A compelling novel of four inspirational Cambodian women who are bucking the traditional trend and paving a path for female empowerment in the Kingdom is released this month. Marissa Carruthers meets with author Menno de Block to find out more.

The title of Menno de Block’s book rightly sets the tone: Diving Deep, Going Far – a play on the Khmer proverb, ‘A woman cannot dive deep, or go far’. “This is used to tell women their duty is with the household, you should never leave your home or family and stay in this close circle,” says de Block. “The women I interviewed are doing the exact opposite.”

Hailing from the Netherlands, de Block landed in Cambodia four years ago and quickly became inspired by young Cambodian women who were steering away from tradition to carve their own futures and that of their fellow females.

Wanting to compile the stories in a book, he teamed up with Chan Kunthea, who works at NGO Just Associate and was also interviewed, and they set about gathering the life stories of 25 women, each with their own inspiring tale about female empowerment. Four composite characters were then crafted from the interviews.

The result is a powerful collection of stories from these characters who have battled adversity to reach their dreams. The emotional rollercoaster ride takes readers on a journey of despair, determination, hope, strength and courage, as each of the headstrong women fights against deeply ingrained discrimination to achieve what they have been told is the impossible.

The book recounts Nary’s lifelong determination to disprove those who told her as a woman she could not succeed, and right the wrongs she witnesses at a young age, from the corruption that trickles down to the classroom to the elite family who are rushed past the lengthy queues of sickly poor at hospital. Even through adulthood, she rises above the discrimination and disappointments life throws her way.

Then there is Nika, who secures success as a singer despite scavenging through waste before school. Soklin staves off pressure from her family and peers to rise through the ranks of the organisation she works for, and Ratana puts her head above the parapet daily, dishing out advice on her radio talk show that deals with traditionally taboo subjects.

Helping to shape the future landscape in a rapidly changing country, each of the moving stories serves to inspire and empower not only the interviewees’ Cambodian sisters, but women across the globe. Excellently executed, this is a compelling read that is full of rich descriptions and strong voices that bring the characters to life, leaving an impact long after the last page has been turned.

“What I want is for this generation of young women to realise what’s possible for them; to create a platform for these women to inspire,” says de Block. “These are also not Cambodia-specific themes, they are global themes. I think the story can inspire people across the world.”

And de Block doesn’t forget that for his book – or female empowerment in general – to have an impact, society as a whole has a role to play. “Men will read this book and I wanted to give them a role model,” he says, adding he spoke to the partners of two female interviewees.

“They’re really doing things differently than what’s expected of men in Cambodia,” he says, adding males also face discrimination in supporting their partner’s ideals away from tradition. “Men are raised with the idea that they need to be strong and have a woman who follows them while they make all the decisions. That’s nonsense. It’s not how relationships should work.”

Queue Chan, Ratana’s partner, who constantly faces shame and mockery from his peers and family for supporting his “controversial” girlfriend and being her equal. “I found it important to put that in and make women who are asking this of their partners to realise it’s hard for them too,” says de Block.

The author also wants to tell a story about current Cambodia, away from the Khmer Rouge and politics, which dominate the international market. “You get all of these people coming here and they look at the country through this lens of the Khmer Rouge and while that’s important, it’s no longer the story. This generation is the first generation that is realising they can do things differently than what has been prescribed for them.”

But de Block isn’t without his critics and is the first to admit there are “two major issues” with him writing this book. “I’m a man and I’m a foreigner; more specifically a Western foreigner,” he says. “There will be people who say this is a book that should have been written by a Cambodian woman not a Western man. There’s little I can do about that.”

However, he has worked closely with each of his interviewees on the three-year journey to ensure he captures the voices and portrays the stories sensitively, with Chan guiding him every step of the way. “I’ve been fortunate having people around me that have helped me stay with my feet on the ground and accept my place. I’m really grateful to all the women I’ve interviewed for giving me their voice and trusting me to amplify it.”

Diving Deep, Going Far is available to pre-order from Amazon now and will be available in bookshops from mid-June. A Khmer version is being translated and will be released a few weeks later. Follow the Facebook page for details.