My boyfriend and I first moved to Phnom Penh in 2009. I had just turned 25. We flew into the country with no jobs, nowhere to live, and no connections. Six years later we found ourselves leaving an apartment thatimg_20160302_113803 had come to feel like home, and friends that had come to feel like family. I’ve stared at this screen for five minutes trying to think of a way to adequately express just how much the people I met in Cambodia mean to me. No single sentence is sufficient, so I’ll just say this – friends in Cambodia (you know who are you are!), you are some of the most genuinely wonderful people I have ever known. Meeting you was finding a place to fit – perfectly – and saying goodbye was leaving a part of myself behind.

Cambodia gave me so many incredible experiences. In Cambodia I learned how to dance; saw gibbons in the wild; was introduced to the mythology of Angkor; found my favourite island; learned how complicated it can be to “make a difference”; got my bike fixed; helped some of my best friends get married; lived with diabetes; got rained on; visited river dolphins and jungle elephants; went to Thailand; saw Bob Dylan play live in Vietnam; volunteered at the Kampot Writers Festival … and a hundred other things that would take a year to write down.

We moved to Cambodia because we wanted to travel and live somewhere different. We stayed so long because of the friends we made. And we left because – to put it simply, although it is always so much more complicated – we’d been away from family too long.

20160220_113657Originally, we’d planned a long, slow exit from Southeast Asia. Things didn’t turn out that way, thanks to the uncompromising inflexibility of Australian university scheduling. Six-months-left-in-Cambodia quickly became six weeks. In that small window of leaving I coordinated my last writing workshop; taught lessons on space, Canadian wolves, and Taylor Swift; watched Ponyo until way past everyone’s bedtime; ate pancakes with my favourite radioactive friend (and a baby goat); and – finally – drove to the airport with two of the world’s most beautiful people, and their incredible little girl (all of whom I miss every day).

In the last few weeks before I left – when everything was too-quick and too-much and completely surreal – I went to a meditation session at Wat Langka with a friend. We sat for an hour in silence, a whole Wat full of people12801438_10153989122340477_1756996893335274105_n with racing minds suddenly putting on the brakes. And just as the clock hit sixty minutes a thin cat wandered in, meowing. A furry, pink-tongued alarm clock. Time to go.

The mental turmoil of packing up and moving countries at short notice makes reading difficult. While I was leaving Cambodia I read exactly one book (When You Are Engulfed in Flames by David Sedaris). Film-watching, on the other hand, lends itself to leaving. In the midst of lists and half-packed bags I watched L’Originne (2009, director Xavier Giannoli), Welcome to Me (2014, Shira Piven), Wild (2014, Jean-Marc Vallee), Wish You Were Here (2012, Kieran Darcy-Smith), Queen of Earth (2015, Alex Ross Perry), The One I Love (2014, Charlie McDowell), Mean Girls (2004, Mark Waters), The Jane Austen Book Club (2007, Robin Swicord), Adventureland (2009, Greg Mottola), Bad Timing (1980, Nicolas Roeg), Murderous Maids (2000, Jean-Pierre Denis), Tamara Drewe (2010, Stephen Frears), The Old Garden (2006, Im Sang-soo), Oslo August 31 (2011, Joachim Trier), Le Orme (1975, Luigi Bazzoni), and Primer (2004, Shane Carruth). A strange, often disturbing, sometimes boring, always different mix of moments: a French con-man, an American theme park, a New Zealand herd of cows, a Korean uprising, a Norwegian heroin addict. Somehow lifted me off the ground, onto a plane, and back to Australia.

And though I’m no longer there, it is comforting to know that Cambodia is not so far away. We might have moved away, but we won’t forget where we’ve been.

The rowing boat passes by

The bank remains

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Photo by Yeng Chheangly

(from ‘Cambodian strolls and proverbs’, Isabelle Fournier-Nicolle & Anne Yvonne Guillou, 2009)

On my first ever trip to Canada I got off the plane in Vancouver – in a dopey, what-day-is-it Valium-haze – and was greeted by a tank of drifting jellyfish. I hadn’t even left the airport and already I knew I was going to like it here.20151216_111352

We flew to Canada from Cambodia last December. The country was a flurry of snow and Christmas lights, and family. In just over a month we ate the biggest piece of apple pie I’ve ever seen in a Vancouver diner, hiked through snow (in snow-shoes) in the Pacific Ranges, and browsed Munro’s Books in Victoria. And somehow – awake in the wee hours of the morning on jet lag and too much Tim Hortons – I managed to watch around 12 films/TV shows and read at least 10 books. Yeah. It was a pretty good Christmas.

