In 2014, Cloverdale resident Mary-Jo Glen Ohl (photo at left) was on an eight-day river cruise on the Mekong River, sailing from Siem Reap, Cambodia, to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.
Twice each day, the ship would stop at a small port, and the 90 or so passengers, including Ohl’s party of six, would disembark for a walkabout.
During one stop, she decided the port’s hills were too hard on her hip. (It was before her hip replacement).
Instead, she stayed on board, and began to talk to the ship’s bartender, a kind, intelligent young man with the name “Vodka” on his name tag.
He had a Grade 7 education, and a fairly good grasp of English.
“It’s a lot better than my Khmer,” she told him
(Khmer is the official language of Cambodia).
As Ohl learned more about him – during the cruise, she didn’t learn his real name – she became more curious about his life, and by the end of the cruise, the two promised to keep in touch via Facebook.
Despite limited time for himself and spotty WiFi, over the next few months, Facebook became their main form of communication.
It turned out Vodka’s name was In Sam Oeun – although he did enjoy using his nickname, telling Ohl it was fun.
Over time, she learned other things.
When his mom was 17, she was abducted and enslaved by the Khmer Rouge, a genocidal regime that ruled Cambodia (briefly Kampuchea) from 1975-1979 and became famous for The Killing Fields – and the movie of that title, in 1984.
Sending messages from his phone, her told her about growing up in a war-torn country, working long hours for low wages, and struggling to support his family (all six siblings and his mother are alive and well).
As kids, they found weapons and worked to sell them. Some friends were killed by doing the same with unexploded munitions.
He wanted his story told in a book, and wrote to Ohl: “Jo, will you write my story for me and someday, if I’m lucky, I can come to Canada and read it for myself.”
He trusted her.
She says he expected something like a scrapbook.
Instead, the result was the 104-page You Can Call Me Vodka: A Cambodian’s Story of Life After the Killing Fields.
“I cried so many times writing this book,” says Ohl.
She wrote the story using his words – and drawings.
During their Facebook conversations, she learned about his artistic skills.
Photo: In Sam Oeun.
Seeing one of his first drawings, that of a brick house that was the template for a cake decoration on his cruise ship, she asked where the idea came from.
“From my imagine (sic),” he replied.
In the first six weeks after publication, Ohl had already sold 500 of the 1,000 printed copies of her first book.
“I (joked) to the kids that I’m a world-famous author,” says Ohl, a teacher-librarian at Richardson Elementary for the last 22 years.
The students, in turn, suggested as a famous author, she’ll become rich.
Ohl fired back: “I’ve already won the lottery. I’m a woman who was born in Canada.”
▶ Mary-Jo Glen Ohl will speak at a book launch on May 28 from 1-3 p.m. at the George Mackie Library, 8440 112 St.