Phina So is a researcher, writer, a member of the Khmer literature collective, Slap Paka, and the head of the Women Writers Committee at PEN Cambodia. She is currently self-publishing a second anthology of short stories with a group of authors. This week, she spoke with Audrey Wilson on the city’s offerings for readers and writers of all kinds
For book shopping, I like to go to the International Book Center, which has a wide range of Khmer literature. There, you can find many traditional designs of Khmer novels, and there are more writers than anywhere else. Three or four shelves – I think that’s a lot! There are only a few bookstores that display Khmer novels; there’s the Peace Book Center, too. In these stores, around 30 per cent of the books are in Khmer. It shows that many writers keep publishing their works, even though they know there’s not much financial gain. But about half of the Khmer books are translated – I find that young people like to read translations more than Khmer novels.
Le Point Cafe
Another place I like to go to write is a cafe called Le Point [#10 Street 208], near Norodom Boulevard. It’s very quiet, and very small. You can go while you’re waiting for your friends, and you can write. I like to meet my friends with whom I’ve co-published there – we discuss and decide what to do next. We communicate via Facebook most often, but we meet up once a month, or whenever we can. The cafe is a very nice space for that. It has a very relaxing atmosphere; and now we have become friends with the staff. Writers need more spaces like this.
The National Library near Wat Phnom is another good place: There you can find very old books. Most were collected before the Khmer Rouge time. But many young people – and even members of the intellectual community – do not know where the National Library is. I’ve spent a lot of time there during my research on generations of female writers, but I have no idea how many books there are. There are a lot of big shelves, but you can’t find anything easily. Of course I appreciate the existence of the building itself, and everything inside – but the government needs to put more resources into it, and let people know that it exists.
National Museum garden
My favourite place in Phnom Penh is the National Museum. I like to go inside – by the four big fish ponds and fresh frangipani – and sit and get inspiration. It is best to go early in the morning, because it is cool. Sometimes I just enjoy myself and sometimes I write – there aren’t any tables, but you can jot things down in a notebook. The other place is the Royal Palace – at the gardens in front. It’s nice to sit and watch people go around. I like the way the fine-arts students bring their materials and sit in the shade, and draw. We need more parks like this that allow you to just sit and think.
I work with many contemporary writers. One of my favourites, and another female writer, is Bounchan Suksiri (pictured right). Suksiri is a historical fiction writer, and she’s published six novels. The way she writes – it’s not just telling stories, but educating people about history. Besides her novels, she’s also published many articles on her website, Khmer Story Lovers. She collects proverbs and translations of Khmer sayings so that Cambodians and non-Cambodians can access them.