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Khmer language books for sale at a street-side vendor in Phnom Penh this week.
Khmer language books for sale at a street-side vendor in Phnom Penh this week. Heng Chivoan

Penning the first draft of a ‘locals first’ literary festival in Siem Reap

Phina So is on a mission to give Khmer literature a boost and is starting with what she hopes will be the first of many festivals celebrating local authors: a three-day event next month in Siem Reap.

She is one of five organisers who dreamt up the Khmer Literature Festival, three days of panel discussions, workshops and networking sessions for Khmer writers.

“We only have a few national competitions, and so few national publishers [who] collect the best stories by writers … nobody knows what is happening now [in the Cambodian literary scene],” she says.

It is the first festival of its kind, and will be held in Siem Reap starting October 20. So and the organisers have yet to nail down a venue but they hope it will take place in a pagoda.

“[We picked] Siem Reap, because I found two [of the most] beautiful and oldest local pagodas. Khmer literature started within pagodas, so we thought having the events inside the pagoda would have a lot of value in terms of linking the history, the origins, of Khmer literature [to] now,” she says.

One of the two large themes of the first edition of the festival is the Cambodian diaspora, and its identity and experiences, featuring Khmer authors from the United States, Australia, France and even Japan.

A young man reads a collection of biographies at a stall.
A young man reads a collection of biographies at a stall. Heng Chivoan

The other is an examination of Khun Srun, the famous Cambodian teacher, poet and writer who died at the hands of the Khmer Rouge. He is an important figure in Cambodian literature, primarily for his works that critiqued the society in which he lived.

The documentary The Tomb of Khun Srun, which depicts the life and work of the writer, will be screened, followed by a Q&A with the director afterwards. There will also be a panel discussion on the types of philosophy present in Khun Srun’s work.

Beyond the two major panels, there will also be workshops for writers, a book fair, some performances, and reading sessions for children. All will be in Khmer, with the exception of the panel on the Cambodian diaspora.

The organisers’ efforts are among many attempts through the years to encourage writing in Cambodia. Since 1995, the Khmer Writers’ Association has been giving out writing awards to Khmer authors – the Awarding Ceremony of the Preah Sihanouk Reach Award and the 7 January Award locally, and the Mekong River Literature Award, an international prize.

There is also the Kampot Writers and Readers Festival, held annually in November, while the recently created Saraswati Publishing has been organising writing competitions for local writers, among other activities. Both of those endeavours, however, are led by expatriates.

“The special thing about [the] Khmer Literature Festival is [that] its initiator is Khmer,” says Kim Dyna, a screenwriter and festival organiser. “The audience and speakers are mostly Cambodian.”

Yeng Chheng Ly, a poet and another organiser, agrees that the festival provides a much-needed “locals first” approach. “The Kampot Writers’ Festival focuses on expat writers. We hope to involve writers of every kind – every Khmer writer, including Khmer writers abroad.”

As a writer, So has a larger dream for the festival’s influence. She hopes that Cambodian writers can move on from romance novels employing the Cinderella trope – where a beautiful country girl meets a rich man and they fall in love – to other genres, such as social commentaries or historical fiction.

Author Phina So.
Author Phina So. Photo supplied/Socheata choeun

“Many people would say that Khmer novels are [about a] Cinderella complex,” she says. “That [is] how I see how most novels are framed. I wish to see psychological genres, crime and social injustice that [can be] included in the literature.”

Pre-existing norms aren’t the only problems that Cambodian writers face. In the current political climate, writing social commentary could be a dangerous task.

“As you understand about censorship, it’s not obvious, but it’s quite strong now, even in this time, it’s quite dangerous now . . . Self-censorship is also another issue, that writers just block themselves not to write social[ly] critical [works],” So says.

Despite her big dreams, the organisers harbour modest expectations for the festival’s first outing and are shooting for about 100 attendees for the first edition.

“We aim to start with something small that can unite writers, publishers, and literary agents,” says So. “Also that we can come together and learn from one another . . . to inspire writers to believe that they can do a lot more.”

The Khmer Literature Festival will be held in Siem Reap, from October 20-22. In the run-up to the festival, there will be other smaller events, including an upcoming networking and information session for writers on September 8.

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