Pemberton

20151220_104112A few hours’ drive from Vancouver is the small town of Pemberton – home to bears, the second X-Files movie (The X-Files: I Want To Believe), and a lot of snow. In Pemberton I woke up at midnight to see a snowplow clearing the street. In Pemberton I hiked to a glacial lake where a Whisky Jack bird landed on my hand. And in Pemberton I read The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri.

I bought this novel months before reading it, at the little bookshop in Kampot, along with a collection of Lahiri’s short stories. I found it hard to get into at first, but then I finished it quickly. Like many of Lahiri’s short stories, The Lowland is a novel that moves between20151218_115941 India and the United States. It spans generations of characters, and time is non-linear (in this sense it reminds me of The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy). Unlike Roy’s novel, however, I found it hard to connect with characters in The Lowland – there are perhaps too many different perspectives, interspersed with a lot of politics. There aren’t many narrative surprises in The Lowland, but the writing is beautiful – wonderful use of metaphor, vivid descriptions of place, the smells of food, the heat. A strange book to read in the midst of a snow storm, but a good one.

Victoria

We spent Christmas in Victoria, the largest city on Vancouver Island. Victoria is a playground for squirrels, raccoons and deer (and sometimes, consequently, cougars). There seems to be beautiful, rocky shoreline in walking distance of almost everywhere – the perfect place to sit with a takeaway coffee and contemplate life (or spot seals and 20151221_113647bald eagles). In Victoria I was introduced to hockey, candied salmon, and drive-through Tim Hortons. I was also (re-)introduced to that most excellent Christmas tradition of endless amounts of reading (and film-watching) time.

In Victoria – mostly while on the couch with a heated blanket – I read The Children Act by Ian McEwan, The Gathering by Anne Enright, We Should All Be Feminists by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and Funny Girl by Nick Hornby. My Boxing Day book – a Christmas present from my boyfriend’s parents – was Nora Webster by Colm Toibin.

This novel was like nothing I’ve read before. Nora Webster is a quiet, character-driven book. At first I was expecting events to thread themselves into a story. Instead, the novel explores all the mundane, everyday moments that help (and don’t help) Nora deal with the grief of losing her husband. It is an almost stream of consciousness style of writing, Virginia Woolf-esque, although the language is less flowery, the prose crisper and simpler. It is very well written. In the background is the larger story of Ireland and the ways in which it comes to terms with its own grief. Even though the plot is not ‘traditional’ there is a sense of resolution towards the end – a climax that is without fanfare but that is real and satisfying. There is something very gentle yet intensely beautiful about this novel. I finished it in just a few days.img_3405

In-between books I explored the (seemingly endless) contents of my hard drive, and watched Brand New Life (2009, director Ounie Lecomte), The Fall (2013-, TV series, created by Allan Cubitt), A Hanging Offense (2003, director Guillaume Nicloux), Claire Dolan (1998, director Lodge Kerrigan), Dogtooth (2009, director Yorgos Lanthimos), Innocence (2004, director Lucile Hadzihalilovic), Kill List (2011, director Ben Wheatley),
Margaret
(2011, director Kenneth Lonergan) and Nenette and Boni (1996, director Claire Denis). The film that has stayed with me the longest, however, was The Lobster (2015, director Yorgos Lanthimos).

Perhaps not quite as strange as Dogtooth, The Lobster is still wonderfully weird and completely compelling. The premise – a dystopian future where people without partners are corralled together in a hotel and forced to find true love or be transformed into an animal of their choice – is both imaginative fantasy and insightful social commentary. Visually it is beautiful and surreal – random animals walk by in the background, a flamingo here, a camel there. It sounds fantastic – the music in the first slow motion hunting scene is magical, and there is something strangely stilted about the way actors speak their dialogue that works really well. The Lobster is weird, thoughtful, shocking and lovely. The kind of film that makes me want to watch more films. Highly recommended.

