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Cambodian Writers in Spotlight for US Literary Festival

A group of Cambodian writers were the focus of a four-day literary festival at a US university last week, at Brown University, in Providence.

A group of Cambodian writers were the focus of a four-day literary festival at a US university last week, with some saying that despite what they see as threats to their safety and economic woes, they’ll continue their work.

Poets, playwrights, musicians and novelists all had a chance to participate in a number of discussions at Brown University, in Providence, R.I., providing a rare glimpse into Cambodia’s oft-ignored literary world.

“If we are born a lotus, we cannot become something else,” said Tararith Kho, a 38-year-old Cambodian who is a fellow at Brown’s International Writers Project this year. “It is our nature. I think I am not the one who must face the dangers of this profession, for I don’t have weapons. I don’t commit robberies. I’m just a writer. I write about the social problems I see.”

Tararith Kho and other writers spoke as part of the International Freedom-to-Write Literary Festival March 14 through March 17.

Catherine Filloux, a French-American playwright who was written about Cambodia, told a forum that Cambodia’s artistic traditions can be seen in its temples, architecture and other expressions.

Modern Cambodian artists continue their traditions, she said, because many believe it is “their mission to carry on the legacy of their teachers.”

“I think that fuels them to continue doing their work, despite the extremely difficult situation and despite the economic difficulties,” she said.

The Freedom-to-Write program began 20 years ago, after the Chinese government crushed a student revolt at Tiananmen Square in Beijing, and has continued since.

The idea of the program is to take writers out of potentially dangerous environments in their home countries, said Robert Coover, a literature professor at Brown and an organizer of the festival.

Coover said the presence of Tararith Kho on campus led to the idea of this year’s literary festival, “Khmer Voices Rising,” which allowed a look at different Khmer-speaking writers from Cambodia, the US and Vietnam.

The festival approached world issues, the historical connection of the US, Vietnam and Cambodia, and, by the last day, focused solely on Cambodia.

Tararith Kho, who was selected from several hundred international nominees, brought to Brown a better understanding of Cambodia’s next generation of writers and artists, Coover said. And not only contribute to a better understanding of Cambodia on campus, but helped bring Cambodian-Americans in to create a better sense of community.

Among the Cambodian-Americans drawn to the festival—he by invitation—was hip hop performer Prach Ly.

“I love it,” he said, “because I get to network and see these people as ambitious as I am and trying to make a change and making a statement.”

Writing and music can contribute to addressing social issues, he said, often subtly.

“I am not directly, you know, leading them,” he said. “I’m not saying we need to do this, we need to do that. I’m saying this is the problem. We need a solution for this problem. I’m not a politician. I’m a musician. I am an artist.”

Judith Katan, a psychotherapist who drive in for the festival from Connecticut, said she liked to learn from other people’s stories, “including the struggles that are going on in Cambodia for people who are trying to be informed and to produce anything.”

“I knew about that from the news, but hearing people who tell about that was really moving and sad,” she said.