Sou Khemarin discusses 20 years of serving Khmer literature

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Sou Khemarin along with the covers of some his well-known works. SUPPLIED

Sou Khemarin credits family influences and a personal passion for the written word as the main inspirations for his poetry and his career educating others as a lecturer at the Kampong Thom Provincial Teacher Training School.

Notably handsome, Khemarin said his goal with his writing has always been to try and reflect the realities of life in modern Cambodia and use his voice to make an original contribution to the nation’s literature as best he can, something he’s been striving to do for 20 years now.

The soft-spoken Khemarin – nicknamed “Pakkaram” – was born in 1986 in commune 9 of Stung Sen town in Kampong Thom province.

“There are two main reasons why I became a writer. The first is due to family factors, because I grew up in a household where I had a father who liked to read a lot of books and he began telling stories to me from an early age, when I was too young to even read by myself. I particularly liked the stories from before the Pol Pot era.

“The second reason is simply because I was dedicated to reading and writing, which increased my desire to have what I wrote get read by others in various composition formats such as poetry, short stories, song lyrics and the rest... That’s what inspired me to become a writer and to produce a sizeable body of work starting from a young age,” he said.

After graduating from Kampong Thom High School in 2003, Khemarin enrolled at the Kampong Cham Regional Teacher Training Centre as a student from 2004-2006, and then began work as a teacher at Morak Secondary School in Kampong Thom province.

Then in 2010-2011, Khemarin received additional training in pedagogy at the National Institute of Education, afterwards becoming a teacher at Hun Sen Tbeng High School in Bakong village of Tbeng commune in Kampong Thom province’s Kampong Svay district until 2015, when he began his present job as a lecturer at a training institution in Kampong Thom similar to the one in Kampong Cham where he had received his first introduction to teaching.

“I started writing in 2001 when I was in grade 10 at Kampong Thom High School, but my first serious work was Sne Krom Dom Nork Teuk Pnek (Love Under Drops of Water), a novel I wrote in 2005 that was published in 2008.

“Back in 2013, I received a certificate of recognition as an outstanding young writer from the PEN Cambodia association,” Khemarin told The Post, adding that he’s been a member of the Khmer Writers’ Association since 2006.

Remarkably, over the course of 2008, five novels by Sou Khemarin were published: The aforementioned Sne Krom Dom Nork Teuk Pnek along with Rong Cham Pka Rik (Waiting for a Blossoming Flower), Kizuna Songsa Knhom (Kizuna, My Sweetheart), Prot Sne Kbe Stung Sen (Separating from Love Near Stung Sen) and At Kam Bang Pro Pun Khnom (The Secret of My Wife).

In 2015 Khemarin began exploring other literary formats with his published work with the poem Kmas Chke, the short story series titled Yub Ana Mek published in 2017 and the book of poems Teuk Kmao Lving published in 2020.

Khemarin has also written some popular songs such as Mek Ery! Chan Ery!, which was written in 2014 and performed by Yung Yun; Mon Sne Se Kong performed by Un Masly and written in 2015; and Rumduol Leap Tong performed by Chin Vathana and written in 2021.

“Of all my works that have been written so far, my favourites are probably the poem Kmas Chke, my short story series Yub Ana Mek and the poem Teuk Kmao Lving,” he said.

Even though Khemarin has more than two decades of experience writing numerous well-received works across a wide range of formats and genres, that doesn’t mean he never faced any obstacles in his career as a writer or doesn’t continue to today.

“For me, there are two major challenges in this career. The first is when I have written something but I do not know who will publish it, though with social media now available such as Facebook or YouTube the promotion of my work is no longer an issue.

“Second, the traditional way of composing Khmer literature seems as far away to me as the edge of the horizon. Modern literature requires that the writer be able to absorb the experiences they’ve had and put them back on the page in order to show the reality of society.

“I never expected that composing these works would make my life easier, because writing is costly – both in terms of time and money – while the publication of these works can only ever break even and often lose money,” said Khemarin.

Comparing the writing of the present and the past, such as in the Sangkum era just prior to the cultural bonfire lit by the Democratic Kampuchea regime, Khemarin feels that – in terms of the depth of the work being done – the pre-Khmer Rouge literature was more profound and complex, whether it was novels, poems or lyrics.

“The fundamental challenge for the writer is the freedom found at the tip of the pen or the possibilities presented by the blank page. You can say anything – so, what exactly should you say? Writers can champion social issues or fight battles with nothing but ink. They should understand they have a role to play by reflecting life’s realities, which means they should avoid the frivolity of literary works that are ‘just for fun’.

“The writer should not ride about on a donkey and then try to call it a horse. They need to do what I’ve always tried to do myself, which is to struggle to embrace writing that serves literature and endeavour to express real emotion through those drops of ink,” Khemarin advised.