Pitt Meadows

On the outskirts of Vancouver is Pitt Meadows – a suburb that feels more like a small rural town, home to berry farms, mountains, forests, red picture-book barns, and my boyfriend’s brother and his family. In Pitt Meadows we went for long walks, learned all there is to know about baby zombie alien lizards, and – unfortunately – had a run-in with 20160114_140817some black ice. Miraculously everyone was fine, but after a family trip to the emergency room we spent the rest of our visit indoors, where the kids watched Minions and I read Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides.

A family epic, over 500 pages long, Middlesex starts in Greece in the 1920s and ends in Berlin in the early 80s. Middlesex is the story of the passing down of a genetic trait that leads to the narrator, Calliope, (later Cal). A first person novel that is also omniscient in style – reporting the thoughts and actions of people the narrator couldn’t possibly know. I’m in awe of the expanse of this novel – of the amount of history and historical detail it encompasses. It did take a while to get into, but by about two-thirds of the way through – when the story finally reaches Cal – I was addicted. I liked the narrative voice, but at times I felt like passages were too wordy. The family history probably didn’t need to be quite so detailed, but at the same time I did appreciate the breadth and depth of this novel. Middlesex completely envelopes the reader for days. A wonderful, overwhelming read.

Vancouver

The highlight of our Vancouver visit was definitely The X-Files forest (a.k.a. the Lower Seymour Conservation Reserve), but we did manage to see some other sights. Rabid 20160117_131927raccoons and beaver dams in Stanley Park (no actual beavers), Emily Carr paintings at
the art gallery, and some frighteningly large seagulls. We ate Nanaimo bars on Granville Island and about twelve different types of eggs Benedict in Kitsilano. I also raided my boyfriend’s sister’s bookshelf, and discovered a classic Canadian dystopian novel – Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood.

Told from the point of view of a narrator known as Snowman, Oryx and Crake tells the story of a destroyed Earth and a new species – Crake’s children. The novel skips between Snowman in the present – hunting for food in dilapidated shopping malls – and his memories of the past. I liked the world Atwood has conjured in this book – so vivid, recognisable enough to be plausible, different enough to be fascinating. Intriguing exploration of gene splicing and the creation of new species’, as well as consideration of the role of art and the influence of advertising. I wanted a bit more to happen at the end, but I did have to finish it quickly before getting on the ferry to head back to Victoria (and then to Cambodia a few days later). I’m not usually a fan of science-fiction/fantasy writing, but for some reason Margaret Atwood really draws me in.20151220_135805

We ended up staying longer in Canada than we had originally planned. For a number of reasons, but largely because it was so good to be with family. Our time in Canada was a catalyst, I think, for the making of decisions that eventually led us to leave Cambodia for
Australia. I’m at a point in my life when a Christmas spent on the couch with a pile of books is preferable to travel; when New Year’s Eve at home with family and Chinese takeaway is better than bar-hopping and drinking ’til sunrise. Canada came along at just the right time. And from here – in the heat of Australian December – I’m looking forward to our next rainy Vancouver adventure.

Jhumpa Lahiri is a Pulitzer Prize winning author born in London. She currently lives in New York.

Colm Toibin is an Irish novelist, short story writer and essayist. Nora Webster is his eighth novel.

Yorgos Lanthimos is a Greek film director and screenwriter. His next film – The Killing of a Sacred Deer – is due for release in 2017.

Jeffrey Eugenides is an American writer. He is perhaps best known for his novel The Virgin Suicides, which was made into a film in 1999. Middlesex was awarded the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

Margaret Atwood is a Canadian author. In addition to Oryx and Crake, her novels include The Handmaid’s Tale and The Blind Assassin.

So much for maintaining ‘a regular blog’ (Carly’s resume, 2016).

Full disclosure – my last post was published in November of 2015. It was written in Cambodia at the end of the rainy season, in-between tutoring and trips to the coast. Over a year later I’m in Australia at the beginning of summer, sitting on the back deck of our rented house, watching magpies and wondering how I got here.

It would be easy – after such a long hiatus – to give up this blogging business. Who needs it? Who reads it?!

I do, as it turns out.

For all sorts of reasons. Mostly, though, because it reminds me to keep a (somewhat intelligible) record of things. This blog is – more than anything else – a way to reflect, think through ideas, and find motivation. Like going for a run, writing here clears my head.

