With literacy levels in Cambodia remaining low, efforts are being made to raise the stakes while fuelling creativity across the country. Words by Marissa Carruthers and Kanchna Kunvuth; photography by Enric Català.

Crowds spill out of the compact venues that dot Kampot town centre. Music strums from one, laughter can be heard at another, while passionate tales float down the street from a coffee shop playing host to a poetry session. A sense of excitement fills the air as the creativity flies around the usually sleepy town, which has been given a new lease of life.

This was the setting for last year’s inaugural Kampot Writers and Readers Festival (KWRF), which attracted more than 2,600 people taking in the jam-packed four-day bill. And with just 10 weeks to pull off last year’s successful outing, organisers have an even bigger and better event planned for next month’s jaunt.

“Our mission is to promote literacy and education,” says festival cofounder Julien Poulson. “We want to create an eco-system that is rich and diverse, and shines a bright light out of Cambodia, where we operate in an environment of very low literacy. There are very few Cambodian national writers and readers, but there is a culture of great stories. The time is right to present those at a festival of ideas.”

With 28.2 percent of Cambodians above the age of 15 unable to read or write, according to the 2014 Cambodian Socio-Economic Survey, and support for the creative industries virtually non-existent, festival organisers and partners hope to highlight the important role creativity plays in both society and the economy.

Strategically poised between this month’s Ubud Writers and Readers Festival and Hong Kong International Literacy Festival, which spans next month, November’s KWRF aims to offer an inspirational platform for local and international creatives to come together and do what they do best.

Oral Histories

After a day working the land, communities would often gather in the evening to listen to folktales passed down through generations being told during animated performances. This tradition of oral story-telling forms a strong part of the country’s rich culture and heritage – a subject that is taking centre stage at KWRF.

“It is this tradition that we want to celebrate,” says Poulson. “We want to highlight the oral traditions, those oral histories, through to the spoken word, poetry, linguistics, lyricism, song lines and indigenous storytellers.”

In line with this theme, the festival, which is packed full of workshops, panel-led discussions, book launches and performances running from Nov. 3 to 6, tribal chief Lok Ta, 91, will attend. Travelling to Kampot for the first time from his homeland in Mondulkiri, he will share the stories and traditions of his vanishing culture. “We’ve got something more precious than gold and silver, and it cannot be bought and it cannot be sold,” says Lok, referring to the endangered heritage of the bunong tribe.

“Here there is a strong oral tradition, and that is a strength of the culture,” says Dr Helen Jarvis, former chief of Public Affairs at the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia, who originally moved to Cambodia to work with the National Library. “We shouldn’t look at is as second rate, it is something to be proud of, and should be preserved, presented and encouraged.”

A strong line-up of poets and spoken word artists is already starting to emerge, bringing the historical oral storytelling into the modern day. Australian songwriter and poet Scott Bywater is co-coordinating the poetry sessions, which takes in poetry readings, spoken work sessions and daily poetry slams.

Lacking Local Literature

The Khmer Rouge’s ruthless targeting of intellects and artists, which saw an estimated 90 percent die under the regime, didn’t escape the literary world. The songwriters, poets, authors, academics and musicians who had helped shape the country disappeared, along with all traces of books and art.

According to Words without Borders, three of 600 librarians survived.

This has left the current generation with a dearth of local literature, especially when it comes to fiction. “It’s hard to find a good book written in Khmer,” says Sambath Vibolroth, an Institute of Technology of Cambodia engineering student.

Other common complaints include the majority of modern Khmer fiction found in bookstores slots into the romance genre and rarely step outside. The reliability of publishing houses is often an issue when it comes to Cambodian produced non-fiction and scientific books.

While versions of popular international classics and contemporary works are available in Khmer, expanding the availability of books for Cambodians to choose from, often the translation is poor and meanings are lost.

“I have bought two Khmer translated versions of Rich Dad, Poor Dad,” says Department of Media and Communications student Bun Sreymom. “One of them almost drove me nuts with confusion and poor structure.”

As English proficiency increases and access to the internet and gadgets, such as Kindles, rises, the world’s arts have opened up in the Kingdom. But for those whose linguistic skills don’t extend beyond their native tongue, or those who prefer to use Khmer, this is of little use.

Sambath is among the growing number of Cambodian youths who want to change reading culture in the country. “I want to support our language and read Khmer more,” she says. “If Cambodians start reading and supporting the Khmer language more, it would inspire our writers to write better; thus not only would it improve the readership in Cambodia, but also the quality of Khmer literature.”

