N the traumatised, material-deprived scramble of Phnom Penh in the 1980s, a library of sorts emerged. For a few hours or a day, a borrower could take out a handwritten story from a shop, read it for pleasure and return the papers when they had had their fill of words. Many would return for the next installment.
Thirty years later, such low-margin publishing ingenuity might be seen on every street corner: photocopied books haunt newsstands and bookshops, selling Khmer language novels for half the price of the real copy. But in the piles of variously cheap and impressive-looking replicas lies a bitter truth: Cambodia’s contemporary literature is being hindered by a web of book piracy, murky book distribution and self-censorship, say writers and editors.
In the bright new office space of the Nou Hach Literary Association in BKK1, Teri Yamada, co-founder of the literary group, nominates piracy as the biggest obstacle facing the journal, Nou Hach, which comes out once a year.
Unlike most book publishers in the Kingdom, the non-profit team behind the Nou Hach Association copy edit, discuss, promote and translate the literary journal stories into English.
When it comes to getting the journal into bookstands, the path is less straightforward. For Cambodian writers with manuscripts, the road to publication is even rougher.
“The culture here undercuts the ability for publishers to publish fiction,” says Yamada, a professor of Asian Studies in Long Beach, California.
“In the past for Nou Hach we actually had to hire someone who apparently had connections with these little shops in various markets – [like] O’Russey - this person would take and sell a couple of copies to each little shop they would get their cut and if they had connections, they could do it Siem Reap and Battambang and they might be able to get it out into the countryside. But what we noticed immediately with ours is that we couldn’t make any money…they would be immediately pirated and we had no control over that.”
Without the literary book market - established publishing houses and professional fiction editors - that exists in Thailand, Vietnam and the West, for Cambodian writers trying to get their novels published and read, the challenge is great. “It’s different from the West,” says prolific writer Suong Mak, 26, who has written 50 novels and more than 200 short stories, including Boyfriend, the first contemporary Khmer novel about a gay-male couple, mostly published on his blog, Archphkai.
“If I want to publish my book I have to sell it to a publisher. Then he/she pays me some money that we have agreed to. Even though that book might become a best seller, I will get nothing because the book belongs to the publisher already after paying.”
Young fiction writer Heng Borin, whose novel Blood from Hell was published after a friend put up money to a local publisher, treats Cambodia’s fiction publishers with similar forbearance.
“Because I feel we cannot really trust them. My contract says they’ll publish 1000 [copies] but they might make 2000. How can we trust them?”
Although the size of Cambodia’s small literary readership is bemoaned, the number of writers who do invest in publishers to print their novels face inevitable photocopying and often see their work replicated in book stalls cross the city. The inability to make money because of piracy is what deters literary publishers in Cambodia, says Yamada.
“Because why go to the trouble of spending $500 to publish your own work and have it be popular and have it be immediately pirated for half of the amount?” says Yamada.
“I’m not even going to distribute [Nou Hach] any longer. We’re going to go all online…If I’m going to publish I’ll self-publish and bring copies here.”
Twenty-six-year-old Borin, who is reading an (unpirated) copy of Isac Marion’s Warm Bodies, has seen his work reappear in photocopied versions but has a different take.
“For me, I don’t care because I want people to read my books. I think if that they don’t want to read the book, they wouldn’t steal it. Some people are poor. If they buy one copy and copy the book…I’m happy they do it. Even though we want to protect, we cannot.”
Since the loss of almost an entire popular generation of writers from the 1950s and 60s under the Khmer Rouge, through to the slow re-emergence of fiction writing, contemporary stories have moved in a different storytelling style, says Yin Luoth, co-founder of Nou Hach., says Yin Luoth, co-founder of Nou Hach.
“The old style narrative, not the first person [we see now] – it was usually more romantic, very poetic – mostly how beautiful the lady is looking, and descriptions of nature… Now we seem to delve into issues and topics.”
While writers like Borin insists there is freedom to publish stories reflecting criticism of authority and society, the “limitations” as book publisher Kim Channa says, have an effect on creative output.
“There are so many writers who don’t publish,” says Heng Sreang, lecturer at Pannasastra University.
The director of Cambodia PEN, Sreang guides the writers organisation, which traditionally promotes writers’ freedom of expression, down “a very clear line”.
“For me I have my own philosophy. As long as people have a chance to talk, to write, to publish their work, that is the freedom of expression. I create that kind of opportunity and chance [in Cambodia].”
In a café in Phnom Penh, a writer who has published more than 10 novels puts his unpublished manuscript on the table. A thick tome, the novel is set across the past four decades and “has some sentences that are difficult to express in our society.”
“If I published the book I’d have to take those sentences out. Things which happened which led Cambodia to the present day.”
Teri Yamada is careful to distinguish between political criticism and social criticism in Nou Hach’s contemporary fiction. “In many ways our stories contain socially critical themes but they’re not politically critical. In other words American culture isn’t perfect either… and certainly there are novelists who write about that but it’s not necessarily a political attack against the government when you write like that.”
Most writers – whether self-published or through a local publisher – self-censor to some degree, agrees Mak,
“But some still continue their criticism of society and problems in Cambodia. Some are not afraid about that and some have their own strategy …For example, characters in their story are animals or anything not related to humans, or [they are] human but don’t refer to someone directly.”
In the landmark 2006 study Publishing in Cambodia, by the Center of Khmer Studies, the report concluded ‘it is abundantly clear that Cambodian writers are almost invariably unable to make a living from their writing.’ The small book market and low purchasing power of everyday readers has not changed, but contemporary fiction must have a room to grow, say Sreang and Nou Hach.
Three groups, Nou Hach, Cambodia PEN and the less-active Khmer Writers Association, all have desires to improve the quality of writing and lessen the obstacles to publishing novels.
Sreang is starting a book reciprocity scheme in different in PEN, and recently held a PEN forum on writing, Nou Hach, which received more than 100 entries in their 2013 literary prize, is toying with the idea of a book fair for fiction writers.
A book publisher that “looks truly at literary value” would improve Cambodia’s literature scene as well, says Luoth.
Holding up his copy of Warm Bodies, Borin reels of a list of American novelists.
“Isaac Marian was only poor and worked in a hospital – but now he’s got a Hollywood movie.” He laughs. “So different for Cambodia!”