Kampot Readers and Writers Festival gets underway this month for its third outing. Writer Jessica Tana finds out what’s in store. Photography by Lucas Veuve.

“Courage is a quality that one must have when it comes to having the desire to write, to converse, to challenge ideas and conventions, and in some cases, to overcome huge odds stacked against the individual,” says Kampot Readers and Writers Festival founder, Julien Poulson.

Using courage as the central theme for this year’s literary event, the annual festival, which takes place this month in the riverside town of Kampot, will see an exciting line-up of international guest speakers, a focus on digital story-telling, as well as the usual mix of writers, poets, performers, visual artists and musicians.   

“Cambodia is a place full of inspirational and courageous people who have struggled and fought against conditions that would seem insurmountable to most people,” Poulson says. “Courage is an important notion to base this year’s festival upon, as it comes at a time when the Kingdom approaches elections with trepidation, and the ‘openness’ of ideas is less favourable than before.”

Referring to the closures of several media networks, who either spoke unfavourably of the government or simply spoke to international media, Poulson says courage is especially needed at a time when words are being silenced.

“The current war of words between the US Embassy and the Cambodian government has led to the closure of numerous media outlets, including radio stations and the Cambodia Daily, as well as, arrests and jailing of individuals who are simply using words,” he says.

“From blogs to songs [courage is needed] to express ideas in an environment where broad conversation and free speech is simply not encouraged.”

A highlight of this year’s festival is visiting Chinese author Jung Chang, a woman who has shown exceptional courage and resilience in her life and works. Chang caused a furore when she published Wild Swans, a novel in which 100 years of Chinese history is told through the eyes of three generations of women: her grandmother, mother and her own.

Wild Swans tells of Chang’s grandmother’s plight as a child concubine to a warlord, her parents torture during the Cultural Revolution, which they helped to create, and her own indoctrination into the Red Guard and then defiance of it. Chang has also written a book on Chairman Mao, and Empress Dowager Cixi. All three books are banned in China. Chang is living proof of the courage it can take to tell your story.

Other international speakers include Canadian short story writer and novelist Madeleine Thien, and a delegation of Canadian writers visiting through Ottawa International Writers Festival, including Esi Edugyan, Rawi Hage and David O’Meara.

This year will also see the launch of KRWF’s digital writer’s initiative, where young Cambodian nationals can record their stories for the emerging writers prize, or create a song for the Cambodian songwriters prize. Both competitions should be based on the theme and include travel.

According to the UNESCO Institute for Statistics, Cambodia still lags on literacy levels in Southeast Asia, making the focus on digital story-telling a unique way to hear the stories of those who may not have confidence in writing.

“The 2017 programme is diverse and eclectic, and challenges the idea that writers’ festivals are predominately concerned with novelists,” Poulson says. “KRWF 2017 has a programme of indigenous voices, women of words, poetry, music and visual art, as well as, local Kampot heritage and cuisine walk, talk and eat tours.”

Without sponsorship from the US Embassy or Raffles this year, Poulson says there was a moment when he considered cancelling the festival, but couldn’t. “If we were motivated by “money first, festival later” kind of thinking, then it would not be possibly to carry on without major sponsors,” he says. “But much of the work in establishing KRWF has already been achieved, and this is largely through the good will, hard work and generosity of the many individuals who give up their time to work with us.”

As for having the courage to continue without sponsors, Poulson says it did not take courage, just vision and commitment to plough ahead. “The courageous people are the ones who have lived through extraordinary difficulties and hardship, and are here today to share their stories, their writing and their art,” he says.

KWRF takes place across Kampot from Nov. 1 to 5, taking in a series of workshops, speakers, performances and a street party. An opening event takes place on Nov. 1 at 6pm at Chinese House, Phnom Penh. For more information, visit kampotwritersfestival.com.