Princess Soma Norodom is author of the new book Royal Rebel in which she shares her memoirs. Writer Polly Hanna talks to the “Royal Rebel” about her biography.
While most people think of a princess as only existing in fairytales, one young woman growing up in the United States was indeed of royal lineage; however, this fact was kept secret. Princess Soma Norodom left war-torn Cambodia in 1975 when she was only five-years-old and arrived at a military base in California on the first plane of refugees.
In her new book, Royal Rebel, Soma reflects on her life before returning to Cambodia in 2010, the whirlwind adventures embracing her lost heritage and finding new chapters ready to unfold after moving back to the States.
Several chapters are dedicated to Soma’s father, Prince Norodom Vatvani, whose poor health led her to tread Cambodian soil for the first time in 35 years. Becoming his caretaker deepened her fondness for this well-respected figure within all ranks of Cambodian society. “My father was a loving and caring person, and always there for those who needed help,” Soma reminisces. “I want to continue his legacy to help and less fortunate, and to serve my community and homeland.”
After arriving in Phnom Penh, Soma discovered a new world where her voice could be heard. Inspired by Dr Kol Pheng of Pannasastra University, she hosted a popular radio talk show interviewing all the movers and shakers. She attended events as Cambodia’s newest socialite, even though staying low-key was the norm for royal family members. Her outgoing and fun-loving personality earned her the title, “Royal Rebel” – a term coined as part of a 2011 magazine article.
Her book is full of heart-warming stories of times she spent with friends, such as trips to Phnom Tamao Wildlife Center and eating at Mike’s Burgers. “When you are away in a foreign country, your friends are your family,” says Soma. “Our friends in Cambodia became our family as we celebrated events and holidays together.” At times reading the personal accounts seems a bit voyeuristic, but of course, that private glimpse into another life is what memoirs are all about.
Food is a central part of Soma’s life; there is something about eating a meal together that bonds people together. The US is full of favourite dining options, such as In-n-Out Burger or I.H.O.P, that are missed in the Kingdom, but what about when the tables are turned? Soma boasts, “If I crave Cambodian food, I just go to my favorite Khmer cuisines, which are on almost every block in Long Beach. But my mom makes the best Khmer food. My friends all love her cooking. I love fried fish and Cambodian beef kabob.”
Soma, who currently lives in the US but plans a return trip to Cambodia this year, was a fashion trendsetter in Phnom Penh, from her hair to her shoes. Although some things never change, others do. “I used to wear scarves with my outfits, as that was my signature look. I finally stopped wearing them. I still wear the colour black, and in the US black is very popular. You will hardly see me wear dresses, as I mainly wear a pantsuit.” She adds that the jumpsuit is a symbol that defines her. “First, as a woman who is very strong and independent; and second, as an individual who doesn’t follow the crowd, or get sucked into peer pressure. Finally, pantsuits are adjustable, conform to all weather, just like me, as I can adjust to any environment and can be diverse with all different types of people.”
Underneath the glamour is a woman of substance with a firm foundation. “Strong leadership starts with education. Knowledge is power, and if you have it, you are a leader. No leader is dumb. If you can be educated in books and in life, you can be anything you aspire to be.”
Soma admits that her “nickname from the royal family is the ‘Educated Princess’.” She adds, “I would rather be known as an educated princess than a drunken princess,” referring to the misinterpretation of her title as Royal Rebel. She hopes her book will clear any misgivings.
Inspiring others is core to Soma’s character. “You can be anything you aspire to be if you study hard and don’t listen to or hang around negative people. That is what a leader is about – follow your heart, and take action to accomplish your goals.”
This belief motivated Soma to create a foundation to provide scholarships for students to attend schools and universities. The first scholarship will be awarded on Oct. 21 during her book launch at Fresno State University, organised by the Cambodian Student Association. Proceeds from book sales will go toward scholarships for students in the Mass Communication and Journalism Department.
It may appear that Soma has come full circle, but surely there is more to come. “Living in Cambodia made me see the big picture of why I am here and my purpose in life. This was my soul-searching experience. Eventually, I will return to Cambodia. This is my homeland, and I will never forget where I came from. I will always help the poor and less fortunate as long as I am alive. This was the prophecy when I was born and it is now my destiny.”
For more information on how to obtain a copy of Royal Rebel, visit somanorodom.com.