Serey Vicheka, a 19-year-old student of foreign languages at the Royal University of Phnom Penh, had no regrets about not winning the young writer’s contest that marked the launch of the Kampot Readers and Writers Festival last night.
In many ways, she did not even want to enter. “Writing is personal for me – I don’t write for other people to read,” said Vicheka, who comes from a strict family that values science over art. “But this year’s theme about ‘courage’ made me think that I should do it.”
With this as its guiding theme, the third annual Kampot Readers and Writers Festival will unfold over the next four days in the provincial riverside town with a roster of internationally recognised authors.
It’s not lost on organiser Julien Poulson, founder of the band The Cambodian Space Project, that the festival is taking place amid a crackdown on free expression in the Kingdom. The festival’s media sponsor last year, the Cambodia Daily, shut down in September after being handed a $6.3 million tax bill that many observers saw as retribution for its aggressive reporting.
“Openness of conversation in Cambodia is disappearing, we all understand that,” said Poulson, who said that organisers “have called on new Cambodian voices, writers, wherever they’re from, to look at the idea of courage and how that applies, particularly in Cambodia”.
In addition, Poulson said, this year’s festival “has an incredibly strong programme for Asian diasporic writers – capital ‘L’ literature”.
The panel of authors includes British writer Jung Chang, whose books about the Cultural Revolution remain banned in China; award-winning Canadian writer Madeleine Thien, whose 2016 book Do Not Say We Have Nothing was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize; and Canadian author Esi Edugyan, whose second novel set in Baltimore, Berlin and Paris about a mixed-race jazz ensemble was also nominated for the Man Booker Prize.
All three writers are women of colour who explore the themes of identity, trauma, memory and history in their writing. Yet none are Cambodian – a fact pointed out by critics of the festival who say the event leans too heavily toward the expatriate community.
To that end, the festival has spawned two competitors this year – the “locals-first” Khmer Literature Festival that concluded last month in Siem Reap, and the Kampot Arts Festival coming up in January.
Poulson, for his part, defended the festival as a merging of both Cambodian and Western influence and said he hopes to eventually develop it into something that is more “locally flavoured”.
As usual, the weekend promises to heavily feature non-literary art forms, including performances by chapey musician Kong Nay, who was named this year’s recipient of Japan’s Fukuoka Arts Prize, food tours with native Kampot chef and restaurateur Kek Soon and talks with Cambodia-based journalists.
“At a glance, it looks like this is some barang thing, but it’s the lazy look,” Poulson said. “What we are is a window that is thrown open to the world and to Cambodia to experience what an international literature festival is, and to have that here in Cambodia.”
Some authors also have local connections, including Thien, whose 2011 novel Dogs at the Perimeter tells the story of a family pulled apart by the Khmer Rouge through the eyes of a survivor living in Montreal.
Arriving in Cambodia in 2007 with the intent of travelling for five weeks, Thien said she couldn’t get the country “out of her head”.
She ended up spending long periods from 2007 to 2011 in the Kingdom, writing in Phnom Penh and Kampot and poring over memoirs stored at the Documentation Center of Cambodia as a way to process what she was seeing around her.
Thien, who continued to explore themes of loss and creation of identity in her subsequent book examining China’s Cultural Revolution, said she hopes festival-goers come away “with a profound appreciation of Cambodian writers”.
“[That is] the immense challenges facing them and their extraordinary courage and the ways they’ve had to adapt to a society that’s changing very quickly,” Thien said.
Cambodian Living Arts founder and musician Arn Chorn-Pond, who will deliver the festival’s keynote speech for the third year in a row on Sunday, expressed confidence yesterday that the arts scene in Cambodia will continue to grow despite increasing political tension.
Chorn-Pond, who escaped death at the hands of the Khmer Rouge in part by playing the flute, said he hopes to impart on attendees that art “has no boundaries”.
“Even if sometimes you are not allowed, sometimes you still do it,” he said. “Somewhere, the door opens, and we keep going.”