Seavling Lim (left) and Theanchhay Bun, co-winners of the Emerging Writers Competition.
Seavling Lim (left) and Theanchhay Bun, co-winners of the Emerging Writers Competition. Mark Roy

Traditional, modern very much on the mind at Kampot literary fest

Theanchhay Bun is only 21 years old, but he has always been attracted to things from a bygone era.

His winning short story for the Kampot Readers and Writers Festival’s Cambodian Emerging Writers competition, inspired by the scenes around him in Phnom Penh, tells the story of a cyclo driver who turns to alcoholism after his 7-year-old daughter dies of malaria.

It is a story inspired in part by Bun’s own feelings of loneliness this year, but is also a requiem to a once-iconic and now fading mode of transportation.

“Those kinds of things, they’re dying out,” said Bun, at the second day of the writer’s festival. “It’s dying, and nobody is learning it anymore.”

As the Kampot Readers and Writers Festival wrapped up yesterday after four and a half days of readings, workshops and performances, the themes of old and new, traditional and modern, and what can be revived or restored were very much on the minds of both the presenters and attendees.

Despite attracting a number of high-profile international authors, the festival highlighted the challenges still remaining for hopeful young Cambodian writers who said they yearn for homegrown inspiration.

They are writers like 36-year-old Sokun Puthy, a Khmer tutor and author from Pursat, who travelled for six hours to reach the festival.

Her novels and short stories are inspired by the traditional lifestyles and customs of her father, a retired teacher, and her mother, a farmer and vegetable seller, Puthy said.

“Writing is very important,” Puthy said. “The writer can write about achievements to keep for the next generation, to teach them about the culture in the past, to educate young people to do something good in their life.”

Despite gaining inspiration from foreigners at writing workshops and readings over the weekend, Puthy said she remains attached to the small selection of Cambodian writers, including Mao Samnang, You Sophea and Kong Bungchhoeun.

“A lot of writers died in the Pol Pot regime,” Puthy said. “And I feel so much regret.”

Cambodia’s once-rich literary tradition, which peaked in the 1960s and 1970s, was systematically destroyed by the Khmer Rouge, according to Sharon May, a writer and researcher who co-edited In the Shadow of Angkor: Contemporary Writing from Cambodia, an anthology of modern Cambodian literature.

“Many of the writers at that time were reading other things, but what they created was a literature that was uniquely Khmer,” said May, who is working on another book that covers an even wider range of Cambodian literary history from Angkorian times to the present.

The Kampot Readers and Writers Festival is not the only event that is trying to revive public appreciation for literature. It shares the circuit with a “locals-first” literature festival that took place in October in Siem Reap, and an upcoming art festival, also in Kampot.

18-year-old student Seavling Lim, a student at Zaman University and co-winner of the emerging writer’s competition, said she was thankful the festival helped her connect with peers that she did not know existed.

Her winning story, about a dystopian world where everyone is required to wear masks and in which there are no mirrors, is “a metaphor for conformity”, she said.

“It’s very, very rare to meet writers who are Cambodians,” said Lim. “I came on a taxi with people I didn’t know and now I’m leaving with friends.”

Even for writers abroad, the search for an audience for novels about Cambodia can be difficult.

Madeleine Thien, a Canadian author who wrote much of her 2011 book Dogs at the Perimeter, about a survivor of the Khmer Rouge, in Kampot and Phnom Penh, said she was told by a publisher that “the Cambodian story has already been told”.

The book was published to critical acclaim in Canada but has yet to be translated into Khmer, something that Thien said she still wants to happen.

“The idea of a publishing venture here for Cambodian writers in Khmer – actually I think it should be the priority,” Thien said. “There’s so much being said, and we really need to give the access and we need to give the writers an opportunity to be heard.”

Both Bun and Lim say they want to become full-time writers but have chosen to pursue backup majors in college.

Lim said she settled on international relations because it was the closest thing she could find to a creative writing major. Bun is studying business administration. Yet both say they hope to become published authors one day.

“It’s scary,” Lim said. “But I can’t deny myself this career I want to take.”