In Other Words

What They’re Reading: Picking up the Pages in Cambodia

Thirty years after the Khmer Rouge decimated Cambodia's intellectual and educated classes, a literary renaissance is beginning to take hold. FP spoke to novelist Pal Vannarirak, vice president of the Khmer Writers' Association, for her take on the country's return to literature.

Foreign Policy: How would you describe the reading environment in Cambodia?

Pal Vannarirak: Cambodians have started to regain their interest in literature. Over the past three years, there’s been a lot of activity focused on books and reading — a mobile library, literacy programs for children. Books used to have to go to Japan, Thailand, and Sweden to get published; now Cambodia is finally publishing its own books.

FP: Who are currently the best-selling authors and themes?

PV: Domestic violence, HIV/AIDS, and land disputes are all themes that make their way into Cambodian fiction. Kong Boun Chhouen writes novels about relationships that often include scenes that are racy by Cambodian standards; he also writes ghost stories and historical fiction, both of which are very popular. Among nonfiction books, business books — about how to build a business and make more money — are always big sellers.

Sam Suphearin is probably the best-known young writer. One of his books, Somnaok Anusavari (Sorrow of the Remembrance), is the story of a former prostitute who meets a man who asks her for love but is unable to relinquish her past.

FP: What about newspapers and magazines?

PV: Newspapers are becoming very popular as people are engaging more with politics in this country. A single person will read three or four newspapers — one linked to the ruling party, another to the opposition party. They’ll buy them or read them hanging on the newsstands. Newspapers can also be rented out like books. The most popular magazines are women’s fashion magazines, with articles on hairstyles and clothing. Women tend to read fewer newspapers, as it’s still the men who receive more education.

FP: Nearly 2 million Cambodians perished under the Khmer Rouge. How have Cambodian writers addressed this period?

PV: From 1979 [when the regime ended] until 1990, there were many novels describing people’s experiences during the Khmer Rouge. One novel that was enormously popular was Koh Beisach (Demon Island), a thinly veiled attack on leaders of many regimes in Cambodia, including the Khmer Rouge. The book described a verdant island that looked appealing from the outside, and many other countries wanted to conquer it. But on the island, any person who appeared to be strong was killed. The book was secretly copied and circulated, and the writer, Vandy Kaonn, fled to France after it was published.

Cambodians living abroad still publish memoirs about their own lives during the regime. [But] local writers are more reluctant to engage with issues that could involve the government. Some publishers believe that readers don’t want to think about something so serious that happened 30 years ago; they think people want lighter fare.

Interview: Suzy Khimm, a freelance writer living in Phnom Penh.

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