Diving Deep, Going Far: Stories of Cambodian women

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Menno de Block signs copies of the Diving Deep, Going Far. Photos: KT/Say Tola

After the last rays of the sun faded, book enthusiasts – locals and foreigners from different walks of life –have gathered at the Factory Phnom Penh. One of the brown desks inside was filled with blue-covered books as its authors sign and greet people. It was a gloomy Thursday evening, but the number of people coming in and joining the book launch kept increasing. A sense of pride could be felt in the air. And it was just right. The launching of “Diving Deep, Going Far” was a cause for celebration for Cambodia’s women.

To introduce the book to its excited readers, five people went up on stage and shared their experiences – challenges and triumphs of being a woman in a Cambodian society. And Hak Panharath , the thorn among the roses on the stage, shared about his role as the partner of one of the most popular women in the kingdom, DJ Nana.

One of the speakers, Nara Sokhema, shared how she was able to travel to 49 countries and obtaine a master’s degree at the University of Manchester. Ms Sokhema’s mother wanted her to be a doctor. But her heart was not made for the profession, she said. So she studied what she loved and fought for what she wanted.

“My mother taught me so much about strong women; how to achieve big dreams. She was really good at making me a good girl – the kind of ‘good’ based on her definition and the society’s. Girls must be obedient and must follow rules.”

“I didn’t want to be a doctor, yet I want to do something to save the world. I started doing volunteer jobs since the age of 15. The more I volunteered, the more I learned. I obtained soft skills and I managed to get four scholarships through those activities after grade 12. I fought with my mother for five years when I studied another degree programme. It was only after I got a job at the United Nations and Transparency International that she realised that I made the right decision,” said Ms Sokhema.

Aside from Ms Sokhema and Mr Panharath, Ms Sreypich, Ms Bonnarath and Ms Chandy also imparted their own stories on how they struggled to fight society’s judgments. They are just a few of the more than 25 people in Cambodia who served as the subjects of Diving Deep, Going Far.

Nara Sokhema (in red) shares her life experiences.

The book’s authors, Menno de Block, an entrepreneur from the Netherlands, and Chan Kunthea, staff at Just Associate, expressed their bliss that the book has finally been published and launched after two years of interviewing women, writing, editing, re-writing and proofreading.

Ms Kunthea said that it really was her dream to write about women. With her work in the international NGO that deals with human rights, Ms Kunthea said it was disheartening to see only very few documents about women leaders in the country.

“Stories of Cambodian women have not been recorded…and I don’t want this thing to continue for the rest of my life. I want women to be treated equally. I want clear definition and representation of women leaders. This is how I think I will inspire women to go out there and do something. And I also want to personally educate my sons to be feminists,” said Ms Kunthea.

Mr Menno, for his part, said he came to Cambodia without the slightest hint that he will become an author of a Cambodian book. He travelled from the Netherlands to help build the social enterprise sector of the kingdom and help improve people’s lives.

“What I found surprised me: every single person I met that really inspired me were actually young women. At the same time, when I talked to them, I often heard that they thought there are too few visible female role models in Cambodia. Eventually, these things made me decide to write a book about their stories, both to share these stories with the world, and to create a platform together with the women in the book, for them to be role models and inspire others in their generation.”

Shortly after he decided to write a book, Mr Menno met Ms Kunthea through Facebook, a woman who he shares a common goal with.

“I realised quite early on that, as a Western male, it would be hard to write this book well on my own, so I asked Ms Kunthea to join me and work on the book together. Although I’ve done most of the writing,”

“She’s played a major role in both helping me understand the context of the stories in the book, as well as making sure the book itself properly reflects the lives of the women we decided to write about. I really believe this book is the result of our combined efforts – I don’t think either of us would have been able to write the book this way on our own.”

Mr Menno and Ms Kunthea interviewed over 25 women and two men in 2015 and it took two years for the actual writing and editing of the book.

“The hardest part was to turn interviews into a novel, which are two entirely different ways of telling a story. It took several iterations of pretty much re-writing the whole book to get it to where it is now.”

Menno de Bock and Chan Kunthea pose for a photo with subjects of their book.

He said the main challenge in the interviews was to keep out his own preconceptions, and truly listen and focus on finding out more, rather than trying to explain the story through his own lens.

“Being a Western male who had then only lived in Cambodia for about a year, obviously my lens, my way of looking at the world, was completely different than that of the women I interviewed. This is one of the reasons I asked Ms Kunthea to help me, to make sure I understood things properly and didn’t bring my own ideas into the story – and this has been something that still needed to be done a lot during the writing and editing process as well.”

“I think that taking the time to do this thoroughly, to really make sure the stories in the book are those of the women in Cambodia, and not the story of how I look at them, is perhaps the biggest reason the book turned out the way it did.”

According to the authors, “Diving Deep, Going Far” is deeply aimed to let Cambodian women realise that they can do more and be more than what the traditions and their environment try to make them believe.

For people outside of Cambodia, or foreigners that come to Cambodia, Mr Menno hopes to share the message that Cambodia is no longer just about the Khmer Rouge, politics, war and poverty, which are the subjects of almost all mainstream books about Cambodia. The country is so much more than that, and the people are so much more than that, and he hopes to share that story with this book.

The Khmer version of Diving Deep, Going Far will be ready in about 2-3 months. 10percent of the proceeds will be used to support female leadership in Cambodia.

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