Sunday, August 07, 2016

Cambodia authors forge Khmer language literary revival

Over at Financial Times, they did a nice profile on the work of Cambodian authors in Cambodia to revive their literary traditions. This has been a challenge in the aftermath of the Khmer Rouge Era, but also the modern period. Many efforts, for example, have resulted in publications that publish many non-Khmer, but few Khmer. That is a challenge the Lao American literary efforts have not run into in the last few decades, although the Lao face their own challenges in terms of the relevance of books, literature and writing to the daily lives of Lao both in Laos and abroad.

As the author notes:
"The inaugural edition of the Writers and Readers Festival hosted discussions about Cambodian literature and culture. There were tales of Buddhist death rituals, of life deep inside the rainforest, of a cross-country pilgrimage undertaken by a clown. But, for the most part, the discussions were about Cambodia, rather than by Cambodians: slightly fewer than half of the country-specific talks featured local speakers."

That feels like it could easily have been a Lao literary event. And I'm glad that over the years we've organized events where Lao speakers are at the forefront of the conversation and the lead trainers. I've reiterated the phrase "In our own words, on our own terms" for a reason. I don't believe a literary culture can be imposed. It has to be chosen by a people.

After 20+ years of trying to encourage writers from within particular Laotian and Southeast Asian ethnicities to submit to journals such as the Journal of Southeast Asian American Education and Advancement, Bakka Magazine, Little Laos on the Prairie, and so on, I admit it's been painful to see a good many merely shrug and never bother, taking it for granted that there will always be time or someone else who will do it.

That's why I was so impressed by the leadership demonstrated by the Tai Lue during the 2016 National Lao American Writers Summit where we saw so many stepping forward, still Lao American, but also proud of being Tai Lue without fear or shame. They saw how much of a difference adding their voice made to our community. They saw what could still be said, what needs to be said still.

For other cultures, I think it would be unethical to demand they produce writers or to publish. You can present the option and the opportunity for them, but over the years, I've come to appreciate that it has to be their choice.

A literary tradition that is not freely chosen is worthless.

If they choose to be a people without literature, then we must respect that choice and see where the world takes them, and what the cosmos remembers, in the end.

Almost half a century later, Cambodia is still reeling from the consequences of Year Zero. As they note at Financial Times: "It is hard to think of a country whose cultural community, specifically, has experienced the kind of devastation that Cambodia’s has. Between 1975 and 1979, the ruling party, the Khmer Rouge, perpetuated a regime of terror that purged the country of its educated classes: being literate, understanding a foreign language, even wearing glasses, was a potential death sentence. The most widely accepted estimate is that only 10 per cent of the nation’s artists and intellectuals survived those brutal years."

But what can be done? I might well ask where the Khmer writers in America will find their place in the literary reconstruction in the future. If there is any. I'm optimistic for them because I'm seeing more and more fine Khmer writers and artists emerging. But this is a very delicate time and we must never take it for granted that they will succeed in a lasting fashion. To write, to be read, to endure. These are all interconnected, but often, also very separate things.

Lao readers may find it informative when the Financial Times notes: "The creation of a contemporary literary genre is particularly tricky in Cambodia because of the language’s written structure, argues Teri Yamada, who founded the Nou Hach Literary Association in 2002. “Cambodian writing has a lot of Pali and Sanskrit aesthetic influence,” she says. Traditionally there are no paragraphs, no sentence breaks and no quoted dialogue. “[Traditional writing] has lots of adjectives, it’s extremely descriptive, it tends to not have so much of a plot oftentimes,” says Yamada. And, critically for writers dreaming of international acclaim, “It is extremely challenging to translate that writing into English.”

The Pali and Sanskrit influence is definitely part of Lao culture as well, for example. The question might also be, should we change our tradition to conform with more European approaches or to go the more traditional route and create new works without paragraphs, sentence breaks or quoted dialogue? A look at many stories from Southeast Asia does demonstrate that many works have a challenge of narrative "plot" in the more global sense of the term.

I would share Professor George Chigas' assessment that there's reason to be optimistic. Part of his opinion that he shared with the Financial Times would also speak to the Lao experience: “A lot of Cambodian cultural innovation has been the result of taking outside influences and fusing them, transposing them, into something new,” he says. Chigas pinpoints three moments of cultural meeting: with India in the 1st century, Siam in the 15th, and the French colonial protectorate. He believes the stage is now set for a fourth. “I’m really curious to see how this Western influence is going to undergo this process of syncretism and emerge as something uniquely Khmer,” he says.

We'll see soon enough where all of this goes, but I certainly wish all of these Khmer writers tremendous success and many more opportunities ahead.

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