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Writers Unblocked: Reviving Khmer literature

By: Andrew Johnson Posted: January-01-2006 in
Andrew Johnson

A proud history of literature in Cambodia came to an abrupt end when the Khmer Rouge arrived in 1975. Now peace has finally returned to the Kingdom, Cambodian literature is making a comeback. Only counterfeiting stands in its way.

If reading, writing, literature and publishing can be taken as a reliable indicator of the cultural wellbeing of a country, Cambodia is clearly a country in transition.

Few opportunities for writers, a shortage of publishable manuscripts, a lack of professional editors at publishing houses and a relatively small market for Khmer publications due to low literacy rates and weak purchasing power all stack up on the negative side of the ledger.

However, Dr. Helen Jarvis, a publishing expert who helped reconstruct the National Library of Cambodia in the 1980s and has since been granted Cambodian citizenship, says that while literature and publishing in Cambodia is locked in a fight for survival, it is turning the corner.

Jarvis is the co-author, along with Peter Arfanis, of the Publishing in Cambodia report, which tracks the health and viability of the literary and publishing sector in the kingdom. Between the publication of the first issue in 2002 and the latest edition in 2006, Jarvis and Arfanis recorded a "tremendous increase" in book purchasing in Cambodia.

"This is accounted for by more disposable income for Cambodian people in the cities and better printing processes, increasing the quality of publications," Jarvis says. "The abandonment of old-style printing presses and the adoption of new printing techniques has been a major factor in making books cheaper."

Yet, it is still difficult for people to get hold of books on parts of the world outside their country. For instance, no books about Russia exist in Khmer, while most history books available tend to be cribbed from the same sources, leading to a lack of originality or contrasting views. The newspaper and magazine industries, which still publish almost exclusively from Phnom Penh, languish in a commitment to the lowbrow.
Break with the past

It has not always been like this. Like much that is broken in modern Cambodia, much of the blame for the current travails of literature and publishing in Cambodia can be laid at the feet of the Khmer Rouge regime that butchered the country from 1975-1979 and the two decades of civil war that followed its removal from power.

The contemporary Cambodian novel has a long and distinguished pedigree, dating back to 1938 when Rim Kin wrote Sophat, which is regarded as the first Cambodian novel.

More than one thousand novels were published in Cambodia between 1950 and 1975. Cambodia's most celebrated author is Nou Hach, whose 1947 work Phka srabon (The Wilted Flower) was the best selling Khmer novel according to 24% of book sellers surveyed for the 2006 edition of Publishing in Cambodia.

Alberto Perez Perreiro, a Spanish-born student of Khmer and a literature enthusiast regards author Rim Kin's work as manageable for those with around two years of Khmer training under their belts. Nou Hach's The Wilted Flower is readable by the non-native Khmer after a little longer learning the language.

Before Sophat, Khmer literature largely consisted of verse works such as stories of the Buddha and chab - moral instructional poems delivered by the monkhood. Before that, Hindu-centric epics such as the Khmer version of Ramayana, the Reamker ('Honour of Rama') dominated.
Holding on

In addition to valiant efforts inside the country to revive Cambodian Literature after the Khmer Rouge years, Cambodian communities in the diaspora also played an important part. In Long Beach, California professor Teri Yamada launched the Nou Hach Literary Project, a literary prize for new Khmer short story, poetry and article writing, in the 1980s. The area is home to the largest population of Khmers outside Cambodia, numbering some 40,000 to 50,000, the majority arriving as refugees in the years following 1975. Many Cambodian students studied with Dr. Yamada at Cal State-Long Beach University.

"In Long Beach, California expatriate Cambodians can access literature through our association, but they are not as interested as I thought they would be," says Dr. Yamada. "Maybe because the younger generation does not read Khmer, Khmer is rapidly being lost in the United States. Young people don't read it. The older generation are more interested, but there's not really that many of them in Long Beach. Mostly we have the lesser-educated rice farming population."

The future for Cambodian literature thus now depends on Cambodia itself, though much work remains to be done to rebuild the sector. "Cambodia, shockingly, lags behind Laos even in the development of literature," says Dr. Yamada. "There are a lot more short story writers in Laos and a lot more publishing activity going on there."

