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Struggling Writers Emerging, Book by Book

The novel sat, unpurchased, on a stand outside O’Russey Market. On its cover, a young man carried a beautiful woman in his arms, through rain and lighting. The novel, “If a Heart Has Blood,” was one of the books coming out of Cambodia’s growing literary scene and, like other Cambodian novels, had a message.

“If a Heart Has Blood” tells the story of a singer who tricks her powerful, promiscuous father into sleeping with her. It is the second novel of 28-year-old author You Sophea, who said recently it was meant as an indictment of the practice of “okhnas,” businessmen of high standing, having sex with young girls.

“I’ve written the novel in hopes of getting rid of attempts by some singers to get other women’s husbands,” he said. “Meanwhile, okhnas should stop considering young female singers as sex objects, because if the singers were their own daughters or relatives, how would these okhnas feel?”

The messages You Sophea and other authors hope to convey through their works are not yet going as far as they’d like, and not yet paying as much as they’d like.

Khmer-language literature was nearly destroyed during the Khmer Rouge period, when many authors and intellectuals were executed. Its resurgence has been slow, and, writers say, hampered by a lack of protective laws for intellectual property and a dearth of payment.

Nevertheless, Cambodian literature is making a comeback.

You Bo, vice president of the Khmer Writers Association, said recently more and more youths are becoming interested in literature, though no exact number of writers is known.

The Khmer writers Association has around 200 members, he said, but only around 20 of them regularly publish and sell their work.

Kho Tararith, president of the Nou Hach Literary Association, agreed. More young writers are emerging, but the number is still not sufficient to restore or develop Cambodian literature to an international level.

“The lack of Khmer writers is a result of the lack of support among ourselves,” he said. “I mean, we writers have fears. We are afraid that there is no reader for our work, or our work will not be published, or that our writing will affect politicians.”

“Another reason is that we have no independent publisher,” he added.

In Cambodia, writers make deals directly with printing houses or bookstore owners. There is no publisher involved. The printing house or bookstore buys the work exclusively and can print as many copies as it wants, as many times as it wants, without permission for the writer and without paying royalties.

This can be disappointing, said Mao Samnang, one of Cambodia’s most famous novelists.

She earns between $300 to $500 per novel and churns out one novel about every month.

“In fact, no writer wants to sell his or her intellectual property rights,” she said. “We want the same practices as other countries have. If our work is published for a second or third time, our rights should be requested. We want such a thing, but we cant so far, as our country has not properly protected a writer’s rights.”

Article 19 of the 2003 “Copyright Law” protects a the rights of a writer as permanent. The rights cannot be sold or confiscated, but the law does not provide for the exclusive rights to buy a writer’s work.

“Only when writers can make a profit do they sell their work,” said Khim Sarith, secretary of state for the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts. “This is good, as they don’t have to bother whether their work will be copyrighted or not. If their work is copied for sales by others, that’s the loss of the printing house or book store.”

There is at least one printing house that pays for second or third runs: Neak Meas.

Neak Meas Printing House publishes literary works, but instead of a one-off price for the book, the house pays per number of books published.

“I give a writer 12 cents per book I sell,” said Neak Meas manager Kaing Sopheak. “I print 3,000 copies a time, so that means the writer can get $360 in sales. If I print the book a second time, he will get another payment. He will get extra payments until he dies if the book is still printed.”

“I do this to encourage more and more writers,” he said.

A better system of payment may help, but what would really boost writers is more readers, said Thea Sokmeng, head of the literature department at the Royal University of Phnom Penh.

“Even some literature student only read the textbooks required by the school,” he said. “They don’t read more for pleasure or to increase their knowledge because they do not have a reading habit.”

Parents must develop this habit in their children by starting to read more from now on, he said.