Essay: Robert Horneon contemporary Cambodian literature

Indirect Speech: Contemporary Writing in Cambodia

In 2010 Tararith Kho, co-founder of Cambodia’s Nou Hach Literary Association, was forced to resign his position and leave the country for the United States after repeated telephone and email threats against his life from high-level government officials. In a place like Cambodia, this was a matter to be taken very seriously. ‘My life was on edge for speaking on behalf of the oppressed to advocate for human rights and freedom of expression’ said Kho in an interview with New Mandala Magazine in 2012, the year he became a Scholars at Risk Fellow at Harvard University.

Oppression and control of writers and literature has been a standard measure of social and cultural life in Cambodia for a thousand years at least, but since the last elections in 2013 there has been the appearance of change. The Prime Minister, Hun Sen, has created his own Facebook account and at last look was celebrating nearly three and a half million Likes.  Some people in Cambodia are saying that the discussion of political topics on this page represents a more open approach to politics and signals a loosening of the grip on writers; it is certainly a novel twist.

As a writer engaged in a novel about Cambodia, I wanted to know the extent to which Western writers had begun to engage with realistic Cambodian characters; to gauge how far we had moved on from the adventure novels of the past, the Western hero with one-dimensional indigenous support characters. So in March this year I went to Cambodia to speak to writers in person about how much the government will allow them to say, and to examine the small and precarious literary market there. I also had a close look at who was writing what about Cambodia now.

Hun Sen has been the Prime Minister of Cambodia since 1985. At the famous United Nations-controlled elections in 1993 he lost, but refused to step down. With a solid grip on the military, he ended up sharing the Prime Ministership with Prince Ranariddh until his successful military coup ousted Ranariddh altogether in 1997. Hun Sen began his career as a Khmer Rouge Battalion Commander, who fled to Vietnam in 1977 when he discovered his name was on a purge list. Following the 1979 Vietnamese invasion (or liberation), which drove Pol Pot into the North West jungle, Hun Sen became Foreign Minister in the government of occupation which took power. He may have been fortunate that he was stationed within running distance of the Vietnam border, but Hun Sen has not survived the decades since simply by being lucky. He is now 63 years old and has vowed to remain Prime Minister until he is 74.

Hun Sen will stretch his power as far he can without compromising the stream of foreign aid and Non-Government Organisation (NGO) money which his country needs, nor will he risk the profits from his apparently corrupt system of crony capitalism. In March 1997 multiple grenades were lobbed into the crowd at a demonstration run by Opposition Leader Sam Rainsy. The assailants escaped by running through the massed ranks of Hun Sen’s praetorian body guard, which mysteriously opened up to let them through. Sam Rainsy survived that day but many innocent people were killed or horrifically injured. The summer of 2008 saw two motorbike gunmen shoot dead a journalist from the Khmer Conscience opposition newspaper as he walked in downtown Phnom Penh. His twenty one year old son was killed for good measure, and defamation lawsuits Hun Sen filed over the next year caused newspapers critical of him to close. And in January 2014 police opened fire on a garment worker demonstration demanding a raise in the minimum wage from what was then $85 per month, well short of the $160 poverty line. Four people were killed and dozens wounded. More than twenty organisers were woken from their beds that night and placed in prison. Most of them are still there.

Cambodian elections have been widely disputed since 2003; at the most recent poll in 2013 both sides claimed victory. So Cambodian politics are still a roughhouse business to say the least.

At the last two elections there have been accusations of vote-rigging and fraud. One writer I spoke to claimed that, on election night, figures favourable to the opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party were flashed up on TV screens. A blackout of coverage occurred for two minutes and the screens reappeared with a different set of figures, this time favourable to the Government. No Government official, judge or TV station manager in his right mind would disobey a direct order from Hun Sen.

To continue protest in these conditions requires tremendous courage.

So, does the Prime Minister’s Facebook page signal a change in Government style? Certainly not in the view of Sam Rainsy (exiled in Paris because of defamation charges laid against him by the Government) who led a chorus of complaints that Hun Sen had abused tax money by tasking Government officers to create phoney ‘Likes.’

I mentioned to an expatriate university professor of my acquaintance that it had been suggested that Cambodia was opening up. ‘Bullshit!’ was the impressively vehement retort. He claims the Government was at least as ready to take action against perceived threats as it ever has been. As it happened, only a week after this conversation, Hun Manet, the son of the Prime Minister (and a youth leader and military commander) warned a youth congress that if people did not vote for the Government at the next elections there would likely be civil war. It doesn’t sound like Dad is preparing to go gracefully. So what is the situation of writers and publishing in Cambodia in this environment? Could the fate of Tararith Kho be repeated today?

