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Student Spotlight | Ben Rost in Search of Phnom Penh’s Literary Networks

March 16, 2023

In the summer of 2022 Ben Rost traveled to Cambodia with funding from the Southeast Asia Center. Below, Ben reflects on his experience with Phnom Penh’s Literary Networks.

After three weeks of searching in vain for a copy of The Accused, the 1973 novella I’d spent the past quarter reading and translating from a blurred and grainy PDF, I had begun to think it might not be possible to find a print copy for sale in Phnom Penh today, fifty years after its initial publication. I’d visited a dozen of the city’s major and independent bookstores alike, and found little in the way of the literature from the 1960s and 1970s, part of a modernist movement within Cambodia’s literary scene, that I’d hoped to spend the summer collecting and reading. Many bookstore staff were unfamiliar with the list of authors I’d jotted down back in Seattle; those who knew of them were not optimistic about the prospects of finding their works in print.

It was thus with some surprise that, winding my way through the narrow aisles of the crowded upper floor of Phnom Penh’s bustling Orussey Market, I turned a corner and saw, sitting on top of a stack of books just in front of me, the iconic blue-and-white cover of The Accused. The bookseller, a woman in her fifties, sat perched on a stool, a book in hand, in the middle of her stall, a small space not quite two meters square, its walls lined floor to ceiling with stacks of books; she glanced at me disinterestedly as I approached.

“What’re you looking for?” she asked languidly, her eyes already returning to her book.

“You have a copy of The Accused!” I replied. “I’ve been looking for this for weeks. None of the big bookstores have it.”

She looked up at me. “They don’t carry this type of work,” she said, closing her book and sliding down off her stool; we now had to peer at one another over the stacks of books that lined the front of her stall space. “It’s from the Sangkum era, the Sihanouk years.”

We chatted for a few minutes about the book, a semi-autobiographical account by the author Khun Srun of his monthslong imprisonment earlier in the 1970s under the right-wing Lon Nol regime. Srun was part of the modernist literary movement that had emerged in Cambodia in the decades following independence from the French in 1953; a cohort of poets, novelists, and essayists turned to literature as they sought to confront their disillusionment with Prince Norodom Sihanouk’s Sangkum Reastr Niyum, or ‘Populist Society,’ and to imagine alternative postcolonial futures for the newly independent nation-state. The work would prove to be Srun’s last; shortly after its publication, he fled the city to join the revolutionary forces of the Khmer Rouge. After the Khmer Rouge came to power in 1975, Srun returned to Phnom Penh and was assigned to the regime’s rail division; in December 1978, on the eve of the regime’s collapse, Srun, along with his wife and three of his four children, was arrested and promptly executed in one of the regime’s final purges.

I was first introduced to the work by Lok Kru Yin Luoth, our Khmer instructor at the University of Washington; during the 2022 spring quarter, I worked with a section of The Accused through a translation seminar, and, through a paper for another graduate seminar, explored the ways in which the work reflects Srun’s broader literary and political positioning within his particular historical moment. With funding support from UW’s Southeast Asia Center, I would be spending two months in Cambodia over the summer, participating in an archives workshop hosted by UW alongside a consortium of other partners and conducting research related to my still-coalescing masters thesis, broadly concerned with the ways in which generations of Cambodian authors have turned to language and literature as a critical site of engagement through which to challenge and articulate particular visions of the Cambodian national community. The Accused was among the works I was most eager to track down, but it was not the only one.

“Do you have anything else by Khun Srun? The Last Residence, for instance?” I asked the bookseller.

“The Last Residence. Hmm. I’ve had it in the past, but I don’t at the moment. Another seller might have it, though.”

She deftly extricated herself from the cramped stall, slipping through a gap in the stacks of books that I hadn’t even noticed. “Let’s go,” she said, and set off down the narrow aisle without so much as a glance back in my direction.

I grabbed my bag and hurried to catch up to her. Her stall, I realized, was on the outer edges of a section of the market I hadn’t known existed: several dozen stalls devoted entirely to books and school supplies. She led us through the maze of stalls, calling out to other sellers as she went, leading us towards those that might carry Srun’s other works. “Anything by Khun Srun?” she’d ask as we approached a vendor. “The Last Residence?”

