Serretta Malaikham remembers sitting in the backseat of a car. She remembers “yelling and bodies falling.”
That’s all she remembers about the day her father shot her mother and uncle just outside the car, killing them both. He later took his own life.
“I think my brain has really tried to push a lot of that out. I think I grew accustomed to hating talking about it,” said Malaikham, who was three years old when the incident occurred.
A May 2022 graduate with a bachelor’s degree in communication from the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, Malaikham has started talking about it—a decision that began with a project she completed for Rising Rock, the storytelling class that features pieces written, photographed, videotaped and broadcast by UTC students.
In her project, “Journey to Freedom,” she documented the dangerous and terrifying journey her grandparents— Manichanh and Khampoon Sonexayarath—made when they fled their home in the Southeastern Asian country of Laos during the Vietnam War. The Viet Cong were killing anyone they said was disobeying their orders or they thought might be collaborating with the U.S.
“I thought I was going to die. I didn’t think I was going to become a person. They were killing everyone from left to right,” Manichanh said in “Journey to Freedom.”
Her family eventually made it to Nashville, where they still live. After the death of her birth parents, Malaikham’s grandparents adopted her. She now calls them Mom and Dad.
Her birth mother was the daughter of Manichanh, but the family never talked about the details of her death. She said she doesn’t remember anything clearly about her birth parents and knows what they look like only through photographs.
Her grandparents don’t even know she’s now talking about the killings at all, she admitted hesitantly with a slightly embarrassed smile.
“This is actually the first time I’ve decided to be kind of upfront about my story just because I don’t like the whole pity feeling whenever I tell people what happened in my life,” Malaikham said.
“I don’t let that story define me and I don’t want that to be a part of who I am because I’m way more than just what happened to me when I was three.”
She credits the bravery of telling the details of the deaths to Billy Weeks, creator and director of Rising Rock. After she finished “Journey to Freedom,” he insisted there had to be more to her grandparents’ story.
“He said, ‘It wasn’t just rainbows and sunshine as soon as they got to America.’ So then we just had a whole heart-to-heart, and I opened up to him.
“He was honestly the reason why I decided to push more with the story because he was like, ‘You shouldn’t let your mom’s legacy die with you. She deserves to be honored, too.’”
Weeks described her ability to tell stories with photographs as “simply amazing.”
“Her images are always technically sound with beautiful composition, but what her images do best are tell stories. I always feel like I know the people in each of her photographs,” he said.
“Serretta has been able to bring that same kind of compassion to her other communication skills like writing and audio.”
She combines those skills in “Journey to Freedom” Weeks said.
“This story is a great example of Serretta’s communication skills and it leaves me with a lasting description.”
She had never asked her grandparents about their personal story until her Rising Rock project was due in about a week, she said. Sitting in their car in their driveway and listening to her grandmother talk gave Malaikham more than just a finished assignment.
“I was so more empathizing with how she was feeling in those moments of escaping,” Malaikham said. “My mom has extreme anxiety, and now it makes so much sense why she does.
“You know growing up, mom/ daughter relationships are always kind of rocky. This actually made us a lot closer.”
This is an updated version of a story that first appeared in the spring 2022 issue of The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga Magazine.