Nou Hach Literary Journal, Volume 7, & “Just a Human Being” and Other Tales from Contemporary Cambodia (edited by Teri Shaffer Yamada)

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.

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