Celebrated author Lim Phanna on the state of Khmer literature

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Versatile and prolific writer Lim Phanna poses for a photo with her awards. SUPPLIED

Writers often express complex ideas and societal critiques indirectly through their fictional tales, sometimes by having their characters present opinions or engage in arguments with each other about sensitive issues or even embody those issues symbolically, often because these topics are far more difficult or controversial to discuss in a real life or personal context.

Lim Phanna, the well-known and talented 32-year-old multiple-award-winning writer, says that good literature illuminates the social realities of its time and documents the period in which it was written for future generations.

Over the past four years, Phanna has received a slew of awards from a number of respected sources, including the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts, Buddhist Institute, Khmer Literature Festival, Khmer Writers Association and the Printing and Educational Support Association.

Phanna has a keen mind for literary analysis and interpretation and she often explores the various writing methods used in the past and the functions they fulfilled at the time they were employed, especially in works by women writers.

She said that some writers’ works tend to be repetitive in their fundaments, with the author changing the character’s names or details like the setting, but the plot will be nearly identical to previously published works that they – or just as often, someone else – wrote.

Sometimes, she said, you can guess how the book ends after you’ve read the first chapter or even just the first page when you’re stuck reading the novels that are among the most derivative and unoriginal written, but somehow plenty of it still gets published year after year.

However, she noted that thankfully there are still some authors out there who consistently manage to write excellent literature that pushes the boundaries of their ability level and takes them into new territory each time they publish a book.

“When we read great books from the past, for example from the 1960’s, it feels like we were truly there to witness it because all of the rich detail it provides about people’s way of life, society and the political situation at that time, for example the novel Mealea Doung Chet.

“In the past, each writer had a different style from the other writers who were his contemporaries and from the well-known writers of the past. They all had such unique identities in their works.

“The conversations and dialogue and language in their stories were full of meaning and vital essence and they employed a literary language style that was intelligent and nuanced enough to include in-depth views about the world within their works.

“Contrary to that tradition, some present writers who have written novels about the Sangkum Reastr Niyum [People’s Socialist Community] era aren’t at all able to make their readers feel like they are there experiencing it or even that the author ever experienced it themselves.

“This is perhaps firstly because those authors didn’t in fact live in that period, but really, secondly, it’s because they didn’t bother to do thorough research about the period in order to get a full grasp of it.

“This leads them to use their overactive imaginations rather than rely on facts when writing about life back then, which is fine in some genres, but if you’re trying to write historical fiction then you’ve got to at least get the basics about the time period right.

“On the other hand, writers should try to come up with new ideas and to create unique novels with stories and settings that don’t just regurgitate previous works,” she said.

You can safely assume that Phanna knows what she’s talking about having been recognised as a talented poet, songwriter, scriptwriter and novelist already at the young age of 32 and racking up many award wins along the way – she seems to have won some award or another just about every year she’s been writing – while also somehow finding the time to work as a psychological counselor.

Phanna won three in 2019 alone, taking first prize in poetry at the Indradevi Awards at the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts, second place for short-form novel or novelette from the third Literature Festival and third place for short-form novel at the Buddhist Institute Awards.

After gaining experience through writing for about a decade, Phanna also claimed that no matter how many years of experience a writer has and the challenges they encounter, they will always find it rewarding.

“From my personal experience, I can say that for almost 10 years as a writer, having started writing very gradually in small steps while analysing the work of others, I can tell you that not all beginnings are perfect, but year after year – if we keep writing – we learn from our shortcomings that we encounter if we try to develop and improve ourselves that whole time,” she said.

Phanna holds Bachelor’s degrees from two universities in disciplines unrelated to writing having earned both of them via scholarships. She has a degree in psychology from the Royal University of Phnom Penh (RUPP) and another in business administration and accounting from Mekong University. On top of that, she also completed a Master’s degree in clinical psychology and counseling psychology from RUPP in 2016.

This diverse intellectual and academic background has allowed her to author an impressively wide array of poems, novelettes, radio drama scripts, screenplays, stage plays and even songs – all while working on her own, independently.

“I also received training from the Khmer Writers Association in 2012 and 2019 and separate from that I have also participated in training courses on playwriting and art analysis writing at Cambodian Living Arts (CLA). My novel Fortune Teller was staged as a play in 2019 at the Arts for Peace Festival organised by CLA,” said Phanna.

Phanna said that another point she’d like to make is that a writer should have enough freedom to express their ideas without reservation and should not have to write according to the dictates of others.

“For example, if we were to write a novel for an institution … Usually, when writing a story we figure out which character should say what speeches according to that character’s psychology and identity. But most administrators running institutions don’t understand much about writing and they want us to write everything according to how they view the world and so the writer ends up not being able to express themselves freely and what they end up with is a book written for an audience of one.

“In fact, it is often said that we cannot write to please everyone, but the constructive opinions of others is of significant value and we should take those ideas into consideration. And, of course, writers should try to read the great works of past authors and learn about the history of literature to expand their knowledge of the art form and their own skills.

Phanna revealed to The Post that her first published work – a collection of poems called Beautiful Life and Youth’s Heart – was completed ten years prior to her finding a publisher for it and for a long time she wasn’t sure if she would ever actually succeed in becoming a published author.

Her past published works include poems, songs, short novels, anecdotes, play, radio script, movie scripts, and the novel The University Love published together with three other authors in 2018.

Her short novel series Magic Book was issued in 2019, followed by another novel called Old Bachelorette in 2020. She then co-authored the screenplay Nokor Meas, and she’s even written election-related songs and scripts for educational videos which were produced by the National Election Committee (NEC).

Phanna has also been actively contributing ideas to preserve the cultural heritage of Khmer literature as a resource for the next generation of writers.

“The next generation of writers should do more research and study literary knowledge and the art and craft of writing while striving to make writing a habit, something they practice every day.

“We need to keep reminding ourselves that we need to create new and unique works that reflect our own identity and to avoid plagiarising the works of others or copying the identity or style of others.

“Writers should not be so quick to praise themselves and their efforts and be overly-satisfied with their work, because too much pride and thinking that our work is already perfect will make us careless and negligent about developing our talents and continuing to develop as artists,” Phanna advised.