Reading, Teaching and Writing in Phnom Penh

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I am now back “home” in Siem Reap after a four day whirlwind in Phnom Penh. I love that city — yes, I know many people think I’m crazy. But it is full of fascinating people doing important work. It is like a teenager inching its way out of adolescence and into young adulthood.  The dirty laundry is still all over the floor but progress is being made.

Although I only had a few days available to me, I decided to take a car down to the capital instead of fly, even though it meant being driven for 7 hours over non-existent roads (again). But besides it being much cheaper and more convenient, it gave me lots of time to speak Khmer to the driver (on the way there), and lots of time to sit in quiet contemplation (on the way back).

 

Here’s the rundown of all I did:

I arrived Tuesday evening, and then had dinner with my friend and first Khmer teacher, Cham. He’s wonderful and an example of a bright young man with a huge heart trying to create a business and a proper life for himself in today’s Cambodia. And he’s succeeding. This country needs role models. He is definitely one.

Wednesday, I gave a presentation about Out of the Ruins and the work I do here to an International Women’s Group book club. I always love meeting readers and talking about what I write, but it’s an added treat to meet non-Cambodians who are making their lives here for a variety of reasons, and learning about the work they do, where they live, their concerns and their pleasures. Then Wednesday evening, dinner with friends. The fact that I have so many friends in Phnom Penh now is in itself amazing and thrilling to me.

 

Thursday was a day of research. My friend, Cham, borrowed his cousin’s car and drove me around to see all the places I think I need to see for my next novel. Yes, there is going to be another in the series, but more on that in another post.  Thursday evening I was one of two featured readers at a Literary Evening at Java Cafe. This was a dream come true. It’s a wonderful restaurant cum arts centre that I have known about since I first came here, and I loved having the chance to be on their program. It began with a “meet up” where anyone who was interested could sit with us, share a meal or a drink, and talk about our processes as writers. It’s a great idea. I wonder if we can somehow duplicate it back home….hmmm…But then, I shared the stage with the Australian poet and NGO worker, Bryan Humphry, whose work I’ve really come to admire. When it came time for me to read, I did read one excerpt from the new novel. But I also used it as an opportunity to read some of the poems I have written that have sprung from my experiences over here. I don’t really read them aloud very often, although they are starting to show up here and there in magazines. So that was fun for me to hear them out loud and see people’s reaction. The evening ended with the inevitable glasses of wine and more literary talk. What a great event! I even sold some books — poetry books, too!

Java Cafe
Java Cafe

Friday was a huge day. I taught a mini-version of my workshop to  teenagers at a private school called East West International. This is a fascinating and exciting newish school for children of the new solidly middle class (i.e. it’s fee-paying, but not nearly as expensive as some of the other international schools in town). These are for kids whose family want them to be Khmer and stay in Cambodia, but who also want them to have the advantage of English-language education. So these Khmer and other Asian kids are reading John Steinbeck and Oscar Wilde and talking about injustice and corruption and personae. I spend so much time teaching desperately poor and disadvantaged kids here that it was really good for me to come in contact with this new generation of more advantaged students. The classes went well and produced some more terrific poems. Then Friday night was the Cambodian Launch of Out of the Ruins at the German Cultural Center called Meta House, which serves as a general arts hub for the city. I also had 6 Anjali House kids come down for the event — a huge experience for them — and each read one of their poems in front of the group. They were my “special guests” and they all did really well. Then as a special treat, the Anjali House directors took them off to the funfair called “Dream Land.” I’ll do almost anything for these kids, but that was a bridge too far. I went out for a good meal and a couple of glasses of wine with friends!

Meta House
Meta House
Freedom Park
Freedom Park

 

Then, Saturday, was the long drive home, stopping again at the most beautiful rest area I have ever seen. It gave me much needed time to sit and think and digest all that has happened over the past 2 months. I’m waiting to write about all those ideas and thoughts for after I’ve left Cambodia. But for now, I have one more week here. Already I’m starting to miss it.

Prey Pros River Rest Area
Prey Pros River Rest Area

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