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The City and the Writer: In Phnom Penh with Madeleine Thien

By Nathalie Handal

If each city is like a game of chess, the day when I have learned the rules, I shall finally possess my empire, even if I shall never succeed in knowing all the cities it contains.
Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities

Can you describe the mood of Phnom Penh as you feel/see it?

Phnom Penh is a pensive, joyful, teetering, melancholic city, a truly open place. Movement (the city, rivers, people, politics, colors, change, sound) is constant in Phnom Penh, which gives rise to mesmerizing forms of stillness.

What is your most heartbreaking memory in this city?

The regularity of tourists who belittle the country or mistreat its people, who travel through Phnom Penh as if they have a moral right to privilege. The tourists who visit Choeung Ek and S-21, and somehow convince themselves they have a deeper and more emotional understanding of Cambodia’s genocide than the people who live here. The horrific government crackdowns on demonstrations by Cambodian women and girls who work in the garment industry and earn a monthly salary of $100 USD per month.

What is the most extraordinary detail, one that goes unnoticed by most, of the city?

Ardor and watchfulness. I find Phnom Penh an extraordinarily alert city, and this alertness is sometimes visible in the ways people move around one another on the streets, through traffic, along the riverfront, in the markets. Phnom Penh is like a piece of music, constantly altering and sidestepping, going around obstacles, but staying (swaying) in motion.

What writer(s) from here should we read?

Poet and spoken word artist Kosal Khiev. His life and art are brilliantly portrayed in the documentary Cambodian Son.

Khun Srun, born in the Cambodian countryside in 1945, an existentialist novelist, poet, essayist, and mathematician who published six books, including The Accused and The Last Habitation.

Elizabeth Becker, a journalist who was based in Phnom Penh in the 1970s, and who published the unforgettable works When the War Was Over: The Khmer Rouge Revolution and Bophana.

And one of my heroes, filmmaker Rithy Panh, whose book The Elimination grieves and remembers the Cambodian genocide, and does not absolve. The questions in The Elimination, addressed to the countries—including France, the United States, China, and Russia—implicated in Cambodia’s civil war, which was a proxy war, should not go unheard.

Is there a place here you return to often?

The riverfront in the early morning, midday, evening, late at night. Phnom Penh is known as a city at the confluence of the rivers, and the riverfront is a place of collisions: wanderers, children playing kick sandal, musicians, exercise classes, hip hop groups, men playing tot sai, couples walking in the evening breeze.

Is there an iconic literary place we should know?

The Bophana Center, founded by Rithy Panh. It is a moving archive and collection of images and film in Cambodia.

Some of the novels of Marguerite Duras, including Un barrage contre le Pacifique (The Sea Wall), are set in what was French Indochina. In Cambodia, this is the area around Kampot.

Are their hidden cities within this city that have intrigued or seduced you?

The temple of Wat Langka, which includes the living quarters of young monks and a multitude of saffron robes drying in the sun.

Where does passion live here?

In daily life, in the incredible rain and thunderstorms, and in the copies and copies of the music of the lost 1960s musicians Sin Sisamuth, Ros Serey Sothea, Pen Ran, and others. In Buddhism and ritual, in love of family, and in giving oneself over to the future.

What is the title of one of your works about Phnom Penh and what inspired it exactly?

My second novel, Dogs at the Perimeter, is set in the long aftermath of the Cambodian genocide. I wanted to write about the survival of those who may not have had the chance to survive, and also about the extraordinary reinventions of self, of renaming, of the multiple souls (the pralung) in the Cambodian present.

Inspired by Levi, “Outside Phnom Penh does an outside exist?”

Phnom Penh is outside even to itself, a city of layers of history, forgetting, devotion, and a thousand interiors.

Madeleine Thien is the author of the story collection Simple Recipes and three novels, including Dogs at the Perimeter, which was awarded the Frankfurt Book Fair’s 2015 Liberaturpreis. Her most recent novel, Do Not Say We Have Nothing, was shortlisted for the 2016 Man Booker Prize, the Scotiabank Giller Prize, and the Governor-General’s Literary Award, and longlisted for the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction. Her work has been translated into twenty-five languages and her essays are widely available in The Guardian, the Globe & MailBrick, Al Jazeera, and elsewhere. The youngest daughter of Malaysian-Chinese immigrants to Canada, she lives in Montreal. 

Published Nov 28, 2016   Copyright 2016 Nathalie Handal

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