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Kampot’s second writers festival builds on success

The Batbangers perform on Friday during the Kampot Writers and Readers Festival.
The Batbangers perform on Friday during the Kampot Writers and Readers Festival. Alessandro Marazzi Sassoon

Kampot’s second writers festival builds on success

The second edition of the Kampot Writers and Readers Festival (KWRF) wrapped up yesterday, bringing to an end four days of continuous cultural and literary activities.

Last year’s inaugural festival was a surprise success, drawing a few hundred visitors to the riverside town for events ranging from small poetry readings to a performance by Australian icon Paul Kelly.

This year, organisers faced the challenge of building on that momentum – and they certainly did so in quantity. The lineup featured dozens of overlapping events, including performances by the Batbangers and the Messenger Band, and a Bunong ensemble travelling from Mondulkiri province to Kampot for the first time.

“The program snowballed,” said festival director Julien Poulson, adding that it was a showcase of the “eclecticism and diversity of the writers and artists”.

Among the workshops and book launches led mainly by foreigners, the second edition also featured a handful of events chosen for their focus on the Cambodian context.

A panel of all Cambodian writers assembled on Saturday, providing a rare platform for local – and young – voices to speak about their work.

One writer, Thun Thavry, is due to publish a book in January. A Proper Woman chronicles her experience growing up as a woman in contemporary Cambodia, but is informed by the experiences of her mother and grandmother.

“I broke the cycle of uneducated women,” Thavry said, explaining that her grandmother was illiterate and her mother never had the chance to complete her grade-seven exam.

Thavry said she defied expectations by leaving her village on Koh Ksach Tunlea, a small island on the Mekong, to pursue higher education, including study in the Czech Republic.

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Writer Thun Thavry. Alessandro Marazzi Sassoon

“My audience is young girls. We’re still fighting gender equality,” she said of her book, which she plans to publish in English, with a second edition in Khmer.

There were eight other writers on the panel: Chath Piersath, Chin Meas, Yeng Chheangly, Hang Achariya, Suong Mak, Sok Chanphal, Buth Thida and Soy Sina.

A common theme of the discussion was the difficulty Cambodian writers face in pursuing their passion. Some sell noodles to support their work, while others opt for more profitable enterprises: television scripts rather than poetry, for example. The writers on the panel also acknowledged the need for better enforcement of intellectual property laws.

Scottish writer and editor Iain Donnelly, who announced the launch of Phnom Penh-based publishing house, Saraswati Publishing, at the festival, hopes to create an alternative for self-publishing, long a plague on Cambodian and expat writers alike.

“Necessity is the mother of invention,” he said last week. “I came up with the idea of having sort of a dual model: there are a lot of expat writers that would like to see their books in print . . . and there is nobody really taking [work by Khmer writers] to be published.”

Saraswati, currently funded by Donnelly, ultimately aims for an even split between its signed Cambodian and foreign writers. He has first released his own novel under the new imprint, but hopes to publish a book of short stories by Cambodian writers early next year. Donnelly travelled to Kampot in pursuit of Cambodian writers and mentors for them, he added.

With a mostly volunteer staff of 40, the KWRF did face some organisational hiccups like last-minute schedule changes, which disoriented festival-goers and participants alike.

The writer Thavry said she was not informed of the panel’s time or location until a few hours before it began, adding that she was “disappointed” by the organisation. She also noted the conspicuous lack of Cambodian attendees.

“It’s mostly barangs,” she said.

Asked about the perceived lack of Cambodians, Poulson pointed out that such festivals – including the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival and the Hong Kong International Literary Festival, which bookend KWRF – can be a “preoccupation of Western culture”.

That the festival returned this year – and is in Kampot to stay – is a success in itself, he said. “Would you rather not have it at all?” he said. “There’s no equivalent [in Cambodia].”

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