''Taking your seat in the wrong place is not suitable for women. Don’t procrastinate. Don’t go for a walk in other people’s houses.”
These are some of the ancient Khmer “rules for women” – centuries-old instructions on how women should live a moral life. Vididh Hou, the son of acclaimed pre-war Cambodian author Nou Hach, recited them to his grandma before bed - not only for moral instruction but for their literary value.
Last night, decades later, he watched with a wry smile as he heard them performed live once again, this time in English, with dry humour and to the sound of traditional Khmer instruments and a bass guitar.
The performance came as part of an unusual poetry and music showcase at Java cafe intended to revive the capital’s stagnant literary scene.
“Not many people write poems now; most people write for the theatre or action movies. My father, my uncle, even my uncle on my wife’s side – they were all great writers,” Hou says, adding that the moral lessons felt different today from when he was a boy.
“At the time, they felt right.”
Last night’s event, The Call to Poetry Phnom Penh, the latest in a series of critically acclaimed international events, had ancient Khmer love poetry as well as modern verses paired with the music of a romeat, a type of traditional Cambodian xylophone, and electric bass guitar, played by members of the Kok Thlok Association.
“Expats in Phnom Penh might be excited to learn more about Khmer culture, but don’t have the time. This really opens people’s minds up to the literature they don’t know about,” organiser Dan Boylan says.
Boylan, a poet himself, pored over poetry collections at Monument Books to collate the readings for last night’s schedule. The mix of ancient and modern Khmer work included inscriptions from Angkor Wat, poems by Cambodian-American artist Chath Piseth, and excerpts from Cambodia’s national poetic treasure – Tum Teav, considered “Cambodia’s Romeo and Juliet”.
“There’s a rich history of oral traditions being passed down, and also of the novella, which seems to the popular form here, but even before the war there wasn’t much poetry,” says Taryn Schwilling, an American poet working in Phnom Penh on a Fulbright scholarship to research Cambodian poetry.
Boylan, who has hosted racuous readings in Istanbul and Jakarta, hopes the evening helped to ignite a literary scene that he believes has lost dynamism all over the world.
Cultural growth, he believes, is partly obstructed in developing countries by international NGOs whose work can become a “noxious weed” that hinders, rather than helps, the growth of a city’s cultural scene.
“I found this also in Jarkarta: there was an NGO that had given poets $500 one night to perform, and I thought: ‘That’s wonderful, but my God, you’re going to mess up the market completely.’
“Generally, these NGOs have pretty confined avenues they want the artists to explore. If you want to do something radical, that’s never the way to do it.
“It’s a noxious weed at that point: culture needs to grow on its own.”
To contact the reporter on this story: Poppy McPherson at [email protected]