Dispatches from a Cambodian Literary Festival
By Tillman MillerDecember 17, 2016
Not long ago, Kampot was witness to the immeasurable atrocities of the Khmer Rouge regime, and due to the town’s location at the foot of many fortress-like mountains, it became a strategic battleground in the Cambodian Civil War. Soon after the Khmer Rouge guerrilla forces seized the town from the government in 1974, they unleashed genocide, killing almost every resident who could read, write, or who exhibited any flourish of sophistication. By 1991, after the warring factions agreed to disarm and hold elections, the Khmer Rouge’s grip on Cambodia finally began to loosen. Nevertheless, large pockets of Khmer Rouge fighters still controlled the mountains surrounding Kampot, and in 1994, the American writer Thomas Beller traveled south to interview the general who maintained control of the town. Writing of Kampot, Beller said, “The town seemed like a kind of Shangri-La, dusty and quiet, filled with gorgeous, bullet-pocked, French Colonial architecture fronting a whispering river lined with benches.” A few years after Beller’s visit, the last remaining Kampot-based guerrillas were captured in the mountains.
When the reign of the Khmer Rouge had ceased, the Kingdom of Cambodia resembled a dark tableau of distress. A ghost of the former country had been passed down to the lost generation of Cambodians who came of age during the era of war, and it’s difficult to portray the magnitude of the Kingdom’s cultural devastation. After nearly two millennia, the whole edifice of Khmer culture had collapsed in a single decade, leaving the few surviving intellectuals no choice but to rebuild the arts atop the dire limitations of a nation ransacked by catastrophe. This is why, despite all of the Kingdom’s great stories, a recent canard says that Cambodian literature is dead.
As I walked along the town’s timeworn streets, getting caught up in the riparian appeal, it seemed improbable that a backwater such as Kampot should play host to Cambodia’s preeminent literary festival. And yet here it was, the first week of November, and the festival was streaming into town, trying its damnedest to reveal the country’s lively cultural heart. The music school on the boulevard had been adorned with an outdoor performance stage and an open-air cinema; boarded-up colonial-era buildings had been converted into pop-up art galleries; and the little cafes had been draped with banners bearing the festival’s name:
The Kampot Writers & Readers Festival
In the days before the festival, a collection of the region’s great talents crammed onto the backs of motorcycles and into caravans of speeding minibuses to transport their artistic pyrotechnics down to Kampot. There were stalwarts from the Cambodian literati, cult-classic Australian crime writers, Academy Award–winning filmmakers, feminist Khmer rock bands, and cutting-edge spoken-word poets — all generating a significant buzz as they idled around town. The result was a total zeal for Kampot: a warmhearted weekend filled with panels, workshops, film premieres, and nonstop street parties. Western memoirists held book launches in deserted shophouses and visual artists painted portraits of literary icons on the sides of buildings and bridges. After each chaotic day, the writers and readers spent their nights hopping on fishing boats for river cruises at nightfall and jumping in tuk tuks headed for the darkening countryside, where local bands and Mondulkiri tribesman performed concerts at bungalow resorts along the sea.
The festival’s most appealing and paramount event was a panel conversation between the American writer Sharon May and nine Khmer writers — all young, well-regarded poets and novelists. The panel was called “New Cambodian Voices,” and it was held during the middle of the festival’s liveliest day. A modest crowd gathered on the ground floor of a revitalized French town house where a cafe was opened toward the afternoon heat, and I settled in near an airy courtyard to watch with great interest. May, who is the editor of In the Shadow of Angkor, the most comprehensive English-language anthology of Khmer literature to date, acted as the panel’s moderator, and she quickly relinquished the stage to the writers, allowing each panelist time to discuss their work and explain how their assorted lives in Cambodia have informed their literary careers.
Listening to the moving stories of the bright and inquisitive stars of Cambodia’s literary scene, it became apparent that the writers were united in a struggle to have their voices heard in a cultural world that consistently seems to conspire against their interests. The myriad concerns expressed by the panel included the fact that mainstream Khmer culture is by and large apathetic to Cambodian literature, that there is a lack of copyright protection and governmental support, and that despite a decades-long call for an improved publishing industry, the government willfully allows writers to fall by the wayside without guaranteeing basic freedoms of expression. The government also fails to promote writing in schools, and it fosters an environment conducive to selling pirated books in some of the country’s largest markets.
