Five Cambodian writers, whose Khmer-language novels and short stories are virtually unknown in the Western world, are featured this month in Paris in the French magazine Europe, and will appear next year in the US magazine Manoa.
The monthly publication Europe has for 80 years brought the work of literary giants of other countries—from Edgar Allen Poe and Jack London to Bertolt Brecht and Boris Pasternak—to the French public by translating and publishing their works in French.
Its 380-page June issue contains a section on Cambodian writers as part of a review of literary figures from Thailand, Laos, Burma and Cambodia.
These authors were selected for the quality of their writing, and as examples of contemporary Khmer literature at its best, said Christophe Macquet, a professor at the Royal University of Phnom Penh who translated their material from Khmer to French for the magazine.
The five men fascinated the Cambodian public with their work before 1975 and were part of an emerging Khmer literary movement that was trying to break free from the country’s traditional rules, Macquet said.
Simultaneously captivated and weary of modernism’s speed and advanced techniques, they were hoping that modernism would, one day, give every Cambodian the right to speak, and eliminate 1,000 years of poverty and injustice, he said.
These five authors were caught in the turmoil of the late 1960s and the 1970s.
Hak Chhay Hok and Khun Srun disappeared during the Khmer Rouge era. Soth Polin took refuge in France in 1974 and later moved to the US. Kong Bunchhoeurn and Chuth Khay barely escaped death during the Khmer Rouge regime and now live abroad.
Kong Bunchhoeurn returned to Cambodia in 1981, but fled the country in 2000 after publishing “Viesna Nieng Marina” or “Marina’s Destiny”—the story of his niece Tat Marina who was the victim of a disfiguring acid attack in December 1999.
Manoa’s summer 2004 issue will include works from these five authors along with poetry and various literary genres, Editor Frank Stewart said. This journal of the University of Hawaii Press, which appears twice a year, publishes English translations of contemporary work from the Asia-Pacific.
Now that Cambodia is one generation removed from the Pol Pot era, Stewart said, “We want to encourage Cambodians to once again develop a vital literature and the publication of affordable books.”
Titled “In the Shadow of Angkor,” after one of Hak Chhay Hok’s work, the whole issue will be dedicated to Cambodian literature, and will include works from these five authors along with poetry and other literary genres. Stewart said he invites writers, editors and publishers to contact him at [email protected] to share work or ideas for this issue.
At least 2,000 novels and books of short stories were published in Cambodia during the 1950s and 1960s, Macquet said. However, with the exception of a few romantic tales, hardly any Khmer fiction work has been translated in French or English—unlike the numerous Japanese, Vietnamese and Chinese authors who have appeared in Western languages, he said.
Most foreign language publications on Cambodia have been history or social studies, and personal recollections of the war and the Khmer Rouge time.