Phina So, fiction writer and Director of the Women Writers Committee – PEN Cambodia, certainly thinks so. Phina and a group of other women writers have self-published a book called Crush Collection – stories about being strong, hopeful and independent women. Another anthology called My Most Critical Day will be launched later this year. ‘It might be possible to write about poverty or some social problems,’ she said, ‘but if any member of the government was mentioned specifically as causing problems, then your life would be in danger.’ So while Phina may be able to write stories encouraging women to say no to men and to determine their own futures, to suggest that anyone in Government was failing in their responsibilities towards women would be another matter altogether. We talked about the pressures on young women today and particularly the impact that folk stories and traditional Buddhist ‘chhbap srey’ or code of conduct for women, still have in Cambodia. The ‘chhbap’ regulates women’s behaviour and was an official part of the curriculum in Cambodian schools until as recently as 2007 and is still taught in many places today. ‘Women are still aware of it, and men expect it,’ she says. The stories that Phina and her colleagues write are meant to provide a counterpoint, an alternative for women’s behaviour..

Phina’s observation about freedom of expression was reflected by prominent young poet Chhengly Yeng. ‘If I say something directly about a member of the Government, maybe I will not be here to write any more poems.’ He smiles, almost laughs, as he says this. There seems no chance that he will step over the informal border of what is permitted. What concerns Chhengly is poverty and inequality. One poem, The Woman, was inspired by the sight of an exhausted woman working as a brick-carter on a building site, with a baby left on a dirty rug beside her. In Recycle Bottle Collector another woman digs deep into piles of rubbish to retrieve bottles that others have not found. She spends her days covered in stink and slime. When she returns home her child says, ‘Have you brought any food?’ Chhengly is disturbed by the things he sees; he writes about them, but he may not allocate blame or advocate for change in Government policy. His most recent project is a cartoon book aimed at nine or ten year olds entitled I’m Not Afraid of Ghosts, which he workshops in schools in his own attempt to help young people to become strong and to counter a national cultural fixation on ghosts and the unhappy spirits of those who have died violently or unexpectedly.

So, the Government has created a line in the sand, and writers must craft their works with self-preservation in mind. One poet, Sou Khemrin, has recently been publishing poetry critical of the government and has received a number of messages asking him to change his direction. Khemrin’s work has appeared in a number of magazines, such as Angkor Thom, Popular and Dara, and he has published his own book The Embarrassment of the Dog. But the Government has taken a different line with Khemrin. Rather than threatening imprisonment or issuing death threats, Khemrin told me that ‘officials in the Government have been persuading me several times to join their party and asked for me to stop writing about bad things of the Government. But now I am still an independent writer.’ He went on to say ‘no-one has threatened me yet, but still day by day I live in fear because other writers were arrested and other are living in third country.’

This new tactic of ‘bring your enemies closer’ implies that by joining the ruling Cambodian People’s Party, good things can come in the future as part of Hun Sen’s patronage system. Khemrin described the themes of his writing as ‘the land grabbing, deforestation, immigration and … corruption of the Cambodia Government.’ It seems that there would be potentially enough in there for the Government to be upset about – but none of his poems are translated into English yet. Khemrin has vowed to fight on as an independent voice. He was happy to have his name used in this article.

But Cambodia’s two most prolific and famous writers, Mak Suong and Sok Chanphal, have not been courted so openly by government officials. Mak was raised in Kompong Cham province by his widowed mother, who has been a huge influence on his life. At school a teacher spotted his ability and encouraged him. Mak began to write at the age of fifteen and won a prize. Then his mother took the extraordinary step of bringing her talented young son and his manuscript to the city – a very expensive trip for a poor family – to the house of a famous writer they had heard interviewed on the radio. The writer encouraged Mak but would not publish him, so he eventually gave his manuscript to a bookshop publisher in the Orussey Market in Phnom Penh and thought little more of it. Two years later when he returned to Phnom Penh to attend university he happened upon his own book in a shop and was amazed and thrilled. When he went back to the bookshop the proprietor said, ‘Where have you been, you silly boy. I’ve been looking for you everywhere.’ She had $50 in royalties waiting for him. This was a huge amount of money twelve years ago and he gave it all to his mother. He was eighteen years old.

