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Writing in Mark Twain's shoes

Writing in Mark Twain's shoes

A student from Phnom Penh’s Tuol Tompong High School has been crowned the inaugural winner of an annual essay-writing contest named for the famed American novelist

Photo by: Eleanor Ainge ROY

Mak Vann (left), Secretary of State in the Ministry of Education, and US Ambassador Carol Rodley present Tuol Tompong High School student Lai Chhoeng with a certificate for winning the inaugural Mark Twain Essay Writing Contest.

Authorship is not a trade - it is an inspiration." So said Mark Twain, the 19th-century American author of the classic works of fiction The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and the role model for the first annual Mark Twain Essay Writing Contest organised by the US Embassy.

Tuol Tompong High School student Lai Chhoeng was announced the winner of the competition for her story Hopeless Life, the tale of a young wife struggling with domestic violence and a husband infected with HIV/AIDS.

The award was presented at a ceremony at the US Embassy last Saturday morning. Five other entrants were also selected for certificates and  prizes, and a further 11 received certificates of honourable mention.

I just wanted to express an important issue, so that people can be educated about its impact.

"The audience for literature is vast," US Ambassador to Cambodia Carol Rodley told competition entrants at the ceremony.

"Therefore, the stage for young Cambodian authors is limited only by their imaginations."

Rodley said that readership was on the rise in Cambodia. "I hope that you continue to pursue the craft of writing in the future, and that for some, this contest is the first step in a career as an author," she said.

Entrants were  asked to write a fictional story with a moral lesson in Khmer, between three and seven pages in length. More than 130 essays were submitted.

Local flavour

US spokesman John Johnson said the stories were judged on how they reflected the reality of life in Phnom Penh.

Lai Chhoenh said her winning entry was not based on personal experience. "I just wanted to express an important issue, so that people can be educated about its impact," she said.

The first-time writer said that if she could go back she would tweak her story a little, as she was only able to work on it for four days instead of the month allowed by the competition guidelines.

"My grandmother fell ill, and I had to take care of her," she said. "If I had more time I would have liked to make the husband character in my story confess to his wife his HIV status."

Lai Chhoeng said she would like to pursue more writing in the future, but that it would have to take a back seat to her main job because writers in Cambodia do not earn enough to make it a viable full time career option.

Mak Vann, a secretary of state in the Ministry of Education, was also on hand at the prize-giving ceremony. He told the entrants that they struck him as the type of students who didn't just sit back to let opportunities pass them by.

"Charles Garfield, in his book Peak Performances, observed: ‘Some people make things happen, some people watch things happen, and some wonder what happened,'" Mak Vann said.

"But you 130 all make writing happen. By your efforts during this contest program, you have clearly identified yourself as part of the group that makes things happen."

He also urged young Cambodian writers who wanted to be successful to follow the example set by Mark Twain. "He did what all good writers do ... write what you know," he said.

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