In the last week – since uni finished for the year and I rediscovered life-outside-academia – I’ve gone back to writing and running. In both cases getting started again after so long is awkward and somewhat painful. Muscles ache, my shoes stumble, headphones slip out of my ears. I’m still figuring out the best routes; my stomach stitches and my breath gets caught in my chest. It’s a long, slow, stop-start process. Sixty seconds jogging, ninety seconds walking. Sixty seconds writing, five minutes staring at the page.

But there is pleasure in coming back, too. A rhythm that is familiar, and an out-of-breath, red-faced, post-run sweat that is a relief to re-find. A reassuring reminder that if I sit long enough, stare hard enough, disconnect enough words are still wonderful.

So where to start after a year has gone by? A year of innumerable films watched, books read, places travelled. A year of North-American diners, South-East Asian beaches, a lobster, a car crash, Shakespeare, Ballarat churches, a pomegranate tree, a kill list, Bigfoot, the X-Files forest (and The X-Files), a road trip, babysitting, a turkey, Christmas lights, cats, mountain bikes, platypus, beaver dams, rabid raccoons, a hockey match, poetry, Holes, blue-tongue lizards, aliens, diabetes, a camping stove, a maths test, nature documentaries, a music festival, kangaroos, a wombat, kookaburras, hotel swimming pools, massages, hot Phnom Penh rooftops, tuk-tuks, sports days, cross country, rockpools, koala grunts, possum growls, the Khmer Rouge, Monopoly, trees, jewelled weevils, cults, metalanguage, Galileo, Nigeria, Romeo and Juliet, dragons, Harper Lee, ancient China, Gold Rush bottles, dinosaur statistics, witches, nouns, drugs, jet lag, salmon, fog, snow, Family Feud, rhubarb, and a tarantula named Nora.

20151231_115615I suppose it doesn’t really matter. A beginning is a beginning, whether it starts in the middle or at the end. The next few posts will be an attempt to catch up on (at least a fraction of) 2016. An effort – really – to figure out how we went from a Phnom Penh apartment to a house with a river for a back fence and kookaburras for neighbours. Here goes.

It’s [the act of writing] like discovering that while you thought you needed the tea ceremony for the caffeine, what you really needed was the tea ceremony.

-from Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott.

I feel like lately I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about writing, but very little active creative work. This post is an effort to clarify all the things I’ve been thinking about recently, give my brain a clear direction to go in, and also free up some space for just writing!

03. Coffee & Pencils

This week was a bit of a landmark moment for me – I received my first ever cheque for a short story, published in Visible Ink’s latest anthology. I’ve been awarded mentorships before, and subscriptions to literary journals in which my work has been published, and been given grant money to put towards a particular project. But this is the first time I’ve ever been really, directly paid for my writing. As in – this money is yours to spend in whatever way you want. Buy a really expensive block of chocolate, a bottle of wine, donate it. (What I’ll probably do is use it to pay entry fees to more writing competitions!)

Being published (and paid) for work is so encouraging, and for a short time it’s a huge high. But it really makes no difference at all when you sit down to write something new. The page is still blank, the ideas still feel like they will never come. You decide that your last story must have been a complete fluke, and you’ll never be able to do it again.

This is the real mystery of writing. How does it actually happen? There are some basic rules of language you can follow, some parameters that can be set. But I think, when it really comes down to it, what makes a good story is something not quite within the realm of conscious understanding. Which is why writers (or at least, myself) have so much anxiety – it’s a leap of faith every time I sit down to write something. Is it going to work this time? Is the magic going to happen? Or is this going to be another block of wasted space on my hard drive? Am I going to go home sad and defeated, wondering why I keep doing this at all?

It is somewhat comforting to know other (very successful) writers also feel this way. Something that kept me going for a long time – taped above my desk – was this quote from Junot Diaz:

They [stories and novels] all seem impossible to me. They both have me through the intestines on their horns, so it’s that kind of weird thing like getting gut-shot by a pistol or a rifle.

Stephen King – whose book about writing (also titled On Writing) I recently re-read – describes a similar feeling:

[S]ometimes you’re doing good work when it feels like all you’re managing is to shovel shit from a sitting position.

