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Q&A: Sharon May, Editor and Author of ‘In the Shadow of Angkor’


A refugee camp at the Thai-Cambodia border. (Credit: Jack Dunford/Documentation Center of Cambodia Archives)

Author Sandy May sat down with VOA Khmer to talk about her experiences in Cambodia and her upcoming book, to launch in 2018.

[Editor’s note: Sharon May, an American author and editor, who photographed the Cambodian refugee camps in 1985, was captivated by her experience and interactions with the Cambodian people. She went on to write a book, “In the Shadow of Angkor”, a collection of the work of some of the people she had met on her travels, which was published in 2004. She is now planning a new book, which will showcase the writing of young Cambodians. She spoke with VOA Khmer’s Phorn Bopha about her experiences in Cambodia and her new book, which she plans to launch in 2018.]

How long have you been a writer?

I began writing when I was very little, about 6 years old. I wanted to be a writer. That was my dream, but it took many years before I began to publish my writing and I still consider that I’m learning. I think as writers we are always learning our craft.

When did you start doing it seriously?

Actually I became more serious about writing after I came back from working in the refugee camps on the Thai-Cambodia border. And I was very moved and captivated by the experience, by the people I met, by the story I heard, and I wanted to try to convey something in this experience, so I began writing more earnestly after I came back. But I was writing on and off. I think it was around 2000 I went to get an MFA, a masters in fine arts and creative writing in California. And then after that I got a [Wallace] Stegner fellowship at Stanford University, which gave me a very good period of time to write, so I’ve been writing on and off my whole life.

Why did you decide to work in the refugee camps at that time?

I was in my first year of university and I had a friend who was working in a camp in Khao-I-Dang. She was writing me letters saying you should come here and see this place, meet these people. And if you want to learn more about life you should come here, so I went one summer. My plan was to go for three weeks. I got a photo journalist pass and went to the camps and at the end of that time I did not want to leave. I wanted to stay so I ended up getting a job teaching English at the camps and doing some interviews and working with musicians. I just did anything I could do to stay. It was one or two years, and then I came back to the U.S. and eventually I finished university. And eventually I came back to Cambodia. At the time when I came back you couldn’t go inside Cambodia as an American. I came back later on.

“In the Shadow of Angkor,” written by author Sharon May, was published in 2014.
“In the Shadow of Angkor,” written by author Sharon May, was published in 2014.

What captivated you the most while you were working at the camp?

I will probably have to write a book to describe that. But in Khmer you say “Chap Arom” which is usually translated as interesting in English, but I think it’s a stronger word than that. It’s “chap”, to capture, and “arom”, one’s consciousness. And that’s what’s happening to me. I was captivated by the people. I admired the people. I felt very moved by the stories. And I felt I had a lot to learn from the Cambodians.

What is ‘In the Shadow of Angkor’ about?

The way I came to this book is that one of my first published stories was about Cambodia, and a while later my editor came to me and said, “What is your idea about finding some Cambodian literature?” and I told him about my idea. And he asked me to co-edit a book about Cambodian literature, so I started on a search to find the writers that had survived the Khmer Rouge period and to find new writing. So this book has writing by Cambodians from before the war and up to about the year 2000. It was written by men and women, by older people and younger people, and it has a variety of all kinds of writing. There are short stories, poetry, film scripts, and rap lyrics by [Cambodian rapper] Prach Ly. And I did interviews with Cambodian writers as well, because I felt that their stories were very important to tell, so their interviews are in here also. One more thing to say is that when I started to work on this book I was told that Cambodians can’t write, and what I found was that that wasn’t true. Cambodians can write and in fact there was a thriving community of writers in Cambodia before the war.

You are compiling a new book, is that correct?

Yes, I am in fact. That’s why I am in Cambodia. I am searching for writers writing from Cambodia. And I plan to do a new version of this book which is expanded and goes a little further back in time to include more classic literature of Cambodia and to come further forward up to the present time. So right now, I am seeking writing from the past and writing from the present. And I will be doing a new expanded version of this book.

When do you expect the book to be finished?

I plan to work on this book for about one more year, into next year. And I am not sure about the publication date. I believe it’s a year after that, I’ll be working on this book through 2017, and then I believe the publication date will be around 2018, I will keep you posted.

What is your view on the Cambodian literary scene?

My hope is that Cambodian writers and readers in the future will continue to grow stronger and stronger and I see the beginning of a writing community being built here. I think it’s very important to build a writing community and to help support Cambodian writers in whatever way that we can, through dialogue, perhaps, with writers from Cambodia, with writers from other countries, and what I see is many people in Cambodia are passionate about writing.

Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity. Writers wishing to be included in Sharon May’s new book can contact the author at cambodiawriting@gmail.com.

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