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Black: A Memoir by Kyle Kao

The pain passes  down through generations until someone decides to feel it.

Depression feels like an everlasting shadow of death lurking in the corners of my life. I know, I live with it every day. He shows up in late hours drunk pulling me into his world of despair, guilt, and shame.

That unwanted roommate who would not give a shit about you keeps drinking and leaves his mess on the ground. And you end up feeling like a fool cleaning up after him. I sit here and think about that depression reflecting on a book recently published by Kyle Kao, Black: A Memoir.

Watching life go past sitting in the back seat of a taxi going home, I kept thinking about Kyle’s book. It’s been a while reading a book that made me think and feel some inkling of emotion. It felt like I was left winded and breathless as I closed the last chapter, hoping the story would not end. I had to suck in my breath, sighing as if saying goodbye to a good friend. A friend I came to know and yet never met.

Ghost Of The Past

In awe with what I just read, in the past 12 days, left me wondering how his book resonated with me. As cliche, it is to say. Kyle’s book took me on that journey bringing up the ghost of the past. A past all too familiar in the 50 years of my life and living 20 of those years in Cambodia.

Living in two worlds apart yet so entwined my sense of self and reality changed dramatically. And yet these two worlds still hover over my head and heart. Who would have thought Cambodia still has that much of a hold on me. A Maori man from Aotearoa New Zealand and the layers of self that comes with that.


Kyle was diagnosed, with alexithymia, detached from any sense of feeling or emotion. He reflects on growing up poor, in a family emotionally torn and detached from their circumstances. Where his mother, not only looms over his life, with the expectation of having to grow up fast. And learn to do things for himself; pitted against the anger and shame woven into the fabric of his life. Embodying that shame and anger on his own. It is the circumstances of inherited trauma and the layers of his identity that shapes his world when growing up.

Kyle writes about what it meant to be a young and innocent boy; hearing the stories from his grandfather. His comfort place of innocence, yet to have that place taken out from him. Kyle talks of inherited trauma as something that is intergenerational out of the fear of shame and poverty. And the whole sense of self-hate and anger around these feelings. That inherited trauma that follows us around like baggage holding us down. But it only seems too heavy if we let it.

Quiet Moments of Tears

There are also those quiet moments in life where tears well up from past hurt in Kyle’s narration of his story. As Kyle’s tears flood his life I can’t help but feel his tears too. Sometimes those same tears are the only comfort I have in anything else. And yet maybe in Kyle’s alexithymia that craving to feel any kind of emotion, or be emphatic to others, is because of inherited trauma. That trauma deprived us of the need to feel loved and wanted.

Kyle lives with a reality of past hurts and pain as his mother talks openly about her fear of being poor. Poverty where no one wants you or could ever do anything for you. Enduring a life of tears, failed dreams and hopes lost in the depth of nothingness. Empty and forlorn. And yet in contrast to Kyle’s alexithymia, my sense of emotion and ability to feel anything is on the other spectrum. I’m too sensitive and always in tears figuring out a mix of feelings of painful realities. Maybe this is why Kyle’s book feels like a long-lost friend. The friend I want but know I’ll never have.

Rejection after Rejection

Maybe Kyle’s alexithymia is his way of dealing with an overload of unfiltered emotion unsure as to where and how he feels if he feels anything at all. Yet in Kyle’s book it is like layers, not just in chronological order, but a story upon a story. Multiple stories struggle to find a deep sense of self. It is his daily mantra; the need to find meaning. Enlightenment. Acceptance.

Kyle writes as if his journey is about learning to process feelings and emotions divorced from it all at the same time. Kyle opens up, yet is afraid in his quest for love and connection. Alfonso, a friend he meets in Costa Rica, leaves an impression on Kyle only to have that door closed on him in a litany of rejection after rejection. What seems like a landscape travelled too often and too familiar. In the journey to understand himself more. Not just understanding but feeling, experiencing, and hoping for the true essence of love. But then again he writes as if asking that very question. What is love?

A Craftsman of Words

Kyle writes from a place in the lowest denominator of his circumstance. Yet his ability to write has rescued him. Pulling him out of a pit from suffocating enabling him to breathe again. Kyle is a word craftsman just like his grandfather telling stories and making toys for him and his brother. A craftsman etching out words turning nothing into something. Pinpointing his feelings and opening up to the world if not to himself. He diagnoses his journey in life. He names his problems even if he doesn’t know them. And although his depression eats at his soul somehow he lets it drive him to find meaning in who he is in the present from the past. Asking those existential questions of himself.

I was interested in Kyle’s story because of how he sees the world from a Khmer perspective. A perspective that can only be his in his reality. Kyle’s view of his reality parallels that of many other young Khmer men enduring the same hurts and pain from inherited trauma. And the mental issues that continue to weigh on the expectations loaded on them by their family. Enduring the constant barraging and being labelled a failure. Kyle’s story has several perspectives where his alexithymia, depression and identity struggles play into the heart of his writings. And his writing processes.

Looking Through the Window

Kyle’s identity struggles craved to be part of something or someone yet always looking through the window standing from the outside. His need to go inside and partake in a lifestyle so distant from his own. To be part of something and someone in the true sense of the meaning. It felt like I was reading the story of a man who was never allowed to go inside the house and only live his life looking in from the outside. Everything else he did was to the expectations of his mother and everyone else. Probably because he was taught to fear and mistrust his sense of home. While looking in through the window detached from the inside.

After reading Kyle’s book I kept thinking about what was next for him. What now? But of course, there is no end. There never is. His worldview will always be shaped by his past which will affect his future. In the last chapter, Kyle leaves the scene again in tears after an argument with his mother. Debating the fate of another young boy in his home. Somewhat similar to how he saw himself in the past. Only Kyle knows the answer to the, what now question.

Maybe his writings and reflections will give us a clue as to what will happen. I think about those years of living in Cambodia, and the depression that weighed in on most people I met. It also reflected parts of Kyle’s reality. And yet it was this depression that somehow found its place intertwined with me too. Kyle's story laid upon mine in a fusion of confusion and mixed emotions.

Reflection For A Friend

I wrote to Kyle as soon as I started to read his book and asked if it was okay for me to write a reflection and post it on my blog. Alike, Kyle, writing is my only outlet to live in my own space. Separated from the rest of the world yet inviting it in on my terms. Writing has become the only place where the people who have hurt me can’t take away my sense of self. And I guess this is the same for Kyle in his process and mental state of writing. I can only wish him well. And say thank you to a friend I found in a book, Black: A Memoir.

Kyle is now part of our local creative writing group (Taitech Creative Writing Group) here in Aotearoa New Zealand. He networks with us remotely from Cambodia and is currently working in Europe.

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