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A few months ago I was in a small bookstore in Sihanoukville (a coastal town in the south west of Cambodia), searching for a good by-the-beach story.  I found exactly what I was looking for in Phnom Penh Express by Johan Smits (a writer originally from Belgium who has spent many years living in Cambodia). Phnom Penh Express has it all: romance, assassins, diamonds, chocolate, extremist groups. Not to mention a fantastic setting.

Phnom Penh Express begins in a little chocolate shop on Phnom Penh’s beautiful Street 240 (a familiar location for many Phnom Penh-ers). It is here we meet Phirun, our hero, a young Cambodian man raised in Belgium who has recently returned to ‘The Penh’. Phirun is a skilled chocolate chef (with a penchant for adding ‘happy’ ingredients to his cocoa-creations). When his boss asks him to deliver chocolate gift boxes to government officials in place of the usual bribe money, Phirun is sceptical. However, a post office mix-up sees boxes full of chocolate-covered diamonds sent out to the greedy bureaucrats, and Phirun and the chocolate shop quickly become caught up in a turf war between opposing factions of Phnom Penh’s diamond mafia.

I enjoyed recognising Phnom Penh (a city I have called home, on and off, for almost three years) in this novel. Smits’ descriptions of the riverside, Street 240, and the crazy traffic (among many others) are spot on. Smits paints a clear and real picture of the city – Phnom Penh is neither romanticised nor demonised (as it can be in travel guides or the media). Here is an honest account of what life is like in Phnom Penh, particularly for expats.

It was also nice to read something about Cambodia that is not preoccupied with war, and that takes a more light-hearted look at Cambodia’s culture. Indeed, Smits is even able to find some humour in the extent of Phnom Penh’s corruption. Phnom Penh Express is certainly aware of the social issues facing Cambodians today, but it does not focus on them (going from reading Just a Human Being – which I reviewed on this blog last week – to Phnom Penh Express was a huge shift in perspective!).

However, the thing I appreciated most about Phnom Penh Express was the story. In many ways, Phnom Penh Express is a Dan Brown sort of novel. It is not a work of great literature; its sentences lack the poetry of Virginia Woolf or James Joyce, and it probably won’t change your life in any significant way. But it is a tale wonderfully told. The events are well-paced, the suspense sustained, and the plot as thick as a good Khmer curry. In my own writing I struggle with plotting, with tying events together to make a whole (I get lost in the details, and can’t see the story for the sentences), and I am in awe of authors who are able to do this with such apparent ease. Phnom Penh Express aspires to be an engrossing read (Smits himself admits his novel is ‘pure entertainment’), and it certainly succeeds in this regard.

Phnom Penh Express has garnered mostly very positive reviews from newspapers and magazines in Southeast Asia. One criticism, from a writer at the Phnom Penh Post, is that Smits doesn’t spend enough time in the heads of Khmer (Cambodian) people. However, I don’t think Smits needed to attempt anything like this. He is not Khmer, and does not pretend to have any great, insightful understanding of Cambodian culture. He has told a compelling story about his Phnom Penh, from his perspective as an expat. In many ways Phnom Penh Express reads as a very humble, loving tribute to Cambodia and its people. Trying to do more than that would have run the risk of feeling forced and inauthentic.

Lots of people will like this book: writers looking for an example of a tightly woven story, expats living in Cambodia, Cambodians interested in an expat angle on their country. And for people planning to visit Cambodia for the first time, Phnom Penh Express is a great introduction to everyday life (for foreigners) here. Overall, this is a unique mystery that doesn’t take itself too seriously. Funny, suspenseful, and exotic.

Phnom Penh Express was published in Cambodia in 2010. It is currently available in Cambodia and Thailand, as well as on Amazon. For more information about the novel, check out its Facebook page.

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I want him back home with me. I also need a water pump.

-from “The Revolver” by Phin Santel

Nou Hach is a non-profit NGO that was established in 1992 to support literature in Cambodia. The organisation is named after a Cambodian writer whose 1950s novel A Withered Flower is part of the Cambodian national high school curriculum. The Nou Hach Literary Journal started in 2004, and publishes winning fiction, poetry, and essays of the Nou Hach Literary Awards.

In 2013 Nou Hach published its seventh literary journal, as well as “Just a Human Being” and Other Tales from Contemporary Cambodia – the first collection of Cambodian short fiction in English translation. Teri Shaffer Yamada (Professor of Asian Studies at CSU Long Beach) is the editor of this collection, and a founding member of the Nou Hach Literary Association. She notes a number of challenges facing the development of literature in Cambodia, including censorship (particularly problematic for socially critical fiction like that published by Nou Hach), piracy, and a delay in print technology. Possibly the biggest obstacle, however, is the lack of a culture of reading in Cambodia (when chatting to some of my Cambodian friends a few months ago I was dismayed to realise that they did not share my love of reading novels). Hopefully Nou Hach can begin to change this.

