You Bo: "The works of Cambodian writers are dead."
Pal Vannarirak has twice won awards for her novels. Her drive to succeed came from
a young age: when she was just 13 she dreamed of fame such as that achieved by scientific
geniuses. She devoted her life to writing romantic novels, but despite her accomplishments,
she still can't afford to print her books.
Vannarirak is among hundreds of Khmer novelists who face a common problem: readers
are few, which means money to print books is hard to come by.
"Some good writers spend their whole lives unable to find the money to print
a single book," she says. "I consider myself lucky. Some don't even have
rice to feed their children."
She has never missed a day's writing, which she does between 5 and 9 every morning.
Some days she works on a novel, others on the biography of a noted Cambodian. She
started writing in 1984, and has completed around 90 novels. Only a few have ever
Her two masterpieces gained her some recognition: Hope at the New Horizon featured
the lives of Cambodian refugees who fled to the Thai border. That won her a prize
Unforgettable took the Raj Sihanouk Academy award in 1995. The novel featured an
orphan girl, whose parents died under the Pol Pot regime, but who struggled against
the odds for success. When she became rich, she built orphanages for other orphans.
Vannari-rak won $1,000 and a trophy mounted with King Sihanouk's photograph.
She has also written romantic novels, film scripts, and gender and educational programs.
During the State of Cambodia, the 1980s under the CPP, censorship was widespread.
"During that time I wrote secretly," says Vannarirak. "I would rent
out my hand-written novels, which were very popular with readers."
The reality for many Cambodian writers, she says, is that most Cambodians cannot
read, while many who can have lost interest.
"I once went into ten Khmer houses," she says, "and there was not
a single novel. Khmer people are simply not accustomed to reading books."
You Bo is president of the Khmer Writers' Association (KWA), which was founded in
1954. Its mission is to uphold Khmer literature, and it has trained hundreds of young
writers since 1993.
KWA runs an annual contest for novels and poems with funding from King Sihanouk and
Prime Minister Hun Sen, who along with foreign NGOs, help fund the printing of the
winning entries. Bo laments the fact that only ten novels a year are released in
Cambodia. In the 1960s, he says, it was more like 30 or 40 a month.
"There were so many prolific writers and so many readers at that time,"
says Bo. "Books were sold out within days of release, because people had the
money to buy them."
Today, he says, there are far fewer Khmer novels. Readers have no money, people are
unaccustomed to the habit of reading, and intellectual property rights are regularly
Pal Vannarirak - rented out her secretly hand-written novels in the 1980s.
"Book vendors look down on writers," says Bo. "They say if a book
is a best-seller, they will simply copy it."
Despite the fact that the cost of printing a book is close to the selling price,
people still cannot afford the 3,000 riel required. A print-run of 2,000 costs around
"The works of Cambodian writers are dead," he says. "During the 1960s
and 1970s even a sugarcane-juice vendor could afford to buy books. Now the students
and civil servants don't have 3,000 riel a month to spend. It can take five years
to sell 1,000 books."
The winner of the "7th January" writing award last year was Neuth Chamroeun,
a 26-year-old student studying for a masters in literature at the Royal Academy of
Cambodia. The motivation behind his novel was to educate the young to stay away from
His book describes a young man whose crime causes the death of his parents. Eventually
the man gives himself up to the authorities. Shadow of Youth, which beat 50 other
entries, won Chamroeun $250.
He says he raised funds to cover printing from, among others, deputy prime minister
Sar Kheng. Only half of the 1,000 books were sold.
"Novels are not popular in Cambodia," says Cham-roeun. "Compared to
previous times, the Khmer people are not interested in reading novels; they prefer
to watch videos."
Chamroeun feels the best way to attract more readers would be for writers to put
out more novels, and for the government to pay more attention to the art.
"Also, writers should learn from the experiences of yester-day's writers to
improve our skills," he says.
Som Somuny, a doctor of literature at the Royal Academy of Cambodia, criticizes young
writers for meekly following the topics defined by KWA. The result, he says, is a
standard well below the glorious works produced before and during the 20th century.
"The works of today's writers are not considerable," says Somuny. "I
have seen nothing outstanding, and that is because they do not follow what they have
in their hearts."
Those writers alive just 40 years ago made a good living through their profession.
Up to that time, writers stuck to a very high standard. They had a clear conscience
and believed in what they produced, he says.
Some writers, he says, wrote to support the revolutionary movement. One example was
the Beast Village, which described a moment in the revolutionary movement against
the French when a group of Khmers assassinated the resident superieur, Bardez, in
1925. The name of the village was ordered changed from Krang Leou to Beast Village
as punishment by King Sisowath.
Of course, says Somuny, styles have changed over the centuries. The first love poem
in Khmer was written by Preah Raj Samphea in the 17th century. In the 19th century,
King Ang Duong wrote a novel called Ka Key about a capricious lady. Writers in the
19th century used the life of the Buddha as a base; those in the 20th drew on the
daily lives of ordinary Khmers.
"If they wrote love stories," he says of the tragic romantic classics Tum
Teav and Kolab Pailin, "they did so with a clear conscience. We can see for
ourselves how well-written Tum Teav was. No one needs to tell us that - those stories
will be eternal."
And the best-seller...
Although Khmer novels don't sell particularly well, there is one lucrative outlet
for the frustrated writer: Angkor Thom Happiness magazine is remarkably popular,
selling 8,000 copies every two weeks.
It focuses on readers who enjoy titillating photographs and short, racy stories.
A quick look inside reveals foreign women wearing, well, not much, followed by prose
detailing romantic liaisons. And the readers love it.
The magazine, which is licensed by the Ministry of Information, started publishing
in 2000. Sing Vuthyrith, a 29-year-old writer at the magazine, says he writes what
his readers tell him they want in letters and phone calls.
"When I write sex features," he says, "I put all my thoughts into
producing a real story. That way my readers won't get bored with my writing style."
It is racy and salacious with the obvious only subtly cloaked. Try this extract,
for example: "The gorgeous secretary ... the boss stared at her pair of flesh
mountains, making him drool." Or this: "He caressed the green grass growing
on a triangled hill."
So who reads this? Vuthyrith reckons his fans range from teenagers to the elderly.
"They say it helps release their feelings of tenseness," he says, "and
stops them from going to the brothels."
Readers do write in asking for information on sex, generally a taboo topic in Cambodia.
Vuthyrith often writes articles on sex education and the dangers of HIV.
His writing has drawn some criticism from family and friends who are concerned he
might adversely affect Khmer tradition. He says sex is treated too coyly here, with
old people cursing when they hear the young discussing it.
"We should have more freedom to write about sex," he says. "In the
free world people don't consider sex a secret anymore - they even have sex shops.
The more we hide it, the more people will want to know."