When I first saw in my email that the Kampot Writer Festival had invited me to be a guest speaker to talk about my book – A Proper Woman – I felt very excited, and I kept telling people that I was going to speak at the festival. I felt my work was seen as valuable and I was honoured to be invited.
Time passed, on the fourth evening, I had not yet heard anything from the organiser about their promise to arrange transportation and accommodation for me. I called my other writer friends, and they told me they had decided to cancel and not go, because of the unfairness they faced. They did not inform the organisers. I decided to book transportation by myself. My rule of life is: If I promise to do something, I will do it.
I arrived in Kampot at about 11:30am, I walked towards the park near Psa Kronat. I asked students if they knew where the Kampot Writers Festival was being held. They told me they didn’t know. I saw the big cover roof with the big microphone at the park. I walked towards it, but when I got closer, it was just a wedding party. I got lost.
I called the organiser and they brought me to the festival. I inquired about the schedule, and the time I would speak. They were lost, and they took me from one place to another. I felt like “What is going on?” Finally, they told me that I was with the “New Voices” group. I was to speak at 2pm at Java the Blue.
Making sure I was a little bit early, I arrived at 1:45pm. I finally met the other writers. They arranged for us to sit at the restaurant space of Java the Blue. It was just so unorganised. There were 11 writers, we had so little time to share our work. There were about 10 or so audience members. Thanks to Sharon May who volunteered to coordinate the New Voices panel.
Pen Line, a writer, shares her experience: “My expectation was meeting many famous Khmer writers like Poan Phoung Bopha, who have had successful careers, to come and share. I feel happy that I came, because I met other Khmer writers, but I felt like it is just a very small event.
I have learned very little because 11 writers were to speak at an hour and a half event, meaning less than 10 minutes each to share their experiences and work. Its looks like Cambodia does not have writers. I hope next time they will have proper planning, and let us have some time to rest. When we came we had to find places, and it is more like going on a trip rather than coming for the festival. They made us feel like losing motivation as Khmer young writers.”
I am glad I went, and I met all of the Khmer writers and a few Westerners. I learned what challenges writers face and must overcome. Some writers came all the way from Battamabang, Siem Reap and Kampong Cham. It took days of travel to get there, and all they got was 10 minutes to share about their experiences as writers.
I expected that they would be able to share on why they started writing, what techniques they use, where to print their works cheaply, how to get an ISBN or their views on copyright law.
Chanphal Sok, a script writer at Hang Meas Production says: “I expected to meet many Khmer writers in the festival. I feel it’s wonderful to make this in Kampot, a lovely province in Cambodia. I wish other Asian writers (Thai Laos . . .) come to join this event.”
I felt so divided. I felt I was not valuable enough to the festival. I don’t mind paying everything myself, but they were the ones who promised to arrange transportation and accommodation. But I had to do everything myself. I don’t like when people underdeliver on promises.
I would be happy enough if they said: “Please come and join us, this is for the social good. And sorry we don’t have funding to support your travels.” I would have understood. And of course I can cover my own expenses.
Yeng Chheangly, a writer and poet: “It should have involved more Khmer writers, and involving local high school students. Make it more like promoting Khmer literature as on par wtih Westerners. Make a clear venue for speakers/writers. Writers should be properly invited. Make an easy way for them to access the festival. My take-away from this festival is ‘unorganised’.”
When I went to Nataya Resort with other writers, I saw many foreigners sitting near the beach, watching the indigenous show, looking so fancy. This made me feel that the festival was more about them, and more about their own barang clique.
Steven W Palmer, a novelist, says: “The festival should have the best of both worlds – expat and foreign acts and what is happening in Khmer culture (both traditional and contemporary) . . . The [festival] needs either equal input from Khmers . . . or have a Khmer director every second year. This would ensure balance. A Khmer literary festival organised by Khmers where [foreigners] are the invited guests and participants instead of vice versa.”
I did not bother to sit on that performance at that fancy resort. But all of the writers were sitting nearby, sharing our stories. We felt like we were one, and love the same thing. We discovered we face the same challenges – and of course we face the same injustices.
Thun Thavry, author of the forthcoming A Proper Woman