Following in the footsteps of her father – who passed onto her his poet’s bloodline – combined with a passion for reading any and all kinds of books and a strong interest in the film industry that began during her childhood are what inspired Pol Pisey to become a writer. More a calling than a career much of the time, she has nonetheless pursued it for almost 50 years now.
Presently, Pisey is vice-president of the Khmer Writers Association as well as a composition teacher for some of the association’s courses and a well-known independent female novelist and strong proponent of Khmer literature.
Pisey was born in Prek Sleng commune of Kandal province’s Kandal Stung district. She found to have a gift for writing poetry, just like her father, when she was young and she was educated and raised to love reading and writing.
Sometimes those lessons came directly from her father, Chap Rith, a teacher and poet who was a member of Krom Chumnum Tumneam Tumlorb Khmer at the Buddhist Institute during the 1960s.
Today, amid a lifetime spent writing, the 64-year-old Pisey’s work includes novels, novellas, books of poetry, screenplays, songs, children’s story books, illustrated books and her own autobiographical stories or memoirs, all of which she’s won numerous awards for over the decades.
Pisey credits her father’s influence for getting her started on a writing career before she even understood what that meant.
“I started writing poetry when I was eight years old, even though I did not know any of the actual rules behind it. In 1969, I started writing short novels. By 1972, my poetry was being recited on the Khmer poetry programme that aired on national radio.
“My first two novels in 1973 were Chom Norng Dai Teuk Phnek and the second was Kamrong Sne Kam, which was handwritten, and I still have the original manuscript today,” she recalled.
Pisey said her childhood was an extremely bookish one and the only hobbies she pursued with any real enthusiasm were focused on the use of language and creativity.
“From childhood, I liked reading everything, including novels, poetry, magazines, academic research, newspapers, manuscripts and so on,” she said. “I also liked to listen to programmes aired on national radio – whether it was soap operas or the news or the latest songs.”
Pisey has also had a strong interest in film as an art form, another legacy of her father’s influence.
“I’ve always had a strong interest in movies since I began watching them as a child. I would visit film sets with my father and see them act out the scenes in person and then later compare that to what the camera captured,” she said.
Pisey also credits her affinity for writing to her devotion to the practice of actively listening and observing the world around her from a young age and she said she believes this is what made her become a writer, the only one of her five siblings to take after her father in that respect.
However, she said that when she was young she wanted to be an archaeologist because of her love for ancient temples and statues, but unfortunately she never achieved that, while her father wanted her to become a doctor.
Despite years of experience in writing and having won numerous awards for her diverse and wide-ranging career, Pisey said there were both some challenges and some benefits that came with her writing career and she advises the next generation of writers to learn, experiment and aim to surpass what the past generations did.
“Life as a writer is always one that is faced with so many obstacles. Failure was a more frequent occurrence than success. However, we must persevere and keep trying. Monitor everything that happens around you every day in order to be able to convey an accurate impression of it. Be creative while writing stories that reflect the reality of our society currently. If people can relate to your writing, you will attract readers.
“One single writer who pens a work that satisfies tens of thousands of people, no matter how good it is, it cannot escape having some flaws, it cannot be perfect and it cannot please everybody, because every person has their own unique heart,” she said.
Pisey acknowledges that to become a writer was also a sort of honoured life for which the writer is recognised by the general public around them and they are given the opportunity to participate in the growth of the national literary culture and reciprocate with and show gratitude to all of the past writers, poets and ancestors.
“The benefit to the writer is to leave a personal legacy and gain the peace of mind that comes with that and it also provides an opportunity to share knowledge with the next generation, especially when there are a lot of people who support you and your art. It makes us proud and happy when we hear people appreciate our work, the same as it does anyone,” she said.
Pisey said other benefits of a career as a writer are opportunities to go abroad, meet foreign writers and share experiences with them and introduce them to the Khmer ancestral heritage as it makes up a special part of the national literature.
“But there’s a lot of pressure sometimes to produce or to top yourself. Writing requires time to get right, but readers want it all fast, like breaking news, and if a book comes out late it disappoints them,” she added.
As science and technology have continued to race forward, everything about society is also changing just as rapidly with it and the changes that have been observed in reading habits such as whether or how much people read and what they prefer among those who do continues to shift.
Pisey said she feels that most young readers like to read something fast, hot, quick – and most books are ultimately written to suit their intended readers.
For example, in the past the introduction of the story or the first act was much longer typically and then it would get into the main action or plotline, but now the introduction of the story is non-existent and it just immediately goes straight into the main narrative, and writers today are no longer using parables to the extent that Khmer writing and storytelling traditionally has relied on them.
“In my opinion, as a writer we have to be flexible and adapt ourselves to the times. But we must not forget what our ancestral heritage is. It is good to know how to mix the ancient and the modern together,” she said.
Pisey notes that when she began writing there were not many other female writers – only a very small percentage – but now there are a large number of women writers and there are many outstanding works by women and many successors to those works.
She notes that presently Khmer women writers seemed to be focused on realism and were collecting stories from real life that are happening in society and fictionalising them.
“This shows that women have a clear understanding of their role and know how to use their courage and freedoms to come forward and show both the positive and negative things about life as a modern woman and do so with the utmost fairness.
“What is special for me as a female writer is the opportunity to uncover the secrets that in the past some women did not dare to tell and instead used things in the story to attract the attention of readers and signal this other layer of meaning to them.
“I have determined in my heart from the beginning that no one knows more about women than women. If female writers do not promote equal rights and freedoms for women, then who will?”
Pisey explains that almost all of her writing has always emphasised the value of encouraging women to overcome obstacles in the pursuit of life’s freedoms.
“My heart and my brain have recorded and remembered my father’s golden words: Do not borrow their breath to breathe – though you are a woman, you are first a human being – and you must live by your own sweat and your own strength,” Pisey quoted.
Pol Pisey has received numerous awards over the decades, publishing work to acclaim by one or another organisation in a steady and nearly unbroken stream beginning in the post-Khmer Rouge-era in the 1980s, with major awards bestowed upon her in 1987, 1991, 1995, 1996, 2001, 2007, 2011, 2012, 2013 and 2018 – and that’s almost certainly an incomplete account of her honours.
“According to the laws of nature, the bamboo shoot grows and always becomes bamboo. That’s no different than human beings who – from one generation to the next generation – are the sources of their own successors. Through them we can confer immortality upon our people and the soul of our ancient culture,” said Pisey.
Pisey said that she tries to always remember that she has a duty to those who came before her, starting with her father but going back into the ages following the bloodline of her ancestors, including the Angkorian-era, giving her an equal duty she feels to legendary figures like Queen Indradevi, the most famous scholar in Khmer history.
“As a lover of writing, I am happy to see so many successors and to see that the work of these new writers is so advanced. What we, the writers, should do is expand our knowledge and strengthen our thinking so that our Khmer culture and literature will never die. However things progress, every piece of writing must reflect the cultural traditions and customs of our ancestors and must include the elements of our national identity for the world to know... Do not forget the taste, smell or true colours of our nation.
“And do not forget the ancient saying, ‘the immature rice stalk stands erect, while the mature one – heavy with grain – bends over,’” Pisey concluded.