Balancing act

There is a widespread misunderstanding that Cambodia does not have any serious-minded literature. According to Teri Yamada, professor of Asian studies, it is instead the infrastructure of publication and distribution that is lacking. The main problem though, he says, is that a writer who dares to critique the social and political status quo risks dire consequences.

April 18 2017 Text: Teri Yamada
Just what makes a “successful” writer in today’s rapidly modernizing Cambodia with its digital reality and skyscraper satellite cities inexorably colonizing the urban landscape? How do writers survive in a culture valorizing conspicuous consumption: smart phones, FaceBook, designer fashion and fancy cars? 
 
Ironically, most writers today face similar problems to those expressed in the 2002 “Publishing in Cambodia” research report [1]. There is still only a small literate audience who enjoys reading poetry and fiction. This is partially due to so few public libraries in rural areas – even in the major cities – that would provide an opportunity to read new Cambodian literature; nor has the public education system created  new instruction on contemporary Cambodian literature.
 
Moreover, there is still no coherent distribution system for literary books, although The Book Federation, a new NGO established in 2004, made a good attempt to correct this gap by aligning the distribution of  humanities publications with the Ministry of Education’s distribution system to public schools. This project failed.
 
There is also still pirating of books through inexpensive Xerox copies. Even though a copyright law was passed in 2003, it is rarely enforced. Finally, since most authors self publish they incur publication costs of US$1,000 for small print runs of several hundred copies. Covering this expense is difficult for young writers often with monthly incomes of under U.S.$400 a month. 
 
These difficulties may be why the incorrect perception stubbornly persists that there are no literary writers of note in Cambodia. The expat organizers of the 2016 Kampot Literary Festival even failed to invite Cambodia’s SEA Write award winner SOK Chanphal to participate in their event. [2]He attended anyway. Why this cultural misconception persists is confounding since the younger generation of emerging Cambodian writers are often interviewed in the Phnom Penh Post, one of the major English language newspapers in Cambodia.  
 
Among them are YENG Chheangly, a young poet trained in the modernist style  of poetry offered through the Nou Hach Literary Association’s workshops since 2002. His edited, bilingual collection of modernist poets, “In the Shadow” was published in 2016. [3] SO  Phina  has organized a new collective of women writers and recently published two edited collections of short fiction, including Crush Collection (2015). [4] Historical fiction writer SUKSIRI Bounchan, a female writer and professor of English at the Royal University of Phnom Penh, has constructed the educational website “Khmer Story Lovers.” It provides online access to a range of Cambodian literature for the general public. These writers are just a few representatives from the new group of emerging young writers who are actively creating new writers groups and self publishing. [5]
         
Although this younger generation of writers is interested in a wide range of themes including romance, history, and social realism, they must exert caution when it comes to publishing socially critical literature. Socially critical writers who become too popular with the general public, face threats and even assassination in Cambodia.
 
The popular writer and poet Kong Bunchhoeun was forced to flee Cambodia after receiving death threats over his novel The Destiny of Tat Marina (2000). This novel, a loosely fictionalized account of his niece’s affair with an undersecretary of state whose wife contracted a successful acid attack against his niece and then avoided charges, exposed the privilege of the extremely wealthy in Cambodia who remain above the law. [6]  
 
More recently, the beloved social critic Kem Ley was murdered in July 2016 during a period when he posted a series of new folktales on his popular blog, These were social critical tales in the form of political satire that humorously exposed corrupt business and political practices in Cambodia’s wealthy ruling elite. [7]
 
Writers in Cambodia must cautiously walk a narrow line between expressing social criticism and fear of political retaliation.
 
 
 
[1] Authored by Helen Jarvis, Christine Lalonde and Nhean Lakhena (Online: Select Books, 2006).  
 
[2] On the 2016 Kampot Writers Festival see writer Thun Thavry’s letter to the editor “The Disorganized Writers Festival” in the Phnom Penh Post  (11 November 2016); on SOK Chanphal see “Enter the Next Generation of Khmer Literature” in the Phnom Penh Post (2 March 2011), http://www.phnompenhpost.com/lift/enter-next-generation-khmer-literature.
 
[3] On YENG Chheangly see “On the Attraction of Khmer Writing” in the Phnom Penh Post (27 May 2016), http://www.phnompenhpost.com/post-weekend/attraction-khmer-writing
 
[4] On SO Phina see “My Phnom Penh: Phina So, Writer” in the Phnom Penh Post (10 June 2016), http://www.phnompenhpost.com/post-weekend/my-phnom-penh-phina-so-writer; “Amplified Voices Heard at Women’s Literature Event,” in the Phnom Penh Post (10 December 2015), http://www.phnompenhpost.com/lifestyle/amplified-voices-heard-womens-lit… “A Novelist Seeks to Send Young Women a Positive Message” on Voice of America (29 July 2016),  http://www.voacambodia.com/a/a-novelist-seeks-to-send-young-women-a-posi….
 
[5] For some English translations of fiction produced by emerging writers in Cambodia see Teri Shaffer Yamada, ed. ’Just a Human Being’ and Other Tales from Contemporary Cambodia (2013) and Modern Literature of Cambodia: Transnational Voices of Transformation (2016).
 
[6] On KONG Bunchhoeun see “Beloved Writer Kong Bunchhoeun Dies” in the Phnom Penh Post (18 April 2016), http://www.phnompenhpost.com/lifestyle/beloved-writer-kong-bunchhoeun-dies.
 
[7] On Kem Ley see “Kem Ley’s Final Fables” in The Cambodia Daily (16 July 2016), https://www.cambodiadaily.com/culture/kem-leys-final-fables-115509/.