Dr. Yamada's Nou Hach Literary Project is a key impetus for new indigenous Khmer writing, as are literary prizes such as the Angkor Prize offered by the government's Directorate of Cultural Publications and Reading. The Nou Hach literary journal of new Khmer writing, which has been published annually since 2004, is also an important outlet for new Khmer writers, serving as the world's only modern Cambodian literature publication. This year, the project won the Jeri Laber International Freedom to Publish Award 2008, administered by the Association of American Publishers.
For love, not money

Jarvis recognizes that these awards are instrumental for motivating writers who generally have to supplement their incomes with a second job in order to live. Aside from the Khmer Writers' Association there is little professional support for creative writers in Cambodia, and fewer than 5% of writers in Cambodia earn royalties from their work, largely due to a thriving counterfeit book industry.

The reasons behind the lack of royalties should be apparent to tourists visiting Cambodia, and the expats living there. The children they encounter on a daily basis selling books on the streets of the country's towns and cities are the human face of a shocking counterfeiting problem gripping the industry. Of the stock of the 200 Phnom Penh book/ newspaper retailers surveyed in 2006, 80% was made up of counterfeit material.

Exactly how much counterfeiting impacts the profits of the book industry in Cambodia is very difficult to assess due to lack of stocktaking and record keeping by sellers, but the impact on writers is well-recognized.

Speaking at the 6th Nou Hach Writers and Writers' Works' workshop and prize-giving ceremony at the Buddhist Institute, Phnom Penh, on Saturday June 7, international journalist Her Excellency Bich Sangva Vann told the audience of young students, writers, members of the press and public of the struggles young writers face due to the counterfeiting industry.

"We have the law but can't implement it," she says. "Some writers write because they have something to say," she said. "Some write for the market. But all have to have another job."

The World Bank is helping the Cambodian Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport to work with publishers inside and outside Cambodia to make wholesale books cheap enough to undercut the counterfeiting industry, and Jarvis suggests that new printing technology is the key to making new books cheap and easy enough to produce to beat the bootleggers at their own game.

However, she also acknowledges that counterfeiting may actually be helping in the fight to restore literature to Cambodia, particularly when it comes to foreign books. "In many cases, if it's copying of foreign material, the original is probably well beyond the buying power of Cambodians who may need to read it," Jarvis told us. "If the copying brings this within their budget then it can be very positive."

Literacy in Cambodia in people over 15 is running at over 70% on the latest CIA estimates, with 64.1% of women literate and 84.7% of men. "Strict copyright law could have a detrimental effect on the availability and price of reading materials and may actually hinder efforts to promote a higher level of reading," Jarvis says.

The winner of the 2008 Nou Hach short story award, Phou Chakirya, is caught in the paradox of an industry that relies on counterfeiting to spread the word while robbing writers of their rightful rewards.

The 25-year-old's winning entry depicted the plight of an impoverished cyclo driver and his life trying to scrape a living in Phnom Penh. For this year's competition - and as she did for the last three years running, without success - Chakirya wrote the story in her spare time, holding down other jobs to scrape her own living. She writes, she says, to document the society in which she lives.

She is at the forefront of a nascent community of young writers, Dr. Yamada says. "Written in contemporary Cambodian, the short stories this year were tremendous," she says. "The topics deal with modern contemporary issues. The first year it was a lot of older people, but we've really been focussing on workshops for younger writers really trying to develop new literature."

"We honour the older generation but new, younger Cambodians don't like reading that older style of Cambodian writing. In fact, it's really difficult to read," she says, referring to a style consisting largely of page-long sentences based mainly on love.

"Modern prose style was starting to be used in the sixties but all of that was blocked, of course. The stuff we're starting to receive now is a lot more contemporary so it's a lot more accessible for college students to read."

If Yamada is correct and the new generation of writers are producing work that can survive in the commercial marketplace, dealing finally with counterfeiting could mean the trials and tribulations of Khmer literature may have a happy ending yet.

For more information see
Literacy in Cambodia
(over 15 years of age)
1962 41%
1970s 60%
1993 65.3%
2004 70%
Figures CIA and Jarvis & Arfanis,
Publishing in Cambodia 2002 and 2006
Periodicals in Cambodia, 2006
166 Khmer language newspapers
35 foreign language newspapers
58 magazines
27 bulletins
11 foreign news magazines

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