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Cultural Leadership and Literature from the Mekong

Phina So
August17/ 2017

Last month, there was an International Convention of Asian Scholars (ICAS 10)​ at Chiang Mai International Exhibition and Convention Centre (CMECC), Thailand from July 20-24, 2017. There were more than 30 films, exhibitions, more than 300 panels, and keynotes covering a wide range of topics including education, arts and culture, history, economic etc. To attend the conference,  I was sponsored by the Cambodian Living Arts and the Japan Foundation Asian Center to be a panelist on a session ‘Cultural Leadership in the Mekong’ where I co-paneled with my Cambodian colleagues KOR Borin and MOENG Meta, and Arlette quỳnh-anh tran from Vietnam and Anousa Phothisane from Laos, moderated by Frances Rudgard, program director from CLA.

At the panel we debated the term ‘leadership’ highlighted how useful exchange opportunity in the region to people in the arts and culture. We also shared some personal inspirations. I talked on the journey on how did I join the arts, how the arts change me, and the roles of exchanges in the region has contributed  to tolerance and peace building. Arlette looks at the term ‘leadership’ from another angle. She mentioned that ‘leadership’ can be problematic as it may cause hierarchy and high gap of power relation between the ‘leaders’ and those they lead. However, I raised another point of view. I indicated that ‘leader’ here is the one who serves the best interest of their community not those who abuses their power and responsibilities. Also, I emphasized that Cambodia has such a high population of young people (60 per cent are people below 25), so by being called a ‘leader’ would help them to unlock their insecurity and to realize their inner power and potential so that they fill in the needs of the arts and cultural sector.

Meanwhile, Meta, art manager and founder of Kon Leng Khnhom, talked about her background as business and now she has found the inspiration to focus on visual arts. Anousa (aka Aj), talked on how he starts his career as a dancer and later realised his roles in bridging the connection between Laot arts community and the outsider world. Borin focused on his roles as the cultural manager at the French Institute to engage various arts forms from Cambodia and the region.

Besides participating in this panel where we brought many attention on the Mekong especially Cambodia, we also joined in many panels.

As a writer, I went to several panels on literature specifically the Philippines, Indonesia, China, and Vietnam . This blog post, I describe how I have learned from these contemporary literary trend from these countries.

The first panel I went to is the ‘Chinese Dynastic Arts and Literature I: Female Motives’ where panelists talked on three topics ranging from a female Chinese dancers and her images travel around the globe via various media, lesbian’s love in a play in 17th century, to Writing like a man: Tang dynasty literary trends in the poems by a courtesan named Chang Hao.

Next, I went to a round table ‘Writing 21st-Century Philippines, Forging Southeast Asia’, where various topics were presented by literary scholars from the La Salle University. One of which is lacking of poetry genre for children presented by poet Alquisola, Vijae O. To me, there has a strong history of literary education in the Philippines while in Cambodia we do not even have an institutional creative writing in the whole country yet. In fact, we have a department of Khmer Literature at the Royal University of Phnom Penh where creative writing course is yet to exist.

Philippines literary scholars from De La Salle University (Photo: SO Phina)

Later, I went to a panel  ‘Gender and Literature: Female and Male Perspective’ presented by an Indonesian and a Vietnamese writer. What I have learned is that even though there has noticeably changed in literature in these two countries, similarity still be seen compared to Cambodian literary scene these days in terms of the Cinderella complex of romance novel and the rise of women’s voices in modern literature. I was glad I could share some stories of literary scene from Cambodia where there aren’t many people known about.

Two panelists from Indonesia and Vietnam and the moderator from Denmark [Photo: SO Phina]
In sum, there is a lot of going on in Southeast Asia one of which is the literary trend. Although, geographically we are close to each other, due to our great language diversity and lack of inclusive cultural awareness, we do not know each other well. We rarely hear about novels nor read some books from our nearby countries. It is time to do now.

Cambodian friends on the first day in Chiang Mai