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From The Asian Reporter, V14, #38 (September 14, 2004), page 20.
Anthology mixes traditional and cutting-edge Cambodian literature
In the Shadow of Angkor: Contemporary Writing from Cambodia
Edited by Frank Stewart and Sharon May
University of Hawai’i Manoa Series, 2004
Paperback, 220 pages, $20.00
By Dave Johnson
In the Shadow of Angkor is an anthology of contemporary Cambodian writing, illustrated with haunting photos by Richard Murai, that marks the 25th anniversary of the defeat of the Khmer Rouge regime. It is also a compelling collection of prose, poetry, and memoir that eloquently addresses those dueling universalities: the incomprehensible horror and the wondrous beauty of life.
For readers unfamiliar with the canon of Cambodian literature or its slice of today’s cutting edge, In the Shadow of Angkor is a delightful treat.
Author, journalist, and researcher Sharon May spent two years accumulating this body of work that reflects the cultural and spiritual heritage of a country that was almost destroyed by an anti-intellectual rampage. It also trumpets the current revival of classic Cambodian literature and announces the rise of a new generation of writers and artists, many born after the fall of the bloody empire.
Similar to the "Samizdat" (underground press) that surfaced in the USSR, writers and artists of beleaguered Cambodia kept secret journals, wrote epics on scraps of paper, and passed their writings amongst themselves.
Here are a few samples:
In "Communicate, They Say," Soth Polin offers a poignant tale of two very young lovers playing in the woods while military jets are "flying like arrows toward Phnom Penh." The boyish narrator says, "We talked about supersonic planes until we exhausted the subject. I had communicated perfectly. I walked near Sary and took her hand, gently squeezing it. She didn’t resist a bit. She gave me her hand and a powerful look, one so tender that my whole body shivered. A look full of love.
"‘Come, Older Brother,’ she said in a sweet voice, ‘let’s go swimming farther out, where the water is deeper.’"
"‘Yes, Little Sister. Let’s go out where the water is deeper.’"
Any anthology of Cambodian literature would be bereft without a few poems by prominent writer U Sam Oeur. In his chilling poem, "The Loss of My Twins," he says:
Deep one night in October ’76
when the moon had fully waxed,
it was cold to the bone;
that’s when my wife’s labor pains began
I searched for a bed, but that was wishful thinking;
I felt so helpless. Two midwives materialized —
one squatted above her abdomen and pushed,
the other reached up into my wife’s womb and ripped the babies out.
What a lowing my wife put up
when she gave birth to the first twin.
"Very pretty, just as I’d wished, but those fiends
choked them and wrapped them in black plastic."
In an interview called "Surviving the Peace," May talks with writer and activist Loung Ung, who managed to escape with one brother to a refugee camp in Vermont. There, she wrote First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers. When Ung returned to Cambodia, she discovered that, since 1979 when the Khmer Rouge were driven from power, land mines have injured more than 41,000 people. Ung is committed to using her pen to raise world awareness of those deadly mines, as well as the onslaught of AIDS, grinding poverty, and child prostitution still rampant in her native land.
In a cutting-edge Q&A, the editor huddles with rap artist praCh who combines the rhyme and rhythm of rap with traditional Cambodian instru- mentation and musical forms. He tells her that he first got interested in poetry by watching "Sesame Street."
"I owe it all to Big Bird," the rapster jokes. A few lines of praCh’s rap lyrics are taken from his world-acclaimed CD, Dalama:
I find myself in Long Beach,
the next Cambodian mecca.
beside srok Khmer, veal srae, Angkor Wat,
some people are struggling,
from the aftermath of Pol Pot.
for some futures so bright, looks like high beams,
for others are lost in the American Dream.