An American author and self-professed book nerd speaks of her work encouraging Cambodian students to think differently
“Without access to the arts you can’t think,” says Sue Guiney.
The 61-year-old speaks with a gentle voice and relaxed demeanor, emitting a sense of patience and ease characteristic of her profession.
“That’s really what arts education does. It teaches you to think for yourself and in different ways — and in a modern world that’s what you need to be able to do.”
Guiney is the founder of Writing Through, a Siem Reap-based non-profit aimed at teaching language fluency, conceptual thought — or critical thinking — and self-esteem through creative writing. A poet, playwright, novelist and impassioned educator, she believes educational empowerment can push the next generation of Cambodia’s innovators to the forefront.
But when money is tight and resources are budgeted, how can you convince those grappling with the realities of poverty that hope lies in between the pages of a book?
When the novelist started her first writing workshop in 2010 it was a one-woman show. At the Anjali House educational shelter in Siem Reap, she and a small group of students wrote, shared and spoke. As the students’ confidence grew, so did Guiney’s reputation. Soon, other schools and NGOs came calling, and the requests began piling up.
“One of our biggest partners, Enfants du Mekong, asked me to do a workshop at one of their centers two years ago. Then they said, ‘This is great! Can you do it at all our centers throughout Cambodia?’ And that’s when I realized, it can’t just be me.”
In 2014, she went official and registered the organization as a non-profit back home in the US. Now, through a network of NGOs and facilitators, Guiney is able to reach students from a range of ages and backgrounds — domestic workers who have been victims of abuse, children from low-income homes and youth fighting drug addiction to name only a few. Through a unique pedagogy centered on creative writing, Guiney is building self-esteem and a safe space for expression.
“What these workshops do is they create a safe environment for our students to ask questions and to think in different ways.”
Her five-day program, which she describes as “not the kind of workshop where people can hide,” are broken down into themed sessions where a combination of both individual and group writing activities are performed. On the final day, participants take part in a class celebration. Their work is compiled into a magazine and they present a final piece to their peers, teachers and sometimes family members.
“It’s announcing to the world, ‘Hello, I exist. I’m here. I have a voice’.
“In any circumstance, public speaking is very difficult. Doing it in a language that isn’t your own and reading something that has come from your heart? That’s a huge ask and they’re very frightened. But when they’re done, the looks on their faces, it’s amazing. It’s a huge accomplishment.”
Twenty-two-year-old Ruon Ry was once one of those proud students. As a teenager living at Anjali House, Ry participated in three of Guiney’s workshops, which he says helped him understand different forms of creative expression.
“I hated writing poems in Khmer and English, not many young Cambodians like to write. But when Sue came and taught me I just followed my feelings. I wrote what I wanted to write and I loved it,” Ry says.
Guiney stresses that students’ level of English fluency is irrelevant, saying that she encourages her students to “think in Khmer”. Each workshop of 12-15 is run under the direction of a trained volunteer-facilitator and native Khmer teacher, who also reaps the benefits of learning a new approach.
“Watching and working with us, the Khmer teachers see new techniques and learn new ways of approaching education,” says Guiney.
One of the group’s NGO partners is Caring for Cambodia, an organization that builds schools and provides free education for primary through high school students in Siem Reap. Deputy country director Christin Spoolstra says Writing Through fills a gap where traditional Cambodian curriculum is still lagging.
“Traditional education in Cambodia is primarily teacher-centered and rote memorization based, so Writing Through workshops gives our students a creative outlet in which they’re encouraged to have their own ideas and that those ideas have value,” she says.
It is this culture of rote memorization — a technique that utilizes repetition to retain information — that the organization is fighting directly against.
Guiney argues that the widely criticized method, while useful in certain scenarios, stifles creativity and makes it difficult for students to think freely and innovatively.
“I thought I was going to teach English fluency and self-esteem. But what I came to realize once I started doing these workshops [was] that in places like Cambodia, and other places where the education system is based on rote, the teacher stands up and says here’s the information give it back to me…you can’t think,” the contemporary author explains.
In the wider cultural context, most Khmer youth are taught to rigorously follow the commands of their elders, a notion that further complicates the organization’s goal of driving participants to ‘find their voice’. An important quality that Spoolstra says is not typically nurtured in the education system.
“Children in Cambodia are often not given a voice within the home, but we strongly believe that our students have valuable contributions which they could be making if only they felt the confidence to raise their voices.
“In the Writing Through Celebrations, we invite their parents and community leaders to join [and] hear the participants perform their original poems or stories. We want our students to know that what they think and say matters.”
This May, the organization was awarded a Freedom Through Literacy Award for its work in building self-esteem and empowerment through learning. As workshop requests continue to pour in from neighboring countries as close as Laos and as far as India, Guiney is busily making plans to expand and sustain the volunteer-based operation, with hopes of bringing creative expression into many more lives.
“Literature creates worlds that you as the reader enter into. By doing that, you meet people and experience situations that you otherwise could not, and the hope is, [that] your own world expands in that way.”
A workshop participant shares his writing among group members. Supplied