother dies of starvation, a life-changing trauma transformed into the sublime poem “Under the Tamarind Tree.”

A Christian sponsor in Massachusetts earns the family a reprieve from misery, but rescue brings a new set of problems  — adapting to another country, with both its joys (as commemorated in “First Snow”) and joy-kills (including bullying and racism, the subject of “Dancing Fu Manchu Master”). The family’s financial struggles are also addressed in poignant poems such as “Our Secret,” where the author recounts his shame at gathering cans and bottles with his beloved grandmother at the beach, while managing to see the situation with humor (“…the Americans sunbathed in their scanty / swimwear, and, to our amazement, tried / to get a sun tan, trying to brown their skin like ours, /”).

Bunkong’s Dickensian journey finds him as a young adult working as a janitor in Southern California with no particular goals except survival — on physical, mental, and emotional levels. The turning point is described in “How Everything Changed,”  when Bunkong wanders into the Long Beach library and takes a book off the shelf at random. Bunkong credits the book and its author — Charles Bukowski — with giving him direction and purpose, and even saving his life. The scenario is reminiscent of Bukowski’s discovery of John Fante‘s novel Ask the Dust in the L.A. Public Library decades after its 1939 publication.

Bunkong finds his way into academia — earning advanced degrees and teaching at the college level on the East Coast — marries a wonderful woman, and is living the American dream.  But there are nightmares, where the author dreams he’s forgotten how to speak Khmer (“The Pavilion Dream”), writing: “I tried to recollect that dream where I lost / my mother tongue, but before anything could happen, / my body tensed, my heart ached, a fist-sized stone / / Sat heavily in my stomach.”

The collection takes us through the author’s experiences and reflections as he tries to navigate two worlds — contribute to the American body politic without losing his rich cultural background. He finds the pathos as well as the humor in this challenge in poems such as “Living in the Hyphen,” where his cousin explains in a perfect “Bostonian accent” his love for both A1 Steak Sauce and Khmer dipping sauce (“”Well, when I get bored with one sauce, I go for the other. / It’s all good, bro.””).

The collection’s ultimate poem — the title entry, “Gruel” — brings all the diverse elements of Bunkong Tuon’s journey together in a stunning, masterful, heart-stopping poem which alone is worth the price of admission.

Gruel, a 130-page collection of poetry by Bunkong Tuon, was published in June 2015 by the prestigious NYQ Books. Please support his gifted author by purchasing his inspired collection, available at

COVER PHOTO: The author’s parents’ wedding (circa 1972 — three years before Pol Pot’s takeover in Cambodia). In the center are Chhoeun Thach (father), Noerm Tuon (mother), and to her left, Yoeum Preng (grandmother) — to whom the collection is dedicated.