“Just a Human Being” is entirely composed of short fiction, while the journal also features some poetry and essays. The writers are young Cambodians, and much of their writing is socially critical. There are a number of recurring themes in the stories, including the problem of corruption, the Buddhist ideas of karma and compassion, urban versus rural life, and the memory of war. Money and the gap between wealth and poverty (especially in Phnom Penh) is also a common subject, perhaps best exemplified in Pen Chhornn’s short story “Obscure Way” when the protagonist is almost run over and the driver tells him – “Your life is cheaper than my car”. Many of the stories also exhibit strong moral values: in “The Wallet” by Sok Chanphal, for example, the reader is encouraged to do good for other people.  Both “Just a Human Being” and the journal demonstrate a variety of styles. Animal allegory – common to traditional Khmer folktales – shapes a number of stories, most notably “An Orphan Cat” by Phy Runn, and “Lord of the Land” by Nhem Sophath (this story focuses on two groups of oxen). The title story in “Just a Human Being” (the author is anonymous) takes the form of a script, possibly for theatre or television. Many stories are very satirical in nature; my favourite of these, by Yur Karavuth, is titled “A Khmer Policeman’s Story: A Goddamn Rich Man of the New Era”. And in the journal there is even a short science fiction piece by Sun Try, titled “Exhibition Year 3333”.

As a foreigner in Phnom Penh (and one who speaks very little Khmer) my world is – in many ways – very different to that of most Cambodians. While a lot of the themes in these stories were ones that I expected to see (corruption, money, tradition versus modernity), there were some surprises. I wasn’t aware, for example, that the Buddhist idea of karma is still so much a part of the consciousness of the younger generation. These stories, essays, and poems offer a rare insight into the complexity of issues facing Cambodia. As Yin Luoth (another of Nou Hach’s founding members) notes, these stories help us to understand the realities of modern Cambodian society, and what really matters to Cambodian people today.

While some poetry of language may have been lost in translation (Nou Hach notes that the stories in “Just a Human Being” are “not direct translations but renditions”) the meaning remains clear, and there are some wonderful ideas and images to be found in both the collection and the journal. I enjoyed the allegorical stories, particularly the description (in “An Orphan Cat”) of animals out on the town, living it up:

The German Shepherds and cats are eating a lot at the Suki soup place and the hamburger shop. As for me, the doctor said I should diet due to high cholesterol.

I was also struck by the (often beautiful and unusual) use of simile and metaphor. From “Buried Treasure” by Sok Chanphal:

This morning the sun is smiling at me showing its teeth.

And from “A Khmer Policeman’s Story”:

[T]he faces of my wife and children blossomed like a mint seed in water.

Certain phrases have a kind of poetry that is unique – I think – to Cambodian fiction in English translation. From “Just a Human Being”:

Chief:  What? How do you mean, “He’s weeping”?

Assistant:  In the usual miserable way…

And my favourite line from the entire collection, which appears in “The Revolver” by Phin Santel and seems to capture so perfectly the complicated relationship in Cambodia between love and survival:

I want him back home with me. I also need a water pump.

There are some wonderful descriptions of the Cambodian landscape, both the countryside and the city. From “Lord of the Land”:

This morning, the grass is dewy and shimmering. In the dry season, the plants can grow from the dew that falls during the night.

And from the poem “Strobe Lights” by Yeng Cheangly, about a city nightclub:

Light swirling everywhere

Shimmering in all colors.

Outside, pitch black darkness.

Hungry lives walking, exploring

Without the same clarifying light.

I must admit that I initially found the overt morality of many of the stories to be a little jarring and didactic (I’m too used to the ambiguity of postmodern Western fiction!), but upon further reflection I feel that this straightforwardness is refreshing. It is also great to see Cambodian fiction that is not afraid to be critical of society, and to hold strong opinions.

Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed reading “Just a Human Being” and the seventh volume of the Nou Hach Literary Journal. I highly recommend both to anyone living in Cambodia, as well as those who are simply interested in learning more about this beautiful, complex country.

Every year Nou Hach holds literary awards, publishes a journal, and facilitates a writers conference. The 2014 competition is now open for entries in the forms of short fiction, poetry, and novella. For more information you can friend Nou Hach on Facebook at Nou Hach Journal, or visit their website.

