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Manoa 16.1 (2004) 27-35

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In the Shadow of Angkor:

A Search for Cambodian Literature

If its writing disappears, the nation vanishes.
Kambuja Surya,1962

"You know, there is no tradition of the Western novel in Cambodia."

The man who declares this—an American journalist I have met my first morning back in Phnom Penh—speaks with such conviction that if I did not know better, I might believe him and be tempted to head right back to the United States. Instead, I stare at him in shock and a dizzy fatigue born of jet lag and the euphoria of being in Cambodia again. I haven't slept in seventy-two hours and can hardly speak, except to explain to him that I am looking for contemporary Cambodian writing, including novel excerpts, for a special issue of Manoa, a journal published by the University of Hawai'i Press. He continues, "It's just not a very literate culture."

If I wasn't so tired, I would tell him that the modern novel appeared in Cambodia in the late 1930 s and that over a thousand were published be-tween 1950 and 1975 , when the Khmer Rouge took over. I would say that you could ask almost any Cambodian educated before 1975 about the novels taught in school, and he or she would likely recall The Rose of Pailan, The Waters of Tonle Sap, Sophat, The Wilted Flower. I imagine they would name these books with a thinly disguised yearning and then laugh, saying they didn't have time to read anymore. If I wasn't so tired, I would ask the journalist if he knew the Khmer term for novel, pralomlok, and its literal meaning: a story that is written to seduce the hearts of human beings.

But I say nothing and continue to stare at him dumbfounded. As the journalist turns on the front steps to leave, I show him a copy of Secret Places, the issue of Manoa with writing from Nepal.

"Well," he says, "I think the Cambodia book will be rather slimmer than that."

This trip, in December 2002 , is my second to Cambodia in two years and is more than a search for Khmer literature. I first went to the Cambodian refugee camps in the mid-1980 s, after the fall of the Khmer Rouge regime. I still don't have a good explanation of why I went. [End Page 27]

I could say my journey began a couple of years before, with a photograph I saw in a magazine: three Cambodian women trudging up a charred hillside. Burnt rice stubble covered the ashen earth. The sky was drained of color, and the land desolate except for the three figures heading away from the camera. Only later would I wonder about the frames I couldn't see: the burning of the hillside that preceded that moment; the empty landscape after the women had passed. On the film's next frames, were there just two women? One? Did any of the three survive the Khmer Rouge?

At the time, I knew almost nothing about Cambodia. The instructor in my freshman writing course had asked us to describe a photograph, and I had quickly chosen this one from the magazines fanned out on the table. I was partly lured by the photograph's composition and color: the S-turn of the path, the symmetry of the three women, the shades of ash and sun-faded clothing. I imagined the women silent, wrapped in grief or exhaustion. I assumed they weren't speaking, that their world was devoid of life and sound.

Now I wonder why I didn't imagine that they might have been exchanging stories, singing, or perhaps even laughing over word play. It seemed nothing could survive in that landscape. Yet not only did the women exist, but they had passed often enough to trace a path through the jagged rice stubble.

Two years later, I found myself in the Cambodian refugee camps in Thailand. I arrived at the beginning of the monsoon...


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