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Khmer Literature Festival: Our Journey Had Just Started

Phina So
November03/ 2017

The first Khmer Literature Festival has just ended in a good shape. It ended with happy tear drops. It closed with heartfelt smiles of every writer and literary friends participated . It ended with well wishes and positive impressions. This blog post highlights the three days festival’s achievement. Before I start, please enjoy some of our happy clicks.

YENG Chheangly, a poet & my literary friend/colleague (photo credit: …)
Students and teachers from Liger school with writer PENN Setharin
Writer and poet NOL Dara and LOCH Chantha

The festival started with a Buddhist Blessing ceremony at the main temple of Wat Damnak, once a former royal residence. Since the beginning, I was overwhelmed with the level of support from everyone. There were full of people inside the temple. After the ceremony, a master artist and living human treasure, Peak Chapech, was invited by the head of the monk to chant a verse for everyone. After the monk chanting, we felt stronger and hopeful for a fresh start of the festival.

Monk Blessing Ceremony inside Wat Damnak Temple

We had arranged various sessions. We had three panel discussions, a video conference, Writing and Publishing Presentation, four performances from Phare Social Enterprise, Solo Bassac storytelling, Chapei (Khmer traditional long string guitar), and the Sound of the Victory Drum of the all female Siem Reap-based Madha troupe.

Solo Bassac Storytelling by the Living Human Treasure Master Peak        Chapech (photo: YENG Chheangly)

Khmer Modern Poetry panel brought thoughtful discussion yet tense debate among writers. Panelists expressed that modern poetry exists at every era. Its element comprised of social critical, no tell, not always follow the traditional rules of traditional poem. They highlighted that while we should preserve our Khmer traditional poem, we should allow more space and freedom for poets who dare to explore and express themselves through their own preference.

Poet LOCH Chantha and Poet Chin Meas, moderated by Chheangly.

Another panel on Cambodia Diaspora and Literature was another highlight of the festival. Panelists PENN Setharin, Robert Horne, Sharon May, and Jean-Baptiste Phou talked about identity, inspirations, genres, and challenges of Cambodian in diaspora writers. The panel addressed the influence of Buddhism, history, trauma, and Western education on those writers. The panel challenges the participants with a notion whether their writing influence may conflict with local writers’ ways of writing.​​

The panel ‘Khun Srun’s literature’ was a great result. I was amazed by the efforts of the three speakers: NOL Dara, SIM Chanya, and YENG Chheangly. From the discussion brought by the panel, we all knew more about Khun Srun both his passion on literature and his academic life. As his former classmate and friend, writer Chanya told the audience that the late writer Khun Srun was a serious and intelligent man. She ended up married his younger brother. So, Khun Srun became her brother-in-law. Chheangly later admitted that he was chocked with emotion when he read his poetry piece. The poem is about Khun Srun’s last wish for his wife to bury him under a mango tree. Doing so, he believed that his funeral would not waste wood, cement, and money. In fact, his decayed body would give in stead nutrient to the tree. If I were Chheangly, I would be emotional too to witness a selfless poet whose mind was all for his Khmer fellows.

Writer Dara was also insightful about Khun Srun’s literature. He picked up many stories and read them to the inspired audience. One of the stories is ‘How to Die Easily’. I believe the audience was inspired with Khun Srun’s short, concise, and social critical. At the end of the panel, we will form a group of writers to collect his books and publish those.

The panel is held at the historical Sala Thama Chas, Wat Bo.

Snadai Thmey Presentation was a program developed to show case writers’ new published books. There were more than 10 writers who participated. Each of them presented the title, theme, reasons of writing of their book. Some of the books were just recently published for the festival. A few of the writing projects would be published in the following year. This session aims to inspire writers to write and published their craft. Also, it can serve as a market campaign for writers also to introduce their work to public audience.

Author Thavry is presenting about her book “Proper Woman”.

Two amazing incidents happened during the festival. First of all, I’d like to share a surprise incident after the panel discussion of “The Philosophy Behind Khun Srun’s Literature”. While I was walking back to the panel which was happening inside the Unesco’ heritage temple វិហារធម្ម, I saw a novice who was standing inside his room but with his head outside looking at to our panel. Then, I stopped and politely invite him to join us. However, the shy novice smiled and shook his head. He said he could hear the conversation from his room. So, I went back. Later, when​ we finished, I headed to the next venue (Heritage Hub) but I was stopped by the same monk. He said “Nhom (a word used by monks for referring to ordinary people), please give this ‘question’ to the three speakers”. I received it and we both smiled. His smile was so fresh. It maybe due to I was so much satisfied with the rich discussion of the Khun Srun’s panel that I am not afraid to describe about the novice’s smile.