“Nobody in Cambodia gives us guidance or direction,” said Chath Piersath, a renowned Cambodian-American poet and painter who works on a family farm in the United States. Like Piersath, many of Cambodia’s most renowned contemporary writers are refugees who were raised in the United States. A few of the other notable Cambodian-American writers are the best-selling novelist Vaddey Ratner, the venerable Soth Polin, and the ascendant young poets Monica Sok and Sokunthary Svay, none of whom were at this year’s festival. Of his fellow writers, Piersath says, “Most of us came into the world alone. I was born in a refugee camp and was left without adult supervision until I was five. Growing up and meeting people was almost like a dream state. I grew up writing about this loneliness.” When Piersath had finished speaking, the room fell silent for a moment. The other Khmer writers nodded their heads, indicating how this was a common feeling among their ranks, and how the themes of displacement and exclusion formed the backdrop for the present state of Cambodian literature. As soon as the panel was over, the Khmer writers took a minibus to the nearby sea, where they sat on a pier overlooking the Gulf of Thailand and continued to share their stories.
The next day, a few of the Khmer writers recited poems from their collections at a peaceful cafe near the center of town. With the morning sun pouring in through the cafe’s open windows, the audience was treated to slender works of poetry that navigated love and fortune and the tragicomic life cycles of dragonflies. The performances gave rise to several rounds of applause, and when the ovations died down the writers left the cafe to mill about the boulevard. With their smattering of festival obligations concluded, a sense of ease and unburdening expanded over the writers, and also a sense of, “What on earth are we supposed to do now?”
After a casual deliberation, the Khmer writers decided to drive their minibus to an abandoned hill station at the top of Bokor Mountain, an hour or so outside of town. Although the festival was still staging events, I joined them as they explored the highlands. We roamed the countryside, searching the landscape for the ruins of a palatial French hotel, and our conversations touched upon such far-reaching concerns as car sickness, neck tattoos, and literary ambitions. I was also interested in hearing the writers’ thoughts on the “New Cambodian Voices” panel, and eventually I asked a few of them for their impressions of the event, along with the festival altogether. “I think the festival is not for Khmer writers, but for foreign writers,” said Suong Mak, an intuitive and fearless young novelist who wrote the first work of LGBT fiction to appear in the Khmer language. “If the festival wants to be more about Khmer literature, the workshops should have more Khmer writers and Khmer participants. … Or if there are any local students who are interested in writing, we could share our experiences to them and find a way for them to start writing.”
Mak’s fellow writers tended to agree. Kim Dyna, a novelist and news anchor for Cambodia’s Hang Meas television station, agreed that the festival hadn’t quite achieved its goal of reaching out to young, literary-minded Cambodians. “I really loved the festival, but I don't think it had a huge impact in promoting reading and writing. No one discussed how [Khmer] writers could promote reading or inspire those who have never started writing to start writing.” Yeng Chheangly, a dignified poet and co-founder of the Khmer writers’ collective Slap Paka Khmer, was frustrated by the festival’s moderate promotion of Khmer literature compared to its more significant promotion of Western literature. Yeng made a point to mention the multitude of young voices that would savor the opportunity to spend the weekend in Kampot: “There are a lot of young Khmer writers who want to see the festival and have fun and listen to the conversations,” he said. “The organizers can make it easier for Cambodians to access the festival.”
In the days after the festival, the journalist Phan Soumy published an essay in The Cambodia Daily examining why many Cambodians tend to feel excluded from a literary festival assembled by Westerners. “Leisure reading is not something students ‘have the luxury’ of being exposed to in Cambodia,” wrote Phan. “Reading for pleasure is new to me. Growing up […] there were no school or community libraries, and reading for fun was never encouraged, or even suggested.” When Phan arrived at the festival in Kampot, one of her first impressions was how Cambodia’s general “lack of appreciation for literature was illustrated by the imbalance between the number of Cambodian and foreign participants and attendees.” Specifically, Phan noted that the “crowds were composed predominantly of foreigners, and the Cambodians [she] crossed paths with were most often part of the weekend’s lineup.” And yet, Phan believes the festival can still be an effective vehicle for confronting the literary “divide” between Cambodians and the more widely read Westerners. “While a focus on literature across the country will not develop overnight, the Kampot Festival could have a niche part in shifting Cambodia’s reading culture.”