And finally – and possibly my favourite – from Kurt Vonnegut:

When I write, I feel like an armless, legless man with a crayon in his mouth.

On Why I Write

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So why – when it is so goddamn difficult – do I write? That might be a good place to start. I think the answer is fairly simple. I write because if I don’t I start to feel like shit; it’s like not getting enough sleep, or not eating enough green veggies. I write because it helps my head feel less cluttered, because it helps me think through (though not necessarily answer – actually, never really answer, since I keep coming back to them again and again) themes and ideas that bother me. I write because I like the way certain words sound next to each other. I think I also write because I like to read – I like good stories (though I think plot is my weakest point when it comes to writing). Sometimes writing really stresses me out. Sometimes it is SO hard. But I keep doing it because if I don’t, life is actually harder, in the long run. And when I get in a writing zone, it is the best place to be. It feels like really living. I like this quote from Anais Nin:

I have days of illuminations … [But then] I have days when the music in my head stops. Then I mend socks, prune trees, can fruits, polish furniture. But while I am doing this I feel I am not living.

However, I don’t think you have to sit around and wait for ‘illuminations.’ Or at least, while you’re waiting, you don’t need to mend socks. You can just write, and sooner or later, the illuminations will kick in, and you will be away.

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On Where I Write

Why am I doing it here, in Cambodia? Quite simply, because I can. In Australia I’d never be able to afford so much time to write. Here I can work part time (in a job I love – teaching) and write part time.

On What I Write

16. Poster

Poster from my one of my first produced plays

When I was in late high school and university I wrote scripts for theatre, because it felt right. Because there was something crisp and simple about dialogue, because I liked how sparse it was and how it looked on the page, how so much could be said with so little, and also how it could be turned into a performance and brought to life.

But then I moved overseas, where there was less of an (English speaking, at least) theatre scene. I started writing short stories. I like the idea of a short story capturing a moment in time. This quote from Anne Enright talking about Raymond Carver describes what I mean:

A story is something told, something that really needs to be said. The most we can say perhaps is that a short story is about a moment in life; and that, after this moment, we realise something has changed.

Poetry does this, too, but I’ve never been as drawn to poetry, though I do write it sometimes, for fun. I like the simplicity of short stories, the logical side of them, the structure (inciting incident, rising action, climax, falling action) but also the potential they offer within that structure to be crazy, to be anything they want. And I like that they are short – that I can finish one in a week or a few days, and feel like I’ve explored an important idea, recorded something worthwhile, learned something about myself (usually – lately – something to do with my childhood, my family, my teenage years).

Why do I write (or try to write) novels? I’ve only really finished one novel. And it happened by accident – what I thought was just free-writing, possibly a short story, turned into something longer. And then longer. The voice fit, I loved the character, I wanted to keep writing her. And suddenly it was a novel. This is perhaps why writing the next one scares me so much – because what if I don’t fall into that groove again? What if I don’t find a voice I like, that lets me just keep going? (I guess the answer to that is to just write every day anyway and wait for something to get longer again).

And why do I write this blog? A number of reasons, I think. To force myself to get at least one thing polished enough each week for a wider audience to read (however many of you that may actually be). To force myself to think more deeply about films and books, to understand what I like and don’t like about them, to be more articulate. And to record some of my life – whether it’s living overseas, travelling, diabetes – from different angles, in more interesting ways.

Carly bookOn How I Write

What is this mysterious process? It’s taken me years to get comfortable with a writing process, and I still don’t feel like I’ve perfected it. I used to start with plot, a careful planning out of events, using the ‘story mountain’, drawing it out. But all the stories I wrote that way ended up feeling forced. As Stephen King writes: “plotting and the spontaneity of real creation aren’t compatible … the story which results from it is apt to feel artificial and labored.” Similarly if I started with a theme or issue I wanted to say something about, the resulting story ended up feeling too contrived. King also has something similar to say about this:

Good fiction always begins with story and progresses to theme; it almost never begins with theme and progresses to story.