By 2012, Mak had written five novels and 200 short stories. In an interview that year with the Phnom Penh Post he said that he likes to highlight something negative in society that needs to be changed. His 2005 novel Death in Aranh focused on young women being trafficked and sold in brothels. His favourite book is Boyfriend, the first Cambodian novel featuring a gay male couple. A recent novel Meteorite centres around characters that are sperm; their dialogue is quick and snappy as they sprint off towards an ovum. Nine months and ten days later a baby boy is abandoned in a rubbish bin.

Mak reads newspapers for ideas: ‘Those articles inspired me to write my novel criticising society,’ he said. The only real negative feedback from readers has been about the homosexual one – people asking why he is promoting only that kind of love. We agreed that this reaction will happen anywhere in the world, not just Cambodia. So, while Mak has highlighted social problems, by treading the same fine line as other Cambodian writers he has avoided trouble with the Government.

So has Sok Chanphal. Chanphal read little or nothing as a child as there were simply no books around his poor village in the early 1990s. His mother separated from his father and made cakes and sold them on the side of the road to survive (there is no social welfare safety net in Cambodia). His mother taught him to be a good person according to Buddhist teachings – focusing especially on the need to be unselfish and kind to others.   When he made it to university Chanphal was further inspired by visiting international writers. Between the age of eighteen and twenty he became an obsessive writer and produced five novels, all published in book form.

But, while Chanphal’s story has some echoes of Mak’s, with the absent father, the very important connection to his mother, and a high school teacher with the critically important dose of encouragement, his writing is quite different.

I asked Chanphal about three short stories of his I had read in English. In The Wallet a wealthy doctor drops his bill-fold in a bar and has it returned to him by a poor flower seller. Even though the wallet contains as much money as the flower seller could make in ten years, the girl wants no reward in this life for her excellent deed. The doctor is so affected by the goodness of the girl, that he is changed and performs an operation for free on a roadside crash victim. The victim turns out to be the flower seller’s father – the karma is instant.

Another story, Buried Treasure sees a poor villager turn away from a crowd gathered excitedly around the excavation of some treasure. The reward for his disinterest in wealth comes when the ‘treasure’ turns out to be unexploded ordinance and the greedy villagers are blown up. And in The Last Part of My Life a man dying of cancer is happy because his illness has rid him of the need to work hard every day. It has allowed him to paint and to be the person he wants to be, without having to support himself in old age. Why hope for a better future he philosophises, when you have today?

I suggested to Chanphal that each of these stories seemed to be influenced by the monk stories of the Gatiloke, the Theravada Buddhist Way of Life. Chanphal agreed that the stories reflect that his concerns are with the kind of personal morality which has been central to the traditional Buddhist writings – where the individual must subvert personality to the social code – stories which have dominated Cambodian literature and social life. The folk stories told by monks promote any form of ambition as a sin; greed is deadly. Devotion to family and acceptance of your born position in this life will lead to an improvement in the next. The idea is summed up by a couple of sentences from John Burgess’s 2013 novel Woman of Angkor, ‘Rank is a prize awarded by heaven. It reflects virtue and cannot be seized.’ One well known story is The Origin of the Kounlok Bird. A widow abandons her three girls when she meets a man who brings her money from his robberies. When she eventually goes to find her daughters where she left them in the jungle it is too late; the spirit of the forest has almost completed their transformation into birds, and they fly away with their famous mournful kounlok cry: they are avian now, but still remember their humanity. The woman, who has committed the dual sins of abandoning her family and also succumbing to the desire for wealth, dies of exhaustion and starvation after following the fleeing birds through the jungle. This story is from a very ancient literary tradition with elements of animism and spirit presence pre-dating Buddhism and even Hinduism, back to the second century AD.

As if these teaching stories are not enough, virtue is more didactically set out in the Chhbap Codes of Conduct. There are codes for all people, but the Chhbap Srey mentioned above is the most famous. The Chhap Srey was written in rhyme and chanted in schools, memorised, copied down and used in tests. ‘A woman should be shy, soft and sweet in her communication, avoid speaking loudly, move without being heard, and she must be protected, ideally never leaving the company of her relatives before her marriage.’ If a husband does something wrong the wife should never criticise; if he has a bad idea the wife should gently persuade him, and ideally have him think the good idea was his in the first place. The Chhap Srey was officially taken off the school curriculum in 2007, although the Minister for Women’s Affairs, Ing Kantha Phavi recently acknowledged that it is still taught in rural schools; this in a nation which is 80 per cent rural. As Phina So pointed out to me in our interview, the Chhbap remains a strong cultural influence.

