Socheata Vong

My thoughts about beloved Cambodia

Category: Khmer Novel

Reading: a novel obsession among Cambodian youth

By Lim Seang Heng

A growing market for works by local writers has seen a rise in the number of new authors, though high print costs and piracy remain a problem.

On the second floor of the International Book Centre in Phnom Penh, 21-year-old Dy Vutheara is working out which book to buy from the hundreds of Khmer-language novels on offer. While she enjoys a variety of genres from detective stories to comics, she eventually settles on a romance.

“Most of them are good, so I have to weigh them up and decide which one would be best,” said Dy Vutheara, an environmental science student at the Royal University of Phnom Penh (RUPP).  Dy Vutheara has bought more than 100 novels in the last three years since her teacher suggested she read more. She is not alone. About 40 of her friends also like to read, and she says between them they keep track of newly published novels.  “We never miss any new releases even though we don’t have much money to buy them,” she said. “So we take it in turns to buy the books and read them.”

Kim Sophat, a secretary of state at the Ministry of Culture, says the growing market in Khmer novels is leading to an increase in the number of writers. “A lot of young people from the provinces and from urban centres are starting to write more and more. They can now make a decent living out of it,” Kim Sophat said.

Steady increase
One of the country’s best-known novelists, Mao Samnang, who writes under the pen name Rabbit, has noticed that the number of books published in each print run has increased steadily over the past decade – reinforcing the notion that more people are reading. But she says print costs remain an obstacle to increasing readership. Mao Samnang earns about US$500 for each of her novels, which take one month on average to complete. She says that if readers knew how difficult it is to write a book, they would complain less about the price. Despite the relatively high cost of books, she says many fans keep up with her new works by renting them from bookstores.

Keo Somaly is a bookworm who has decided to spend her two dollars of food money to buy her favourite book – Neang Macha, or Lady Fish. She says many youngsters share her taste, which helps to offset the cost. “Today is my turn to buy the book, and this one costs 7,000 riels [US$1.69),” she said. “My friends and I take turns [buying books] since we don’t have much money, but we love to read.”

The emergence of soap operas and foreign movies has some local writers worried. But Mao Samnang says her main concern is piracy. “Illegal copies can kill writers. Soon after a novel is printed, there are many photocopies available on the market,” she said. “The copy is much cheaper, but it is really harmful for novelists and for the printing houses.”

The Culture Ministry’s Kim Sophat said authors should sue those who produce illegal copies of their works. Seong Phos, a Royal University professor, agrees and says that counterfeiters should be treated as thieves under the law and should be punished – although he has never seen that happen.

The future
Dy Vutheara says that most themes currently explored in Khmer novels lack deep meaning. “Readers just scan the cover and the first few pages, and they can tell how the story will end,” she said.

Looking to the future, Mao Samnang said she wants to make some changes to her novels. She believes that with greater exposure to foreign books, and a desire to see greater liveliness and creativity in local books, young readers are ready for a new approach.

“Even though we novelists can barely survive, we try to keep our literature alive and maintain the long-lasting tradition of the Khmer novel for the next generation,” she said.

Source:  The Phnom Penh Post 

Who is the Cambodian ‘Rabbit Novelist’?

Pens and papers have always been her best friends in her entire life for her hand-written novels. She has enjoyed the solitude at home, composing invented stories to save the life of Khmer literature.  The characteristics of her protagonists reflect the pure Cambodian society: sympathetic, gentle, beautiful, patient, helpful and brave. Readers could relate to her stories and imagine to places which she invents in a classic way.  She is extraordinarily capable of describing a place which looks very simple to everyone as a romantic and even a mysterious scene. Her novels are full of tastes: mistake, destiny, fate, misery, struggle, failure, success, i.e. bitter sweet life.  She makes the novels into a world of romantic fantasy, and she relates readers to the earliest time and the latest.  Titles of her novels are written in a very attractive way: the ‘Black Rose’, the ‘Moon Light’, Rolok Boak Khsach (‘Wave Hits the Sand’), the ‘Moon Rises across the Border’, and the ‘Music Love of the Past’.   She has devoted her life to the Khmer literature.  Her writing is the symbol of artistic romance.  This genuine novelist is no one but Mao SamnangBy Socheata Vong


Mao Samnang (below) and two of her well-known novels (above)

Hundreds of Khmer novels sold at local news-stands throughout Cambodia were written by Mao Samnang.  This self-proclaimed “trashy novelist”, she calls herself “Rubbish Writter”, is one of the most famous authors in Cambodia.  Her protagonists are handsome strong men and beautiful swooning women, and their lives fill hugely popular Mills & Boon-style romances for just one dollar a book.

