Suong Mak is still astonished by the excitement his latest novel generated at the sixth Cambodia Book Fair last December. Queues disintegrated as customers scrambled for copies of his long-delayed novel about a romantic relationship between two young men.
“Some of them became quite angry when we ran out of books,” he recalls before sharing a video on his mobile phone of the boisterous scenes that erupted in front of his booth. Those who managed to buy copies of High School in Love—a novel for young adults—waved their copies like prizes, while those left empty-handed stared in exasperation.
“I’ve only see that kind of reaction for celebrities,” he says. Suong Mak is only 32 years old but has already published 40 novels and novellas and over 100 stories—making him Cambodia’s most prolific author. Most of his work has been published in the ground-breaking literary blog he launched while studying Lao literature in Vientiane.
He’s made an out-sized impact, but his success is not unique; other young Cambodian authors are making waves in the local and regional literary scene. Three of the last SEA Write Award winners for Cambodia were under 30.
Sok Chanphal—who won the award in 2013 when he was 29—sold 2,000 copies of his latest collection of short stories, Romance, in less than four months. Set Hattha, 26, published her first book, The Test of Life, in December last year. She’s now waiting for a second print run, after selling 2,000 copies. Suong has lost track of how many copies High School in Love has sold, but 600 were snapped up within three days of its debut.
The numbers might seem small when compared to international English language bestsellers but the rising popularity of fiction has caught the eye of businesses here. Sabay, which runs a variety of Cambodian news, entertainment and lifestyle portals, was one of the first to capitalise on it, introducing Sabay Enovel(link in Khmer) in December 2012. According to editor Thavy Uch, it now sells stories and serialised novels to more than 60,000 monthly readers, has five full-time editors and almost five million followers on its Facebook page.
“Interest in fiction is surging,” she says, noting competition from rival e-publishers is intensifying.
The revival of Khmer-language fiction—or books in general—is partly the result of demographics and education. According to official data, two-thirds of the Kingdom’s 16 million people are under the age of 30 and the adult literacy rate is the highest it has ever been, slightly more than 80%.
Cambodian writers say these new readers want stories that reflect their lives.
A colonised narrative
This outpouring of contemporary Khmer literature has yet, however, to reach Phnom Penh’s largest bookstore, Monument Books, where the Cambodia section still overflows with histories by western academics and journalists, or biographies about narrow escapes from the Killing Fields written by the children of refugees. The accumulation of bleak titles—such as Cambodia’s Curse: The Modern History of a Troubled Land or Pol Pot: Anatomy of a Nightmare—can feel overwhelming, creating an indelible impression of Cambodia as a tragic, dystopian kingdom stuck in its past. One consequence is that the present is often viewed solely through a funereal lens.
Sok has a different view. “A new Khmer literature is emerging,” he says. “Young Cambodians want fresh, topical stories with real characters, and exciting, playful and creative writing.”
25-year-old Hang Achariya—whose novella Blood from Hell has been adapted into a radio play—agrees, but stresses that technique is critical. Readers do not want stories that are derivative, he says.
What’s most important is immediacy, says Suong. No subject is off limits; even the rules of grammar are no longer sacrosanct.
Older writers are more descriptive, carefully detailing the scenery and atmosphere before characters begin to speak, Suong explains. Younger writers opt for simplicity. “They use very, very short words, like they are communicating with friends on social media. Sometimes they do not follow sentence structure or grammar,” he adds.
Cambodian writers are also becoming more assertive, with several pointing to the annual Kampot Readers and Writers Festival as a catalyst for action. In 2016 local writers were side-lined from the festival, which appeared to be more of a showcase for expatriate writers. “Most Cambodian writers couldn’t even afford to attend it,” Hang says. “Some writers got depressed. They wondered, why can foreign writers put on a literary festival in our country that we cannot attend?”
This frustration led the local writers to launch their own festival in September 2017 in Siem Reap. It was a watershed moment. “Before the festival I had given up on publishing fiction,” Suong says. “After, I felt inspired again.”
An improbable plot
Seen in person, Suong comes across as someone who has to, almost unwillingly, make an immense effort to fit in; he seems nervous, confused and remote. His writing, however, is praised by his peers for its brazenness, indifference to convention and taboos, and plot twists—traits that mirror the improbable launch of his literary career.
He wrote his first novel—a horror story called The Spirit of Love—to spook his cousins. After reading it in school, it became the talk of his remote village in northeast Cambodia. Classmates encouraged him to publish it as a book.