I left that day with a bag full of books: roughly half of the works I’d hoped to find over the course of the summer, and a few I hadn’t. As we walked along, visiting a half-dozen other booksellers in the vicinity, I chatted with the seller I’d befriended, and learned that her nephew ran the printing house that produced many of the titles in her stall; they had a larger shop, she told me, a storefront, not far away. “Anything you can’t find here, you’ll be able to find it there,” she said. “We sell works that they don’t carry in those bigger bookstores.”

Before the summer was out, I’d spent hours browsing the shelves of her nephew’s store, and had returned twice more to the booksellers of Orussey Market. The city’s larger bookstores, I’d come to recognize, offer a wide selection of genres and titles – yet a range of other works circulated along less visible literary networks that provided an alternative to the larger stores, and yet that frequently intersected. I found titles published by Kampu Mera, the publishing house founded by author and activist So Phina, at book fairs in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap. A Mekong Review article on the elusive My Bookshop Cambodia led me down a narrow alley tucked off of Norodom Boulevard; there, the owner suggested I visit the Ponleu Vichea Newspaper Stand, a robust sidewalk bookshop across from Phnom Penh’s well-known Preah Sisowath High School. (The owner of Ponleu Vichea, infinitely knowledgeable on Khmer-language literature and scholarship, helped me locate a copy of Eav Koeus’s 1947 Khmer Language, a seminal work in Khmer linguistics that offers crucial insights into how Cambodian authors and intellectuals, on the eve of the country’s independence from France, conceived of the interconnections between language and national community: I’d found old copies at the National Library, but was certain it would be impossible to find a print copy for sale elsewhere in Phnom Penh.) I began stopping by any bookshop I came across, no matter how small, never knowing quite what I’d find on their shelves: a pocket-sized copy of Kuy Sarun’s The Black Rose, an iconic work of modernist poetry; Trinh Vanh’s What Are My Crimes?, another work recommended by Lok Kru Yin Luoth; Suon Soren’s A New Sun Rises Over an Old Land, recently translated into English (although not without its critiques).

Ultimately, in the months since my return from Phnom Penh in August, my thesis has coalesced around one work in particular: the Khmer Dictionary, known to many Cambodians today as the Chuon Nath Dictionary, named for the monk who played a leading role in developing and revising five successive editions of the dictionary over a period spanning more than four decades. Decisions concerning Khmer orthography and lexicography made by Nath, and articulated through the pages of the dictionary, have fueled vigorous debates among Khmer novelists, poets, intellectuals, journalists, educators, government officials, and others, debates that, I argue, may be understood as speaking to broader hopes and concerns for the future of the Cambodian nation.

The vibrancy of the literary networks that traverse Phnom Penh, Siem Reap, Battambang, and other Cambodian towns and cities today makes evident the fact that such debates have continued to be taken up by new generations of Cambodians, representing a broad cross-section of society and yet each engaged and invested in a robust literary community. The iconic yellow cover of the 1967 edition of the Chuon Nath Dictionary can be seen on prominent display at virtually ever bookshop in the city, and many of the questions that Chuon Nath sought to answer – the extent to which Khmer ought to accommodate foreign loanwords; orthographic tensions between etymological and phonetic orientations – have only grown more relevant, as global capitalism and English hegemony increasingly bring Khmer into contact – and, at times, conflict – with translocal circulatory networks.

In the face of such uncertainties, language and literature alike, as both medium and idiom, remain a central site of engagement through which successive generations confront the questions of their day. From the three-story bookstores that line Sihanouk Boulevard to the crowded stalls of Orussey Market, a diverse yet thriving community of Khmer-language readers and writers repeatedly turns to literature in their efforts to call forth new ways of being and belonging in the modern world.

Ben visited friends in Kampong Thom province in June 2022. His time in Phnom Penh was supported by grants from UW’s Southeast Asia Center.