Kampot’s inaugural Writers and Readers Festival early next month is set to bring an eclectic mix of authors, poets, academics, musicians and much more from across the Kingdom and abroad to the riverside town that’s quickly becoming a cultural hotspot. That’s thanks in no small part to the event’s organiser, Julien Poulson, the Cambodian Space Project guitarist who also founded the Kampot Arts and Music Association. Speaking to Will Jackson this week, Poulson sounded like a man who had
bitten off slightly more than he could chew of something absolutely delicious
Question: What is a “writers and readers festival” and why did you decide to put one on in Kampot?
Answer: First of all, the idea of KWRF is to bring an exciting cultural event to Kampot, a wonderful, far-flung, rustic town that is rapidly becoming one of Cambodia’s “places to see” for travellers coming to the Kingdom. The KWRF is modelled on the success of our official sister festival, the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival [in Bali]. Writers’ festivals have mushroomed across the region, and while they’re about books and literature, some festivals, such as UWRF, are more broadly arts and culture.
Regarded as a national treasure, Australian musician and writer Paul Kelly’s songs such as Before Too Long, To Her Door, Dumb Things, From Little Things Big Things Grow and How To Make Gravy are vignettes that give a profound insight into the Australian experience and identity.
The co-founder of Cambodian Living Arts, Arn Chorn-Pond, was saved from certain death at the hands of the Khmer Rouge by his ability to play the flute, and he’s made it his mission in life to preserve traditional Cambodian music.
Philip Coggan is a former diplomat and UN worker. He first came to Cambodia in 2002 and fell in love with the people and their culture, and worked for NGOs and later as a freelance journalist. He will launch his latest book Spirit Worlds, about Cambodian spirituality, at the festival.
A showcase of present and up-and-coming writers share their own “Mekong tales”. From stories shaped by war and conflict and travels inspired by cuisine, to a year living in the remote rainforests of Cambodia’s southwest, this writers’ session promises to have something for everyone.
DEATH BECOMES THEM
Christine Benn’s forthcoming book, Death Becomes Me, has been described as “Eat, Pray, Love with a body count”, while Bob Couttie’s Temple of the Leper King takes its fictional inspiration from a notorious Kampot murder.
Here in Kampot, we don’t really know what our little baby KWRF will be like until it’s actually born. Once our first festival happens then we’ll know the “character” of our festival and make plans to do it all again as a meaningful and sustainable annual event. KWRF is about promoting literacy in Cambodia but, in an environment where literacy is low and literature has a relatively short history, it’s perhaps no surprise that our KWRF program is also filling up with performing arts, songwriters, cookbooks, travel bloggers, dance, theatre and circus arts. The common link is the “celebration of the word” in Cambodia – whether it’s sung, intoned, spoken, written, read or interpreted through other art forms.
There seems to be a mixture of local and regional writers and artists as well as some from further afield. What was your selection criteria like?
The programming is quite organic and is coming together through the word getting around, our own call-out to our various networks, as well as the zeitgeist and proliferation of these kinds of festival ideas.
It feels like the right time and place to do this in Kampot and, while we are being selective, we’re also doing all this on a shoe-string budget and being very open about who and what we program: low-brow to high-brow, emerging youth writers through to Booker Prize winners, unifying our program by presenting the diversity of the Cambodian creative community and creating a program that respects the idea that Cambodia is and has always been a place rich with great stories and great storytellers.
What are you most looking forward to at the festival?
The start, the middle and the end. I’m especially looking forward to presenting the words of Master Kong Nay, tasting the results of “Kampot Amok! Kampot Curry Cook-off” at Two Moons and to hearing Paul Kelly talk about his writing and music at our festival hub, KAMA.
What are some of the challenges you’ve had putting the festival together?
Two things we’re in short stock of is lead-up time and money, but I knew this would be a challenge for our first festival, and while it’s challenging we’ve received great support at very short notice.
What are the broader benefits of having a festival like KWRF in Kampot?
I believe the local community, particularly because Kampot is full of foreign guests, needs this kind of event to bring good will and positive dialogue. From this, ideas and friendships will form, and as Paul Kelly’s wonderful song on indigenous reconciliation says: “From little things big things grow.”
The Kampot Writers and Readers Festival takes place from November 5 to 8. For details and the full program, go to kampotwritersfestival.com.