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For a brief moment in November 2015, the sleepy town of Kampot in southwestern Cambodia became a national literary hub.
The inaugural edition of the Writers and Readers Festival hosted discussions about Cambodian literature and culture. There were tales of Buddhist death rituals, of life deep inside the rainforest, of a cross-country pilgrimage undertaken by a clown. But, for the most part, the discussions were about Cambodia, rather than by Cambodians: slightly fewer than half of the country-specific talks featured local speakers.
The festival coincided with the launch of the Mekong Review, a polished quarterly journal modelled on the London Review of Books. The first issue evinced a similar dearth of indigenous voices. Despite being headquartered in Phnom Penh, only one Cambodian name appeared in the index: Polin Soth, a Khmer author who has lived abroad since 1974. The piece included was not contemporary, but an extract of his 1980 novel L’Anarchiste, translated from its original French.
“I have experimented with trying to get [local] writers to contribute, but it’s a lot of work,” says Minh Bui Jones, the Mekong Review’s Australian editor-in-chief. “[Literary culture in] Cambodia is a long way behind not just the rest of Asia but the rest of the Mekong region [which comprises China, Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam].”
It is hard to think of a country whose cultural community, specifically, has experienced the kind of devastation that Cambodia’s has. Between 1975 and 1979, the ruling party, the Khmer Rouge, perpetuated a regime of terror that purged the country of its educated classes: being literate, understanding a foreign language, even wearing glasses, was a potential death sentence. The most widely accepted estimate is that only 10 per cent of the nation’s artists and intellectuals survived those brutal years. Many who did — like Soth — did so by fleeing the country and not coming back.
Nearly 40 years on, the regeneration of many artistic spheres in Cambodia has been impressive: in 2015, film-maker Polen Ly and visual artist Sareth Svay were among the artists who won prestigious international awards in their fields. But, as was strikingly evident at the Kampot festival, the country’s authors are still struggling to find their voices.
Memoirs of the Khmer Rouge years have found audiences in the west, but these have mostly been written abroad, often with foreign co-authors and in languages other than Khmer. For writers living and working in Cambodia, publishing opportunities are scarce. Those with creative talent often opt for better paid jobs, in the media or in writing song lyrics for the commercial pop industry.
“[Writers] need to do a proper job and sometimes they don’t have time to focus on writing,” says Chheangly Yeng, a prizewinning author, who works in telecoms but spends his weekends carting his “magic library” of children’s books to remote villages. “In Cambodia, things are really difficult.”
The creation of a contemporary literary genre is particularly tricky in Cambodia because of the language’s written structure, argues Teri Yamada, who founded the Nou Hach Literary Association in 2002. “Cambodian writing has a lot of Pali and Sanskrit aesthetic influence,” she says. Traditionally there are no paragraphs, no sentence breaks and no quoted dialogue. “[Traditional writing] has lots of adjectives, it’s extremely descriptive, it tends to not have so much of a plot oftentimes,” says Yamada. And, critically for writers dreaming of international acclaim, “It is extremely challenging to translate that writing into English.”
The Nou Hach Literary Association offers literary prizes, publishes annual anthologies of new work in Khmer and is widely considered the most prestigious outlet for contemporary Cambodian fiction. Through workshops led by foreign writers, and the kinds of work it rewards, it has fostered a shift towards a more minimalist style of prose. “Language is always changing,” she says, comparing the transition to the creation of the modern Japanese style almost a century ago.
Yamada believes the current predominance of “development literature” in Cambodia — stories of heroic protagonists overcoming poverty — is in part a hangover from the 1990s, when the government and some non-governmental organisations offered lucrative prizes to authors who wrote on the theme of national progress. “It’s OK when you have an award, but if you have it linked to some kind of special topic then I’m not so sure,” she says.
The question now is whether writers can break free of these restrictions and find a way to produce work that is distinctively Khmer in both style and subject matter. George Chigas, senior lecturer in Cambodian studies at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, thinks they can.
“A lot of Cambodian cultural innovation has been the result of taking outside influences and fusing them, transposing them, into something new,” he says. Chigas pinpoints three moments of cultural meeting: with India in the 1st century, Siam in the 15th, and the French colonial protectorate. He believes the stage is now set for a fourth. “I’m really curious to see how this Western influence is going to undergo this process of syncretism and emerge as something uniquely Khmer,” he says.
Recently, events have started to echo his predictions. One writer, 37-year-old Phina So says that, in the absence of any contemporary literature programmes at school or university, she learnt her craft via workshops organised by Nou Hach and PEN Cambodia.
From this ad hoc training, So went on to chair PEN Cambodia’s women’s committee. In March 2015, she published Crush Collection, an anthology of stories by Cambodian women that both upheld and undermined traditional tropes: tales of romance, but all with unresolved, unhappy endings. “As long as we write in Khmer, the traditional element is there,” she says.
Meanwhile, magic library operative Yeng, took his disappointment at the underrepresentation of Khmer writers in Kampot as motivation to co-found Slap Paka Khmer: a writers’ circle set up to encourage new writing, multiply publishing platforms and ensure that at this year’s Writers and Readers Festival, the line-up looks different.
With Slap Paka Khmer’s help, he is also editing a bilingual anthology of poetry. “We won’t quit, because writing is our labour of love,” he says.