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from the November 2015 issue

Cambodian Literature: From Angkor to Year Zero and Beyond


Photo: Sharon May, “Bayon, Cambodia” (2009)

It has been forty years since the black-clad Khmer Rouge marched into Phnom Penh during the Khmer New Year of April 1975 and evacuated the city, sending its inhabitants on foot to work and starve in labor camps in the countryside, initiating “Year Zero.” Literature, art, and religion were abolished. The Khmer language itself was changed. The ability to read and write, knowledge of a foreign language, even the wearing of eyeglasses, could get one killed. During the regime, between 1975 and ’79, nearly two million people—out of a population of only seven million—died of starvation, disease, torture, and execution. According to one estimate, less than one percent of intellectuals survived. Most estimate about ten percent of artists survived; the same applies to books. Out of six hundred librarians, only three remained. During the Khmer Rouge period the Buddhist monasteries—traditional repositories of learning and literature—were ransacked and converted to prisons. The National Library was used to raise pigs. In the words of activist Vannath Chea, “The arts are like women: the first to be degraded in poverty and war.”

Cambodia is a small heart-shaped country—about the size of the US state of Washington—set in between Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, and the Gulf of Thailand. In the northwest lies the great lake of the Tonle Sap, on whose edges rise the magnificent temples of Angkor. This civilization flourished between the ninth and fifteenth centuries, and recent archeological mapping has revealed that Angkor was in fact the largest pre-industrial city in the world. In 1863, Cambodia became a protectorate of France; it gained independence in 1953, only to become inadvertently caught up in the American war in Vietnam. The US heavily bombed Cambodia in the 1960s and ’70s, before the Khmer Rouge took over in 1975.

While Cambodia is famous for the “killing fields” of the Khmer Rouge and for the temples of Angkor, it is less known for its writing. Nevertheless, Cambodia possesses a rich literature—both oral and written—and had a thriving community of writers before the war. This issue includes examples of this material, rarely translated into English, from the Angkor era through the Khmer Rouge regime and afterward.

The earliest recorded writings in Cambodia are stone inscriptions in Sanskrit, dating back to the fifth century. We are fortunate to have a translation of one of these inscriptions, composed at the pinnacle of the Angkor era by Queen Indradevi, celebrated as one of Cambodia’s first known female poets. Her poem (c. 1190–1200 AD) was carved into the Great Stele of Phimeanakas. Indradevi’s words are brought to life by translator Trent Walker, who chants the queen’s Sanskrit in Khmer style.

By the fourteenth century, Khmer had replaced Sanskrit as the official language. Classical Khmer represents the metaphysical union between Indian Brahmin and native Khmer of Cambodia’s creation myths. It combines the multisyllabic vocabulary of Pali and Sanskrit with the largely monosyllabic, highly alliterative and onomatopoeic native vocabulary. Classical Khmer poetry has about fifty forms, using complex meters and intricate rhyme schemes.

The epics, composed in thousands of stanzas, could take days to chant. These classics were recorded between the fourteenth to nineteenth centuries. The most famous epic poem in Cambodia is the Reamker, the Cambodian version of the Indian Ramayana, which has been recited, sung, and danced in various forms for centuries. Other epic poems include Lpoek Angkor Vat (The Story of Angkor Wat), which celebrates the Angkor temples; the Jataka tales, stories of the former lives of the Buddha; and the Tum Teav, based on a seventeenth-century tragic love story, considered Cambodia’s Romeo and Juliet. The classic tale of separated lovers would become the subject of many of Cambodia’s later modern novels.

Modern Cambodian literature began to emerge in the early nineteenth century. Khmer poet and scholar Ukñā Suttantaprījā Ind (1859–1924) was a pivotal figure. His poem Journey to Angkor Wat describes his travels to attend King Sisowath’s arrival at the Angkor temples in 1909. The manuscript represents a transitional period in literature, between “tradition” and “modernity.” Possibly commissioned by the King, it was discovered posthumously, and the first edition was published by the Buddhist Institute. In the excerpt translated here, the poet’s recounting of the river journey becomes a meditation on life, desire, and impermanence.