The cultural expectation that arises from the influence of the Chhbap and other Buddhist teachings encouraging adherence to the social code and subsuming individuality is that young people from the peasant class do not write stories and above all they do not write stories critical of their social betters. Further, the core epic text, The Reamker, or Khmer version of the Ramayana, shows the king as rightful in his position by virtue of having defeated evil demons and ogres to regain his stolen wife and his usurped birthright. The written epic is closely related to masked dance and show play versions which showed types with which the social classes are meant to identify. There is certainly no mention of brave peasant lads writing novels and stirring the pot or going against traditional teachings.

I suggested to Chanphal that Mak Suong might in fact be stirring the pot in his writing and he agreed with great enthusiasm for Mak’s work.

Chanphal also strongly asserted the idea that the nation is still affected by the lack of ‘wise and knowledgeable people’ who were wiped out by Pol Pot’s Maoist agrarian Khmer Rouge regime from 1975 to 1979. Writers, teachers, artists, dancers, anyone with associations with French or Buddhist culture, were murdered in huge numbers. All schools were closed and some turned into pig sties. Literacy itself has still not recovered.

The current Government has begun to reopen schools, often named after the Prime Minister, but many people say the schools are pitifully provided for with books and other materials, especially in the country; and teachers receive such low wages that they are forced to take daily bribes from their students in order to survive.

So, one problem facing Cambodian writers is that still only a small percentage of the population can read with the sophistication required to engage with literature. With some school openings, and with the assistance of NGOs and international charities, this situation is slowly improving. But there is an enormous amount to be done. According to UNESCO figures the transition rate from Lower Secondary to Upper Secondary increased from 63% in 2001 to 71.5% by 2007 and then waned to 70.2% in 2013. The adult literacy rate was 67.3% in 1998 and 79.7% in 2013. Youth literacy (15-24 yo) hovers around 87%. There is a very slow grind to universal literacy and, more importantly for writers, to having a core of the population with more highly developed skills. The Cambodian Government spends 2.6% of its GDP on education, compared to Australia’s 4.5% of a vastly greater pot.

To be a writer then is to inhabit a marginal place in the mind of the new Cambodia. Chanphal himself receives discouragement from acquaintances along the lines that writing is just a waste of time as it does not make money.

To compound the problem of literacy, in the last five years writers have faced hugely increased entertainment competition from online games, movies and other visual media imports. In January 2016, Netflix opened for business amid great fanfare. It is said that the educated people in Cambodian society are so busy working and studying to further themselves that they have little time for reading. The publishing opportunities that Mak Suong and Sok Chanphal enjoyed ten years ago now are rare. Further, there is no law of copyright so booksellers can photocopy and sell any novel without reference or royalties to the author. Sok Chanphal has novels written but not released. Phina So’s collection of stories is self-published. In the last eight years the NGO Nou Hach Literary Asscoiation has brought out two small collections of stories with some translated into English. Poets can get a run in limited issue magazines limited issue magazines such as Angkor Thom, Popular and Dara, mentioned above, as well as in Nou Hach publications.’.

Mak Suong points out that the publishing situation in Cambodia is extremely tough. ‘Cambodian people don’t like reading books. They only spend their time with social media especially, youth. So I don’t publish new books (novels). There is a popular website which buys some writers’ stories to publish on their page and I sell my stories for this page only.’ The pay rate at this Sabay website is $50 per each of three parts of a novel. This website itself is interesting for a number of reasons. Its ‘What are we about?’ section says, ‘Cambodia is an exciting country with a dynamic youth demographic, and they are hungry to be part of the latest international technologies and trends.’ The site features on-line game championships, movies, music, TV, as well as the online stories. The e-novel page advertises twelve short novels, all in Khmer; their cover pictures indicate a romantic focus to most of these works. The magazine front page displayed an Asian/European cartoon girl pointing a futuristic laser gun; the arm is straight, the eyes focused on an off-screen target. The site content vindicates the comments made by Mak. In 2013, Sok Champal won the SEA Award in Thailand as the best writer from Cambodia, but now releases his writing only through his own blog.

For other popular writers there is hope, such as teenage writer Samithi K Sok, whose three science fiction novels MidKnight, KnightFall and Nicolai have been published in book form. But Samithi is outside of most definitions; he was brought up in Switzerland and his Khmer is not very fluent. At the age of fourteen he is still in eighth grade, but he has three novels published. It is scientific fiction with action elements; he describes his most recent work as closer to fantasy. Samithi has a keen awareness of markets. He is inspired by watching television: ‘I do science fiction. I do action. These are what I know best.’ Samithi is part of a generation even newer than Mak and Chanphal who, at the age of around thirty, are suddenly the elder statesmen. His ambition is to head into screenwriting and film production.

