Y-Dang Troeung passed away from pancreatic cancer early in the morning of Nov. 27, 2022. She was 42 years old. She left this world holding the hands of her beloved husband, Chris; her cousin, Mary; and me.
Y-Dang and I often said, sometimes with laughter and sometimes with tears, that we were found sisters. She was my best friend. Nearly a year after losing her, the word friendship stirs a deep heartache in me. I thought Y-Dang would be here forever.
This is how we met. In 2011, I published a novel about the aftermath of the Cambodian genocide, a book that was the world to me. Dogs at the Perimeter had a quiet life, vanishing, as many books do, within months of publication. When I ran into the writer Johanna Skibsrud, I told her that I couldn’t shake my grief. I felt that I had failed the lives that gave this novel meaning. Soon after, she wrote to say there was someone she wanted me to meet.
She introduced me to Y-Dang, the friend of a friend. Y-Dang had written a chapter of her dissertation on one of my earlier books, and had read Dogs at the Perimeter the moment it was published.
On Oct. 14, 2011, in Calgary, we met for the first time. All night we talked about Cambodia, family, Alice Munro, writing, escape, reinvention, neurology, love. We never stopped talking.
Y-Dang Troeung was born in the Khao I-Dang refugee camp in Thailand, at the Cambodian border, in 1980. The story of her family and all they experienced in the decade surrounding her birth – the illegal bombing of Cambodia by the United States between 1969 and 1973, the rise of the Khmer Rouge, the genocide in which more than two million died, the often dangerous refugee camps that sheltered more than 600,000 survivors, the wordless anxiety and hope of resettlement – is a universe in itself. Y-Dang was the miracle daughter in a family that, as she would later write, had been through “enough pain for a dozen lifetimes.”
Her family’s arrival in the rural town of Goderich, Ont., in 1980, when Y-Dang was still an infant, drew national media attention. Welcomed personally by then prime minister Pierre Trudeau, the family was designated by the government, and therefore by the media, as “the last” refugees – symbolic representatives of the Canadian government’s resettlement of 60,000 Vietnamese, Cambodians and Laotians. This narrative, though emotionally powerful, obscured a harsher geopolitical reality.
After completing her PhD at McMaster University, Y-Dang became a professor of literature, first at the City University of Hong Kong and then at the University of British Columbia. She kept Cambodia at the forefront of her work, writing about the Khmer Rouge atrocities and the ideological justifications they had used. She wrote about the 2.7 million tonnes of bombs dropped by the United States on Cambodia, a country with which it was not at war; the Cold War politics that led most Western governments, including Canada, to recognize the perpetrators of the genocide as the legitimate representatives of Cambodia until 1993; and the Khmer Rouge Tribunal, established in 2006 to hold senior leaders responsible for their actions. In 2014, she sat in the Phnom Penh courtroom, weeping for her family, as the first convictions for the crime of genocide were handed down.
Y-Dang and I talked about all things under the sun. Love, anger, devotion, trust – as they materialized in the world and, also, within ourselves. She had a luminous capacity to embrace experience and to love fearlessly. There was something about her spirit that made me want to entrust myself to her. Everything she touched came alight.
As the years went by – as we grew older, changed jobs, moved cities and countries, as time, heartache and wonder altered us – we held fast to one another. In Hong Kong, I held her son’s tiny hand when he was just six weeks old. Two months later, when my father died, she flew 20 hours so that she could hold me in her arms. I trusted her heart. Even in some of my most difficult hours, she could make me laugh until I nearly fell over.
One night, in the fall of 2020, she sent me a document of a little more than 16,000 words that she called “my fragments.” For a decade she had been working on her scholarly book, Refugee Lifeworlds. Despite being advised – sometimes with kindness, sometimes with cold dismissal – to excise family memories from her academic work, she had been unable to discard them. Instead, she told me, they were “scattered here.”
I opened the Word file, began to read and saw another Y-Dang. There was a wholeness to these fragments, an earth-shattering precision, that floored me. I told her that this was the book she was meant to write, a masterpiece. We talked about next steps, and she went back to the work of writing. It was still early in the pandemic; we missed one another a great deal.
On Nov. 6, 2021, she and her husband called me in New York where I was teaching. After months of pain, Y-Dang had been diagnosed with metastatic pancreatic cancer. The prognosis was one year. Later on she would write how “every hour feels like it’s drawn from a well of time that will soon dry.” I remember how the distance of the continent was unbearable. I remember putting down the phone and crying. A week later, I flew out to Vancouver.
Our conversations ranged and circled as they always had. Family, motherhood, clinical trials, the unknown. Jokes, recipes, mail-order plants. We talked about best-case and worst-case scenarios. She held nothing back. We spoke most deeply about writing. The document she called “my fragments” had taken on a new clarity. Finishing this book, which she now called Landbridge, meant letting go of fear and “the struggle to find the perfect language” that had haunted her all her life. She needed to write with care and precision; but she needed, too, to be free.
In the spring, she asked her father to tell me a story that was part of the family lore. When Y-Dang was small, her father said, she had tearfully begged him to free five caged pigeons. The story actually interweaves many stories: the family’s near fatal car crash on a snowy Ontario road, the unspeakable atrocities of the Khmer Rouge, a chance meeting in desperate times, and a friend whose life her father could not save. His turning, unfurling, non-linear memories created a world of openings, as if only continuous movement could show us how to see this precious thing – the present moment that eludes all words.
This story became one of the last passages she added to Landbridge, which was published in August. Y-Dang writes her father’s narrative and her own: “Te back bun back. Save a life, receive a life.”
I witnessed my friend come into herself as a writer. Facing her own death, she chose to write about others – those who had made her own existence so rich, haunted, wondrous, aching. She believed that all these lives within ourselves are an endless refraction of the worlds we have known. In Landbridge, the fragments, written across years, slip through time and space. Yet reading the memoir, what I feel is continuity, as if I were looking up at the night sky. Where does this sense of wholeness come from? I cannot locate the source, except in Y-Dang’s commitment to every word, which is itself her unbowed presence.
Y-Dang used to tell me, “I remember everything.” I remember everything, her memoir seems to say, and everything is in pieces. Everything is in pieces so that we, in our brief lives, might have the possibility, the humanity, of remembering.
At the end, she told me she wasn’t afraid of death. She said she was crying because she knew we would be sad. She knew the weight of grief, and she had tried to lift it, piece by piece, from those around her. “My only regret,” she wrote to her son in a letter to his future self, “is not living to see what other ways love can so radically return, new and unexpected.”
When readers come to Landbridge, they will know a very deep part of Y-Dang. She took this risk to make herself visible because she believed knowledge, love and faith must be passed on. She wanted to have a hand in creating another kind of world for her son. We have lost a courageous, brilliant human being, someone who carried memories and histories that, if all were moral in this world, we would carry collectively.
What can I say of her that would put her heart at ease? Y-Dang was head over heels in love with life. She was a universe. She has left us something extraordinary, a memoir addressed to the future. I light a candle for her, try to bear my sorrow and live up to our friendship.