The Buddhist Institute, which printed Ukñā Suttantaprījā Ind’s famous Gatilok and other literature, became the nation’s first publisher in the early 1900s. Khmer-language newspapers and journals first appeared in the 1920s, although the first Khmer-owned and operated newspaper, Naggaravatta (Angkor Wat) did not appear until 1937. The first Khmer modern novel also appeared in the 1930s. A new Khmer term was invented for the novel, pralomlok, which means a story that is written to seduce the hearts of human beings. Many of these early works featured ill-fated lovers and contained moral and social critique. As was common for the era in Southeast Asia, and for writers such as Dickens and Tolstoy earlier in Europe, most novels were first serialized in newspapers or journals. Among the early novels still read today are The Waters of Tonle Sap by Kim Hak, The Tale of Sophat by Rim Kim, The Rose of Pailin by Nhok Them, and Wilted Flower by Nou Hach. Literature became linked with national identity, as quoted in the journal Kambuja Surya, “If its writing disappears, the nation vanishes.”

Following Cambodia’s independence in the mid-twentieth century, literacy, education and publication expanded. Songwriting became a literary form. This was the heyday of Cambodian rock and roll, the “golden” voice of Sinn Sisamouth, and a vibrant, sophisticated community of writers and intellectuals, fluent in both Khmer and French, who were creating new Khmer literature and national consciousness. This literary community was also threatened by censorship, disappearances, assassinations, the closing down of publications, and the war that was spilling over from neighboring Vietnam. After the 1970 coup, which deposed Prince Sihanouk, civil war ensued between the Khmer Republic and the Khmer Rouge.

Kham Pun Kimny, featured in this issue, wrote about urban and political life in a surreal, satirical style during this tumultuous time. He was one of the first writers Soth Polin hired for his newspaper Nokor Thom. “Crazy for Wandering” comes from Kham Pun Kimny’s collection, Control Yourself: Don't Cry, Don't Laugh—Philosophies of the Strange and Absurd. Not long after the book’s publication, he disappeared.

On April 17, 1975, less than four decades after the publication of Cambodia’s first novel, the flourishing of Cambodian literature and scholarship abruptly ended with the Khmer Rouge takeover. Writing of a personal nature was completely prohibited. To dare to write risked one’s life. The diary of Oum Sophany is one of the few personal accounts known to have been written while the Khmer Rouge were in power. Laura Jean McKay’s essay, “The Keeper,” featured in this issue, tells the story of Oum Sophany and quotes passages from her remarkable diary.

On January 7, 1979, Vietnamese-backed troops ousted the Khmer Rouge. The handful of artists and writers who survived found themselves in a shattered country. The nation’s infrastructure had been destroyed, and the land seeded with mines and unexploded ordnance. There was widespread poverty and illiteracy. In addition, writers faced censorship, years of lost education, and a lack of printing presses; spare parts, ink, and even paper were hard to come by.

Considering all this, it is surprising that anyone wrote at all. But people did, among them Oum Sophany. Almost as soon as the Khmer Rouge regime ended, a new literature began to appear: novels were handwritten, often in pencil, on the cheap graph-lined paper of student notebooks, then photocopied or recopied by hand and rented out by the day at market stalls. Many memoirs also have been published over the decades, both inside and outside of Cambodia.

As for the former generation of writers, we are fortunate to have the work of three who survived the war and continue to write: U Sam Oeur, Kong Bunchheoun, and Soth Polin.

U Sam Oeur began singing poems as a child while herding water buffalo and received his MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in 1968, after which he returned to Cambodia. He survived the Khmer Rouge years by feigning illiteracy and pretending at times to be deaf and dumb. “I could not speak,” he says. “Even though people asked, Are you deaf? Are you mute? I always shook my head. There were no words. Just work and work. No talking. No looking at anyone. No looking at the sky, nothing.” He translated Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass into Khmer and is one of the first Cambodian poets to write in free verse. He believed this break from the rigid structures of classical Khmer poetry was necessary in order to convey the sorrow of the war. Even so, he still chants his poetry in traditional Khmer style. In this issue he is featured chanting with rap artist praCh in a unique poetic collaboration. His prose piece, “Silkworms,” recalls a time in his youth when he helped his mother raise silkworms during the Japanese occupation of Cambodia from 1942 to 1943.

