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Love, money still a good yarn


Increasing numbers of Cambodian students are studying literature, penning their own novels as a means of commenting on contemporary society


Students at work in a library in a central Phnom Penh university. Literature is an increasingly popular degree choice in the capital.

OVER the last few years, increasing numbers of young Cambodians have started studying Khmer literature, and are reviving the genre's flagging following by penning their own works.

"Khmer literature teaches you how to love," said recently-graduated literature student Beang Nearyrath.

The resurgence of interest in Khmer literature is under way and at Phnom Penh's Royal University alone there are now more than  400 people enrolled in literature classes, making it the most popular discipline in the faculty of social sciences and humanities, compared with history, philosophy,  and media and communication.

"We had to put a limit on admittance in recent years because of demand," says Thea Sok Meng, head of the department.

Thea Sok Meng's course aims to develop an understanding of storytelling techniques, as well as an understanding of the relationship between literature and society, the characteristics of social class in literature and literary nationalism. It also encourages students to write fiction.

"There are less people writing about government today, which is a good thing," he says. "Now they write allegorically."

Kho Tararith, director of the Nou Hach literary association, said he had seen a notable increase in the number of students coming to his Sunday writing classes, and he says a new generation of writers is emerging who are using a narrative style common to Cambodian folk tales to write about society.

"This is a new generation. They want to talk about life and the issues of today," he said.

According to John Weeks, assistant managing editor of the NGO Our Books, the primary subject matter of Cambodia's budding literary talent is that age-old favorite: "Romance, romance, romance".

... This is a New

Generation, they want to talk about life and the issues of today.

But young novelists are also using "soft" love stories to make hard social points. 

"The love stories always deal with class - the girl is poor and the boy is rich, or the girl is rich and the boy is poor," he said.

Weeks believes that self-censorship has led a new generation of writers to develop a certain amount of cunning when it comes to addressing social issues.

"People are aware that they can't say things that are controversial. They are using allegories," he said.

Beyond storytelling

You Bo, vice president of the Khmer Writers Association, says that folk tales are the perfect vessel for transcending the social constraints on Cambodian authors. "Folk stories help people today understand society," he said.  

The 66-year-old, who gives editorial advice to young novelists in Phnom Penh, says urban migration is one key reason for the growing number of writers.

Thea Sok Meng's course covers philosophical theories concerned with art and beauty, and students are encouraged to study literary concepts including love, the sublime, tragedy and comedy. They also conduct comparative studies with Western love stories, comparing Cambodian classics Tum Teav and Ka Key with Romeo and Juliet and Madame Bovary. You Bo is aware of the importance with helping students to appreciate the uniqueness of Khmer-style storytelling.

"Khmer literature is different [from Western] because we pass stories on to each other, there is no master teacher. It means that ideas are interpreted in many different ways."

The increasing interest in literature at degree level mirrors a broader trend - now "people are hungry for books and reading material in general," Weeks says.

But despite the growing demand for books in Cambodia, the infrastructure for a strong industry is still not in place.

"The market is there; we just need to have more people willing to publish and distribute the work," Weeks says.



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