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Manoa 18.1 (2006) 108-115
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with Sharon May
Soth Polin was part of a community of writers thriving before the Khmer Rouge takeover. He was born in 1943 in Kompong Cham, Cambodia. He came from a middle-class, intellectual family that was fluent in French as well as Khmer, the language of Cambodia. Throughout his youth, he immersed himself in the classical literature of Cambodia and the literature and philosophy of the West. His first novel, A Meaningless Life, was an enormous success. Numerous novels, short stories, and philosophical tales followed, among them The Adventurer, Whatever You Order Me…I Will Do It, and The Death of Love.
In the late 1960s, when he founded the journal and publishing house Nokor Thom, he was a militant nationalist who was both anti-Sihanouk and anti-communist. Through the publishing house, he supported the politics of Lon Nol before distancing himself and taking refuge in France in 1974. In Paris, he worked as a taxi driver, published a French-Khmer dictionary, and published his novel The Anarchist, which was written in French. He left France to settle in the u.s. with his two sons and now lives in Long Beach, California, where he is a taxi driver.
The following interview grew out of a number of telephone conversations in 2003.
SM You were telling me earlier how you learned to read from your maternal great-grandfather, the poet Nou Kan. You were very young when he taught you Khmer…
SP I was four years old. He made me lift my arms up and around the top of my head. When each of my hands could reach the opposite ear, I was of the age of learning, and he began to teach me the Khmer alphabet: ka, kha, ko, kho, ngo. He thought I was intelligent; the other members of my family did not agree.
I was so young, but I remember when he left the province, moving from Kompong Cham to Phnom Penh. He became a member of Parliament. And so I began to write formal letters to him, helped by my mother. I was [End Page 108] about five or six. I would write things like "From here, I sing to you over there." I would say that I missed him very much and ask that if something I wrote was not appropriate for a letter, to pardon me.
He was the patriarch of the family. We were living in his house in Kompong Cham. It was a very big house, near the pagoda, and all the family members lived there. He was educated in the Buddhist monastery. Later he became the mandarin of the king. He had the title Oknha Vibol Reach Sena [Servant of the King] Nou Kan.
SM He was a very well-known poet.
SP Yes, he was the national poet. In 1942, he received first prize for the Teav Ek, which is like the story of Tum Teav. He wrote it about thirty years after Som's Tum Teav.
I remember the flow of his poetry even now. What I read when I was a child was very powerful. I read his poems all day long. I loved very much the story Inao Bosbar, famous in Southeast Asia. I think he translated it from Thai, but he reinvented the story in his own style. I read that every day. I would sing his poems. For every one, I made a song. He was a great poet, you know. Even now, I am in love with his poems [singing]:
Anicha phka banan, klen khpong khpos
Loeu tae chhmuos, lous tae chhmieng, tieng tot toan
Sman bosbar, smeu bos bong, vong tevoan
Sthet choan, sthan chuor, chhar kama.
SM He was very prolific. He must have written every day.
SP My mother told me that after he retired from being a mandarin of the king, he wrote every night. He had passion—more than I do. Or maybe it was because he was richer. He could write without worrying about putting food on the...