Kong Bunchheoun, born in Battambang province, began his long writing career as a novelist, playwright, poet, and lyricist in the 1950s in Phnom Penh. He escaped execution during the Khmer Rouge time thanks to a cadre who had read his novels and testified to his “profound sense of social justice.” He continues to be one of Cambodia’s most prolific writers. “The Shade of the Tenth Coconut Tree” is among the many songs he wrote for Sinn Sisamouth in the 1970s inspired by the Sangkae River.

Cambodia’s strong oral tradition of poetry and storytelling is carried on today by traditional artists such as the bluesy, improvisational chapey master Kong Nay, known as the Ray Charles of Cambodia, and by a younger generation of spoken-word and rap artists, among them praCh. Called “Cambodia’s first rap star” by Newsweek, praCh was born in Cambodian refugee camps at the end of the war. In the tracks featured in this issue, he collaborates with Master Kong Nay and poet U Sam Oeur. 

Soth Polin learned to read and write from his great-grandfather, the poet Nou Kan, and began writing novels, short stories and philosophical tales in the 1960s. He survived the Khmer Rouge because he had fled for refuge to Paris after a friend’s assassination in 1974; he lived in France for a decade before going to the U.S. “When you lose your country, you lose everything,” he said. “If you are a writer, you no longer have the echo of your readers.” In France, he survived by driving a taxi. He published one novel in French, The Anarchist, an excerpt of which is featured in this issue.

The devastation of the Khmer Rouge period continues to impact writers today. Writers still must contend with high illiteracy rates, lack of availability of books, lack of mentors, scarcity of publishers and the absence of a central publication distribution network. Some have turned to online publishing. Many self-publish their work, through photocopies or on Facebook and blogs. Others write video scripts and song lyrics. Government-sponsored literary prizes and nongovernmental organizations provide some support. The Nou Hach Literary Project publishes Nou Hach Literary Journal, conducts literary awards, and holds creative-writing workshops and conferences. PEN Cambodia also supports writers through workshops and publication. 

The Center for Khmer Studies is instrumental in Khmer scholarship. The Documentation Center of Cambodia (DC-Cam), under the direction of Youk Chhang, has gathered hundreds of thousands of documents, photos, films, and interviews, as well as published several books, including translations of world literature into Khmer, and the famous Tum Teav into English.

In addition, an increasing number of Cambodian filmmakers are making their mark, foremost among them award-winning Rithy Panh, who helped create the Bophana Center in Phnom Penh, which preserves Cambodia’s film, photographic and audio history. Named for Rithy Panh’s film Bophana: A Cambodian Tragedy, which tells the story of the forbidden love letters of Hout Bophana and Ly Sitha, the center also trains Cambodian filmmakers, many of whom have won awards in their own right. 

The resilience of Cambodian writers, past and present, cannot be overstated. The loss of family, friends, mentors, education, country, home—even of paper, printing presses, and ink—none have stopped Cambodians from pursuing the illusive, seductive and demanding vocation of writing. “I hope our art continues. I think it will survive,” Soth Polin says. “There will be another generation of writers. But right now, what we have lost is indescribable. Khun Srun, Hak Chhay Hok, Chou Thani, Kem Sat . . . They are gone . . . What we have lost is not reconstructable. An epoch is finished. So when we have literature again, it will be a new literature." 

Some of the material in this essay was drawn from “In the Shadow of Angkor: A Search for Cambodian Literature” and author interviews that first appeared in In the Shadow of Angkor: Contemporary Writing from Cambodia (Manoa: An International Journal/University of Hawai‘i Press, 2004). 

© Sharon May. All rights reserved.

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