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Q&A: Ryun Patterson, author of Vanishing Act: A Glimpse Into Cambodia’s World of Magic, on healers, spirit mediums and soothsayers

Ryun Patterson, a Chicago-based writer who worked as a journalist in Cambodia, is the author of a 'Vanishing Act: A Glimpse Into Cambodia’s World of Magic'.
Ryun Patterson, a Chicago-based writer who worked as a journalist in Cambodia, is the author of a 'Vanishing Act: A Glimpse Into Cambodia’s World of Magic'.

[Editors Note: Ryun Patterson, the author of Vanishing Act: A Glimpse Into Cambodias World of Magic, takes a deeper look into the reasons why healers, spirit mediums and soothsayers have been killed because of their practices. He has met many spiritualists who have been killed and maimed to find out what makes people turn to violence. Late last year he visited Cambodia to write a new book called Living Spirit and was interviewed by VOA Khmer reporter Phorn Bopha during his visit.]

Could you tell us what your new book is about?

Our first book Vanishing Act started with the idea that the tradition and spiritual activity of the older generation of Cambodia is disappearing as they died and as younger kids don't appreciate it, don't understand it or don't believe in it. So my perspective was: it’s time to document these practices and get to meet these people who really believe themselves, their lives. They dedicated their lives to spirits, and spiritual activities that are very unique to Cambodia and could very soon be gone forever. And so I thought it was time to go out and meet these people and talk to them,and make some movies of them and take photos of them, so people remember what it was like and what people believe at the time before things change.

Where did you go to get all this information?

For the first book we covered Battamang and then the southern coast, Kep, Kampot and Sihanoukville and Phnom Penh. Now that second book, what I realize is more than vanishing it is changing very quickly. Like Cambodia, it is adapting very, very fast and the beliefs and the ways that people express these beliefs are changing a lot like through Facebook. People mediums are giving fortunes over the phone. They are calling on cellphones, they are doing it on the Internet. Things like that, so I decided to change the idea from Vanishing Act to Living Spirit.

Why did you choose those provinces?

I've read a lot about historical witch hunts and the killing of sorcerer’s throughout history in Europe and America and things like that. And there is very common themes. And one of the common themes is loss of land like when people lost their land they feel that they are not attached. They are not farmers anymore. They have to find a different job. They have to find different things to do. They want to find someone to blame for the changes of their culture because people are scared of changes, and when things change for them. It makes them scared. Scared people are dangerous people.

How did you come to know these people?

Well they are everywhere. First of all these fortune tellers and spirit mediums and things, they're all over Cambodia, but you have to know how to ask. You go to the market and you spend enough time talking to the ladies, you can find people who say this fortune teller is very good. This spirit medium helps me when I am sick, so you can find them. The reason that I went to specifically Mondulkiri, Ratanakiri and Kratie is because first of all, I have never been there before. Second of all, I have already covered several different parts of the country. So I want to have different parts of the country for my readers to know about Cambodia because Cambodia is so different from province to province.

Will you combine the old book with the new one?

Online, I am going to combine all. The new book will be out hopefully in September and the new part of the book is the e-book version which you can have on your iPhone or your iPad. For this edition of the book, I also bought a 360-degree camera that can take video that go all the way around. So if you are watching the video, you can pan around and it’s like you are sitting inside the interviews. You see the photographer at the back. You see the equipment; you see me; you see the person; you see the talking and it’s a way of immersing the readers in this. Because many of the readers have never come to Cambodia, but I want them to understand what it’s like to be here with me and Cambodia and doing this interview with these people because I think that's the most interesting part.

When do you expect this to be published and are you coming back to Cambodia?

The plan right now is right now we are just gathering raw research. We have 30 hours of video. We have 50 hours of audio. We have all of these raw materials and we have to turn them into a story. So the first step is I have to transcribe, I have to write, I have to design the book itself. And I expect that to be finished by September 2017. And after that hopefully I can come back with some books and find the way to get it printed here in Cambodia, so people here in Cambodia can buy it and that is the goal.

Do you believe in magic?

I believe that people believe in it, and the most important thing is that people believe it. I think it’s more important than does it work, does it not work? I think it exists. I think we need to talk about it and we need to preserve it for the future because who knows in 20 years if this belief will be here.