Writer Oum Suphany kept a secret diary throughout the Pol Pot period, including while she was in a forced labour program in Takeo province. She underwent a forced marriage – unusually - to her actual love, a fellow university classmate from Phnom Penh, and they are still happily married. She had one daughter in 1977, and her son, final-year medical student Oum Amrit, was born in 1985. In 2007 he accompanied her to Bangkok to accept the South East Asian Writers Award for her book Under the Drops of Falling Rain, a fictionalised memoir based on her diaries. During her varied career Oum Suphany has written a popular radio song and been a tour guide at the Royal Palace. Rosa Ellen spoke to mother and son about writing through adversity.
WHEN I was about 17 or 18-years-old I started to read my mother’s books. As a teenager, if you wanted a bike you had to do something. My mother wanted me to read her book. If I managed to finish it, I could have my bike. As a teenager I didn’t like reading but [though] her book finishes like other books, if you read from the first page, you really wonder what is going to happen on the next.
Under the Khmer Rouge she experienced a lot of pain, but my mother also has had a kind of luck. The Khmer Rouge cadre [that she found herself under] were distant relatives.
My mother is not afraid – during Pol Pot, she was young. She didn’t know that they killed people if you did not obey commands. During one meeting, the leader gave a speech and then split up the group during the meeting. My mother stood up and told the cadre, ‘don’t split us. It’s not good for us.’ My grandmother told the cadre she was crazy – don’t mind her. But if he found out my mother was not crazy, she might have been killed. My mother just told the truth.
My mother likes talking and writing. Before she published the book, she was always telling her story.
Maybe for those who live in today’s society Pol Pot is a shocking story, but I’ve been hearing those stories since I was born. My aunts, mother and father were always retelling them and I grew up in conditions that were only just a bit better. Soon after Pol Pot, education wasn’t good. I didn’t always have a goal [to be a doctor]…people in my generation, they don’t have goals - they just let it be. It’s just like fate to us.
My mother likes writing every day but my sister is also a poet and isn't like that. But if you read their poems - my sister's poems are more meaningful but she just can't get it out as easily. My mother isn't a perfectionist, she just wants to keep doing it, to keep writing.
It wasn’t because she lived through Pol Pot and kept a diary that my mother became a writer – it’s because writing is in her blood. Every time when she meets someone or goes to a place, she creates a story.
IN 1989 my neighbor said to me, “I see you write every day - you should enter a novel competition!” [for the Liberation Day 10th Anniversary celebration ]. But there was only a week left until it closed. In one week, I removed the dates of the diary and added some more story.
Before Pol Pot, my family and my husbands’ family were all literate and studied. Books and pens were common. When they moved, they kept their books and pens. Because I liked them also, I kept pens and books.
During the Pol Pot regime, I didn’t want to write in front of people, but sometimes I pretended to be ill and stayed home and wrote. My father, mother, and four sisters all died.
[While I raised my children], writing was no problem for me. I had a younger sister - who just passed away - who helped me with household chores and to prepare food and look after the children. Me, I worried about work – and I found time for writing. I only need one half hour to write –I don’t need a whole day. Only two of my sisters survived. My younger sister stayed with me until now, she wasn’t married.
I like writing but I don’t force my children to. What I want is for both my children to be literate and to have an education. Writing – it is so important to me but both my children need to be educated. Some say writing is easy and I love it, but some people who don’t have a talent find it difficult, so I don’t think it is easy [especially dialogue]. In my novel, the conversation is short but well-written.
I want to encourage my son and daughter depending on what they want. I see in developed countries they don’t force their children. I just want them to be educated and have a good job, and not to be corrupt. When Amrit finished high school, he passed on to university and wanted to play video games - he asked to go to IT school. I sent him to IT and all the games were in English language. He didn’t know English, so he went to language school. Then, when my younger sister’s two children went to medical school, where they speak English, Amrit went to help translate the lessons for his cousins. After a year he ended up becoming a medical student himself!
I was supposed to be married to someone else, but I loved my husband. We were part of a “determination” and married in front of Angkar. We were once classmates and I followed him to his homeland.
My daughter writes poetry too - they are deep with ideas - deeper than mine.
My son, when he loves someone, he comes back and tells me and I write it all down! Even when I was pregnant and I went to hospital, I was writing about him.