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7 Questions with Sue Guiney

Sue Guiney, 58, is an American author, originally from New York, who lives in London with her family. In 2010 she published her first novel set in Cambodia, A Clash of Innocents, about expats and volunteers at an orphanage. This year she has published Out of the Ruins, which she refers to as a “companion piece” to her first book, and which features some of the same characters but focuses on people setting up a clinic to provide healthcare to some of Cambodia’s poorest women. The book will officially be launched at Meta House at 6pm on Friday, in an event that will also raise funds for Anjali House, a shelter for children in Siem Reap, where Guiney gives creative writing workshops. Emily Wight reports.

‘I simply fell in love with it all’: Sue Guiney.  ANDRE AINSWORTH
‘I simply fell in love with it all’: Sue Guiney. ANDRE AINSWORTH

What brought you to the Kingdom?
I first came to Cambodia in 2006 on a volunteer trip with a few other families. I had never been to Asia before. Everything I saw, heard, smelled, tasted was new and, to me, wonderful. It was heartbreaking and uplifting in equal measure. And I simply fell in love with it all.

How were you inspired to write about Cambodia?
A Clash of Innocents was based on my own complicated feelings after working for a week in an orphanage. Since that visit, the campaign of trying to stop people from thinking that an orphanage is a good holiday destination has begun, and although those institutions often rely on volunteers to help them, it is a very complex situation, and ultimately, not great for the kids living there. All the questions that arose from that experience turned into the basic plot of the novel.

What is your newest book about?
This novel is set in Siem Reap, a city which I now come to teach in every year, so I now know it well. The book tackles issues about women’s health, or lack of it, here in Cambodia, as well as taking a hard look at the sex trade. It is a somewhat darker book than the first, but still with an optimistic and hopeful ending. All my books end with that sense of hope and optimism – I don’t think I could dare to do it any other way.

How easy has it been to get your novels published?
The entire publishing industry right now is in a difficult state. My books have the double whammy of being both literary fiction and about a part of the world that most people ignore. It is one thing to write a memoir about the Khmer Rouge or an historical novel about Angkor Wat. Those books people are used to and so they are easier to sell. But fiction about modern day Cambodia? Yes – happily many people want to read it, but not enough to make it mass market. I am extremely fortunate, though, to have found a wonderful independent publisher which, though small, is still eager to publish my books.

How do you research your books?
I do quite a lot of research for my books, both through reading and on the internet, but most importantly, by immersing myself in the place, walking the streets and talking to the people. For example, to research Out of the Ruins, I found a Khmer guide in his 20s who was willing to take me to streets where there are karaoke bars and tin-roofed shacks with girls of all ages offering themselves up for sale. He was brave to take a middle-aged Western woman to places she had no right being in. And I suppose I was brave to go with him. But I need to see things with my own eyes, even if they are just buildings and surroundings. And I need to talk to people about their experiences if possible.

As well as writing, you also give creating writing workshops at the children’s shelter Anjali House.
I’ve been doing this for four years: I am in the classroom in Siem Reap once a year, and on top of that I give workshops once or twice each year remotely, with the help of on-site teachers. I focus on teenagers from 12 years and above, teaching them to write poems and stories in English. The workshop then culminates in a published literary magazine and a launch party where they each stand up in front of an audience, introduce themselves and read their work in English. It’s as much a workshop in self-esteem.

What is a particular highlight of your workshops?
Every year brings a new proud moment. For example last year, when the Phare circus came to Siem Reap, we included a segment about them in the workshop and we took the kids to a performance. When I arrived, one of the younger girls from the workshop was already there with paper and a pencil. She had decided on her own to interview the performers afterwards and write about that – in English. I hadn’t asked her to do it. She was just interested, curious and compelled to discover and express. How great is that?

Monument Books will have Out of the Ruins in stock by the end of April.

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