Suong and his mother—a single parent who supported her two sons by selling noodles—followed their advice, travelling to Phnom Penh by bus with a handwritten manuscript, USD10 and the address of a publisher they’d seen in a book. The publisher explained that they had to pay him to print the book, before giving them USD5 and suggesting that they try to sell the manuscript to a book vendor at Orussey market. They eventually sold it to a vendor there after several others rejected it because they refused to believe that a teenager from a village had written a novel.
“It was the first time I felt like a writer”
Two-and-a-half years later Suong returned to Phnom Penh for the second time, on a scholarship to attend university. He saw his book in print, its title and his name emblazoned on the cover. Overwhelmed by a feeling of being exposed, he asked a friend to buy a copy from the vendor who sold it.
She quizzed the friend about Suong’s whereabouts and asked to meet him. When he showed up the next day she paid him USD50 for his book. It was the first time he had ever earned money. And then she asked him to write another.
“It was the first time I felt like a writer,” he recalls.
Like Suong, , Sok, Set and Hang hail from villages that lacked electricity, moving to Phnom Penh to attend university. They, and other young writers, first connected via social media, began meeting in person and discussed how to use blogs and Facebook to promote their books.
Facebook is critical for promoting books in a country where libraries are scant and literary agents and publishing houses even rarer, says Set. Literature was vacuumed out of Cambodia by the Khmer Rouge who turned the national library into a space for raising pigs.
“You have to really love it. This is not something you do just for money”
Young Cambodian writers are reviving their country’s literature without the infrastructure writers in many other countries take for granted.
“If you want to be a successful writer in Cambodia you have to be an entrepreneur,” Set explains. “We have to do everything. Write the book, manage the printing, the distribution, the marketing, the sales… You have to really love it. This is not something you do just for money.”
Lek Chumnor, vice-president of the Khmer Writers Association agrees.
Most young writers even register their own books at the national library to copyright them and obtain ISBNs. He says they can earn about 30% in profit on the first run, with the rate rising for a second printing.
Lek launched a new publishing house—Khmer Books Publishing—last November, focused on novels by young writers. It has editors, a graphic designer and a distribution network, he says.
Set is planning to follow suit. She sold enough copies of her first book—a collection of inspirational vignettes—to quit her job as a digital marketer. She’s now investing in writers who cannot afford to publish themselves, taking a percentage of sales in exchange for printing, marketing and distribution costs.
Set sees an untapped market, but one lacking the data to make informed decisions. There are no bestseller lists or book reviews in Cambodia, making it difficult not only for readers to decide what to buy, but for publishers to understand the market and how to cater to it. In such a context, it becomes easy to make mistakes, aiming either too low or two high. She’s had this experience herself; when she published The Test of Life, she printed only 500 copies. They sold out in two weeks, requiring her to print another 1,500 more. She plans to print another 2,000 copies next month.
Shifting points of view
Suong was the first Cambodian writer to market fiction online. The literary blog he launched in Vientiane had 100,000 regular readers at its height. He’s also credited by other writers as the first Cambodian author to pepper dialogue with emoticons, emoji and slang from foreign languages. More importantly, Suong stresses, was the shift he made from single point of view narration to multiple and sometimes contradictory narrators.
He credits his study of Lao and Thai literature—he can speak, read and write in both languages—for inspiring him to find new ways to tell stories in Khmer. In his e-book Meteor, for example, the first characters to speak are sperm racing towards an ovum. The book ends a little more than nine months later with a new-born found in a dumpster. Other stories portray Cambodian women trafficked to brothels in Thailand, or—in his first story translated into English, Hell in the City—the rape of the disabled daughter of a noodle vendor. He also published Boyfriend, the first Cambodian novel to portray a gay couple, in 2010.
Boyfriend was a hit, selling 5,000 copies, but also raised eyebrows. Suong recalls young men wearing surgical masks to hide their faces when purchasing copies. He also faced awkward questions, such as: “Are you trying to turn Cambodia gay?”
Attitudes have changed dramatically since then, he says. There are pockets of acceptance even in villages.
Still, Suong was hesitant about publishing High School in Love. Friends warned him that readers would recoil from its cover depicting two young men embracing. When he finally decided to release it he began with teasers on Facebook—posting photos of the book placed everywhere from rice fields to coffee shops, till it felt ubiquitous.
He and other Cambodian writers are now looking at markets beyond Cambodia. An increasing number of them are being translated into English, and published in journals. More translations are in the works. Lek says the focus now is on the quality of translation. Expectations are rising. A page is turning.
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Vincent MacIsaac is an editor, reporter and researcher based in Southeast Asia.