I agree. Now I write starting with language. With one image, or a line, or a couple of unrelated images that I try to connect together (the brain is always trying to – unconsciously – make connections between things, and if you give it two random ideas it will connect them for you) and then I just start. And I keep writing – quickly! As King says, writing rapidly helps you “outrun the self-doubt that’s always waiting to settle in.” It takes a while to get into the zone, but I’m a believer now in letting the subconscious take over and ignoring the conscious mind. The critic. Just get it all down, and come back to it later. The real you, the real things you are interested in, that you want to talk about, will come out by themselves (as King writes, “I have many interests, but only a few that are deep enough to power novels” – I find that I come back to similar themes over and over again). And they won’t feel forced. I love this quote from E.L. Doctorow (I think a lot of people doing NaNoWriMo at the moment can probably relate to it, too – it’s certainly how I felt writing my novel):

Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.

Then I come back and clean up. Like Raymond Chandler said: “Throw up into your typewriter every morning. Clean up every noon.” You can’t know whether what you’re writing is good or not while you’re writing it. So why bother trying to judge? Just do it, put it away, and then come back and decide later. That’s when you discover that there are some good bits in there, after all. I look for the themes, I pull them out, I use the story mountain and shape the mess of words around it. But at least I’ve got the mess of words to start with. Out of the primordial ooze of subconscious association comes story.

I also believe in writing every day. Even if it’s just a page, or a few hundred words, or for half an hour. The more you exercise the muscle (and the more regularly) the stronger it gets. Like Anne Lamott says in Bird by Bird: “Do it [write] every day for a while … Do it as you would do scales on the piano … And make a commitment to finishing things.”

On Submitting Writing

I used to be much more haphazard about this, and I still think I need to improve. But I’ve learned a lot from other writers (especially at workshop groups) about how and where to submit. Subscribing to literary journals and competitions on Facebook and Twitter is useful for reminders of when places and competitions are open. I keep a record of where I’ve submitted and which piece, and whether it was accepted or not. I also keep notes on whether or not rejections were encouraging! I have four or five stories at the moment that are in my sort of submission cycle. As soon as one gets rejected, I put it back into the file for re-submitting somewhere else. I think doing this has helped me toughen up against rejection. I send things off so often that I forget about them, and when rejections come back it doesn’t affect me so much because I hadn’t been thinking about it. And if something is accepted – hey! Hurray! (And then I have a glass of wine.)

On Having an External Writing Life

It’s often said, and it is generally true, that writing is a solitary pursuit. However, it can be really helpful to find a way to make writing (at least some of the time) social. A few years ago I was in Korea and was feeling really depressed about writing. Mostly because I wasn’t doing it – wasn’t feeling inspired or motivated. My very smart writing mentor back in Australia encouraged me to find a writers group, and I did. Joining Seoul Writers Workshop was one of the best things I’ve ever done for my writing. It was scary, at first, submitting work for feedback, but it20151107_121612 improved my writing so much. I also learned a lot by looking at other people’s work – trying to understand why I liked certain things and not others, why some things worked and others didn’t. For short stories now the writing group in Phnom Penh is part of my process – I free-write/vomit, I do an initial edit and clean up, then I submit to the group for feedback, then another edit. I find this a great way to work. It’s also nice to be able to talk to other writers about writing – about the challenges and the joys. Festivals (such as KWRF last weekend) are also great for building connections, inspiring writers with new ideas, and just reminding us (I think actually the Kampot festival has in part prompted this now very long and rambling post) of why writing is important – to us, and to the world.

Having said all of this – and all of these things are great and necessary to my writing process – I have been feeling a bit out of balance lately. A bit too focused on editing, networking, writing synopses, researching blog posts. And not focused enough on the vomit. On letting it spill out onto the page, of hours of just getting into the zone and not caring what comes out.

I’m hoping this weekend to get down to Kampot again – this time for some quiet. I want to get back to writing for the sake of writing, rather than the outcome. This quote from Bird by Bird stays with me:

Do it [writing] as a Japanese person would perform a tea ceremony, with a level of concentration and care in which you can lose yourself, and so in which you can find yourself.

Part of me (as always) is afraid that nothing good will come out. But another part of me (a part that is growing slowly stronger the older I get and the more I write) is excited to see what will be revealed.

