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Angkor to Year Zero and Beyond

November 2015

Image: Marine Ky, "Interventions / Saṅkhāra-Khandha: The Builder of Lives"(Detail) 2009-2013. Mixed-media with inks made from plants collected in France and mixed with iron.

Image: Marine Ky, “Interventions / Saṅkhāra-Khandha: The Builder of Lives”(Detail) 2009-2013. Mixed-media with inks made from plants collected in France and mixed with iron.

This month we present writing from Cambodia. In a departure from our usual contemporary focus, we’re offering a selection of texts ranging from twelfth-century poetry to twentieth-century song, outlining Cambodian history as revealed in its literature. Translated from Khmer, French, and Sanskrit, and complemented by mesmerizing audio recordings, the prose and poetry here bring this little known literary tradition to English. In work by two survivors of the Khmer Rouge, the great poet U Sam Oeur recalls his childhood during the Japanese occupation of the 1940s, and Soth Polin considers filial devotion and betrayal. Laura Jean McKay speaks with writer, musician, and artist Oum Sophany about her journals from the Khmer Rouge regime. Kham Pun Kimny comes clean on his love of the road, and poet Ukñā Suttantaprījā Ind (Oknha Sottanpreychea Oen) records a nineteenth-century pilgrimage to Angkor Wat. Pioneer woman Khmer poet Queen Indradevi eulogizes her sister and her king, while Cambodia’s first rap star busts a modern move. And the “Elvis of Cambodia,” Sinn Sisamouth, performs Kong Bunchhoeun’s ode to the Sangkae River. Guest editor Sharon May contributes an illuminating introduction.

Cambodian Literature: From Angkor to Year Zero and Beyond
By Sharon May
The ability to read and write, knowledge of a foreign language, even the wearing of eyeglasses, could get one killed.
The Keeper: Oum Sophany
By Laura Jean McKay
Sophany emerged from one of the most brutal regimes in modern history with her husband, her daughter, two sisters, a dress, a diary, and a homemade bathing suit.
Journey to Angkor Wat
By Ukñā Suttantaprījā Ind (Oknha Sottanpreychea Oen)
The captain guides the wheel to the debris / to slice clear through, but the steamer sticks fast.
Translated from Khmer by Trent Walker
By U Sam Oeur
Since we didn’t have soap, lice abounded in our shorts, so we wore them loose-fitting.
Translated from Khmer by Ken McCullough
GaSouht and praCh as Told by Master Kong Nay
By praCh & Kong Nay
Rapper praCh and poet U Sam Ouer trade verses, and Kong Nay tells the story of praCh’s life.
The Anarchist
By Soth Polin
I completely ruined my father.
Translated from French by Penny Edwards
The Shade of the Tenth Coconut Tree
By Kong Bunchhoeun
Silent and still, I stand / without words, waiting for you deep into darkness.
Translated from Khmer by Trent Walker
Crazy for Wandering
By Kham Pun Kimny
I was not mortified by the vendors with their repulsive pot bellies hanging out and their shirtless bodies encased in tiny shorts that offered glimpses of their balls.
Translated from Khmer by Siti Keo
From the Great Stele of Phimeanakas
By Queen Indradevi
having composed this pure paean / at the expense of all other arts, she gleamed.
Translated from Sanskrit by Trent Walker