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.

#

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.

This is the first thing

I have understood:

Time is the echo of an axe

Within a wood.

(Philip Larkin)

I ran out of books to read while I was in Australia, so I did something I haven’t done in years – went to the library! I don’t think I’ve ever appreciated libraries quite so much before. There wasn’t a huge selection in the Bright local, but I did find these two.

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Philip Larkin: Collected Poems (edited with an introduction by Anthony Thwaite)

Man hands on misery to man.

It deepens like a coastal shelf.

(-from ‘This Be The Verse’)

It was nice to read a poetry collection for a change; it’s not something I usually do. I chose Larkin because I remembered the line “They fuck you up, your Mum and Dad, they may not mean to, but they do.” I love the rhythm of it, the honesty, the twist of humour. This collection is more of the same.

Larkin is a beautifully quiet writer, and his poems carry so much weight. They feel so close to reality, to the raw truth of human experience. Larkin worked as a librarian for over forty years, and wasn’t interested in fame. I like to think he was reading and writing for himself, for the truth that art allows us to get at and better understand. That’s what it feels, to me, like Larkin is doing in his work: noticing the inherent chaos and sadness in the world, and striving to structure it. To give it meaning, and beauty. He certainly succeeds. His work is piercingly insightful – he doesn’t shy away from life’s difficulties (relationships, age, and death are big themes), and the way he renders them is wonderfully bittersweet.

Only one ship is seeking us, a black-

Sailed unfamiliar, towing at her back

A huge and birdless silence. In her wake

No waters breed or break.

(-from ‘Next, Please’)

I found a lot of the poems in this collection very moving. There are touches of humour, but sadness, too. I read this over a bit of an emotional period, and shed a few tears. I finished it in a crowded V-line train carriage on the way to Melbourne.

[W]e should be careful

Of each other, we should be kind

While there is still time.

(-from ‘The Mower’)

Ali Smith: The First Person and Other StoriesIMG_20150831_114851

I gravitated towards Ali Smith because of how much I loved her novel The Accidental. Her writing style in that novel is so different, and there are some rhythms and themes that I really connected with. These stories are also quite unique, but I didn’t connect with them as much (I was surprised to discover that this collection actually came after The Accidental – to me these stories seem less mature, less sure of themselves).

The First Person is experimental: the focus is much more on symbolism, form, and theme than plot. In many ways this is a collection of writing about writing – in particular, about the short story and what it is, what it can achieve. One question central to these stories seems to be about identity (the four quotes that open the collection all certainly point in this direction) – the identity of the characters, as well as the identity of the medium they find themselves in. Smith seems to reach the same conclusion as many other great writers before her (Virginia Woolf, Katherine Mansfield): that identity is fragmented, constantly shifting.

There are a lot of wonderful ideas in this collection: a talking baby; a disturbing package; a conversation with a fourteen-year-old self. I suppose idea-based (rather than plot driven) writing works better in short story form. I did, however, find some moments repetitive, and felt a bit lost in the swirling stream of consciousness style. I think Christopher Tayler sums The First Person up well in this review from The Guardian: “lively and inventive but dreamily absorbed in the protocols of its own making.”

I finished the stories quickly (waiting for a friend at a Kensington dental clinic, in bed, and in the park by the river on a sunny early spring afternoon). Not too many of them stayed with me, to be honest. I might try another novel of Smith’s, next time.

So the overall moral of this blog post … libraries! Don’t take them for granted; like many things, it’s hard to appreciate just how wonderful they are until you don’t have access to them anymore.

Philip Larkin died in 1985. This edition of his collected poems was published in 2004.

Ali Smith was born in Inverness and currently lives in Cambridge. The First Person and Other Stories was published in 2008.

This review contains spoilers.

Do you ever look at someone and wonder what is going on inside their head?

I think I first saw a trailer for this film back in January, and I had been looking forward to it ever since. (Oddly enough, I ended up seeing Inside Out with my parents, in the cinema I used to go to as a kid.) Right from that initial teaser I was struck by the uniqueness of Inside Out’s premise: a film set primarily inside the mind of an eleven-year-old girl, with personified emotions as its central characters. Not so strange, perhaps, if Inside Out were a Wachowski flick, but this is Pixar; an animated, fun-for-the-whole-family affair. And it is undoubtedly the best Pixar film since Up in 2009 – Inside Out and Up share the same sweet sadness, the same depth, the same thoughtfulness (and, unsurprisingly, the same director/co-writer, Pete Docter). In fact, I will even go as far as to say (my nostalgic love of Fern Gully and The Little Mermaid aside) that Inside Out is the best animated film I’ve ever seen. Full stop.

The idea behind Inside Out may be a great one, but it is also incredibly complex. Apparently it took Pixar’s team of writers a long time to decide just how to build a story around a young girl’s thought processes. They wrote numerous drafts, and consulted psychologists. The wait, and the hard work, certainly paid off. While Inside Out focuses primarily on the inside of Riley’s (Kaitlyn Dias) mind, it does a good job of showing how external events (like a family move across the country) can influence internal ones. Our inside and outside worlds are inextricably connected, but what Inside Out does so well is indicate just how important our inner (mental) wellbeing is, and how easily the balance can be upset. The climax of Riley’s outside journey comes when she decides to run away – we see her pack a bag, walk up a street, get on a bus. But on the inside things are much more chaotic. Inside we see Riley losing her sense of self (depicted as collapsing islands); all the things that have connected Riley to her family and her external world.

Inside Out does so many things so well: story structure, animation, voice acting (Amy Poehler and Phyllis Smith are perfect as Joy and Sadness; Richard Kind also deserves a mention for his portrayal of Riley’s doomed imaginary friend Bing Bong). It’s a little complex for younger kids – there were a few restless five-year-olds present during my cinema experience – but for anyone over the age of about eight Inside Out is right on the mark. Part of me wanted to see more scenes of the inner-emotions of other characters (like Riley’s parents), but I also think this would have made the film unnecessarily complicated.

The thing I love most about Inside Out is the way it presents the landscape of the brain. Imagination is a theme park, the train of thought travels everywhere, the subconscious is a dark cave best avoided. The idea of little creatures working in the brain’s memory throwing up annoying advertising jingles every now and then is hilarious; the way core memories are often tainted by sadness so that they become nostalgic and bittersweet is beautiful. Inside Out is a film about emotions, and it had me so emotional. Which only helps to drive home the central theme – that sadness is necessary, and important. In order to be really healthy, inside and out, we need to be sad sometimes. I would love to see more family-orientated films like this that tackle complex and relevant themes (rather than the same-old ‘hard-work-pays-off’ type ideas that are easy to write but fairly dull and uninspiring to watch).

So – go and see this film. Take your kids. Or, if you don’t have kids, take your parents. And if you cry a little bit that’s okay. It’s just your brain trying to keep things balanced.

Released in 2015, Inside Out is rated PG. It is Pixar’s 15th film.