Promoting the Written Word

Heng Sreang became the president of PEN Cambodia in 2010 after returning from his doctoral studies in Amsterdam.

KT Photo: Aisha Down

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.

In Phnom Penh, for instance, I’ve met a lot of people who have written long works, and will not publish them. I can’t say how good the works are, but some are thick novels – 500 pages, even. And these people won’t do anything with them. Another challenge is the poor reading culture here. Parents know the importance of education, of studying – but children don’t read. There’s little encouragement for writers – few awards, few contests or means of recognition. And young people don’t feel that reading is obligatory. You don’t need it for work. Our students see the people who work for our state don’t have any real knowledge – they have networking skills and money for bribes. So we have no real models for good people to be selected for state jobs. In the private sector, it’s different, but for the public sector – there’s a lot of cheating and corruption. And if that’s how you get ahead, why spend time reading books? You have to buy them, and all this reading gives you a headache. KT: Speaking of freedom of expression: have you known writers who have had to leave Cambodia because of problems with what they’ve written? Sreang: I know a few. There’s a lot of self-censorship, people hearing things about the situation around them and not writing or publishing because of this. But there are some who’ve had to leave. Kong Bunchhoeurn is in exile in Norway, because he wrote about something that happened to his niece. The wife of a senior leader poured acid on her after a love affair. Bunchhoeurn was threatened when he wrote about this story. There was also Kho Tararith who received death threats, from whom we do not know. There is also Mr. Tieng Narith, who is in Thailand waiting for UNHCR to help. This all contributes to the weak writing culture in this country. It is hard for real literature to emerge. Why did we have such good work in the 1960s – and not now? KT: PEN Cambodia is much more active than PEN in neighboring Thailand and Vietnam. Why is this? Sreang: It depends on the people who are in charge. In Cambodia, people are afraid of the political situation, and they don’t want to do this work. In Thailand, writers have been arrested for criticizing the royal family. In Vietnam, there’s been strict control over people, writers and journalists, so they aren’t really working. We have a situation like this in Cambodia, but somehow… well, somehow, because I am a little bit of a brave person, I guess, I am willing to do this risky job. I try to be strategic in my work, and to keep my focus to the point – on education and literature, not criticism. KT: How are you promoting reading? Do you make efforts to get more people to read, not just write? Sreang: I have a vision. By the year 2025, I will make Cambodia a literature country. I want to have a van and go to all provinces – into all communes, to every village. I am mobilizing resources to do this. In 2025, I want us to have a Literature Day in Cambodia. Until this time, I’m going to write requests to the state to start this Literature Day. We are going to have all the villagers writing these requests, too, to the state, to have a public day. We want a public Literature Day, with public reading and celebrations – a holiday. We need at least a million letters, I think. I am trying to implant the love and spirit of literature in the Cambodian people. Literature will represent our culture, too. It is the same as our art, and our monuments. It is a means for education and understanding. Therefore, the Cambodian people must help promote literature. The government must help, too. Literature is a life of the nation. It is a resource, and it is from our ancestors – look at the inscriptions on Angkor Wat. If you do not promote literature, if you do not promote writing culture, this nation doesn’t merit the name Cambodia. If the Cambodian government does not try to protect and promote what our ancestors left​to us, these words, then this country does not deserve to be a nation.