By Samantha Pak
Northwest Asian Weekly
About a year ago, Kiri Schwiethale found herself at a crossroads, thinking about how she would share her Cambodian culture with her two kids.
Her husband suggested a kids’ book. At the time, Schwiethale was set to participate in the 36 Days of Type, a challenge for designers, illustrators, and graphic artists to “express their particular interpretation of the letters and numbers of the Latin alphabet,” according to its website. A graphic designer by training, Schwiethale initially considered the challenge to push herself creatively. But after her husband’s suggestion, she combined it with her desire to share her heritage with her son and daughter—who were 4 and 3, respectively, at the time—to produce “ABCs of Cambodia.”
Schwiethale’s son was also learning and starting to recognize letters at the time, so a picture book using the alphabet to highlight different aspects of Cambodian culture was a way to learn his letters and about his background at the same time. In the book, Schwiethale, 29, has also translated the words into Khmer—including the word written in Khmer script, as well as its phonetic pronunciation in English.
The Port Angeles resident is funding the book on Kickstarter (tinyurl.com/mtt2wskn), which she launched March 14. The campaign ends at 11:59 p.m. on April 15, the last day of Cambodian New Year. Her goal was to raise $16,700, which she reached after about two weeks. As of press time, the campaign had raised more than $26,000. After reaching her goal, Schwiethale added stretch goals to the campaign, which included donating copies of the book to partnering organizations in Cambodia, an online pronunciation guide, and adding numbers to the book if the campaign hit certain financial goals.
Schwiethale estimates backers will receive their books in November, though she hopes it will be sooner.
Schwiethale has always been interested in art. Growing up in Cambodia (with regular visits to Seattle), her mother would take art classes and share what she learned with Schwiethale. Her interest in design grew after she got her hands on a bootleg edition of Adobe Photoshop. That hands-on experience as a kid transformed her interest into a passion, which she pursued once she settled in the Pacific Northwest, studying visual communication at Seattle Pacific University.
In creating the book, Schwiethale had to strike a balance between artwork that challenged kids but was also framed in a way that was relatable. She consulted with her son and daughter, who shared their favorite letters with her. “H” for hammock (“ung rrung” in Khmer) for him and “N” for noodles (“kuy-teav” or “mee” in Khmer) for her. Schwiethale’s favorite is “S” for stilt house (“pteah” in Khmer) because it brought back memories of visiting relatives in the Cambodian countryside.
“I really loved how [the stilt house] turned out, just a little picture of the Cambodian countryside,” she said.
For additional feedback, Schwiethale brought sample pages of the book to her family’s Thanksgiving gathering in 2021. She said her elder relatives were encouraging and excited to see her giving life to their Cambodian heritage in a different way.
“We are interpreting the culture in a new way,” Schwiethale said about her generation.
Some of her relatives’ reviews of the book are included on the Kickstarter page. One uncle praised her work, describing the book as “very good,” while one auntie was a bit more critical, saying, “I don’t think jasmine flowers look like that.” Although Schwiethale was initially hesitant to share them, people have told her they enjoyed reading about her family’s responses to the book.
Although Schwiethale learned the basics of reading and writing Khmer from her father as well as in high school, she turned to her mother as she was working on “ABCs of Cambodia” to make sure she was spelling things correctly in Khmer. In addition, her mother helped her with the nuances and details of the cultural aspects Schwiethale was including in the book.
“My mom has been a very valuable asset,” she said, adding that it’s also been great to talk to her mother about Cambodian culture because her face lights up as she shares. “It’s been really neat.”
Cambodian culture for the community and beyond
As she was going through each letter, Schwiethale had to really consider what aspects of Cambodian culture to include. There were some obvious choices such as “A” for Angkor Wat, the iconic ancient temples and national symbol of Cambodia. But others took some time reflecting on her childhood and thinking about what made her life in Cambodia different from life in the United States—and what made it special to her.
For example, she decided on banana leaf for “B” after receiving some nom ansom—sticky rice cakes wrapped in banana leaves, usually sweet and filled with banana or savory, filled with pork—from her mother. Schwiethale was excited to share the cakes with her kids, making her realize that she hadn’t been sharing enough of her culture with them. The nom ansom also made her think of American snacks in plastic wrappers and compared it to the resourcefulness of the Cambodian people and their ability to use what they have available to them.
“ABCs of Cambodia” may be a tool for second-generation Cambodian Americans to connect with their culture and to share with their own kids, but it’s also a book that increases exposure of Cambodian culture to those outside the community. And this happened in a big way when science fiction and fantasy author Brandon Sanderson donated to Schwiethale’s Kickstarter campaign and mentioned it on his outlets.
“That was huge for us,” Schwiethale said, adding that Sanderson’s mention brought his fans to her page and helped her exceed her fundraising goal.
Samantha can be reached at email@example.com.