Author Suong Mak had not even turned 16 when he was urged by teachers, family and friends to approach Phnom Penh’s publishing houses with the collection of his own short stories and novellas that had piled up on his desk.
With four published books now under his belt, the softly-spoken 26-year-old’s most recent story, Hell in the City, was included in this month’s Phnom Penh Noir anthology, alongside spoken word poet Kosal Khiev and The Killing Fields director Roland Joffé.
Hell in the City is a gritty crime thriller which relates how the city’s dingy street life – impoverished noodle sellers, taxi drivers, boozed-up violence and rape – is bound up with the other facets of Cambodian life. Wealthy politicians, doctors, journalists and high ranking police officers are all involved.
Phnom Penh Noir editor and novelist Christopher G Moore hailed Mak as one of the Khmer literary scene’s next big things and believes the young author will soon garner an international following. Mak’s amorous novel about a young gay couple growing up in Phnom Penh, Boyfriend, was a hit in the Kingdom and is now being translated into English and published in Australia.
What inspired you to write Hell in the City, and set it in a daunting, derelict building? Is this a side of Phnom Penh familiar to many?
I was always fascinated with, and fearful of these kind of old buildings and what life exists in there. Crime in Phnom Penh, I believe, is very dark... not only rape, which is a huge issue in this country, but rampant drug use in these empty spaces. The plot links people from different walks of life together... but they all have different ideas about the crime and what happened – there are clues scattered throughout but you only find out right at the end. Some of them think in the right way, with morality, but many of the characters have no (morality). I’m very anxious and troubled about the situation of rape and the rate it is happening and I wanted to express that in some way... it is increasing and affects our culture deeply. One can see many headlines in the newspapers and it can happen anywhere – a village or a city. I want the people and the government to think much more about this problem and find a way to solve it.
Tell us about your most recent book, Boyfriend, which was a success here in Cambodia and is now being translated into English and published in Australia?
Boyfriend is the tale of high school lovers – two young boys. This was the first gay book published in Cambodia, I was approached by many young gay men who felt inspired after they read it – also girls too though. Initially the boys start as friends, one a swimmer from Siem Reap who comes to study in Phnom Penh, and the other a gangster from a high school... and their friends all begin to think they are gay and talk badly to them, so the boys separate – but they feel like something is missing in their lives, and they get back together despite the criticisms from society. It explores themes such as homophobia, judgements... the message is no matter what gender or sexuality you are, love is always beautiful.
What do you think about the literature scene in Cambodia at the moment, particularly for young people?
I have a blog about writers... there are many, many young aspiring writers right now... they often contact me. I think the interest is there but there is a lack of training. Sadly, it’s often the younger kids with money, whose parents can afford to send them abroad for education or a special arts school, who get the training and education. There’s a lack of reading in this country among young people and that stifles the scene. How can you write without reading? Many kids, I notice, just read what texts they are prescribed at school, if even those. I think the government doesn’t really care about writers here. I think it’s therefore the responsibility of the writing community to foster networks and ways we can improve it.
Phnom Penh Noir is published via Heavenlake Press. The official launch will be on Friday, November 30, at the Foreign Correspondents Club. The authors and publishers will contribute 20 per cent of their earnings to selected charity organisations in Cambodia. The Phnom Penh Post is a media sponsor.
To contact the reporter on this story: Claire Knox at [email protected]