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Going by the book in Siem Reap

Peter Olszewski / Khmer Times Share:
Wayne McCallum and other writers. Supplied

Hundreds of stranded tourists, thousands of newly unemployed and underemployed expats and lots of virus-idled Khmer brothers and sisters were left for months with nothing much to do in Siem Reap, except perhaps to chill out by the swimming pool and settle down with a good book.

The only trouble is that many of Temple Town’s swimming pools were closed for the duration and the town’s only bookstore, Monument Books, had permanently shut even before COVID-19. “It was as struggling to work financially in its new location,” according to local book maven, Dr Howl, aka Wayne McCallum.

“It’s definitely strange living in a town of Siem Reap’s size, with its international feel, and not having a dedicated bookstore,” McCallum says.  “Worse, COVID-19 means that trips to places with good quality bookstores – for me Hong Kong and Tokyo, where I regularly travel for work – are no longer options.”

The new book from Howl, ‘Face Masks & Hand Gels: A Year of Living Covidly’. Supplied

“Of course Phnom Penh Monument is still open and is slowly getting new stock in, so there is a chance to stock up when you go to the Penh. Second-hand options are limited in Siem Reap, although both New Leaf and Footprints have a range of second-hand books available. In lieu of paper copies, I have really relied on my e-reader, Kindle, to access new books this year,” he adds.

McCallum regularly hosts functions such as a second-hand book bazaar, readings,  and functions through Howl, the literary organisation he founded that has just gone into the publishing business, having launched its first book, an anthology titled: Face Masks and Hand Gels: A Year of Living Covidly.

Hard copies will be available from mid-November for only $5 from The Little Red Fox Espresso, and at the next Siem Reap Howl function, McCallum says. “The book features poems and prose from the Lockdown Diaries, as well as additional contributions from Luke Hunt, Tom Vater, H A Franck and others.”

Howl is also extending its reach beyond Siem Reap, and will make its Phnom Penh debut on November 14, at Cloud, Street 9, with the Howl Word Jam: The Capital Edition.

“Since 2017, Howl has devoted itself to promoting the word – prose and poetry, written and spoken – in Siem Reap through pop-up events and a dedicated website,” McCallum says. “Having grown in popularity, drawing in local and international poets, readers and writers, Howl is now coming to the capital.”

“We have been repeatedly asked to come to Phnom Penh, so it’s great to finally have something to promote. There are some excellent writers and readers in the city, and we hope that they will embrace the opportunity to let their words loose,” he adds.

Wayne McCallum, aka Dr Howl, founder of the literary organisation Howl. Supplied

November’s Capital Edition will showcase old and new voices in an open-mic extravaganza, which aims to highlight the poetry and prose being produced in the Kingdom.

Meanwhile, back in Siem Reap, Joss McDonald, one of the writers published in the new Howl anthology, has also been making a name for herself as a YouTube video producer.

She produces a weekly video series that features businesses that are currently open in Siem Reap, and that have made an effort to look after their staff since the pandemic.

“It’s a marketing initiative to showcase a variety of vetted businesses and tell their stories. Videos are shared across Facebook groups in Cambodia, along with being uploaded to YouTube, in hopes of bringing patronage – both in the short and long term – to these businesses with heart,” she says.

“I was inspired to start this volunteer project after friend, Ilana Tulloch, the co-founder and marketing director of The Baby Elephant Group, started the hashtag #openinsiemreap to let local tourists know what was open here, and also when another person commented that she and her friends would prefer to support businesses that took care of their staff,” she adds. “I saw how hard business owners such as Ilana were working to try to stay open and keep all their staff employed, and I wanted to do something to help.”

“Living here, and knowing how many people and families are out of work due to the almost complete disappearance of tourism in Siem Reap – with those out of work potentially facing the very real threat of food security – I became passionate in this project to contribute something that might help keep some deserving businesses stay open and staff employed,” she says. “I have been extremely moved by the stories I have heard and the people I have met.”


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