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Pulp fiction

Pulp fiction

Romance tales and lesser fiction line bookstore shelves, but at 4,000 riel or so per copy, all but a few select writers must moonlight to pay the bills. Amy Cameron reads between the lines.

Setting out to make a living as a novelist is a risky venture anywhere in the world. But in Cambodia - where up to 63 percent of the adult population is illiterate, copyright laws are regularly flaunted and financial returns are ludicrously low - it's a gamble that only the most dedicated scribe stands a chance of winning.

According to You Bo, president of the Khmer Writer's Association, only two novelists in the country - Mao Sam Nang and Pal Vanna Rinak - can survive on earnings from their art alone. The Khmer novels that sell best are usually romances, their paper covers illustrated with kitsch drawings of starry-eyed lovers, but many writers supplement their meager incomes by penning movie scripts.

Yet despite the odds against being able to make ends meet as a writer, there are plenty of aspiring authors keen to give it a go. More than 500 students are enrolled in the 20 different night classes offered by the Khmer Writer's Association. The organization was established in 1954, was shut down during the Pol Pot regime, then eventually reopened for business in 1995.

These days it runs out of a small office in the middle of Phnom Penh's Wat Botum, with monks and stuppas surrounding this writers' meeting place. Most attendees at the night classes are university students by day. As well as learning the craft of writing, students study Cambodian novels and foreign novels translated into Khmer, mostly from the Russian and French canon.

Despite the popularity of his courses, Bo has no illusions that all his students will make it as artists.

"As a Cambodian novel writer, you can only survive if you do other things as well, like working as a journalist," Bo says.

This wasn't always the case.

Cambodia's literary tradition took a heavy blow with the persecution of the country's educated during the Khmer Rouge reign. The fragile scene that emerged faced political control during the 1980s, when novels were expected to reflect the socialist ideals of the time.

Nowadays, writers generally write about love, but previously, weightier topics were commonplace. It's not that an audience for such works doesn't exist, he says it's just that the fledgling literary scene is not yet sufficiently developed to tackle difficult themes.

"In the past we had writers like Soth Polin who wrote philosophical novels that talk about society," Bo says. "If today we had writers who could write philosophical novels, there would be a lot of readers."

Polin's novels, including titles such as "Life is Hopeless", have been republished, restocked at libraries and are selling well, Bo says.

The modern market for fiction is driven by writer's festivals and awards, providing incentives for lesser-known authors to complete works and have them published for a ready audience. Poems and novels are read at the festivals, then published and sold in the markets. Awards help boost the profile of up-and-coming writers. The Khmer Writer's Association organizes two festivals: the Sihanouk Reach festival and the 7 January Festival of Literature, held on alternate years.

But politics has crept in to the awards.

Thea Sok Meng, a lecturer in Khmer literature at the Royal University of Phnom Penh, says the judging panel from the Khmer Writer's Association is largely made up of members of the ruling Cambodia People's Party (CPP), who screen the winners.

"The Khmer Writer's Association wants to select some literature from among the people who write stories, but the topic of the stories can be dictated. Sometimes the government says they have to focus on ideal life after the Khmer Rouge, because the CPP liberated the people from the Khmer Rouge," Meng says.

"They say you can write freely, but they select which novels to publish and which novels to give awards to," he says. "The CPP wants people to remember what they did for them."

Each year, the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts also runs a literature competition called Preah Reach Samphea, offering a first prize of two million riel. The award is judged by a committee made up of writers, Khmer Writer's Association members, and Ministry of Culture officials, says Un Tim, director of Administration at the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts. He wasn't able to specify exactly who was on the committee.

But not everyone agrees that successful novels are politically skewed.

Sum Chhum Bun, a Khmer literature specialist, believes authors do have the right to criticize the government. He lays the blame for lack of financial support for Cambodian literature on the Khmer Writer's Association.

"The problem is we could not attract sponsors because of the weakness of the Khmer Writer's Association," says Bun, who is deputy secretary general of the Royal Academy of Cambodia, an organization that offers post-graduate qualifications. "It is not strong enough to get funding from UNESCO."

He says the Khmer Writer's Association was stronger in the 1960s and 1970s. He believes the association has failed to bring all Cambodia's writers together, so the literary scene is fragmented. Contrary to the association's president, Bun questions whether there is a viable market for serious literature, pointing to low literacy levels and poor education as a reason for the small numbers of successful writers.

Thea Sok Meng agrees.

"Recently more people are interested in watching TV - Chinese and American movies - novels are only for people studying. I think in the past people read more," Meng says.

Bun fears that these difficulties will cause Cambodians to stop writing, as most people are unable to support their families through a career in writing. He was recently asked to write a 45-minute script for a movie, and was offered just $50. The movie had an entire budget of $1,100, with the actors getting $30 each.

When Cambodia's copyright laws are strengthened through the country's entrance to the World Trade Organization, it may be easier for writers to survive in Cambodia, Bun says. But for now, being a writer is a tough career choice.

"It is my concern that in the future the value of the literature will go down because the writers can not make a living from their profession."

(Translations by Sam Rith and Cheang Sokha)


Mao Sam Nang is an oddity in Khmer literature.

She is one of only two writers in Cambodia known to make a living from her writing alone. Her novels and screenplays are hugely popular, enabling her to demand $500 per screenplay, ten times the usual rates. It may not seem like a huge amount, but Sam Nang is able to pump out three a month.

Sam Nang, 48, attended school for 12 years, but never officially studied writing. She wrote her first novel, "The Tear of Yana", in 1981. From 1981 to 1986 she wrote a staggering 100 novels. She explains that she was very popular, and needed to write so many to keep up with demand.

"At the beginning I had to write two novels per month to fill the orders," she says, proudly adding that during that time she could earn 10 times more than a government official.

Sam Nang's novels have won several awards from NGOs for their educational messages, and her novel "The Wave Hits the Sand" received a Sihanouk Reach Award in 1995.

Diminutive and soft-spoken, Sam Nang began writing screenplays in 1986 and now has more than 80 screenplays to her name. The motivation for writing films is simple: the fee she can command from screenplays is triple what she earns for novels. Her fame as a novelist helped her movies to become successful and after her first movie, the producer decided to turn several of her old novels into screenplays.

Never having learned how to use a computer, everything Sam Nang produces is written by hand. In the early days, her novels were copied by hand by the hundreds and sold at the markets.

Nowadays, technology makes reproducing her novels easier, but also allows intellectual property theft. But because Sam Nang's novels retail for around 4,000 riel, she has little trouble with people illegally copying her novels. The cost of photocopying a novel is comparable to buying an original. If she discovered someone was selling illegal copies, she says she would attempt to prosecute them, even though copyright laws are weak.

Her novels are mainly about love, but she tries to impart serious messages through her books and movies as well. She tries to teach young people to follow Buddhist ways through straightforward themes such as bad guys getting their comeuppance while good people are rewarded. A recent movie pushed the theme that good students who study hard will find jobs, while lazy students will just end up in trouble.

"I concentrate my novel's meaning on education for youth. I can help to educate youths indirectly by my novels. I use simple language, but the short words are meaningful."


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