With the Kingdom’s reading culture relatively low, a publishing company has taken on the challenge of boosting the availability of books and encouraging more Cambodians to put pen to paper. Words by Marissa Carruthers, Photo by Steve Porte.

It was while trying to import copies of his own books from the US to Cambodia that the seed was planted to open a publishing house in the Kingdom.

“To be totally honest, the initial idea for Saraswati was one born of selfish necessity,” says Iain Donnelly, who writes fiction under the pseudonym Steven W. Palmer. With the cost of importing his novels from the US sky high, he started thinking about alternatives.

“I began to realise there was a lot more scope to the idea,” the Scottish expat says. “For a long time, I wondered how I could help promote a reading culture here. The answer had to be in part to ensure there were more books out there, particularly books by Khmer writers.”

The result is Saraswati Publishing, which launched last year with the aim of publishing books about or set in Cambodia, written by both Khmer and foreign writers. Finding expat writers was easy, with the company producing a Cambodian edition of Bob Couttie’s Temple of the Leper King, that was released in January, Donnelly’s own two books, Angkor Away and Angkor Tears, and a forthcoming book of four interwoven novellas by Phillip Coggan.

“One hurdle was always going to be finding Khmer writers to publish,” says Donnelly, who recently signed his first Khmer author, Ek Madra, to Saraswati’s books. His work is part fiction, part observation, part love story and part coming-of-age tale that starts in Cambodia in 1989, an era that is relatively uncovered in books.

Towards the end of the year, two collections of short stories by Khmer writers will hit book stores, and Saraswati is also looking at the first book to cover the rock ‘n’ roll era of 1965 to 1975 in Cambodia. “This is a time of great interest that has seen several articles written about it, a film made, yet strangely no book,” says Donnelly.

Another current project, which Saraswati hopes will encourage more emerging Cambodian writers to come forward, is Mekong Shadows; Tales of Cambodian Noir. The collection of short stories from foreign and local writers is inspired by the 2012 collection Phnom Penh Noir, edited by Christopher G. Moore.

“That was the next lightbulb in the head moment as I thought a follow up was long overdue,” says Donnelly.

Featured authors include Mark Bibby Jackson, John Burdett, Phil Coggan, Bob Couttie, John Daysh, Cead Evans, John Fengler, Kosal Khiev, Ek Madra, James Newman, Bopha Phorn, and Steven W. Palmer, AKA Donnelly.

There are two spots reserved for budding Khmer writers to fill the book, and this is where AsiaLIFE comes in. This month, we are running a competition to seek out the final two stories, with the winning one – selected by a panel of judges – also featuring in AsiaLIFE.

The book will be published in August, with all proceeds going to NGO the Khmer Sight Foundation.

As well as providing a local publishing platform, Saraswati’s long-term vision is to help raise literacy levels across the country. Using the team’s writing, editing, illustration and design skills, the company wants to publish an initial 10,000 educational books, which will be distributed free to students throughout Cambodia.

Each of the books will come with an environmental theme, such as tackling the country’s overuse of plastic and wildlife issues, including illegal poaching and trafficking. This will be coupled with a website and an app with free downloadable ebooks and quizzes. It is currently seeking the backing of the Ministry of Education.

“The idea that we may be able to help Cambodian children improve their literacy levels and enjoy reading is achievement enough for now,” says Donnelly.

For more information, visit saraswatipublishingcambodia.com.

AsiaLIFE has teamed up with Saraswati Publishing to launch a competition for aspiring Cambodian writers.

Two winners will be chosen by a panel, including AsiaLIFE editor Marissa Carruthers, AsiaLIFE publisher and author Mark Bibby Jackson and writer and executive director of Saraswati Publishing, Iain Donnelly.

The Brief: All you need to do is write a short story of 1,000 to 1,500 words, based in Cambodia around the subject of “noir”.

What is noir? Christopher G. Moore captured an essential part of the definition of noir when he said, “Noir has no one definition. It is used to describe the moody atmosphere of films, fiction, paintings, photographs and music. What is that mood? As an artistic expression, the unifying theme revolves around those suffering injustice and unfairness; ordinary people driven into a corner as they watch their hopes, dreams and lives evaporate without a trace.”

The Prize: Two winners will be selected from entries. The best overall story will be published in AsiaLIFE, with both winners featuring in the book and at the launch event.

To enter, email your entry to maris.carruthers@gmail.com before May 15.