Before I came to Cambodia, I decided to do the bookish thing and ease myself into the country with a teething diet of English-language novels set in Cambodia.
Fiction has always been my preferred read and in the back of my mind I think I assumed that Cambodia was the setting for at least one lesser-known Graham Greene novel, and surely a lot of contemporary fiction.
However, a quick study of library catalogues shows that Cambodia, in all its historical periods, has been largely left alone by novelists.
Pre-Khmer Rouge fiction is rarely translated and for whatever reason, the dearth of fiction has been more than covered by exceptional memoirs and non-fiction. The slow growth of Khmer Rouge survivors’ memoirs have been the most recent shift in trend.
However, in the last year, a number of new novels about Cambodia are appearing in overseas bookshops, from Angkorian historical epics to short stories and, significantly, Khmer Rouge-themed fiction. Could this be a sign of things to come?
Garnering the most attention is Vaddey Ratner’s New York Times bestseller In the Shadow of the Banyan, the first English-language fiction novel about the Khmer Rouge by a Cambodian survivor.
US-based Ratner says she made a conscious choice to write her experience as fiction, and “had the sense” that the work could become a first.
“I have always known that I would write about this experience one day. To not only witness but to have lived through a tragedy of this proportion, it leaves a mark on you. You constantly struggle to understand, strive to articulate some sense of meaning. For so many years, I was trying to write this book inside my head,” she says.
“I did at one point consider writing a memoir, but it didn’t sit well with me, because I didn’t want it to be seen simply as a recounting of my experience. I wanted more to illuminate my encounters with the people who enriched my own life, who facilitated my survival.”
The novel follows seven-year-old Raami, the daughter of a poet, through the evacuation of Phnom Penh, forced labour, death and violence, and eventual escape across the Thai border.
Like her child protagonist, Ratner was handicapped by polio as a baby and had a privileged upbringing. What she couldn’t remember from her early life, she absorbed from living here, with her husband and child, spending two and a half years writing the book.
“There’s not a single old beggar I see walking the streets of Cambodia who doesn’t invoke for me the possibility of my father. I always wonder, had he survived, what hardship he might have continued to encounter. I never knew what happened to him exactly, and I probably never will. The writing is motivated by these unanswered, perhaps unanswerable questions.”
In the Shadow of the Banyan is different from a memoir, though, says Canadian writer Madeleine Thien, author of the Khmer Rouge era-set novel Dogs at the Perimeter, and is a real work of literature. She believes that more fiction writers - both foreign and local - will come to address the Khmer Rouge period.
“I think this is particularly true of Cambodian writers. There really was a lost generation. So many of the poets, musicians, storytellers and artists who might have made this story visible were lost in the Khmer Rouge years or spent their most productive years trying to survive and rebuild their lives wherever they were. It’s taken this long, more than 30 years, for the younger generation to have the space to write and create, to remember and return to what they know.”
Dogs at the Perimeter was released in 2012 by Granta and critically well-received, despite struggling to find a US publisher. Following a child survivor who returns to Cambodia to face her demons, Thien, who had written three other novels, was told US readers weren’t interested in Cambodia.
That was not an issue for Australian author Laura Jean McKay, whose wryly named short story collection Holiday in Cambodia is being published Black Inc in July. The respected Australian publisher released writer Patrick Allington’s Khmer Rouge-inspired satire, The Figurehead, as well as Cambodian-Australian writer Alice Pung’s memoirs.
Drawn at first to the “Golden Era” music scene of Pan Ron and Ros Sereysothea, McKay wanted to write a novel set in 1960s Phnom Penh.
“I was fascinated by it from when I first arrived in 2007, but when it came to writing it, I found there was so much to Cambodia that it became a short story collection about many aspects of the country – past, present and future,” McKay says.
Later returning to the kingdom to write on an Australian-sponsored residency with the Nou Hach literary association – Cambodia’s only group of its kind – McKay did not intend to write about the Khmer Rouge but felt compelled to after a period of writing.
“I only wrote one story directly about the Khmer Rouge period because I wanted to explore beyond that, but I was also really influenced by [the writer] Soth Polin who said in an interview with writer Sharon May, ‘Even if you are reaching in your imagination for a new destination, you cannot get past their cruelty. When you try to write something without mentioning the Khmer Rouge, you can’t’.”
With both Ratner and Thien’s novels coming out within months of each other, I ask Thien whether it requires literary trailblazers or the passage of time, to forge a place for fiction dealing with the Khmer Rouge?
