The theme of the inaugural Kampot Writers and Readers Festival last weekend was Bridges. I crossed my first bridge quite literally on Friday night, in a taxi from Phnom Penh to Samon Village in Kampot. Kampong Bay Bridge (also called ‘New Bridge’) connects Kampot town with the sleepier side of the river. Accommodation booked up fast for the festival (an estimated 500 people attended) and it was difficult to find a place to stay in town. However, staying across the river (still only a five minute drive into Kampot-proper) helped balance out my festival experience. On one side of the bridge I went to sessions, listened to music and poetry readings, absorbed new ideas. And on the other side I watched the river, listened to the frogs, and wrote. As a writer this is the kind of balance I crave but don’t often achieve – I’m either doing too much networking and not enough of my own writing, or being too solitary. Kampot reminded me of the importance of this sort of symmetry – and that sometimes you need something as geographically dividing as a river to help you find it!
Kampot is one of my favourite places in Cambodia. The town itself is littered with beautiful old buildings (no high-rises), street stalls, sleepy cafes and restaurants. One of the most unique things about Kampot town is its swallow buildings – old houses that play recorded swallow-song in an effort to attract the birds. The sound is a welcome change from the constant clang of construction and the roar of motos in Phnom Penh.
The Kampot at Samon Village is overwhelmingly green. A large wooden deck stretches out over the river – on the other side are lines of banana trees, mountains in the distance, and a sky that seems to constantly change. Yeng Chheangly’s poem ‘Mountain and Sky’ (written while staying at Samon Village) describes it best:
Today, this big white cloud
Covers the mountain, let me clearly see it.
This evening those big gray clouds
Spread their power over the entire sky.
That wind blows strongly
Taking the raindrops within
The clear blue sky turns to be strongly dark
The mountain disappears, too.
This morning, the big green mountain re-appeared
Those gray and dark clouds had gone
This white cloud wakes up
Laying on top of the mountain under the clear blue sky.
(‘Mountain and Sky’ by Yeng Chheangly)
Kampot is cool and breezy (I slept comfortably without a fan, and one night I even wore socks!) The wooden bungalows at Samon Village are cosy, the cold coconut showers in the morning are wonderfully energising. Early mornings are the best – sitting on the river deck with sleepy cats, chatting quietly with good friends over strong, sweet coffee. Perfect.
KWRF ran for four days, from Thursday the 5th to Sunday the 8th of November. In that time more than forty events took place, including workshops, panels, poetry readings, and live music performances. It was amazing to see Paul Kelly – a musician I first listened to while growing up in small-town Australia – on stage in small-town Cambodia. I also enjoyed The Low-Down Literary Salons (organised and MC-d by Hugh Tolhurst and featuring poets Scott Bywater and Myley Rattle) on Friday and Saturday nights at Couch Potatoes. I loved the Shadow Puppet Theater performance at the Kampot Traditional Music School on Saturday evening. Apparently this tradition – where puppets are intricately carved from dried cowhide – is over 1000 years old.
One of the most exciting sessions, however, was on Khmer Women’s Literature at Ellie’s Cafe on Sunday afternoon. Phina So – the director of Women Writers Cambodia – talked about publishing a collection of stories by Khmer women (titled – translated from Khmer – ‘Crush’). She was joined – in conversation and in song! – by some of the members of The Messenger Band, a group of former garment factory workers turned musicians. It was one of the most moving and inspiring moments of the festival – especially as part of the audience was made up of students from The Liger School in Phnom Penh. These young Cambodian girls – around 13 years old and in the midst of writing their own English/Khmer fantasy novel – were eager to ask questions of the older women on the panel, and it was wonderful to see these generations connect. That is the real magic of festivals like this – facilitating connections, crossing new bridges.
Being a Cambodian Writer in 2015
The panel I helped coordinate for KWRF took place at The Columns at noon on Sunday. Moderated by Australian author and teacher Christine Benn, the panel featured four contemporary Cambodian writers. Yeng Chheangly, an award winning poet; Nguon Sivngim, a children’s author; Hang Achariya, horror writer and actor; and Bopha Phorn, a freelance journalist. We wanted to do something that focused on Khmer writing, that would help us understand the difficulties faced by Cambodians writing today, and that would create connections between writers. I was so happy with how the event unfolded. All of our panellists spoke with great honesty and bravery about their experiences, and the audience was wonderfully receptive. (Special thanks to Taylor O’Connell for interviewing our panellists for this article in The Cambodia Daily, and Mercy Akua Ananeh-Frempong for her fantastic blog post). I would also like to thank Dana Langlois and Java Cafe in Phnom Penh for supporting Cambodian literature through the monthly Open Stage events. Without the opportunity to help organise the Open Stage I would never have met these writers, and this panel would not have happened.
Some of the most important points that came out of the panel discussion were the following:
-Writing and reading are important to a society because they help people understand who they are, and encourage people to be brave and to express themselves.
-There is a need to encourage a culture of reading and writing in Cambodia, especially among young people. This would help shift the perception of a career in writing from negative to positive. Possible ways of doing this include more awards and scholarships for young people.
-It is difficult for writers in Cambodia to connect with each other. This realisation led to the idea of possibly setting up a Khmer language writing workshop, based in Phnom Penh, where writers can get in touch with each other (either online or in person) and share their work (see below for more information on this).
-Awareness of and the ability to attend festivals like KWRF is limited for Khmer writers, due to language barriers and financial issues. Our hope is that next year’s festival will be able to financially support some young Cambodian writers to attend the festival, and also that more events will be promoted in Khmer. Targeting universities and schools could also be a way of encouraging more Cambodians to get involved.
-There is a lack of opportunities to publish and share work in Khmer.
-When translating work from Khmer to English the audience needs to be considered (i.e. is the work intended to be read only in Cambodia, or does it seek a wider readership), and then a careful collaboration is needed between writer and translator in order to preserve, as much as possible, the poetic intentions of the work.
Many other fascinating topics were discussed and stories shared, but I think these six points give us a good sense of direction. After the panel I was delighted to see young writer El Lokkaman from Kampot presented with an award for his short story. And I was also pleased to see so many people from the audience approaching the writers for further discussion. My hope is that this momentum will continue; that next year’s festival will be fuelled by these connections that have been made this year. By these bridges – of language, culture, and community – that have been crossed.
Recommendations and Links
We stayed at Samon Village Bungalows, on Touk Chou Road. Absolutely beautiful place, great food, wonderful staff, and very cheap prices.
We had amazing massages at Banteay Srey Spa, just down the road from Samon Village.
Festival and other writing info
Article about the festival in The Cambodia Daily
KAMA (arts organisation in Kampot)
Thanks to The Columns hotel for providing a space for our panel, and a big thanks to festival organisers Julien Poulson, Wayne McCallum, and everyone else who made the festival happen.