Growing up on a rural island in Kandal province – some 30 kilometers from Phnom Penh – 9 year old Thon Thavry dreamed of being an author.
Her dream came true at the age of 20 when her first children’s books series were published by the Room to Read Organization.
Thavry, now 27, wrote her latest book, a memoir entitled “A Proper Woman,” aimed at inspiring rural girls who, she said, are bound by traditions that hamper their potential and self-development.
“I want to see the rural girls who read my book get inspired.” she said “I also target women around the world and in Europe as well, and those who share similar stories and the struggles.”
In Cambodia, writing books isn’t very popular and writers do not earn high salaries.
“Students of Khmer Literature would rather apply for teaching jobs rather than being authors or writers. They can’t survive being an author here.” said Thea Sokmeng, dean of the Department of Khmer Literature at the Royal University of Phnom Penh (RUPP).
Among thousands of students to enroll in the Royal University of Phnom Penh every year, the school receives about 300 Khmer Literature Studies applications, Sokmeng said.
To differentiate herself from others writers, Thavry, who calls herself an independent writer, finds new ways to survive from writing books.
By writing in English, Thavry, who not only writes but also does marketing for her own works, expects more books to be sold than if she was writing only in Khmer.
“I want to be independent and I don’t want to have my book censored before publishing, so I pay from my own pocket.” she said, adding that she will use her initial earnings from selling the English version of her book to pay for printing the Khmer translation.
Cambodian literature has begun to reemerge since the fall of the Khmer Rouge regime, said Jean-Michel Filippi, a linguist, anthropologist and specialist of Cambodian history.
“Now we have a problem. I would say, we do not have many writers right now. We have very few of them,” he said.
Thavry thinks that the best part of her writing experience is learning how Cambodian women through different generations have lived in a male-dominated society.
“I want to compare and recount the lives of three female generations: my grandmother, my mom and myself under our society. So I interviewed my grandma and my mom. My mom was so shy when I asked about her arranged marriage. So I talked to her as a daily conversation and recorded the interview from my phone without her knowing it.”
The president of the National Council of Khmer Language of the Council of Ministers, Chan Samnop, said some young writers’ fiction and non-fiction pieces are limited in terms of quality and diversity of content and stories.
“Young Khmer people now read English more because they found that the content and quality of Khmer writers’ books in local bookstores is poor and not diverse. Foreign books are more attractive for it’s complexity of conflicts in the stories,” he added. “And it’s easier to read because the language is direct, short, and catchy. That is why they are attracted to foreign writers’ books.”
However, he added “it’s good to see newly emerging Khmer contemporary writers start writing stories by relating it to social issues. I don’t really mind if it’s in a foreign language or Khmer. It’s a starting point.”