Chief : Who’s making such a commotion outside the door? What is that racket?
Assistant: There’s a visitor demanding to meet you in person, sir.
Chief : How’s that? Doesn’t he know that I only receive visitors on Thursdays?
Assistant: Yes, he knows. But he says he has a matter of urgency, sir.
Chief : Then does he know that it’s necessary to put his name down a month in advance?
Assistant: Yes. He more than knows; but he keeps pushing to come in.
Chief : God! What kind of person is this?
Assistant: He says he’s just a human being.
Chief : But who is he? Who is he? ‘Just a Human Being,’ by Anonymous
Rich doctor drops his wallet and has it returned by a poor young flower-seller, although it holds enough money for her to live on for a year. The doctor half wishes she had kept the money: she says her parents taught her otherwise. People like this girl’s parents must have been stepped on until they are the sad people they seem to be now, thinks the doctor.
The story, published in Just a Human Being: and Other Tales from Contemporary Cambodia, the first collection of Cambodian short stories ever to be published in English, suggests Cambodia is full of such ambivalences. Many of the stories’ endings leave the reader not with answers, but with the sense that different questions entirely should be asked.
“I think both are right,” says 29-year-old Sok Chanpal , the author of the short story (‘The Wallet’), after a pause. “But I prefer the girl.”
A pop song lyricist by trade, Chanpal has penned over 100 FM radio tunes for Hang Meas productions, and works closely with pop singer Aok Sokunkanha. In his fiction, he tends toward existentialism rather than mass appeal. He sells (and gives away) his self-published novella, Tale of the Lamp, to whoever is interested and is looking forward to seeing the English-language Just a Human Being in a bookstore.
The tenor of the collection is social criticism, says editor Teri Schaffer Yamada – to be distinguished from political criticism and far from the popular fiction of Cambodian weeklies– you’ll read none one of the daydreamy romance of the magazine serials.
“This is pretty serious fiction. You walk away and you may not (be left) happy!” says Yamada, a California-based professor of Asian studies and founder of Cambodia’s Nou Hach Literary Project, the only literary association of its kind.
The title of the book, which has been 10 years in the making, with 10 writers featured, predominantly from the Nou Hach journal, is from an anonymously-written story published in the 1990s in a Phnom Penh newspaper. When the ‘Chief’ in the satirical dialogue establishes once and for all that his unwelcome visitor, who has a ball point pen – a tell-tale sign of officialdom – is ‘just a human being’ and not someone important, order resumes:
Chief: You can go kick his arse out of here, and you don’t need to say anything to anybody. Tell the secretary that it’s not necessary to make the coffee. As for the cognac, though... a stressful situation does strap one’s energies. A human being, then... It’s a problem we can handle by ourselves.
Writers employ a range of voices to express social problems, says Yamada. In Phy Runn’s ‘An Orphan cat’, the feline protagonist travels to Phnom Penh to find a lost sister, and comes face to face with the cruel heart of the city.
“It’s not unusual to have short stories that seem like folk tales that end up being very socially critical. It can also be used to protect a writer as a narrative strategy. So if I write about an animal, I can’t say current politicians that are bothering me. It’s a narrative strategy not just in Cambodia,” Yamada says.
Publishing in English is also a measure of protection from the more insidious self-censorship, which along with ‘the shadow of potential state censorship’ suppresses literary creativity in the Kingdom.
“Well how many people read English in Cambodia that they’re going to pick these up and read them? So the writers can be somewhat safe in that way. We have had writers who have asked us to edit their journal stories a lot before we publish them because they’re afraid. And that’s a sad thing.”
Aside from women’s magazine romance and paid newspaper pages, opportunities to publish Khmer literary short fiction are limited to Nou Hach – which comes out once a year - and self-publishing. With print piracy rife, it’s a fair bet that neither of these will see you pocket any royalties. It does not take long for each annual edition of Nou Hach to turn up on pirated book stalls around O’Russey market and Phnom Penh.
For Chanpal and fellow contributing writer Phou Chakriya, who works in a government department, sophisticated stories about Cambodia, in all its lightness and shade, inevitably face an obscure path to publication.
Being read and appreciated in English may bring something else valuable though: recognition.
In the final story of Just a Human Being, Chanpal’s ‘The Last Part of My Life’, a man tells a poor painter his art is bad – but upon learning he has cancer, insists the artist must have hope. The painter rejects the message: ‘I do what I want. No pressure in my life. Must I also have hope? Must I?’
“We should not force ourselves to be something we don’t like,” Chanpal explains. “You will die one day; why should we force ourselves to feel something we don’t feel?...But I still force myself to every day.”