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  • Words from the Fire:An Interview
  • Pal Vannariraks and Sharon May (bio)

Pal Vannariraks is a well-known writer of sentimental and social novels in Cambodia. In 1989 her books The New Horizon of Hope and The Waning Moon Has Already Passed won first and second prizes, respectively, in Cambodia's Seventh of January literary competition. Her novel Unforgettable won a Raj Sihanouk prize in 1995. With the assistance of translator Cheam Kosal, the following interview was conducted at Vannariraks's home in Phnom Penh in December 2002.

SM In the 1980s, you got your start by handwriting novels and selling them to rental shops. Can you talk about that?

PV At the time, we didn't have publishers. There were no typewriters, no computers. We wrote in hundred-page notebooks. A novel was two or three of these, bound together. From about 1984 to 1985, I wrote thirty to forty stories like this. We wrote by hand and sold the books to shops that made copies and rented them out. Mao Somnang wrote a lot of these books too.

At that time, most of the writing had to be about socialism. Our kinds of stories—ordinary stories or love stories—were not about socialism, so the government would confiscate the books. In those days, we had to write in secret, so we never used our real names. One writer always used the pen name Rabbit: that was Mao Somnang.

SM Are these novels still popular?

PV No, not now. People don't read these kinds of stories so much these days. Now they rent videos. There's a lot of video watching, and that has influenced reading. Some writers have had to change from writing novels to writing video scripts to supplement their income.

Another factor that makes the situation bad is that we don't have copyright laws. Anyone can copy our work and sell it without our permission. [End Page 93]

SM How do you get your books published?

PV Usually, a book vendor buys the book, makes photocopies, and sells them in the market. There is some support from NGOs [nongovernmental organizations] and the government.

So far, I have written ninety-two novels. But only about ten or eleven have been published.

SM Some of your books have won prizes in contests sponsored by the government or NGOs. How important are these contests to Cambodian writers?

PV It's a good chance for us to get published because we don't have money to publish the books ourselves. Many of the contests give you a topic. For Unforgettable, I had to write on "Peace and Reconciliation." For If the Flower Has Water, which won third prize in a contest sponsored by Save the Children, the topic was "The Education of Children."

SM How did you become a writer?

PV When I was in grade two in primary school and just starting to learn to read, my father gave me a very difficult book and asked me to read it, then retell the story. He gave me a series of books: the first about friends, the second about enemies, the third about war, and the fourth about peace. In the books were many stories, all educational. These books were for students getting a baccalaureate in general education, so they were very diffi-cult. Also, my grandmother used to buy books for me and ask me to read them to her because she was old and couldn't see well. After a while, I wanted to read everything.

Then, while I was a student in junior high school, I started to write a book, a love story.

I think the reason I became a writer is that I loved to read. I never had any formal training in writing, but I loved our society and wanted to give back something useful.

SM Which are your favorite novels or authors?

PV It's difficult to say because there are so many. I love the Tum Teav, Rose of Pailan, The Thief at the Border, as well as the authors Nou Hak and Keng Vannsak. I loved the books of Soth Polin. I also liked a lot...