But what of the markets for creative, critical fiction by Cambodians and about Cambodia by outsiders? One wonders how long it will be before a Cambodian novel is translated into English and hits the stands in airport bookshops. And if Khmer books have not made it there yet, there is a fund of literature written by Westerners about Cambodia which has. Shamini Flint, Christopher G Moore, Adam Hall and K. T. Medina have all placed their heroes in Cambodian settings, mostly solving problems or acting heroically, with the exotic location and secondary Cambodian characters as a backdrop. Moore also edited a volume of crime stories Phnom Penh Noir, fitting in with the other ‘Asian noir’ volumes he has produced. The book is mostly written by Westerners, but does feature one story by Mak Suong and a couple more commissioned from other Khmers. Not to be confused with these series of noir stories is the most recent entry to the field, Nick Seeley’s mystery thriller novel, Cambodia Noir, published March 2016 and featuring the Western anti-hero looking for a missing Western heroine.

And fiction written by Westerners about the Khmer Rouge era continues to flow, even where the market for it has all but dried up in Cambodia itself: Patricia McCormick, Harriette Rinaldi, Kim Eachlin and Vaddy Ratner have all produced successful survival-story fiction in the last few years. Australian Patrick Allington’s Figurehead from 2009 is a more political examination of the life of Khmer Rouge leader Nhem Kiry, in novel form. One enduring work is Australian writer Christopher Koch’s admirable 1995 novel Highways to a War. Set in Vietnam and Cambodia through the nineteen seventies it certainly centred on Western characters, but featured an attempt to engage one or two realistic Khmers.

In the last ten years or so more literature has attempted to treat real issues of Cambodian life and included Khmer characters as significant players. Geoff Ryman’s The King’s Last Song was an ambitious attempt to engage readers on time frames ranging from ancient Angkor to contemporary post-Khmer Rouge. More recently American Sue Guiney’s two novels A Clash of Innocents and Out of the Ruins reveal the motivations of Westerners and the struggles of realistic Khmer characters in orphanage and hospital settings respectively. John Burgess’s Woman of Angkor creates an authentic and detailed image of the times of the ancient Khmer kings in the late Hindu era. And Melbourne writer Heather Jean McKay produced a set of snapshot stories Holiday in Cambodia, set from 1968 to the present day, featuring vivid insights into the lives of many Khmer characters, as well as showing a critical eye to the foibles of Australian visitors. These works have all sold steadily in the last five years. Cambodian history and culture certainly has maintained a prominent place in the imagination of Western writers and audiences.

On 20 February 2016 I attended the launch of the Khmer Collaborative Writers’ Group at 19 Bar in Phnom Penh. This group was set up by Chhengly Yeng, Phina So and others as a way of creating a community feeling and encouraging young writers to keep going in the face of social and marketplace discouragements. Around thirty people attended, including a few supportive Westerners, many of whom worked for associated NGOs. The atmosphere was buoyant and inclusive; there was a presentation by Phina So and readings by Chhengly Yeng. People loved being writers and loved being together. And there are hopeful signs which could be clung to. The secondary school completion rate is improving, perhaps creating a slow but steady increase of future readers. The Cambodian National Book Fair is a relatively new initiative which will be in its 5th year in 2016. The Minister of Education, Hung Choun Naron, has also instigated National Reading Days. Access to libraries may still be difficult, but it is also improving. The current craze for internet entertainment may well abate. And since the January 2014 shootings of garment workers there have been no examples of overt Government bullying of citizens. It is still unwise to make direct criticism of Government figures, but I can’t think of many places in South East Asia where this would be accepted anyway.

Cambodia is still recovering from the murder of teachers and writers in the Pol Pot time of the late nineteen seventies and from the destruction of schools and universities which occurred then. Crony capitalism is entrenched; big money now runs Phnom Penh and writers struggle in the margins. The immediate future of democracy and the rule of law is uncertain in this place. But the spirit of free expression remains; writers are doing as much as they can. A brave and determined young generation of writers is finding ways to be heard.

Note: On July 10, well known political activist Kem Ley was shot several times as he drank coffee at a petrol station café in Phnom Penh. The alleged murderer was caught by bystanders and handed in to police, but Cambodians have no doubt it was a political assassination, and that Hun Sen’s government was responsible. Kem Ley’s delayed funeral procession was attended by tens of thousands and has provided a catalyst for widespread protests against the government.