Some people are genuinely curious while some others mockingly ask ‘You studied social work. Why did you become a writer?

‘Well, maybe I want to contribute to a social issue I’ve observed?’, I toss back. Yet the questions haunted me. Why do I write? The more I pondered, the more I discovered memories that I now find admirable and endearing.

I grew up in post-Khmer Rouge Cambodia during the 1980s. The publishing industry had been destroyed and the cost of printing was prohibitive. Many emerging women writers began their careers by renting stalls in markets and selling pencil written copies of their novels to fiction-starved readers. Some of these same women would later write soap-opera scripts for television and short stories for the media, thus introducing to the public a new literary women’s genre.

When I was able to read, my mum was a book vendor. She was good at her business. She bought many of these pencil written serial novels. My mum rented her novels to her fellow villagers. 

I remembered one corner of our house was reserved to stockpile those books. My mum was not keen for me to read those romance novels. She was a traditional parent and raised to believe that reading brings more bad than good to girls. I did not understand this as a child but I did manage to secretly read the novels anyway. I read many books when she was not around.

Many people were avid readers. My mum’s book rental business went well since so many people were hungry to read. Villager after villager came to our house to rent the novels. Like a library, when someone finished a book, they returned it and rented another. This went on and on. Occasionally, she needed to buy new novels as villagers were asking for new books to read. 

One night, mum’s hair caught fire from a lamp while she spent almost the whole night reading her favorite novel. It left an indelible mark in my mind and I began to understand that people need to read and that they will if books are convenient, affordable, and accessible to them. I began to understand that reading is so essential to our hearts and minds that we will stay up all night to finish a book that speaks to us.

While mum had plenty of novels at home, dad always bought books from Phnom Penh and brought them home. I remembered I was so happy to hold those shining books. I read all of those. He is also a heavy reader and has a talent for editing Khmer literature. If you give a draft to him, he would find every minor spelling and offer suggestions for changes and revisions of the draft.

I kept writing throughout my life. During my university life, I wrote a lot of poetry. Once, when I was severely sick and needed to stay home, I was forced to miss classes for a few weeks. I missed my classmates so much, so I wrote a long poem to describe every one of them. 

Later, I wrote less frequently due to work and lack of future aspirations. Though my writing was on and off I did write in a diary and a blog I created.

Social Work education helps me find my voice in my writing. After graduation from Australia with a Masters Degree in Social Work, I started to write again and this time I made it go farther. Upon my return home, I noticed some challenges within Cambodian society, especially in regards to people’s mindsets on how women should behave. Co-founded with my friend Hout Socheata, Kampu Mera Editions was established in 2013, two years after I came back from Australia. Since its establishment, we have published 5 titles, three of which are short story collections, one is a historical novel (Bophana, the Flower that Never Wilts), and another one of a translation from a French book. 

With a social work background, it helps me balance my literary value versus an economic driven value. After these reflections, it is apparent to me that I have been reading and writing since a very young age. So becoming an author now should not be a doubt for others. I strongly believe that reading as a child helped me gain the desire to learn and understand through the written word. Attending creative writing workshops, and social work background can assist me as a writer now.

What I hope I may convey with my efforts is to encourage others to read and write. It can be a slow and awkward process at first but it will open your mind and lead you to unravel and appreciate your own life and those of so many others throughout time in the world.

 

These images are of a handmade novel written over 40 years ago. Book texts were written in pencil and the front covers were drawn with paint or dye. Photos courtesy of Tim Many, a senior writer/novelist.