My first experience with John Safran’s work was in 2004 with John Safran vs God, an eight-part documentary television series in which Safran road-tests a variety of religions. I re-watched this series a couple of times. Safran approaches his subject matter with a great sense of adventure and an endearing mix of cynicism, earnestness and humour. He also creates a strong personal connection with his viewers (and now his readers). There is always the sense that Safran is not only prepared to do whatever is necessary for his story, but that he will also share his experiences fully and honestly with his audience.

Over the past few years I have regularly tuned in to Sunday Night Safran, a radio show (and podcast) broadcast on Triple J that focuses on religion and race, co-hosted by John Safran and Catholic priest Father Bob Maguire. It was through this podcast that I first heard Safran had a book in the works. Having listened each week as Safran discussed his writing progress and process (for a while he contemplated going the writing-under-the-influence route, ala Hunter S. Thompson) I was itching to read the book as soon as it came out. Living in Phnom Penh made it difficult to get my hands on a copy, and I had to resort to purchasing a Kindle version (for my PC). I usually don’t like reading on my computer, but Murder in Mississippi had me hooked from the beginning. I stayed up late into the evenings, in all sorts of awkward reading-on-laptop-in-bed positions, steeped in Safran’s impressions of the Deep South.

A bit of book background: while filming the documentary series Race Relations (broadcast on ABC in 2009) Safran met (and played a prank on) white supremacist Richard Barrett in Mississippi. A year later Barrett was murdered by Vincent McGee; a young African American man who had been working for Barrett. At first glance the crime seemed racially driven, but as whispers of sex and money emerged motivations became murkier. Upon hearing about the murder John Safran decided this was his “Truman Capote moment”, and headed back to Mississippi to find out more.

I have very little experience reading true crime fiction (likewise, Safran admits he has no experience writing it), so the genre itself was new to me. In a way, true crime seems to sit somewhere between fiction and nonfiction. The author does not have the freedom to invent a narrative, nor do they have all the answers needed to present an event as it really, truly happened. While investigating Richard Barrett’s murder Safran encountered people who gossiped, people who withheld information, people who said too much, and people who wouldn’t say anything at all. Trying to piece together the Truth from such a mess of raw material is – in a way – a creative exercise. Safran had to choose which encounters to include, and which to leave out, and in doing so he strings together his own narrative, imposes his own meaning. As Carol Shields says: “It’s the arrangement of events which makes the stories.” In reading Murder in Mississippi we are reading Safran’s version of the story, accepting his arrangements and decisions.

Murder in Mississippi in many ways resembles Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt (a book Safran admits he was influenced by, along with Capote’s In Cold Blood). Safran is himself a character in the book (as Berendt is in Midnight), and the story largely focuses on describing and interviewing people who are in some way connected to Barrett and McGee. Safran is certainly invested in finding out why McGee murdered Barrett, but in the end what makes the story really engaging is the way he describes and interacts with the people he interviews. The moments he chooses to include make Murder in Mississippi a compelling portrait of a time and a place; a portrait that is unique to John Safran. Some of the most interesting moments of the book, for example, are the phone calls between Safran and Vincent McGee where they barter over Green Dot cards (a sort of cash card that allow McGee to make purchases from prison) and information. When asked why he included those conversations in the book Safran said that he felt that there was some meaning there, even though he wasn’t sure exactly what it was. The Green Dot phone calls are an important part of what makes the book what it is – sinister, funny, personal, and real.

I enjoyed the structure of the book, as well. Its short chapters, snippets of dialogue, and inserted clips of media give it a documentary feel. Most of all, however, I appreciated Safran’s personal investment in the book – his willingness to become part of the story, which at times reads almost like a diary. Murder in Mississippi does feel a little more mature than Safran’s television work, and reading Safran (rather than watching him) is a more serious, intimate experience. The humour in Murder is much darker, too, though just as entertaining.

My only criticism is that the book seems to end quite abruptly, with little after-journey reflection or summing up. It was difficult to gauge how to feel about the whole experience, or even how Safran felt (other than perhaps bewildered). It would have been nice to see Safran draw a few – if loose – conclusions about what he learnt while in Mississippi.

Overall, though, I really enjoyed Safran’s storytelling – his personal asides, his determination to meet and talk to as many people as possible, his awkwardness and acknowledgement of the fact that he is doing this for the first time and struggling. A well-written, mysterious, honest, and often surreal book. I will be on the lookout for Safran’s next adventure.

John Safran is an Australian documentary filmmaker. His series John Safran vs God won Australian Film Industry awards for Best Comedy Series and Most Original Concept. Murder in Mississippi will be released in the United States under a different title.

John Safran in conversation with The Reading Room