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The power of literature

Eileen McCormick / Khmer Times Share:
Eileen McCormick
Minh Bui Jones Eileen McCormick

Minh Bui Jones, the 49-year-old founding editor and publisher of Mekong Review, wants to see more literary writings on music, culture, dance and the arts, and thinks far too much time and energy is spent by publications covering politics in Southeast Asia – which he feels needs to be reported differently. Eileen McCormick caught up with him recently.

Good Times2: At what age did you learn that language had power?

Bui Jones: My family migrated to Australia, from Vietnam, in 1978 when my father was already in his 50s and I was about nine. He had to pick up a new language which was very difficult for him. His generation, of new Vietnamese migrants to Australia, really struggled. So I grew up seeing my father fumbling to even buy a bus ticket.

In 1990, I travelled back to Vietnam with my father. That was my first trip back to the country and I went to Ho Chi Minh City. When I set foot in Vietnam, I was so excited that I got on a bike and in a matter of 10 minutes got lost in the countryside. Ho Chi Minh City was not that big at the time.

Somehow, I found my way back to the hotel and got a shock. It looked like it was deserted. Then I heard some noise in the back. When I get into this room there were some 20 odd hotel staff just sitting on the floor and they were all looking at this man in front of them.

That man turned out to be my father who had them in the palm of his hands and he was telling them stories and reciting poetry. He grew up in a generation that valued storytelling – honouring oral traditions as a way of sharing. But in Australia he lost that. He would often tell me, “I am dumb, deaf and blind [in Australia]”.

In Vietnam, my father had such command. Seeing him in his homeland in control of his native tongue was not only powerful for him but also to those who listened to him. This was really moving for me and at a young age I realised that language had the power to convey our feelings and our innermost thoughts and desires.

Good Times2: How is the region – both the Greater Mekong Subregion and ASEAN – perceiving literary writing, now that there is Mekong Review around?

Bui Jones: I arrived in Phnom Penh from Kuala Lumpur early this week. Malaysia is very new to us and we only started distributing there in November last year. I went to give a talk at a small book shop in downtown KL and I did not know what to expect. There were about 30 people in a room which exceeded what I would expect for a Sunday afternoon.

We are also getting requests from new readers in other countries in the region. They want Mekong Review to cover literary works in their countries. I think this is because there are not many regional literary magazines. People are a bit starved for writing outside of politics and want the art of writing to continue outside of 140 Twitter characters.

Good Times2: What stories would you like to see more of in the region?

Bui Jones: I would love, love, and love to see more stories on music, culture, dance and the arts. I think far too much time and energy is spent covering politics in Southeast Asia. Let’s be honest, politics in the region is very complicated.

What you see on the front cover of newspapers is not really what’s happening. You sometimes would understand more about the real political situation through the medium of culture and just talking with the people. Anyway that’s what I would like to see more of.

However, you can’t ignore politics either. I know it impacts both foreigners and locals and we can’t avoid that. But I would at least like to see politics covered differently, to give it a different angle.

Good Times2: What is your view on journalism and writing in the region?

Bui Jones looks for elegance and context in solicited literary pieces.
Photo: Eileen McCormick

Bui Jones: I read a lot – whatever I can get my hands on. I also try to read recently published books, but it’s not always easy to keep up. This region has so many great writers and Cambodia has been doubly blessed because there have been excellent journalist writers who have symbolically ‘given birth’ here. It just happens to be one of those things that happened by accident.

Once upon a time, the place to be a journalist was Thailand and before that Hong Kong in the 1960s. Even though English is not Cambodia’s national language, there are two daily English papers published in Cambodia. That would be like two Khmer newspapers published daily in New York and it would be unheard of.

In Cambodia, journalists are given a start and they have the freedom and opportunity to pursue a career. Cambodia is the right place at the right time for a lot journalists just starting out. They continue to come because of the high reputation of the newspapers. Also, young writers and journalists want to emulate the award-winning journalists the newspapers have produced.

But this of course changes all the time and you will never know where the wind will blow next. It helps that Cambodia is an affordable place to live for freelancers.

Good Times2: How would you encourage more literary writing?

Bui Jones: Honestly I don’t teach because it’s not my thing and I am a business man. I don’t have any intentions to start any writing programmes. There are more than enough NGOs doing that and they do it well. I will leave teaching and workshops to them.

Good Times2: Is it hard to find a literary writing style that transcends the diversity of ASEAN?

Bui Jones: Well, with a lot of difficulties. Thankfully, English is a common language shared by all readers in the region. To overcome these difficulties, what I try to do is approach locals or experts in the field to write for me. They are the guides I rely upon to take us through the cultural labyrinth.

Good Times2: What is your favourite literature review so far?

Bui Jones: That’s a good question. I really love our social pieces. There is one written by a Thai writer on shopping malls in Bangkok and this same author also wrote on Asian representation in Hollywood films.

In the February issue of Mekong Review we have a wonderful essay by Mai Huyen Chi, a Vietnamese writer, who I tasked with re-reading Graham Greene’s ‘The Quiet American’ – a classic about the Vietnam War. She gave a fabulous take on it.

Greene has a lot of fans and write ups have been done about him, mostly by males. So having a female perspective on a war that took place in her country was a much needed insight.

Her response was very moving and I would have to say the way she delivered her final lines was really heartbreaking. But let me stop here because I don’t want to spoil the plot.

Good Times2: What do you look for in a story before publishing it?

Bui Jones: There are really two things, and I will simplify them. They are either written with elegance or have something very important to say, even if they are not elegantly written but could carry the reader till the end. These are the two criteria that I use.

It’s rare to have a piece that is both beautifully written and has something important to say at the same time. But there are few writers who are gifted at that, such as Sebastian Strangio and Michael Uhl who wrote a review of a book on the 1968 My Lai massacre in the latest edition of Mekong Review.

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