Despite a creative renaissance in Cambodia, local contemporary writers are still hard to find. With a new edition and collection of fiction forthcoming, Nou Hach keeps up the fight.
As the Kingdom revitalizes its music, arts and film industry, one medium is still off to a slow start in gaining the same traction with Cambodians — the written word. That is despite the efforts of the Nou Hach Literary Association, which is set to launch the eighth volume of its literary journal alongside a new collection, Modern Literature of Cambodia: Transnational Voices of Transformation.
The collection will feature short stories, poetry and even one play, all by Cambodians and about Cambodian society.
“All the literature deals with what it is like to be Cambodian, what it’s been like with Cambodian history,” says Nou Hach Literary Journal co-founder Teri Yamada. Yamada admits that the emergence of contemporary writers in the country has been slow and is still limited. “We are trying to get this notion that there is modern literature [in Cambodia],” she says.
The chair of the Department of Asian and Asian American Studies at California State University – Long Beach and an advocate for contemporary writers, Yamada explains that although there is support for Cambodia’s visual arts from the younger generation and government, Khmer literature still struggles to cultivate modern authors.
Founded in 2002, Yamada became editor and head of Nou Hach Literary Journal in the hopes of publishing Cambodian writers and validating their work. As for the country’s other creative industries, writers were targeted under the Khmer Rouge. She says that there is still a paranoid reaction to literature today and its possible political connotations.
To combat this controversial branding, Nou Hach hosts writing workshops for Khmer writers to encourage creative writing. For two days this week, writers will attend master workshops in English and Khmer on short stories and poetry, and have invited spoken word artist and poet Lethia Cobbs from California State University – Long Beach.
Yamada advises writers to bring a short story with them to the workshop so they can work together to produce a finished product, but with poetry she hopes to break the traditional rhyming structure. “With the Nou Hach [Association], we have always focused on not having to be traditional Cambodian poetry,” Yamada claims. “I would like writers to feel like it’s okay not to keep so rigidly to the same rhyming format,” she says. “You can loosen it up a bit and just experiment, have fun with it. When you try to keep the rhyme, you may lose the content.”
The short story workshop will be held on June 18 from 9 am to 5 pm, and will focus on the two weak spots she sees in writers today — the plot and character of a story. The workshop on modern poetry will start the next day at the same time, and will focus on experimenting with different styles of poetry.
* * *
The area with the most opportunities for publication, Yamada has noticed, is in writing about the Khmer Rouge. She is helping the international literary journal, Consequence, find Cambodian writers for a special feature about “the culture of war” for their spring 2017 issue. This feature will focus on the experiences of Cambodians from their own point of view during the years of the Khmer Rouge.
While such interest in the country’s history is a potential boon for literary exposure, it also limits the scope of published works and largely fails to engage the increasingly young population. By contrast, Nou Hach’s latest volume of its literary journal focuses on “development stories”, with an overarching theme encouraging writers to discuss how to improve the country.
Yamada is hoping that the next generation of Cambodian writers will expand more, even into unexplored territory like science fiction, and away from a purely documentary style. “You don’t always have to be didactic,” she says. “Being a better person and helping the country is always lovely, but the freedom to express sheer creativity is a part of story-telling.”
Already Yamada is seeing more local writers becoming more empathetic in their stories.
In one example, in the short story “Girl in a Pink Dress”, author Than Chap Tepi writes from the perspective of a very poor woman who sells newspapers and magazines while she wistfully watches people eating a noodle soup dish she cannot afford to buy.
“Real writers write because they have to write, because they are driven to write, like painters are driven to paint,” Yamada says. “Real writers are literary artists. They become alive when they express themselves in a meaningful way.”
To learn more about The Nou Hach Literary Journal’s book launches and workshops, email [email protected] Both workshops will have a two-hour lunch break and take place at the Center for Khmer Studies. Seats are limited to 20 participants.
Modern Literature of Cambodia: Transnational Voices of Transformation will launch at Meta House on June 26 at 6 PM.
For submissions about life under the Khmer Rouge, please visit www.consequencemagazine.org/submit/ before the deadline for submissions in September 1.
Nou Hach co-founder Teri Yamada. Supplied