Having been absent from the public gaze for almost a decade, one of Cambodia’s most celebrated authors, Mao Samnang, has finally returned with a new novel based on her personal experiences suffering from mental health issues, aiming to raise awareness of the issue nationally.
Samnang’s 10 year absence raised anticipation from her readers to sky high levels, with her new book Proloam Chet – which translates to Motivating Yourself – selling more than 1,500 copies in the month following its publication in December last year – something the author credits to the support of her “bookworm fans”.
Samnang wrote the 260-page novel in August and September last year, a period in which she felt was recovering from her years of depression. The 60-year-old, whose pen name is Tonsay (or Rabbit), told The Post that many personal and financial obstacles prevented her from publishing for so long.
“Frankly speaking, I did not write any stories in nearly a decade because I didn’t have sufficient funds to publish them. I was also very depressed because I felt my work was not given enough value,” she says.
Samnang says she generally earns around $500 for each of her novels, which take about a month of intensive writing and polishing to go to print.
In addition to struggling with printing costs, she says another major concern for authors in Cambodia is piracy of her work, as there still exists loopholes in Cambodia’s copyright law which allow people to legally reproduce her work without her profiting.
“I understand that writing a book cannot make me rich, but I hope at least an author can earn respect and honour in society,” she says, adding that she felt extreme hurt, pain and disrespect to find illegal copies of previous novels available in the nation’s bookshops and markets.
She said these factors pushed her into a depression in recent years, before she pulled herself together in recent months in order to continue pursuing her purpose to keep Khmer literature alive for the next generation.
“Proloam Chet, my latest novel, is about self motivation that many people from all walks of life can relate to themselves. I believe many people go through depression in their lives and it is a mental illness that many of us are trying to overcome,” she says.
Samnang was born in 1959 as the eldest child of five in Preah Sihanouk province to a housewife mother and a father who was a Khmer literature professor.
Inspired by her father’s passion for literature, Samnang has loved reading since she was a young child and would often be found in a quiet room poking her face into her latest favourite read. She graduated from high school during the Lon Nol Regime and survived the Khmer Rouge genocide, despite being regarded as an intellectual – a subset of Cambodian society condemned to death on a mass scale by the regime.
While working as a street vendor in the 1980s, she began scribbling down the makings of novels in her notepad.
She gradually developed a reputation as the country’s most popular authors, and by 2017 she had more than 120 novels published. In 1995, her novel The Wave Hits the Sand won first place in the Preah Sihanouk writing competition. In 2001, two of her novels Jasmine Flower Wrath and Black Sea were translated into Japanese. While in 2010, her book One Heart won first place in the Mekong River Cambodia, Vietnam and Lao writing contest.
Samnang also has 80 film and drama screenplays under her belt, writing Khmer hits that include The Weird Villa, The Haunted House and The Snake King’s Child – the 2001 feature length film that was the first produced in Cambodia since the fall of the Khmer Rouge.
In 2008, she received an honorary award from Prime Minister Hun Sen for her contribution to Khmer literature, as well as another honorary rank from King Norodom Sihamoni in 2014.
The awards motivate her, but the support from her readers and the desire to inspire her daughter is even more important.
“It’s my pride to have a novel born from me. My daughter has gradually produced some stories and is teaching herself to follow in my footsteps,” she says.