Katya Cengel is a freelance writer and lectures in the Journalism Department of California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo. She was a features and news writer for the Louisville Courier-Journal from 2003 to 2011, and her work has appeared in the New York Times Magazine, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, Marie Claire, and Newsweek. She is the author of Exiled: From the Killing Fields of Cambodia to California and Back (Potomac Books, 2018) and Bluegrass Baseball: A Year in the Minor League Life (Nebraska, 2012). Her next book will be available this November.
When I began working on a book about the deportation of Cambodian Americans in 2014, friends and family members worried it wouldn’t be successful. They thought the topic was noteworthy and important. They just weren’t sure enough people were paying attention to the intricacies of deportation policy to buy the book.
Then Donald Trump was elected president.
By the time Exiled: From the Killing Fields of Cambodia to California and Back was released in September 2018, deportation was a favorite topic of politicians, activists and even everyday Americans. Suddenly mainstream media was interested in talking about Cambodians who had come to the country as refugees and were now facing exile. What was once a rather obscure topic was being discussed on national radio and television broadcasts. I no longer needed to make the public aware of the issue—they were already talking about it. I had hoped there would be interest, but I had not anticipated quite how timely the topic would become.
I figured this serendipitous timing was not something that could be repeated. I was counting on interest in Russia and the region to help sales of my next book, From Chernobyl with Love: Reporting from the Ruins of the Soviet Union, but I didn’t expect the younger crowd to recognize Chernobyl. I had learned this the hard way while lecturing college students about Chernobyl—considered the world’s worst nuclear accident—and being met with blank stares.
Then this summer before From Chernobyl with Love debuts, HBO released “Chernobyl”, a television miniseries starring Emily Watson that dramatizes the 1986 nuclear plant disaster. Suddenly Chernobyl was all over the news. There were stories in USA Today, the New York Times and Vanity Fair. A generation born after the explosion suddenly was interested in what happened more than three decades ago. Once again the timing of my book release is looking favorable.
Looking back, my first book also was well timed. Just before Bluegrass Baseball: A Year in the Minor League Life was released in 2012 one of the Minor League players I followed in the book became a very Major League name. Jose Altuve was not only moved up to the Majors in 2011, he was also named the Houston Astros’ representative to the All-Star Game in 2012. In 2017 he was named the American League MVP and became a World Series champion.
I can’t take credit for any of this. I have even more trouble explaining it. None of my books are on a similar subject. If I regularly wrote about baseball I might have recognized Altuve was destined to become a stand out. But I didn’t and at the time I thought he was just a sweet, shy young man who happened to be quite short. I wrote about baseball because I was fascinated by the lives the players lived. I wrote about deportees because I felt it was a story that needed to be told. I wrote about the former Soviet Union because it is what came out when I sat down at my computer.
As I work on my fourth book about the time I spent in a children’s psychiatric ward three decades ago once again people are questioning my timing. I tell them not to worry.