Determined to strengthen writing in the country, a handful of groups operate to encourage young Cambodians to get creative with their writing. In 2011, 10 University of Cambodia students launched the Writing Alliance and this year a US Embassy-funded Ambassador’s Youth Council Reading Club was launched by Ket Monny Vathana, who was amazed by the passion for reading in America.

“You could say we are impoverished when it comes to the amount of publishing in Cambodia,” says Jarvis, who was involved with a publishing project in 2004, surveying writers, readers, publishers and libraries across the country. “Yes, we are still impoverished but from 2004 to today, the number has increased incredibly. You see a lot more people reading.”

A Creative Movement

“The government here has not been interested in cultural development,” says Magnus Saemundsson, the Swedish Embassy’s first secretary for education. “What they have been interested in is preserving culture; preserving the ancient culture of Angkor Wat, traditional music and dance. Nothing about that is moving into the modern society of Cambodia.”

Last month, Saemundsson attended a forum hosted by UNESCO, the Swedish Embassy and the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts, along with KWRF organisers and other movers and shakers in Cambodia’s creative sector, including Cambodia Living Arts, Khmer Arts Academy and Phare Ponleu Selapak. The ultimate aim was to promote creative industries in Cambodia.

“This was the first time this has been done,” says Poulson. “Cambodia has always been a small country with a high level of creativity, and it’s timely and wonderful that the Ministry is recognising the push from underneath; the young population coming through, the young, active-thinking community.”

It is this essence that the festival hopes to capture, with a series of events catering for Cambodians. Lord David Puttnam, producer of The Killing Fields and Midnight Express, will be one of the mentors on an intense four-day Media Lab, hosted in partnership with BBC Media Action and One Plus Media. The sessions will see 30 local applicants hone their skills in writing for film, radio, TV and social media, and media arts production techniques.

Kek Soon, who is writing a Sino-Khmer cook book, will also be leading a panel discussion, Culinary Travel, Storytelling and Grassroots Food Tourism in Cambodia, with Nataya Resort.

Other highlights include sessions with award-winning poet, actor, speaker, and writer, Carlos Andrés Gómez. The New York artist’s work grapples with the ways race, gender, sexuality, and history intersect, often through the lens of personal narrative. “The arts are vital to any society because they say what is often suppressed or withheld in other aspects of society,” he says. “The true artist is a revolutionary because she gives voice to the deepest truths, which makes her a healer, change-maker, and sage. I am excited to be part of this.”

Wayne McCallum, festival co-founder, will launch his book, A River and A Valley Far Away, together with an exhibition from his time living in the Cambodian wild. This will compliment an eco-exhibition featuring climate change photo stories from Koh Rong, and an essay competition, supported by WWF’s tiger rewilding programme, surrounding the history and cultural meaning of tigers in Cambodia.

Award-winning crime writer and AsiaLIFE publisher and Mark Bibby Jackson will take part in a crime writing panel to mark the launch of his latest novel Peppered Justice, a detective novel set in Kampot which follows on from the acclaimed To Cook A Spider. And American author, performance poet and self-named “hoodoo man” and “shaman of the spirit with words”, Arthur Flowers, will be making an appearance.

With KWRF look set to become a permanent fixture on Cambodia’s calendar, hopes are also high that it can serve as an example of the vital role creative industries can play in the Kingdom’s economy, attracting an international audience to the country, raising the profile of Kampot, and promoting the innate and diverse Cambodian creativity.

In July, the UK government released figures that revealed the country’s creative industries – filmmakers, musicians, artists and other creatives – contributed $189.6 billion to the economy annually.

“The creative industries are essential in developing a country, and that is everything that has to do with selling things, creating new products and linking them to trade, included in that is art and culture, which this festival promotes,” says Saemundsson.

And for festival organisers, there was only ever one spot to host it: Kampot.

“Kampot is the perfect place for it,” says Poulson. “It has always had a diverse community; it’s a far-flung place beyond the reach of the central authorities, even up until the 1920s [Kampot] was considered someplace else. It’s a former pirate port, it’s got an uber-cool vibe and a community made up of cultural and linguistic diversity: Cham, Chinese, travellers. It has the French colonial history and the contemporary history. Now the arts and culture community is converging for this event.”

KWRF takes place between November 3 and 6 in Kampot, closing with a wrap party in Phnom Penh on Nov. 7. For information and to register, visit kampotwritersfestival.com.