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Talking with Khmer writers

Lift’s discussion on how to write better books, inspire readers and improve the future of books in Cambodia

Collected and transcribed by Tang Khyhay, Tivea Koam & Chan Sovannara

The panel:

Mao Samnang, novelist
Dr. Ros Chantrabot, writer and vice president of Royal Academy of Cambodia
Pal Vannarirak, novelist and president of Federation of Book Development in Cambodia

1. What Cambodian writers have influenced or inspired you in your own writing? What is special about their writing?
Mao Samnang - I like reading; I have read many writers’ work. That made me love writing and encouraged me to do research about those works for my experience and it pushed me to be a writer. The specialty is unique. Writers have different talents. The thing is that 10 writers have 10 different techniques and talents in their works. One is good at Romantic, another is good at investigative, and the other is good at history. After I have read all the works, I like to wrap up all the writers’ techniques into my own. For example, I made my story educational, romantic and investigative.

Ros Chantrabot - I was interested in the poem of the old writers which were narratives about nature, literature and history. In the past, writing was more specifically about religion, but after French colonisation, writing improved more in terms of novel, history, and newspapers, which normally followed the French styles such as division into parts or sections and those writing styles were developed in Khmer. Because I was taught by many French lecturers and teachers since primary school, it influenced to my writing so I prefer to write about theory. This doesn’t mean I created a new theory, but I transformed them by demonstrating and explaining those structures to Cambodian. I wrote in the term of new philosophy which normally attracted many readers because it was new ideas for them.

Pal Vannarirak - Writers have great influence over readers. If they produce good works which contain interesting and beneficial information, this will attract the readers. Because of those writers, they pave the way for me to read. They gave me ideas on how to write a story.

2. What influence do you hope your writing will have on the people who read your work?
Mao Samnang - My work has a positive influence on children, teenagers, and old people since my work has integrated educating about drugs, HIV and family problems. The readers will gain a lot of experience which they have not gone through in their life. Many students also called to tell me that they are happy after reading my book because they realised the reality of things. They became good kids.

Ros Chantrabot - My writing will help the readers to know and analyse society. They will know about the history of Cambodia politic and society. For example, I wrote a book about the Power of the Khmer Republic that will be used as a reference for young Cambodians who want to know about that regime. My writing will allow readers to understand Khmer history.

Pal Vannarirak - For me as well as other writers, it has a great influence over readers and society. If we write good stories about education, people will be well behaved after reading. But if we write immoral stories, people will misbehave due to the ideas they get from the books. For example, some young writers are writing stories against Khmer tradition. They saee what teenagers do in society now. I know everyone has right to write what they want but they have to know what society they are living in. We are not living in western countries. I am a more reserved writer. If people read my work, they will be conscientious citizens.

3. Do Cambodian youth today have an appreciation for reading or writing? What can writers do to get young people more interested in reading?
Mao Samnang - Because of modernisation, reading is declining. It is different from the past when people had nothing to see. It is hard to encourage youth to read. Only those who like to study will read a lot. And it is a bit hard to encourage teenagers to write books now. But what I can do now is to improve my stories.

Ros Chantrabot - I don’t think that Cambodian youth do not appreciate reading. The main point is that Cambodians have don’t have enough resources to read. There is nothing new and interested for them to read and learn. There is only old and repetitive things that they see every day in newspaper or on television, so it is difficult to persuade them to read. We can bring the youth’s attention to reading if writers find something new and interesting to write about. The readers read to get new things, but if they read and get nothing out of it, they will not read any more. Writers have to write something that replies to the readers’ desire to learn about current trends in politics, the environment and social issues. For example, the case of Preah Vihear temple. Who dares to miss information about Preah Vihear temple? Everyone is eager to know about it. It is the task of writers to write something that applies to the readers’ needs.

Pal Vannarirak - First, I am doing this work every day. I need to make my books more interesting to attract people to read by trying to improve my writing even though I use my reserved or globalized ideas. Second, and more important, is to create an association that encourages the habit of reading and encourages writing. It will help develop the quality of books and encourage Cambodian people to read by working with NGOs, Ministry of Education, Ministry of Art and Culture and other private companies which work with publishing as well as the readers themselves. Moreover, we can also create reading centers which allow people to read various books and get information on where they can buy the books they want to buy.

4. Do you think that Cambodian youth will become more interested in reading and writing as the country develops and education improves? What do you think is the future of books in Cambodia?
Mao Samnang - If education improves, the number of readers will increase. When there are more human resources, there will be more readers. There will be progress in the future.

Ros Chantrabot - It is difficult to compare Cambodians with other nations because Cambodia lacks the resources and documents for youth to read and do more research. In Phnom Penh, the accessibility of the Internet has helped youth get more books to read, but for those who live in the provinces, there is no chance to read given the limited resources. In Cambodia, there are not many writers. Even many people who hold the PhD degrees never show their writing. Anyway, most books or information for the public is not updated on the government’s webpage, which is anobstacle for youths to read and research. This is the challenges to book writing in the future. If there is not any research and writing, the future of books in Cambodia will be problematic. The writers should try to write and develop the content of their work to fit with the readers’ interests today.

Pal Vannarirak - In the long term, Cambodian people will become more interested in reading books. If we observe the situation in the country, we can see many bookshops such as International Bookshop Center, Peace Bookshop center, etc. are opening their doors to sell hundreds of books. Some bookshops have even spread their branches. This shows the increasing number of study materials as well as books, which means there are more consumers of these products. The number of books is also rising, such as story books and children books. If there are no readers, the book shops will not have them. The future will be better. However, writers have to make sure that their works are good. As you can see in the past, the film industry grew really well with about 100 film productions. At that time some the number of producers making poor-quality films also increased and that made the film industry bad. Therefore, writers have to work harder to make their quality work that people can support.

5. How will you use your skills as a writer to make an impact on the future of Cambodia?
Mao Samnang - I will focus my work more on educational stories. My stories must only educate people’s minds and encourage them to do good things. That is what I can do for society.

Ros Chantrabot - To impact on the future of Cambodia, writers need to develop the content of writing based on exact research and trying to sharpen the content of writings to meet the readers’ needs. We should not write something that we do not have a clear understanding of because it will bring problems to society. Knowing about the roles and ethics of writing are key points writers must follow. We write based on real data and evidence. We should not exaggerate reality to serve own benefits.

Pal Vannarirak - I will try to do more research by reading foreign books to improve my writing. I need to do more reading about other people’s work. I will try to write more good books.

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