Back on the mountain, the bus cruised around a handful of hairpin turns and we arrived at the faded remains of the Bokor Palace Hotel. Built in the 1920s as a lavish retreat for the French beau monde, the hotel’s dark narrative is a reminder of Cambodia’s postcolonial woe. As I followed the writers through the lights and shadows of the deserted rooms and corridors, relieved to be in the temperate mountain air, it was easy to imagine the many fated histories of the estate: it was a hospital during the First Indochina War, then a casino for Cambodian elites in the 1960s, and finally a citadel for the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s, before slowly deteriorating into its current decay.
From the hotel’s rooftop terrace, the waters of the Gulf of Thailand could be seen through cracks in the ghostlike clouds, and I thought of the events I’d missed in Kampot in order to join the writers on the mountain: a Scottish expatriate was launching a small, independent publishing house called Saraswati Publishing with an aim to print books by both Western and Khmer writers; and a Mardi Gras–style street party was kicking off in the afternoon swelter, intending to last deep into the night. Then I thought of how, despite all its perceived blemishes and shortcomings, the festival has been mightily loved by Cambodia’s crowd of expat artists who had yearned for a celebration at which they could celebrate their art and be surrounded by an artistic community. The reason for this love is that during the festival’s two-year run, it has announced an ambition to embrace boisterous parties and a certain shambolic charm that is missing from the more standard and straightforward literary festivals across the globe. Yet, it seems as though the festival can set its ambitions higher. It can push more boundaries and aspire to capture the rise of modern Khmer literature as Khmer writers look to progress and expand across a new frontier.
I wondered what the director of the festival thought of this, and, as it turned out, Julien Poulson, the Tasmanian who dreamed up the festival, shares my optimism. “The festival can certainly focus on providing a great platform for Khmer and Cambodian writers to present, develop, and connect to a wider audience. However,” he says, acknowledging the festival’s early flaws, “there’s some work to do.” In time, Poulson suggests, the criticism emphasized by many of the Khmer writers will unquestionably strengthen the festival. “The same sort of criticism was frequently leveled at the Ubud Festival in its early days,” he says, referring to the Ubud Writers & Readers Festival in Indonesia, which, along with the Hong Kong International Literary Festival, is a sister festival to the Kampot event. And following the initial criticism, Poulson pointed out, “Indonesian and emerging Balinese writers are now featured more than ever in Ubud and have an incredible window to the world of literature, books, publishing, contemporary art, and culture, that wasn’t there before.” Then he offered a hopeful conclusion. “The creative community in Cambodia is dynamic, diverse, young, smart, talented, and multiracial so there’s sure to be plenty of new ‘voices’ coming into the light over the coming years.”
Ultimately, I thought, the Kampot Writers & Readers Festival is a reminder of why we need literary festivals in the first place. It has inspired dialogue, delight, passion, and thought-provoking debate; and it has encouraged members of both the Khmer and expatriate literary communities to confront timely and important questions about inclusion. In its first two years the festival has demonstrated its vision and potential, but it is not yet the prodigious literary celebration that it can become.
Down the road from the Bokor Palace Hotel, at the temple of Wat Sampov Pram, a wind that was wet and cool came up from the valleys. Wandering around the temple grounds, I heard the shutter of a camera and watched as Yeng Chheangly pointed his lens at the other writers, capturing shots of Hang Achariya, a gregarious writer and Cambodian film actor; and then of Chin Meas, a former monk turned poet who sells noodles on the streets of Siem Reap; and finally of Sok Chanphal, Cambodia’s most esteemed and decorated young writer. Then, near a shrine with burning votives, I stood and talked to Teeda Butt Mam, a writer and translator who served as the inspiration for To Destroy You is No Loss, which tells the story of a teenage girl growing up in a Khmer Rouge labor camp. Mam said she was “pleasantly surprised” by the festival and her weekend in Kampot. As we walked along the edge of a plateau where the earth met the sky, a cloud of fog quietly passed us. “Many of the writers have never seen fog,” she told me. “Most have never been above the clouds.”
As the clouds grew on the horizon, a convoy of soldiers from the Royal Cambodian Army suddenly advanced upon the temple. Stepping out from the back of a military truck, the soldiers slung rifles across their backs while listening to orders from their commander. They appeared to pose no threat to the writers, but we withdrew from the temple nonetheless. On the road back down the mountain, a bank of clouds formed over the plateau and drifted down over the minibus, engulfing us in a blinding fog. In the midst of the cloud bank, the writers were silent — unaccustomed to the Khmer haze. It was hallucinatory, and a few moments later we were out of the fog and in the clear of the dusk. From the elevated slopes of the mountain the writers admired the new light ahead, marveling at the short, scattered days they had spent together in the town below the clouds.
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