“I think it’s a combination of these things,” she says. “Vaddey and I are very close to the same age, she’s lived an extraordinary life, and she’s done something remarkable by re-imagining her history and those of other Cambodians and turning it into literature. I wonder if the ECCC, the tribunal, for all its failures, also opened a space; once a person believes that there might be a place to tell the truth – that some stories will be set down and heard, even if the outcome of the tribunal is not what they hoped for – perhaps another space opens up in which fiction and literature are possible.”
Perhaps the first English-language literary novel to delve into the Khmer Rouge period was Australian Christopher Koch’s 1995 Highways to a War, about the search for a missing legendary photo journalist in Cambodia. This “kick started the noir literature in fiction set in Cambodia,” says Bangkok-based crime writer Christopher G Moore.More than any other style, genre writing, in the form of crime and “noir” has seen a small but steady bloom, with Moore’s UNTAC-era Zero Hour in Phnom Penh continuing to sell internationally and at bookstores like Monument, since its release in the mid-’90s.
Noir suits Cambodia, Moore argues, allowing “an author to explore the dark connections of power and authority, the abuses, the injustices, the fear and in so doing allows a reader to share in the emotion of characters who are drawn into an existential trap. There isn’t a happy Hollywood ending in a noir novel or story.”
In the past year, Southeast Asia crime writer Tom Vater’s post-Khmer Rouge Cambodian Book of the Dead and Andrew Nette’s Ghost Money have appeared in bookstores as has the short story collection Phnom Penh Noir, edited by Moore.
For the historical fiction genre, the riches of the Khmer Empire are more than ready to be tapped, says bestselling author John Shors. Having just released his latest historical epic, Temple of a Thousand Faces, Shors was surprised to discover another Angkorian saga, A Woman of Angkor – by former journalist John Burgess.
“Yes, the world is finally waking up to Angkor,” says Burgess. “Roughly two million foreigners visited last year. More and more writers are showing up at Angkor and finding their imaginations set running by the fabulous things that you experience there.”
Despite the popularity of Angkor Wat and the publication of Angkorian-themed novels God King of Angkor and The King’s Last Song, Burgess, like Madeleine Thien, was told the location of his novel was too foreign for US readers.
“I wasn’t able to find an American publisher. The feedback that I got was that editors in New York publishing houses considered Angkor to be too exotic, too little known, to build a reader audience, especially for a first novel.
“Most commercially successful historical fiction is set in places about which the reader already has a basic familiarity – the court of Henry VIII, for instance, for Americans,” he says.
Six-time novelist Shors is more buoyant. His sweeping dramas have been set in the Taj Mahal, Koh Phi Phi and a WWII war ship.
“It seems to me logical that with the war over and the country open to visitors, fiction is arising. There’s such remarkable material to work with – pretty much every aspect of the human condition has played out in Cambodia in the last half century, not to mention ancient times.”
Interest in Cambodian fiction literature and its potential to reach the English-language market may be more of an uphill battle. Nou Hach, whose journal is published in English and Khmer once a year, is one of the very few outlets for Cambodian fiction to reach English language readers.
Nou Hach has been running competitions for its short fiction for more than ten years and just this year released its first collection, but Cambodian writers face enormous barriers in having novels published.
The 2006 breakthrough study Publishing in Cambodia reported that Cambodian readers preferred fiction to anything else, naming more than 100 different Khmer authors, the most popular being established writer Kong Bun Chhoeurn, who fled Cambodia after the publication of a politically sensitive novel.
Will these novels come to be known by English-language readers as required reading on Cambodia?
The material is there, and it is growing, argues McKay. “There was a lot of bad press about the Cambodian literary scene. People told me that there was no history, they were actually telling me not to bother. I found the most amazing literary scene not just in Phnom Penh but around the country,” she says. “I think there’s a real renaissance happening.”
For Ratner, the coming fiction is also just a matter of time. “Oh, yes! Cambodians are highly artistic people. Art is our breath, I believe, our most fundamental expression. I remember very clearly arriving at the refugee camp at the Thai border. We had to cut trees, clear the land, raise our own tarps . . . everything was so rudimentary. At the same time, to my astonishment, there was an effort to organise the little children into groups to learn singing and dance. As soon as dance teachers and musicians were identified among the survivors, there was constant conversation as people pooled their memories to recreate particular dances or pieces of music. It was as if artistic expression was synonymous with survival.”