Lisa Phu has been a journalist in Alaska for years, covering local issues and statewide politics. Now she’s taking on her own family’s story, in a new podcast series called Before Me.
Her mother, Lan Phu, fled Cambodia during the Khmer Rouge regime in the 70s before coming to the United States. Lisa said there were a lot of parts of that story she didn’t know, and she’d been asking for years to interview her mother.
Now that two episodes of Before Me are out, she sat down with KTOO’s Yvonne Krumrey to talk about what it’s been like making the series.
The following transcript is of a shorter version of the interview than the recording above. It’s been edited for length and clarity.
Yvonne Krumrey: Is there anything that you wish people in Juneau and Alaska understood about the history of the Khmer Rouge?
Lisa Phu: Most people are familiar with the Vietnam War. So I think this is just a piece of our history that a lot of people just aren’t familiar with. So I think just like telling that story that’s been so important to my life and letting folks know this was going on at the same time. It’s just there was so much going on in that region. So yeah, I think it’s just a piece of history that people should know about.
Yvonne Krumrey: In the first episode, your mother tells you the story of how your older sister was killed. And she said something that really stuck with me, I’ll play it.
Lan Phu: It took me so long to be able to repeat the story.
Yvonne Krumrey: How did you feel asking her about these traumatic memories as part of this project?
Lisa Phu: I mean, I think on one hand, I wanted to know them. So like on a very basic level, I wanted a record of what happened in her life. It was important for me to know because I just never heard that story.
I had asked my mom over years if I could interview her. And she said no. Like, she said no many times. And then I forget what year it was, like 2014 or 15. She got in a car accident. And she was fine. But it was just like, “Oh my gosh, we could lose anyone at any moment.” So I was like, “Mom, can I interview you, please?” And she finally said, yes. So, like, I felt okay, because she had obviously thought about it. And she was ready to share with me.
Yvonne Krumrey: You said you’ve been working on the story for six years. Can you talk about why you wanted to do it and how it took to come to fruition? Like, how come six years?
Lisa Phu: So yeah, I had asked my mom after this car accident, Can I interview you? After many times, she finally said yes. And just feasibly, she came to visit me when my daughter was born. So that was just like, the longest time we were in the same location together. So just logistically, it made sense that I would interview her then.
But as far as why I wanted to do it, I think in my mind growing up, I always assumed I would tell her story one day — or my family story. But yeah, so I interviewed her, just like the process of transcribing everything and like, writing everything just takes a super long time to do. Life gets in the way. But yeah, I mean, it just took a long, long time.
Yvonne Krumrey: You’ve been a reporter in Alaska for years. How has that experience prepared you for this project?
Lisa Phu: Um, I think it should have prepared me better. You know, I had been an audio reporter, a public radio reporter. And so I know how to, like, handle a mic and where to put it and stuff. But when I interviewed my mom, it was like, I can’t put this mic in her face. Like, there’s just no way I can do that because on one hand, I wanted to make her feel comfortable, but it was like, I couldn’t be the reporter with my mom.
Yvonne Krumrey: Has hearing more about your mother’s story changed the way you see your work as a reporter at all?
Lisa Phu: You know, like, what I liked about this, doing this work is just like the in-depth nature to it. What’s been really interesting is that, I have also been doing another podcast called Private Right, which is a series about abortion and Alaska. And it’s really intense to like, kind of toggle between both of these stories.
You know, at the root of it, is like motherhood and I’m a mother. And I’m struggling just everyday with being a mom and being a reporter. And then telling my mom’s story, and then reporting on people having the choice or not to have the choice to be a parent. There’s just a lot of intersectionality to the work I’m doing with both podcasts. That makes me pause often, and I’m just like, “whoa.”