Later, I handed the ‘note’ to Chheangly, one of the Khun Srun’s panelists. He then read it and said ‘Oh my Buddha! What’s a surprise note! How beautiful it is!’. The note reads ‘Do not depend on the only Sun. Consider the light of the moon too!” I somehow totally agreed with Chheangly’s comment. I wonder to what inspires him to write the sentence and handed to us? Was it a result from the discussion?

Secondly, it was a testimony from a wife of a festival goer. She was so shy but she participated in most of the sessions. On the last night, her husband, Sokha, came and talked to me ‘You know what she has never known anything about literary or literary community. By attending this festival, she has learned a lot! she told me directly.’  There is nothing happier than hearing this. Moreover, I was also pleased to hear what Sokha said ‘I had been wrong so far! I often believe that only writers who get the 1st or 2nd award from national contest could publish a book! Coming here, I can see there are so many writers and they have written and published a lot. I must do it too! This conversation added up my happiness!

I also observed the strength and courage of all of our team of writes. Chheangly has always able to entertain the crowd with his poetry chanting. He was both a speaker and a moderator. Dyna was a professional moderator and was so confident with her job. Tola, who is still a PUC student, managed transportation and accommodation smoothly. Rachana penned all the Facebook post along side me. Sok Lak, founder of the Scholar Library, posted all the update of the session. He carried the Ex-Stand around with him. Chantreara (co-facilitated with Dyna), assisted me from the beginning sending invitation emails and letters plus managing the Snadai Thmey Project too. The STP was designed to show case writers’ recent and future publications.

CHHEANG Sita was extremely helpful. She accepted her shopping role for monk blessing ceremony and all the flowers for performer. Say Prakchhim, whom I met for the first time, was running around. When I thanked him he said ‘No, do not mention it, I am happy​!’ While people were sitting around waiting to see the film ‘Tomb of Khun Srun’, Sotheara and Koin EE were busying operating the computer, the screen, and the projector. I saw them were socked with sweat for 40 minutes committed to play the video. I truly appreciated their effort. I could not mention all the names​ but I really felt I was blessed.

When asked for his feedback, Jean-Baptiste, who was a speaker at the panel ‘Cambodian Diaspora and Literature’ said that ‘This festival was smoothly organised. Though there are still more rooms to improve but it was exceeding the initial expectation already. The festival was well balanced with panel discussion and performance too! The theme of the panel discussions are also interesting!”.  He also suggested that the festival would choose to discuss about a writer. For example, Soth Polin! And if the theme would be on Soth Polin, we would involve by developing a play based on the writer’s literature. Awesome!

Phare Circus team performed at Khmerlitfest
The beautiful Kim Dyna, author and host of the festival                                                    (Photo credit: YENG Chheangly)
An inspired reader & Khmer literature supporter, Khoun Sokha, is holding a recent published novel by writer Sok Chanphal (Credit: YENG Chheangly)
A smiley Socheata, author and my partner in crime and crush 🙂                                         (Photo credit: YENG Chheangly)
Hang Achariya, Sim Chanya, Oum Suphany, and Tim Many
Meet with authors
A group of happy writers! Cambodia’s proud.

After the inspiring Medha troupe’s performance, Dyna and I were supposed to thank the artists. I handed them books we bought from writers​. Only until I was fighting with tear on stage that I knew I was so overwhelmed with the flow of the success of the festival. I needed to pause for while to calm myself down before I could continue. Later, I found this photo from San Sel, a young journalist who insisted in interviewing me right after the tear drop.

(Photo credit: San Sel)

Though this festival was a good start, I acknowledged that spreading out words about this to the people needs stronger effort. Approximately, the festival brought around 400 to 500 people. Next year, we might need a few trips in advance to schools and communities to inform them about the festival.

With this unexpected success, Khmer Literature Festival will call for committee members for planning for next year. If possible, the venue would be happen inside a local pagoda again.

On behalf of the Khmer Literature Festival and all the writers and artists, I would like to express my deep thanks to all the sponsors and friends who donated and put the trust on me. Without their financial support, this festival would not be this successful. Thus, our thanks to Sipar Cambodia, Nou Hach Literary Association, Giant Ibis Transportation, Chay Da Logistics, Khmer Organic Cooperative, Lim Pengkhun Market (Mondulkiri), Theresa De Langis, George Cigas, Soun Sotheara, and Sabay. A special thanks to the Center for Khmer Studies for the beautiful and elegant venue. Thanks to Sreypich and team who were so helpful.

My heartfelt thank you to all the literary organisations who had volunteered to pen this festival. Thanks to the Magic Library, Scholar Library, Snadai Siemphov Khmer (SSK), Heritage Hub, Phare the Cambodian Circus, Slap Paka Khmer, Writing Through.

Lastly, a very big thanks for the two beautiful pagoda: Wat Damank and Wat Bo.

Find more news related to this festival via the following links:

Phnom Penh Post




Lotus Radio

Lotus Radio

Khmer Times

Khmer Times

Radio France International (Khmer Language)

Eleonore Sok