PEN International once stood for Poets, Essayists and Novelists. Now, almost one century after its founding in London, this group has broadened its mandate to defend all kinds of writers, including historians and journalists.
Five years ago, Heng Sreang, a Dutch-educated lecturer at Paññāsāstra University, started PEN Cambodia. Since then, he has held that post and has served as a board member of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights.
Mr. Sreang recently sat down over coffee to talk to Khmer Times about his battles to promote reading among young Cambodians – and to end self-censorship among Cambodian writers.
KT: What sparked your interest in literature?
Sreang: My primary school classes were full of poems – and I knew how to recite poems in the traditional way, softly and beautifully. Teachers would ask me to recite poems in class.
Then in secondary school, I became interested in reading short stories – legends, folktales, Buddhist parables. So I became deeply interested in reading. Truly, I am involved in literature for two reasons. One is my nature. The second is that literature is a way of transferring what you think, what you feel, to other people. You tell people about your feelings, about your experience. It’s how you express yourself.
KT: How many writers in Cambodia does PEN support now?
Sreang: More than 100 active writers. We’ve registered over 300 in the past few years, but about 100 of these are active – coming to forums, participating in workshops, and such. Our youngest writer is 15. And our oldest is 70.
KT: How do you find Khmer writers?
Sreang: We identify writers by organizing workshops and conferences, and asking participants to give us their information.
We invite writers that are associated with other literary organizations in Cambodia – Nou Hach Literary Journal, Room To Read Cambodia, etc. I also visit libraries and bookstores to find who is publishing. The trouble with this is that there are only a few publishers in Cambodia right now – CIPA and Angkor Bookstore among them. We lack publishers who want to buy literary works. A lot of writers sell their stories online to sites like Sabay, but there’s no profit there. Meanwhile, a lot of publishers have shut down recently, in 2013 and 2014: Tonle Sap Publishers and Angkor Wat Publishers, and a few more large houses. There isn’t a good market.
KT: What are the main influences on young Khmer writers? International? Old folktales?
Sreang: Our writers have been influenced, yes, by traditional writing here, in Cambodia. We have our own models for poems, and our cultural ideas. But a lot of young writers who have received training over the years have started to write something new.
They have stopped writing descriptions, like descriptions of old legends, and have started to write action-based novels. They are modern writers – writing creatively and thinking creatively.
I hope the old writers and the new writers, the combination that PEN supports, will bring a cultural change here for the better.
KT: What are the challenges for these writers? What are the challenges PEN faces?
Sreang: Well, there are a few. The situation in Cambodia is not good for writers to truly express themselves – to express their feelings and their life experiences.
We can say delicately that there is a poor situation here when it comes to freedom of expression. It is limited. There isn’t complete oppression, but many writers are in hiding. They’re not coming out.