With the successful release of her memoir, A Proper Woman, in English and Khmer, writer and entrepreneur Thavry Thon plans to showcase her brother’s story next.Words by Danielle Keeton-Olsen; photography by Enric Català.

Why do you want to share your brother’s story?

I wanted to share my brother Rithy Thul’s journey of self-discovery and his philosophy that no matter who you are, and where you are from, dreams are possible to achieve. I think his story is unique. I grew up with him and from my personal perspective he would inspire so many people regardless of gender, because we are from a farming family and he didn’t follow others, he’s of the philosophy of pulling himself and seeing what’s possible. He shows me that you don’t have to follow the norms to succeed.

How are the interviews going?

This is what we’re still struggling with. I gave him homework [writing out his memories], but he didn’t do that. So, I struggled because I didn’t have resources to start with. Luckily, I’ve started with his childhood, and I grew up with him, so I know a lot about him. He told me it’s very difficult to tell me stories when I’m also in the story. Sometimes I’ll call my mum to clarify where he went to school, something like this, so I write it up and share with my brother and then the editor. 

Why are biographies important?

I think lessons learned are very important, especially when the character comes from a low background family and then manages to show the world who they are to follow their dreams. I feel like this is a story that for those who have the same experience as the main character will collectively have more hope that if this person can do it, then they can do the same.

What biographies inspired you?

I became inspired by Loung Ung in First They Killed My Father and followed it up with Lucky Child. I felt she spoke through her very personal story, and her story was very similar to my mother’s story, so I decided to write my mother’s story too. I also read more imaginative stories, like The Alchemist. I read it overnight. You feel like you are the boy in the story.

Who has read A Proper Woman?

I get constant emails and messages from Cambodian readers who enjoyed the book [which follows Thon’s personal struggle to follow her dreams, becoming an ambassador for female empowerment]. Some of them thank me that I’m brave enough to share my story, and some of them tell me they feel more confident in pursuing their dreams after reading. Some of them ask me what should I do if my parents do not want me to pursue writing? I feel very proud. I’m glad that I have done this, because looking back I see so many people got a benefit from this. The Khmer edition actually sold a lot more.

What’s challenging about writing the same book in two languages?

English is not my first language, so everything I wrote had to be approved by a native speaker. It’s a lot more challenging. When I want to express something, there are barriers between the languages, so it can be a struggle. My editor had to ask me so many questions to get to the point. But when I write in Khmer, I feel more connected because it’s natural for me. But writing in Khmer takes longer because there are so many feet and hands [subscripts and postscripts]. Before writing this book, I didn’t even know how to write Khmer on a keyboard, so I struggled a lot. I had to train myself, because I can’t just ask people to help me all the time.

Was it difficult to write about women’s struggle for rights in your own life?

Older people may not agree with the lessons from A Proper Woman yet, because I seem to speak against the norms. But so far, I haven’t been attacked by anyone, or maybe they haven’t read it yet. But for the younger generation, between 16- and 30-years-old, they mostly support the idea and they agree, or they love the book, so it means they accept the message.

As you were growing up, did you ever expect to advocate for women’s rights?

No, I didn’t realise I wanted to write like this. But I was a child who always had dreams, so that’s what I focused on. I had support from my family, so I had no fear that I would drop out of school or lose my dream. In my village, I got a lot of criticism, like neighbours told my mum that I should drop out of school to work in the factory. I proved to them that being a girl does not mean I shouldn’t go for higher education. Once I realised I was being challenged by society, I figured there were many young women who were just like me when I was 16 or 17 and they deserve the same opportunities, so I decided to speak up through my writing.

Will you continue that dialogue about equal rights for all genders through your writing?

I still continue writing every day. I blog now. It takes more time because I have to write in English and Khmer, so sometimes when I have more time I write short blogs because now I have a lot more followers. I think 60 to 70 percent are young women, so I hope to help get them through those issues.

Visit thavry.com for more information.