“Three Flames”: Alan Lightman’s New Novel about Cambodia and Family

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“Three Flames”: Alan Lightman’s New Novel about Cambodia and Family

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3 Questions: Alan Lightman’s new novel about Cambodia and family
MIT writer’s new work, “Three Flames,” explores the fractures and bonds among kin in a rebuilding society.
Peter Dizikes | MIT News Office
October 14, 2019

MIT’s Alan Lightman is a physicist who made a leap to becoming a writer — one with an unusually broad range of interests. In his novels, nonfiction books, and essays, Lightman, a professor of the practice of the humanities at MIT, has explored many topics, from science to society. His new novel, “Three Flames,” recently published by Counterpoint Press, follows the fortunes of a family in post-civil war Cambodia. It’s a topic Lightman knows well: He is the founder the Harpswell Foundation, which works to empower a new generation of female leaders in Cambodia and across Southeast Asia. Lightman recently talked to MIT News about “Three Flames.”

Q: What are the origins of ‘Three Flames”?

A: I’ve been working in Cambodia for 15 years, and I’ve spent a lot of time there, and I’ve heard a lot of stories of families, particularly [about] the residue of the Khmer Rouge genocide in the mid-1970s. Just about anybody you meet in Cambodia today has a relative who was killed or starved or tortured over that period of time. So it’s affected everybody in the entire country. And I have been very interested in how a country can recover its humanity after that kind of devastation, when family members were turned against each other. The Khmer Rouge soldiers rounded up anybody that they had the slightest suspicion about, and encouraged families to turn in anybody that they had any suspicion about. It disrupted families and led to an every-person-for-themselves mentality, which still hasn’t disappeared.

In the face of all that destruction and moral degradation, I also heard stories of courage and resilience and forgiveness. After many years, I thought I was beginning to understand the culture enough to begin writing stories about it. But I waited 10 years before I started writing anything. You have to understand a culture much more deeply to write fiction about it than to write nonfiction, because fiction involves small daily mannerisms, which you have to get right. And you don’t pick that up from a couple of trips.

Q: There are many connected stories in this novel, and many distinctive characters. What is the main theme, and how did you weave that in throughout different parts of the book?

A: The overriding story is the struggle that women have in a male-dominated society. And that, of course, is true not only in Cambodia but in many countries, even the U.S. Almost every chapter of the book has that struggle in it. … A number of the [other] themes in the book are universal. I hope the themes of redemption, and forgiveness, and revenge, and women’s struggles will go beyond Cambodia.

Continued: https://news.mit.edu/2019/alan-lightman ... bodia-1015
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