That's my song,” Sok Chanphal says over his shoulder on his moto as we pass a clothing store blasting a chord-heavy pop ballad onto Sihanouk Boulevard.
Chanphal, 29, has written the lyrics of more than 100 songs for Cambodian music monolith Hang Meas productions, many of them for pop star and Coca-Cola ambassador Aok Sokunkanha. With FM radio and TV stations under its banner, the production company is the most successful in the country and churns out around 10 new song releases a month.
While his words find commercial success through the mouths of Hang Meas’s best-known crooners, Chanphal is now finding recognition for a somewhat less-popular (and profitable) art form: literary fiction.
The songwriter has been nominated for the 2013 Southeast Asia Writers Awards (or SEA Write), one of the more prestigious regional literary awards for prose and poetry. His is the first Cambodian entry after a four-year hiatus.
In his FM tunes, the songwriter sticks to love, empowerment and achy-breaky hearts, but in his short fiction he treads more complex themes. Cambodian society is critiqued in fable-like narratives about corruption, extreme wealth and indifference.
In Chanphal’s "Buried Treasure", published in the short story collection Just A Human Being, the first fiction collection translated into English and published by the Nou Hach Literary Association earlier this year, a villager dreams he finds hidden riches under a palm tree, only to discover that everyone in the village has had the same dream.
Corrupt officials arrive to claim the buried treasure for their own National Working Group, but the tale ends abruptly when the unearthed metal box over which everyone is squabbling, turns to be a landmine and explodes.
Chanphal has been involved with the Nou Hach association for a number of years and has self-published his work, including the slim volume Tale of the Lamp, which he hasn’t the resources to promote or distribute to book stalls (a notoriously unprofitable system) but will often give away copies.
With an endearingly open smile and calming presence, the author is humble about the different sides to his craft. As the only child of a single working mother, he lived in nine different provinces before settling in Kampong Cham to complete high school. Books and short fiction were not in huge supply for his childhood, but music was – the poetry of Sinn Sisamouth’s lyrics and 1960s songsmith Ma Lapy.
The first popular song he wrote was 2009’s "Cheam Pich" ("Diamond Blood"), a heartfelt ballad from a son to his mother and released by pop star Chhorn Sovanreach.
“My mother liked the same music as me. In fact I didn’t know I would be a songwriter in the future. I just listened like normal people to music, until I came to Phnom Penh and I had to find a job.”
In Phnom Penh, Chanphal saw an advertisement for a short story writing workshop run by Nou Hach and rang to inquire.
“In high school we studied some literature – novels – but when I called the association, they said I had to write a short story.… I didn’t know what [that] was so they told me to check in the library. I read a book of short stories and then came home and wrote one for them and they agreed to let me study.”
A friend whom he worked with on a magazine recommended him to Hang Meas, writing lyrics to songs by the company’s in-house composers or else re-writing hits from Asia and the US into Khmer.
“It’s not a translation.… Sometimes it’s the same or similar, sometimes it’s [a] new meaning that we can accept in our country.”
One of his most successful re-writings has been of Beyonce’s power ballad "Halo", whose lyrics were re-modelled into "Krouk Cheu" ("Stand Up") and sung by Sokunkanha.
“It’s hard to write good songs,” he says. “Just to write a song is not too hard but if we want to write a good song, it’s [very] hard.”
Inspiration comes from TV and movie storylines, but also members of the public, who send him suggestions over Facebook, detailing their own love dramas and family stories.
The SEA Write awards began in 1979, attracting literary big guns like Iris Murdoch and Gore Vidal as guest speakers. Cambodia joined the program in 1979 and nominated its own writers for the next 10 years. The nominee in 2000 was the now-exiled writer Kong Bun Chhoeun, who had just published a book about the acid attack on singer Tat Marina, the girlfriend of a high-profile politician and the writer Oum Suphany won the prize in 2007 for her book Under the Drops of Falling Rain. For the past four years the country has not offered up an entry.
Part of the problem is translation, says Heng Sreang, director of PEN Cambodia, the Kingdom’s wing of the global organisation that promotes literature.
Sreang has decided to take up the SEA mantle and ensure a local writer is nominated every year. This year he and a group chose Chanphal, based on his work published in Nou Hach.
“That’s the plan. I have been calling out to all the Cambodian writers who have short stories that are good enough. Again, translation [into English] is still a barrier to us, but I’m trying to get more and more people involved in it.”
Since forming officially in 2010, PEN Cambodia has been trying to establish links with other Asian literary scenes to make Cambodia part of the region’s events and encourage a stronger, and freer, writing community. PEN will be holding “meet the writer” events and composition workshops at Pannasastra University and, later, in Siem Reap in November.
Chanphal is thrilled about his nomination, but is already onto his next writing project: a romantic comedy movie, directed by his friend.
“We have no experience with film, but we wanted to it start now,” he says cheerfully.