Passion, for certain, is what drives one to do things. For acclaimed author Mao Samnang, her fervour to tell a story through the magic of words inspires her to publish countless novels. But in a world where being ‘passionate’ does not necessarily equate to being ‘affluent’, can love alone for her craft enable her to survive? Taing Rinith finds out.
Mao Samnang is the Cambodian author we all are very familiar with. She is particularly famous among young adults who are fond of reading Khmer-language novels. Her books, mostly on romances and tragedies, tell stories of love and its complexities – social differences and self-restraints – which many of her readers can totally relate to.
A small woman in her 60s, Samnang lives in a small house in Boeung Trabek with her sister and hundreds of books. Her daily routine revolves around writing her novel and writing screenplays for soap operas.
“No matter how old I become, I will keep writing novels as long as I can hold a pen,” she says.
“I love it more than writing screenplays because it gives me no limit in words and imagination.”
Fiction has always had its special space in the author’s life. When she was a little girl in Sihanoukville, she often begged her father, who was a professor of Khmer Literature, to read her story books. Even when she didn’t know how to read at that time, she accurately shared the stories to illiterate adults in her neighbourhood. As Samnang grew older, her love for reading novels grew with her. But her happy childhood ended when the Khmer Rouge regime took over in 1975. Samnang was forced to leave her school and her dear books as she journeyed to Battambang along with millions of Cambodians.
“They (Khmer Rouge) learned that my father was a professor and killed him,” she shares, almost breaking into tears. “As the eldest daughter in the family, I bore the burden of supporting my family.”
After the fall of the brutal regime in 1979, 18-year-old Samnang came back to Phnom Penh to look for a way to make a living, and at the same time find a way to reconnect to her first love – literature. Her career as an author officially began in 1981 when book rental shops were reopened in the city.
“My first novel was called Teuk Prek Neang Nakriya (The Tear of Nakriya), which was a semi-autobiography. I sold it to a book rental shop for two small pieces of gold,” Samnang says. “The book was a success, and the shop owner soon asked me to write more and more books.”
She then won the 1995 and 1998 Preah Sihanouk Reach Novel Competitions – proof that she was really meant to be the writer that she had become.
But even with all the apparent passion and talent, Samnang learned the hard truth that being a writer could hardly bring food to the table. She went on a hiatus for almost ten years, during which she focused on her career as a screenwriter and magazine journalist to earn a living.
“In the early 2000s, I sold the right to publish the first edition of my first 100 novels for only a little more than $200 to two publishers, without any contract,” she says. “By 2009, I could only earn a few hundred dollars for a novel I spent about one month writing.”
Samnang further explains that two factors forced her to temporarily stop writing novels: rising copyright violations in Cambodia and disagreement between her publishers.
“People had been sharing my works on the Internet,” she says. “Meanwhile, I was unable to get a publishing deal, which would allow me to keep writing because the publishers would pay me too little. Their reason was that people were not buying books because they could read the stories online.”
Despite the long hiatus, Samnang remained as one of the most successful writers of her generation. Her readers remained loyal and committed as well, even considering Samnang as their “teacher”. In fact, many emerging Cambodian writers have been influenced by Samnang’s works, especially her vivid storytelling skill and rhetoric.
Thorn Thavry, the author of A Proper Woman, gives credit to Samnang for pushing her to finish her own book, which has become a hit among expats in Cambodia upon its publication.
“I have been reading her books since I was 17 years old,” says the 28-year-old Thavry. “To make a long story short, I see what she writes and feel the powerful way she uses to convey the message.”
By 2017, Samnang already had more than 120 published novels and roughly 80 films and dramas under her belt. Some of her most well-known masterpieces include Punleu Chan (The Moonshine) and Rolok Baok Ksach (The Wave Hits the Sand). Sadly, even with their popularity, the books still didn’t give Samnang much income.
But as Eugene Wilde’s song says, “First love never dies”. Samnang resumed her career as a novelist in 2017 – with a heart ever more burning with passion and a mind that’s sharper than before. On her comeback, she made sure she always owns the copyright of everything that she writes.
The release of Prolom Chit (Seduction) last year gave Samnang a fresh start as a novelist and a platform to fight for her right as a professional writer.
“We have an Intellectual Property Right Law now, but it is still weak,” Samnang says. “I really hope the government will do more to protect the writers’ copyright.”
Samnang is being paid 35 percent from the sales of Prolom Chit, which so far has seen more than a thousand copies sold. She is now working on her autobiography, Tonsay Chea Nona? (Who is the Rabbit?), and planning to work on more projects in the coming months.
“I am sure the number of Cambodian readers is now on the rise compared to a few years ago, and I always hope more Cambodian people will spend more time on reading books,” Samnang says, smiling.
“It is not about me making more money because a writer is often poor no matter how famous he or she is; but it is about spreading the good messages and moral values in the stories, which are very useful to people’s lives.”