My husband and I have a silly joke: I ask, "What is it about time?" He answers, "It flies." Well, I've been looking forward to retuning to Phnom Penh for two years, and now the trip has come and gone. It's been action-packed, but all business. No sightseeing. No lingering over a G+T at the FCC. No roaming around the Royal Palace. But that's okay. I met some great people and saw some unlikely places. Here's a taster of the past 3 days;
* Book shopping for Khmer little kid books for me and one of my SOAS students: There are two main bookstores for non-English books -- although they carry a few English books as well. Both are two floors, very air conditioned, packed with shelves of books, quiet and complete. No coffee shops. No comfy chairs. All business. You go in. You find what you want (having checked your bag with the security man up front), you go back down and pay at the till. You don't loiter or browse. But you can unwrap the plastic which covers every book, take a look to make sure it's what you want, then repackage it with impunity. I was happy to see a growing range of Khmer story books. These are mostly for kids and young adults, but in a country where there hasn't been a tradition of reading for pleasure for a generation, I took this as good news. For more on this subject, see below.
* Researching the third novel of the trilogy: This book is still just a glimmer in my eye, but this trip has given me the beginning of a feel for what it could be. There were several fruitful discussions about back story. This book will need to be the most thoroughly researched book yet. The history will need to be complete and accurate. A challenge, but an exciting one. As a little tiny hint, these are photos of one place I needed to visit.
* Skateistan: Throughout the year, I am always learning about new ventures taking place within Cambodia. This year I heard about Skateistan, which is an NGO that builds skateboard parks and uses skateboarding as a tool for social rehabilitation and youth empowerment. It began in Kabul, and now has expanded to Phnom Penh. I thought this was pretty interesting, and I wanted to see it for myself. Getting there in my tuk tuk was a challenge to be sure, but it took me through streets and neighbourhoods I had never seen before. This is where real Cambodians live -- not only poor ones, but middle class ones as well. It a fascinating project. Check out the website.
Film Camp: Film making in Cambodia is a fledgling art, but it is full of determined and passionate people. A connection in Edinburgh led me to a group called Kon Khmer Koun Khmer (Cambodian Films Cambodian Generations). While I was here they happened to be holding a mini film camp where there was a day of speakers and the screening of several new shorts by young filmmakers. This was a competition and it showed some of the best work being done here today. So interesting. I came away feeling as amazed by the technical expertise as I was bemused by the limitations of the story telling. The documentaries were incredibly moving. The fictional work was also moving in its own way, but also very unsophisticated. This is a culture focussed on technology but also more traditionally drawn to painting and music rather than writing. I think it shows in the filmmaking. But that sounds more like a criticism than it really is. As I said, this is a fledgling artform here and you can't conquer everything all at once. The use of dialogue and more unusual story lines will come, to be sure. It really did make for a terrific afternoon, though. And to top it off, I found a young Khmer film maker who will create a short documentary on the Writing Workshop and the effect it's had on the Anjali House kids. I'm so excited about this. Many people have been asking me for just such a thing. It looks like it may now happen.
*Cambodian PEN: this may be the most exciting innovation of all. Just one year old, this is now spearheaded by an incredibly energetic Professor of Social and Political Philosphy, Heng Sreang, who is creating a community of writers and giving them a place to meet safely and openly. Freedom of speech is a right not always enjoyed here. The last lost generation has left a vacuum in the literary arts and the hovering constraints can make venturing into these arts an act of courage. I have now finally, after years of trying, found my entree into this community and we are already discussing several joint projects.
So, as you can see, it's been quite a trip. Tomorrow it's back to Siem Reap and the final stages of the workshop leading up to the big party. My trip is halfway over. Ugh. What is it about time?