Modern Literature of Cambodia

modern literature of cambodia cover

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I sought out a book of contemporary Cambodian short stories because I was visiting Cambodia and we were “only” going to visit Angkor Wat. But I don’t think it’s fair or good to just eat Cambodian food and visit Cambodian temples without making an effort to learn more about the people and the culture.

I didn’t find a ton of books by Cambodia authors in English. I have First They Killed My Father, which I haven’t read, and In the Shadow of the Banyan, which I have read.

There are many, many other accounts of the terrors of the years under the Khmer Rouge. I think it’s important to read at least one to just catch a glimpse of what any Cambodian in Cambodia over 40 lived through.

Other than that, there are also many books that were written by writers with Western names, but many seemed like nonfiction, travel guides, or books about girls and geckos, temples and tuktuks.

Modern Literature of Cambodia provides an array of short stories published within the past few years. It also features a handful of poems, an essay, the lyrics of a rap song by Cambodian-American rapper Prach Ly, and the transcript of a spoken word poem by Cambodian-American poet Kelley Pheng, and the script of a play by a group of Cambodian Americans. Some of these additions are maybe more fully appreciated in a visual format so I’ve included some YouTube videos below where I could find them.

The writers included in this selection are mostly young, though not all introductions included the year they were born. At least two of then ten short-story writers are women.

These aren’t stories about the existential funk you experience when you’re wealthy enough to be bored. Even the most spoiled of the protagonists, the rich girl in Seng Chanmonirath’s A Suicide Plan, gets a reality check from a legless old beggar and a starving little girl that forces her to realize that her grades and her parents’ arguments aren’t impediments to life. At the end of her journey, which for me brought to mind the story of Prince Siddhartha’s first journey outside the walls of his home, it is her worried-sick parents who find her and embrace her–she really doesn’t have it that bad.

The short stories are all very realistic, firmly rooted in this realm. When a narrator dreams,  it is a nightmare because it is realistic and awful–and waking does not bring salvation. In fact, the most “magical” scene in all the stories is what the three poor, hungry, barely-dressed children witness in Than Chan Tepi’s The Girl in A Pink Dress (1):

The people look even more exotic close up. Men in clean, light shirts and dark trousers with their hair properly combed, slightly bounce to the tempo of the music as they spread their arms out to dance behind beautiful women dressed in flamboyant, shimmering dresses and high heels, their shiny hair bundled up in buns or side curls that perfectly compliment their full faces with blushed cheeks and rich red lips. She sees a group of children dancing playfully on one side of the dance floor. Among them she spots a girl about her age in a pink fluffy dress, dancing with a cheerful smile that spreads from ear to ear across her satisfied tiny face–the smile of a promising future.

To the young narrator, the scene in front of her is not just a different world, but a complete anomaly: how did it come to be? How did the dirty, stinking, disorganized path she walked on lead her to this place? And no further–they are chased out when her little brother crosses the threshold.

What makes these stories hard to read is the self-awareness of the first-person narrators. Most concede that a kind of karma or a scale of justice exists exactly because they don’t believe they’ve done anything wrong to deserve to be so overlooked or mistreated by the universe. It is hard to read a child prostitute asking an older man why she can’t be called a “precious girl” like she hears men on the radio describe valuable women, when she hadn’t ever wanted to be sold into sex work. Shouldn’t the men and women who are making the decisions for her, who are deceiving her, shouldn’t they be criticized and ridiculed?

The whole collection suffers a bit from a kind of stilted translation that is accurate, but not beautiful. (Though of course, I have no ideas how the stories would sound in their original Khmer.) I only venture to make that criticism because the two versions of Girl in a Pink Dress that were written in English, and Starlight, which had a unique translator, are much easier on the “ears”.

The remainder of this collection was important and enjoyable as well, though I found the metaphors in the poetry to be quite heavy and blunt sometimes. I was glad for the introduction to young Khmer American writers, born to parents who have always struggled with their experiences as survivors of the Khmer Rouge’s nightmarish reign. That’s the kind of horror that can alter a person all the way down to their DNA.

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