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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - 7 Questions

7 Questions

Much of Cambodia’s rich literary heritage decomposed on palm leaves or was wiped away by the Khmer Rouge, but a revival pre-war fiction is underway, according to Thea Sok Meng, head of the department of Khmer Literature at the Royal University of Phnom Penh.

When did Cambodian literature begin?
We have a very long and rich literary history. In the pre-Angkorian period (before the 9th Century CE) it was mostly inscriptions on stone and influenced very heavily by Hinduism. However, despite its Hindu influence it is very recognisable as Khmer. We took a lot of ideas from India, but we did not simply copy those ideas: we interpreted and modified them. Take The Ramayana [a Sanskrit epic] for example. In India they pray to and admire Rama as a God, but in Cambodia he was thought of as human, not a god: sometimes he cried, sometimes he cheated people. During the Angkor period literature in Cambodia seems to divide into two distinct parts: Hindu and Buddhist. After the Angkor period we enter what we call “The Middle Age”.

What changes happened during this period?
There was a shift towards the Buddhist influence. Many monks were writing poetry and there was a large increase in literary out-put. Most of the writing, however, was done on sastra or palm leaves, as Cambodia had no papyrus or paper. So sadly, due to palm leaves decomposing quickly, much of it has been lost. The stories of that time were very morally informative. The goal of Buddhist literature was to motivate people to behave in a moral way. The morality was very rigid: the male characters had to be brave heroes, while the female characters had to be honest and devoted.

When did modern Cambodian literature begin?
“Modern” literature began with the arrival of the French. There was an infusion of realism; many authors were influenced by what they had read from France. We divide modern literature into six periods: the colonial period (1863-1953); the monarchy period (1955-1970); the Khmer Republic period (1970-1975); the Khmer Rouge period (1975-1979); the State of Cambodia period (1979-1991); and the contemporary period (from 1991 to now).

What were the main changes in themes?
Modern literature saw the creation of many stories about love and social class. The hero became less important; there was a greater focus on social observation. During the Second World War many authors supported the liberation effort against the French. They worked very hard to create an atmosphere of revolution. During the US bombing of Cambodia stories about construction workers, and repression under the capitalist system, began to appear. The bombing had a very big impact of the rise of socialism and the Khmer Rouge followed soon after this.

Was there any new literature during the Khmer Rouge?
The Khmer Rouge period saw the loss and destruction of much of Cambodia’s literary history. Other than a few work and propaganda songs we see almost nothing new published in that period.

And after the fall of the Khmer Rouge?
Post-Khmer Rouge authors focused on supporting and educating the people. There is a shift towards greater social responsibility and support for the new government. Authors who had lived abroad also returned and they started the Khmewr Writers Association.

What are the latest trends in Khmer literature?
What we are seeing is more interest in novels from before the Khmer Rouge. Many of these novels are also being republished. These pre-war novels dominate the current market, perhaps indicating a current literary culture of nostalgia. New works are usually introduced through small-scale self-publishing efforts of around 2,000 or so copies. They can be purchased for about 3,000 riel (75 US cents) each. 

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