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On Writing by Stephen King and Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott are both really good resources for all aspects of the writing life. King’s book includes some particularly useful information on writing query letters and getting published, as well as ideas for further reading

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Koh Thmei (New Island) is definitely one of my favourite places in Cambodia. Whenever we need a break from the chaos of Phnom Penh this is where we go – Koh Thmei is small and quiet (not a party island like Koh Rong and others). It’s the perfect place for reading and writing (I’m hoping to organise a writing retreat here some time in the new year). If you’re living in Phnom Penh, or just travelling and wanting to experience a different, more relaxed side of the country, Koh Thmei is the place to go. For more details see this link to my blog post from 2011, and the Koh Thmei website here.

There’s something about being on an island holiday – particularly at Koh Thmei – that makes me want to write haikus. Below are a few of my favourites written while at Koh Thmei in April and October this year:

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Here there is nothing

Going on, but at the same

Time everything is.

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The water is smooth

Even when it ripples it

Doesn’t really move.

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Beach dog dogs are the

Happiest of all the dogs

And the most sandy.

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Crabs scurry sideways

They can’t do anything else

But scurry and hide.

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At the boat a girl

Says You can’t eat the small fish

Says ‘Dtrey toich ot baan.’

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I wanted to swim

But with the storm coming in

I think I will wait.

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Hammock swaying is

The best kind of swaying that

I ever swayed.

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Lizards everywhere

Like stop-motion video

Dart-stop-dart-stop-dart.

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The ponies come home

At dusk; they know it is time

To file off to bed.

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There are boats on the

Horizon, flares of glowing

Light, fire on the sea.

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Last night toad on the

Sand. Andrew wonders if it

Might be a good trip.

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It’s hard to decide

Which swim will be the last swim

Before you get dressed.

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Kampot

Photo by Yeng Chheangly

Photo by Yeng Chheangly

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:

Photo by Yeng Chheangly

Photo by Yeng Chheangly

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)

20151108_063356Kampot 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.

The Festival

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

Photo thanks to Nguon Sivngim

From left: Yeng Chheangly, Nguon Sivngim, Hang Achariya, Bopha Phorn. (Photo thanks to Nguon Sivngim)

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

Kampot

We stayed at Samon Village Bungalows, on Touk Chou Road. Absolutely beautiful place, great food, wonderful staff, and very cheap prices.

In Kampot town we ate at Epic Arts Cafe, Ellie’s, The Rusty Keyhole, Ecran Noodle and Dumpling House, Nara Restaurant and Bar, and Divino Italian Restaurant.

We had amazing massages at Banteay Srey Spa, just down the road from Samon Village.

We visited the Kampot Museum, and the Kampot Traditional Music School.

Festival and other writing info

Article about the festival in The Cambodia Daily

KWRF Festival Website

KAMA (arts organisation in Kampot)

Pen Cambodia

Nou Hach Literary Journal

Sipar Publishing

Java Cafe, Phnom Penh

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.

For more information about writing contacts and workshop groups in Phnom Penh (both English and Khmer), contact me at cnfrizzle@gmail.com, or Yeng Chheangly at chheanglykyd@gmail.com.

The Last Reel portrays my belief in the overwhelming human need for stories and storytelling as part of the reconciliation process.

Sotho Kulikar, director, The Last Reel

I’ve been thinking a lot about stories lately – particularly Cambodian stories. In the lead up to the inaugural Kampot Writers and Readers Festival (which starts today) I’ve been busy putting together a panel of writers to talk about what it means to be a Cambodian storyteller in 2015. There are so many directions in which such a conversation could move – traditional versus modern forms of literature, publishing opportunities, translation – and I can’t wait to see what ideas come out of the discussion. But at the core of any conversation about art, I think, sits the (often unspoken) question – What is it for? Particularly in a place like Cambodia, a country that is still recovering from war, where basic survival (food, water, shelter) remains for many people a daily struggle. Why are you writing, painting, dancing – when there isn’t enough to eat?

But – slowly, perhaps, but surely – things are changing in Cambodia. People still work hard, but they are now also more able to find time for creativity. I am in awe of the young Cambodians I meet who run their own businesses, study at university, and still find time to write. Once our basic physical needs are met, we are able to move on to more abstract necessities. One of those necessities, as Sotho Kulikar points out, is reconciling with the past.

