Cambodia's most prolific and experimental story teller has switched genres again, turning to bio-fiction for his latest novel – Archphkai (Meteorite) – which like the 50 or so that preceded it remains thematically focused on contemporary issues with a dash of social commentary, despite its detailed account about the cellular origin of a single life.
The novel is published on Suong Mak’s popular blog (http://archphkai.wordpress.com) along with the about 200 short stories he has written and his novels, five of which have been published as books. Due to the lack of publishers of Khmer-language fiction, each was purchased by a bookstore at a flat rate with no royalties.
In a recent interview, the 26-year-old author said that despite turning to biology to find characters, his narrative structure remains unchanged: first he arouses a kind of confused curiosity, and then carefully sustains this, adding detail after detail that leads to a conclusion that is both startling and socially relevant.
Meteorite opens with characters that are sperm. Their dialogue is quick and snappy as they sprint towards an ovum, offering readers a no-nonsense lesson in biology along the way. It’s a startling kickoff for a Cambodian novel, but not surprising for a writer adept at breaking new ground in the country’s burgeoning literary scene, which is in desperate need of translators in order for its authors to gain the wider audience they deserve.
“Meteorite is my first science story, but writers can use science as a method for expression. I used it to make readers feel confused but interested. The interest keeps their attention till they arrive at understanding,” Soung Mak explained. “A good story should surprise, and for me it should also have a lesson that highlights something negative in our society that needs to be changed,” he added by email from Laos where he is studying.
Nine months and 10 days after the first page of Meteorite a baby boy is abandoned in a rubbish bin. It’s a grim ending, but not an improbable one for a writer who gleans newspapers for ideas. His 2005 novel Death in Aranh focused on women trafficked and sold to brothels. “I saw a lot stories in the press about Cambodian woman sold to brothels in Thailand. Those articles inspired me to write my novel criticising society,” he said.
Suong Mak’s genre-hopping writing spree has included crime, Death Puzzle, religion, Revengeful Phone, and romance, Love without Confession. But he has not lost his ability to offer a panoramic view of modern Cambodian lifestyles, as he did in Dragon Scales on Night Sky.
He is quick to identify the favourite of his novels as Boyfriend, which was the first Khmer novel to portray a gay male couple. He had first posted it on his blog before it was purchased and published in book form in 2010. Boyfriend drew the most feedback from readers, he said. “Some emailed me, some posted comments on my blog, and other called me in Laos. Most people admired the novel.”
Suong Mak is finishing a degree in Lao literature at the National University of Laos, where he has been studying for five years. In six months he will return to Cambodia, and intends to devote more time to fiction. Till then he will continue updating his readers on his blog, which has drawn more than 100,000 viewers since its debut in 2007.
A native of Kampong Cham province, Suong Mak said he was inspired to write by Khmer literature, that he was heavily influenced by countless writers, and that stories had a profound affect on him.
“Every writer has his or her own style and method to tell a story. They have the power to overwhelm, to make us cry,” he said while describing the novels he immersed himself in as a youth.
“But Meteorite is mine. It’s my idea, my creation.”