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Amplified voices heard at women’s literature event

Writer So Phina will moderate tonight’s literature forum at Java Cafe and Gallery.
Writer So Phina will moderate tonight’s literature forum at Java Cafe and Gallery. Pha Lina

Amplified voices heard at women’s literature event

Three female writers, all publishing in Khmer, will gather this evening at Java Cafe and Gallery for the first event of its kind in Phnom Penh: a literature forum organised by and for women.

Moderated by writer So Phina, Romance, War and Rice Fields – New Cambodian Literature Scene will include a chance for the audience and authors to meet, readings and an informal discussion.

“The purpose is to help them [authors] know the public . . . they have been working very hard to write and accomplish their work, but [are] very little known to the public, especially Cambodian readers,” said Phina, the volunteer director of PEN Cambodia’s Women Writers Committee. They often didn’t even have book launch events, she added.

The featured writers have varying levels of recognition and come from different backgrounds.

They include Oum Suphany, whose two books based on a diary she kept under the Khmer Rouge regime have been translated into French and in English; novelist Bounchan Suksiri; and memoirist Ting Sokha.

Their works mark a shift from traditional Khmer literature, in which women were often presented as idealised beings, to a more contemporary – and realistic – conception of female characters, Phina said.

“The female characters in my books are often stubborn, a little bit rebellious . . . but with sensibility,” Suksiri said. “They often possess some sense of humour, too.”

Suksiri is certainly prolific: she’s published six historical romance novels since 2011 and has plans to release three more. A professor of English at the Royal University of Phnom Penh, she was disappointed to discover that her students disliked reading novels in Khmer.

“My purpose in writing these novels is to promote and preserve Khmer language,” she said, adding that she had no plans to translate her works.

Phina echoed this sentiment – that engaging with literature in Khmer first was important, and especially so for young readers. “It’s our national language,” she said.

But the Khmer literary scene is small and difficult to navigate, and not just for women.

Authors seeking a publisher for works in Khmer encounter a small audience, a lack of support for the writing community as a whole, and poor enforcement of limited copyright law, Phina explained. Agents are also hard to come by.

Suksiri said that when she attempted to work with a publisher, they offered her between $100 and $200 for the rights to her work.

Instead, she chose to self-publish. “I could do whatever I like with my books,” she said. “I don’t have to negotiate with anyone, or try to please anyone.”

For its part, the Women Writers Committee is working to change the narrative.

The organisation advocates for 10 to 20 women at any given time. In March, it released an anthology of short stories – Crush Collection – under a new publisher, Kampu Mera Editions, dedicated to promoting the work of Cambodian female authors.

“We want women to take part in building and restoring Cambodia’s literature,” Phina said. “What I can say about [the] publishing industry in Cambodia is it is improving.”

And she looks forward to future forums. “I would invite other [groups] to come and I would think of mixing generations,” she said. “Or maybe a man writer as well.”

Romance, War and Rice Fields – New Cambodian Literature Scene will take place at Java Cafe and Gallery, #56 Sihanouk Boulevard, tonight at 5pm.

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