Cambodia suffered a period of violence so devastating it is almost impossible to comprehend. Many Cambodians find it difficult to talk about. The aftermath of war often brings with it a sense of meaninglessness, chaos, a loss of hope. How do we deal with this? How do we move on – without forgetting or repressing the past – to create new life, new hope? This, I believe, is why stories are so important. Stories allow us to give meaning to something that seems absolutely meaningless; they allow us to create new narratives that don’t hide the past but help us to understand it. And the very act of creation is hopeful in itself – it motivates, inspires, and makes us believe that things can be better. Such is the power of imagination.

With The Last Reel, director Sotho Kulikar and writer Ian Masters have created a film that brings together Cambodia’s past and present. Through Sophoun (Ma Rynet) we learn just how strongly the war is still felt forty years later. As Kulikar notes, ‘History has left its scars on her [Sophoun’s] parents’ generation in a way that continues to impact on the present.’ Sophoun feels her parents’ pain almost as if she has experienced it herself (a scene that places Sophoun back in time, moving through the spaces her parents moved through during the war, is particularly memorable). But Sophoun is also the key to healing – she is able to help her mother and father remember and grieve for the past, and show them that there is a future waiting to be created.

The Last Reel is important because of its subject matter and the way in which it uses story to both recognise and reconcile with the past. However, it’s also important to me on a more personal level; that is, as a foreigner living in Phnom Penh. This film allowed me insights into Khmer culture in a way I haven’t experienced since reading the translated collection of short stories ‘Just a Human Being’ (edited by Teri Shaffer Yamada). Watching The Last Reel I recognised so many places and customs that I see every day, but never really understand.

It should also be noted that The Last Reel is simply fantastic filmmaking. The music, the lighting, the wonderful locations (such as the old cinema/motorbike parking garage). There is a beautiful blend of past and present – flashbacks are done with great sophistication: my favourite is a scene where the cinema owner (played by Sok Sothun) remembers showing films for people sheltering in the theatre as the city was being bombed. The performances are incredible – Dy Savet is heartbreakingly subtle in her portrayal of Sothea, Sophoun’s mother. Likewise, Hun Sophy gives an amazing performance as a man haunted by the violence of his past. All of these characters are incredibly relatable, and sympathetic. They are all flawed, all human. History is so complicated – and that I think is where the hope comes from in this story. Bad actions do not necessarily make bad people. Lives can be turned around.

There is great sadness in this film, but there is also hope. And there should be both. Crying for the past shows our respect for it, for the people that suffered, for all the culture that was lost. Looking to the future gives us strength. Stories allow us this balance.

From the mid-1960s to the 1970s Phnom Penh was known as the ‘Pearl of Asia.’ As Ian Masters notes, it was ‘the golden age of Khmer cinema.’ However, of the more than 300 films that were produced at that time, only around 30 have survived. There are sadly similar stories about other forms of Cambodian art – about a year ago, for example, I met a writer who had lost almost all of her poems during the war.

I watched The Last Reel at Aeon mall, and stepping out of the cinema – still dazed and a bit teary – into the glare and noise of Dairy Queen and Daiso, my heart sank slightly at the thought of how far Phnom Penh now seems to be straying from the cultural city it once was. I find myself easily disheartened by the constant construction of luxury apartment buildings, the new Burger Kings, KFCs and coffee chains. Those are the things we see on the surface – the big, the bright, the glaring. But then I remember one of the main reasons I love Phnom Penh, and why I have stayed so long. And it is the sense of culture, and tradition, and beauty that sits between the hotels and the banks. It is Java Cafe, with its dedication to promoting Cambodian arts and literature; it is the Nou Hach literary journal; it is open mic nights and galleries around the city, and films like The Last Reel (which I really hope more people – both Cambodians and foreigners – will have the chance to see!)

It is also why I’m feeling so optimistic about the writers festival this weekend. The Khmer writers at KWRF are harnessing their imaginations to create something new. It’s an exciting time for film and literature in Cambodia – a time for remembering and appreciating the past, but also for creating the future.

The Last Reel is Sotho Kulikar’s directorial debut. It was filmed in Phnom Penh, Siem Reap and Battambang (Cambodia) in 2013. For more information go to their website www.thelastreel.info.

The Kampot Writers and Readers Festival begins today (Thursday 5th November 2015) and runs until Monday 9th. The program is available here. The panel I’m coordinating (‘Being a Cambodian Writer in 2015’) is happening on Sunday 8th, from 12-2pm at The Columns in Kampot town.