Yeang Chheangly is a 28-year-old poet and co-founder of a new writers’ collective, Slap Paka Khmer. To start off with, the group hopes to publish an anthology and help send two young writers to a festival in Singapore, and are running their first fundraiser on Saturday evening. This week, Chheangly sat down with Audrey Wilson to talk about writing, willpower and the challenges of rhyming in Khmer
Would you describe yourself first as a writer?
I love writing poetry. I just write poetry and some short fiction – very short, though. I have been writing since I was in high school, when I was in grade 12. A lot of people love writing, but they don’t keep doing it for such a long time. There are some things that can be barriers: when they grow up and see more about what to do, their family . . . some of my friends chose other subjects.
Why did you keep writing?
It is my labour of love. I love to express my feelings when I see something, and if that thing is tied to my heart, I write. I see more sad things than happy things – that is the thing that pushes me to write so far. I see more sad things than happy things here. I love to write about the unbalance between women and men, and about kids in poverty. Sometimes I think that it is that thing that can speak to many others – it’s like, we bring something that people overlook and share it with them. This is what I love to do.
What are the barriers for writers here?
The first problem is commitment. And people might think that writing is not a good thing to do to get money. It’s also difficult to get things published. There was a survey that showed out of 13,000 students, the number of [leisure] readers was only 3,000. The other students, they just read the subjects that they study. They don’t read anything literary. In the village, the reading habit is also not much.
Do you ever write in other languages? What is unique about writing in Khmer?
I do in English. There are a lot of errors, but I still write. Sometimes, it is easier to express myself by starting in English. In Khmer, when we start writing, we need to first think about the form. Sometimes, when we start to think about the rhyme – there’s a [mental] block. [Traditionally in Khmer poetry] we have seven syllables [per line] and complete rhyme. It’s a lot of rhyme! Even one stanza has a few rhymes, and then it has to rhyme with the next stanza. But you can make a really beautiful rhyme in Khmer. And when we recite it, it is even more beautiful.
What advice would you give to keep other young Cambodian writers writing?
To share their work, and to get recognition. When I write something and people read it and comment, it is the thing that encourages me to write more. They can even share it on Facebook! Sometimes, when people read what I write, it is what they think but never write. Maybe then they will join, and we will all write.
Slap Paka Khmer hosts “Words and Whisky” at Long After Dark, #86 Street 450, on Saturday at 7:30pm.