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In ‘Mekong Review,’ Literary Journalism, Criticism Find a Home

Minh Bui Jones, founder of Mekong Review, holding a copy of Mekong Review in his hands, while giving an interview to VOA Khmer's reporter Phorn Bopha, on November 16, 2015. (Photo: Phorn Bopha/ VOA)
Minh Bui Jones, founder of Mekong Review, holding a copy of Mekong Review in his hands, while giving an interview to VOA Khmer's reporter Phorn Bopha, on November 16, 2015. (Photo: Phorn Bopha/ VOA)

[Editor’s note: The founder of The Mekong Review, Minh Bui Jones, says he is creating a space for journalists who want to write literary articles about the countries in the Mekong region. The journal, launched in November, will publish essays, book reviews, excerpts and works of literary journalism. The next issue is expected in February, on a 2,000-print run. Jones recently sat with VOA Khmer to discuss the aim of the project.]

What do you want from this magazine?

This magazine would be incredibly successful if we were able to encourage young and upcoming writers from Cambodia, Vietnam, Myanmar, Thailand and Laos to write for us. Of course in the early life of a magazine you'd have to rely on established writers, you'd have to establish standards, etc. At the same time, you'd want to discover new voices, new authors, exciting young authors who are thinking about writing, who are in love with writing and reading, who are setting out on their literary journey. We want to discover the new Jonathan Franzen of Southeast Asia.

Who are your targeted writers?

My writers are anyone who wants to write. Obviously we are looking for book reviewers. But a book [can be] a pretext to [go] deeper into a subject. For example, Sabastian Strangio’s review of Richard Cockett’s new book [on Myanmar]. He is going to use that as a point of entry to explore recent developments in politics in Myanmar. So writers, journalists who can add an extra layer to their reporting, and professors and historians who can write to lay audiences. That is to say they are not writing for fellow academics or for specialist. We are a magazine for general readers who are interested in Southeast Asia. So writers who can reach out to the general reader are welcome to submit or contact me.

All of your writers have very good background and reputations. How do you manage to get them to write for you?

I don’t have a lot of money to pay them. To an extent, it’s all about how you approach a writer. Writers always have something that they desperately want to write about, and they want a good vehicle to deliver their ideas, their thoughts. Therefore, as an editor, you have to match writers with subjects, and you have to do a lot of research on an author before you approach him or her. You have to know what they’ve written, what their interests are, and the timing has to be right. You have to understand if they are academics on the summer break. If they are currently marking exams, it’s a silly time to approach them. A writer would be open to write, sometimes for nothing or very little money, if they think the publication they are writing for will respect their work. And also that they are surrounded by writers who think in the same way as they are … they have to feel comfortable in that community. And of course it comes down to selling. You have to be able to sell and convince and seduce them to come along for the journey, for the glory of it.

Could you tell me what you have for next issue?

I think the starring piece of the issue is George Chigas’s essay on Cambodia’s literary culture in the 1930s. Something which I don’t think many foreigners know much about. Also a sister article to that is Robert Turnbull’s on who owns Cambodian culture. I think this will ruffle a few feathers in Phnom Penh and elsewhere, so I look forward to that. Another article, which is very interesting, is Penny Edwards’s review of Luc Mogenet’s new book on Duras, Marguerit Duras in Kampot. Also Chris Taylor has a report on the development and growth of Phnom Penh, how it has changed over the last ten years.

Paul Fuller, a Buddhist scholar at Cardiff University, reviews Phil Coggan’s “The Buddha and the Naga,” as well as Erik Davis’s new book, “Deathpower,” which will be released early next year. I believe Eric Davis will be coming to Phnom Penh in early January.

And we also hope to launch our new live event, in association with Monument Books, with the launch of this book at Meta House in early January. Details to come. Also non-Cambodian articles include Pavin Chachavalpongpun. This is a Thai scholar who is based in Kyoto, Japan. Last year, after the coup d’etat in Bangkok, he wrote an article on the military junta that took over Thailand, and it was critical of what happened. As a result the military government rescinded his passport, so he’s become effectively a stateless person. And just last week, he was at Yale University giving a lecture on Thailand, and the lecture was disrupted by three Royalists who stood up and abused him. The lecture was interrupted, terminated prematurely. It is the state of affairs in Thailand at the moment, they are cracking down on any criticism on the government and the Royal Family. The surreal news yesterday that someone who criticized the Royal Family got 37 years in jail for saying something unpleasant about the king’s dog. It’s very sad what’s happening in Thailand. Also, Sue Sanders reviews the book about Wayne Dale Matthyse, a former Marine Corps medic in Vietnam who came to Cambodia to set up a healing center.