Mao, 52, leads a simple life, sitting in solitude at her desk at her home in Beak Chan (near Phnom Penh) where she lives with her two children. She works for 10 hours a day in a quiet room and always with pen in hand.  She doesn’t own a computer.  Mao has led this life for nearly 30 years discovering writing as an art-form, and as a means of income, at the age of 23. Since 1980, she has written more than 200 Khmer novels, more than 100 Khmer screenplays and a few songs and poems.

“I was a journalist for a while when my books weren’t in such demand in Cambodia during the late 1990s and the beginning of the 2000s, but since then I have begun [writing] again and [sales] are getting better now.” Mao says

Mao’s life story is not so different from other Cambodians of the same generation. She left her studies in 1975 because of the Pol Pot regime, just as she had almost finished high school.  Her father, a teacher in Sihanoukville, was killed and then she lost her mother, leaving Mao, her sister and three brothers, orphaned.  “My family and I have survived, dependent on my career since I began writing.” she says.  When Pol Pot’s regime fell, the state nominated Mao to be a teacher at a primary school, but she soon resigned as her first book, written in 1981, was so successful Mao made more money from the writing than the teaching.  “I became a novelist by chance and only knew how to write from reading and through some experiences with my father.  When I was learning [at school], I always got good marks in Khmer literature because my father was a Khmer literature teacher who forced me to read many Khmer books.”

“I never studied at schools for writers or at any tertiary institution for that matter, but when I write, some experienced novelists consider my writing as comparable to those who did actually study their craft.”  When Mao wrote her novel in the nearly eighties there were only rudimentary machines for copying, there were no photocopiers or computers and the common currency of those times was gold.  Mao says her first novel was written by hand and purely for her own enjoyment, but quite by accident a businessman read it and was interested enough to buy the book from her. He employed students to make copies of this book, again by all hand, and began distributing it throughout Phnom Penh and several provinces for three huns (0.375 gram) of gold.  “I was really surprised at the price of the book…because three huns at that time was the same as my monthly salary, that’s what pushed me to leave my job as a teacher and become a writer.  It earned me a very good income.”

Between 1980 and 1985 Mao wrote an astonishing 120 novels of 150 pages each.  She then left the world of books for a time to concentrate on writing screenplays, of which she wrote more than 100, until the Cambodian film market collapsed in the late 1990s.  Then she worked as a journalist for the Women’s Media Center, also at the Cambodian Women’s Voice Center and at the now defunct maganize Kol Thida until 2003, when she returned to the novel, again reaping the financial rewards.

“In my life I have faced the difficulties of the Pol Pot regime.  I lost my parents and in the late 1990s and early 2000s work was scarce when Khmer movies and novels lost popularity because of growing foreign influences, especially that of Thai films.  But now I can say things are very good for me. I can earn approximately $1,000 per month.”

In the last couple of years, Mao’s workload has increased and since 2003 she has sold 10 hand-written novels and five screenplays: The Magic Forest, The Strange Resident, The Daughter of Keng Kang Snake, The Gratitude and Tom Teav – a film based on a poem of the same name about a monk leaving the monastery to marry.  “I spend a month [writing] a novel these days, but when I was young I could do it in only 10 days,” Mao says.  The most successful book that Mao has written to date is Rolok Boak Khsach (‘The Wave Hits the Sand’), which was awarded first prize in the Preah Sihanouk Reach competition in 1995.  She has also won The Garland of Jasmine and a Save the Children Norway award.  Mao says readers enjoy their novels because she always keeps her protagonists’ characteristics the same from novel to novel.  “[In] nearly all my novels, the male characters are always brave, honest, handsome, sympathetic, while the females are always gentle, patient, and beautiful.  They represent men and women in Khmer society,” she says.

These days Mao shares her expertise with the students at the Khmer Writers’ Association and in the future plans to deal directly with the printer rather than through the middleman.  Mao Samnang, the very successful Rubbish Writer, wants to be in charge of her own destiny now.

Source: The Cambodian Scene (2005, page 5 and 6)

© MMXVI Socheata Vong

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