A keen band of literary enthusiasts gathered at Java Café on Sunday night for an awards ceremony organised by the Nou Hach Literary Journal – the only publication of its kind in Cambodia.
At the ceremony, which was presided over by the journal editor Teri Yamada and also included live readings and a presentation by US author Larry Chambers on story structure, awards were given for both poetry and short fiction.
Unusually, there was no first place award given in either category, and no second place award for poetry.
“That’s how we’ve always done it,” explained Yamada, who is chair of the Department of Asian and Asian American Studies at California State University.
“If the judges don’t think there’s really something that’s super excellent we won’t give a first place prize.”
“They were not super thrilled with what we got this year, in truth,” she added.
Yamada said that while the visual arts in Cambodia were undergoing a period of relative flourishing, the same could not yet be said for literature.
“Writing is kind of considered to be somewhat secondary to art at this point, maybe largely because things have become so visual with new media,” she said, adding that the visual arts were also far easier to sponsor:
“It’s sexier.”Yamada said that when offers of funding did come in, they were often tied in ways that were unacceptable.
“We’ve had people from various political parties who want to give us a lot of money and we’ve declined.
If we become politicised in any way it impacts on our writers.”
For these sponsors, it is the journal’s name that is the major attraction.
Nou Hach, who died in the first weeks of the Khmer Rouge, was the author of four novels and retains the accolade of being Cambodia’s best-known writer thanks to his frequent appearances on the national school syllabus.
Yamada said that while things may be progressing slowly in terms of quantity of submissions both to the competition and to their nominally annual journal, the speed at which Cambodia’s writing style has modernised has been striking.
Back in 2002, when the journal first launched, the structure of articles was archaic.
“Cambodia has been heavily influenced by Sanskrit,” she said. “And unlike Thai, they haven’t separated their words. When we started out, a whole page would have no paragraph breaks, no stops, no phrases.”
Today, Yamada said, that’s changing – work is presented in a more legible form, and language is less repetitious.
But, she added, external influences still had a strong pull on the way people wrote. One such trend she cited was “development literature”: stories about Cambodia’s struggle for self-improvement, a topic often encouraged by NGOs involved in the arts.
“If that’s the only thing people are writing about – how to make the country better – it gets pretty boring over time,” she said.
She added that she believed there was also a “hangover” from socialist realism, “which pretty much demands that there’s some kind of heroic component to the story”.
The top prize accorded by the judges on Sunday was in the short fiction category, and went to 17-year-old Battambang native Houn Tynarath for his short story Candle Light.
The piece, about a boy’s struggle against the odds to escape from poverty, still falls under the category of “development literature” on most counts, but stood out for Yamada because of the depth of thought it exhibited.
“This piece is pretty philosophical. It’s pretty shocking,” she said.
Speaking in advance of the award ceremony, Tynarath said that he had been the only person in his class to enter the competition. “Most of my friends, they don’t like writing or reading,” he said.
Now, he wants to capitalise on his early success.
“I want to teach Khmer literature in my province after I graduate. Or if I had a chance, I’d like to go to Phnom Penh and study Khmer literature. I want to be a novelist.”