Also, we’ve got a few books on Burma. Sebastian Strangio reviews Richard Cockett’s new book, called “Blood Dreams and Gold, on Democracy in Myanmar.” It would be a review essay looking at the last election and the new government that will take over early next year in Myanmar. And [there’s] much, much more, including Kevin Doyle’s essay on the relationship between an independent movement in Myanmar and the Irish Republican Army, the IRA. I'm so looking forward to that piece. Also, I interviewed Victor Koppe, the controversial defend counsel for Nuon Chea.

How did you come up with this idea of setting up a new magazine?

I had this idea in my head for a long time; it’s been bubbling away for four or five years after I arrived in Cambodia, in 2009. I always wanted to do something like this, but the time wasn’t right. I was always conscious of the fact that it would be very difficult to make such a magazine, an English-language magazine on literature, a success in Cambodia.

First, it’s a foreign language, English. There’s only a number of expats who live here and inside that expat bubble you target an incredible niche market of those who are interested in literature. So it’s a circle within a circle.

It only struck me recently that I should look beyond Cambodia, that I should look to the Mekong region, and the five countries Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand. Those countries share a common history, culture and river, the Mekong, the mighty and majestic Mekong. The other thing is that when you talk to people who live in Phnom Penh, you discover [that the] expat who lives in Phnom Penh [has lived] elsewhere, in Ho Chi Minh City and Bangkok. Anyone who’s spent time in Cambodia has also spent time in Laos or Vietnam or Thailand and more recently Myanmar, since the country opened up. So there is a nice virtuous circle here, because you have people who are interested in the region, who would like to write about the region and also would like to read about the region, so you have a wonderful group of people who are both readers and contributors to the magazine.

How is this magazine different to the Southeast Asian Globe?

We are very different from the Globe. The Globe is a fantastic magazine, it’s a current affairs magazine, and public affairs. [It] covers elections, volcanic eruptions and the economies of Southeast Asia, and has an interest in business and so on. We don’t cover news and current affairs. If there was an earthquake in the Philippines we won’t cover it in our next issue, but the Southeast Asian Globe would. We don't chase the news. We are not topical. We'd like to reflect on longer-term issues and cultural issues. We have an interest in culture issues. I think that’s far more important.

There is a lot of emphasis in politics in Southeast Asia, because a lot of people are drawn into [these countries] sometimes because of what they hear and see. What they hear or see on CNN, on BBC, or read in the newspapers. But there are much more to these countries than politics. We would like to go under the skin, and we have the time to do so. We come out four times per year. We are a quarterly magazine. We have two or three months of production, to read books, to talk to authors, to commission thoughtful, considered pieces on areas that have been neglected. There [are] a lot of literary issues in Southeast Asia that we don’t really know much about. We are on a journey to discover what we do not know much about.

Could you tell us a little bit about your journalistic background and what you have done before this magazine?

Strangely enough, I started out in television. I was a TV producer for Australia's Special Broadcasting Service, SBS. I worked there for three years as a producer. Then I move to newspaper, for the Sydney Morning Herald as a reporter. And then I fell in love with magazines, so I started working with magazines more than 20 years ago, a long time ago anyway. [I]n 2001, myself and two friends started The Diplomat. The timing was exquisite and it worked. It’s successful in Australia. It became an Asian affairs website now, [based] in Tokyo. It was bought out several years ago by a fellow Australian publisher based there, so it evolved and became a terrific website. After that I worked in Thailand at Asia Times Online as a news editor. And then I returned to Sydney and founded American Review, which is a foreign affairs magazine looking at US politics from a global perspective. I worked on that for four years. And I’ve been spending a lot of time working on websites and apps and so on over the last three or four years, so this is a return to hard-copy magazine which I love doing.

What do you want to bring to your audience through your magazine?

I want them to have the pleasure of reading, and I want them to turn off their computers, sit back with a pina colada or a beer for 10 to 15 minutes and immerse into the world of good writing and interesting subjects on Southeast Asia, in particular, the Mekong Region.