In order to pay homage to its literary pioneers – and those who will spearhead the future of writing – Cambodia will observe its first-ever National Authors’ Day, marking a new chapter in the country’s cultural saga. 

This December 7 event, officially announced via a sub-decree by Prime Minister Hun Manet, is being lauded as more than just a day on the calendar, but as a symbol of respect for the Kingdom’s literary talents. 

From government offices to schools, and from the corridors of civil organisations to the halls of the Khmer Writers Association (KWA), calls to celebrate have been widespread, with everyone from civil servants to the general public invited to immerse themselves in the world of words.

Sum Map, spokesman for the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts, explains the reasoning behind the date.

He notes that as December comfortably avoids the rainy season, it hosts several national celebrations which traditionally feature outdoor gatherings, such as the Indradevi Literary Competition for short stories and poems, National Reading Day and several book fairs.

“When the prime minister met with the KWA, it was recommended that a day without rain or cold weather be chosen,” he tells The Post.

Lek Chumnor, the literature champion behind Khmer Book Publishing, is one of the loudest cheerleaders for the new occasion.

“We finally have our day!” he exalts, explaining the great value that writers place on having a day of their own, as they now feel they are on an equal footing with other celebrated fields.

“As the honorary president of the writers association, former Prime Minister Hun Sen suggested that the KWA work with the relevant ministries to formally request that the government establish this meaningful day. The sub-decree represents a significant accomplishment for the association,” says Chumnor.

He believes the day will contribute to the promotion of writing, while encouraging authors to create new works for the general public to enjoy.

According to the culture ministry’s Map, the day will see several practical workshops and activities which will involve collaboration between several state institutions and the KWA.

“These efforts are focused on enhancing the recognition of authors and encouraging youth involvement in writing, which ultimately serves to advance the cause of national literature,” he says.

Voices of Support

From the corridors of officialdom to the quiet corners of writers’ homes, reaction to the announcement has been overwhelmingly positive.

Kok Ros, director of the culture ministry’s Department of Books and Reading, highlights several key points regarding the interests and expectations surrounding the occasion.

He also lauds the significance of authors receiving civil recognition. 

“National Authors’ Day shows the close attention bestowed upon us by both the head of the government and the leadership of the culture ministry,” he adds.

He urges the participation of the public, particularly the youth, who are seen as the future custodians of Khmer literature. 

“Looking ahead, we have high expectations for the impact of the day. We hope it will lead to further advancements in the preservation of current national literature, as well as the creation of innovative new literary compositions,” he says.

Huot Socheata, author and founder of Avatar Publishing House, also expresses her gratitude for the introduction of the new celebration.

“As a writer and publisher, I appreciate the creation of ‘National Authors’ Day’ as proof that our industry is recognised and valued by the government,” she says. 

Venerable Hak Sienghai, executive director of the Buddhist Organisation for Education of Cambodia and an honorary member of the Royal Committee at Battambang province’s Wat Kampheng, in Svay Por commune’s Kamakor village, joined in the chorus of approvals.

In his capacity as an advisor to the National Council for the Khmer Language of the Royal Academy of Cambodia, he describes it as commendable that the government is promoting individuals who are passionate about literature.

“I extend my congratulations and support for this initiative, and I encourage my fellow citizens to write more,” he tells The Post.

Valuing originality

The literary scene is not without challenges. Several individuals raised their concerns about copyright protection, as well as the motivation of some authors.

Sambo Manara, a history professor, supports the day, but stresses the importance of understanding its purpose. 

He cautions against viewing the occasion solely as an opportunity for commercial gain, saying it should not be about that.

“It should signify a devotion to meticulous writing, and encourage authors to contribute to nation-building through their dedication to addressing social, cultural and political issues,” he says. 

Manara criticises some contemporary writers for prioritising commercial interests and short-term gains over societal benefits and the welfare of future generations. 

He contrasted their approach with that of ancient writers, who focused on including precision and depth of meaning in their work.

The professor believes that some modern writers lack a scientific approach to their writing, relying instead on emotional expression. 

“Good writers should strive to ensure that readers not only follow a story, but derive deeper insights,” he says.

He also cautions against readers and writers becoming fixated on the supernatural.

“Many writers talk about ghosts, for example. I think that it has the effect of making people fall asleep thinking about superstitions, and this can lead to a loss of scientific understanding,” he warns.

Manara describes the influential role writers play in shaping reader’s behaviour and societal attitudes. “Since an author plays the role of an educator, they must be mindful of this at all times.”

Ouk Chanthida, a student and voracious reader, is elated to hear about the planned celebrations, believing it will encourage the production of high-quality literature. 

She emphasises the importance of authors protecting their copyright and expresses concerns about the similarity of meaning found in certain books, highlighting potential issues regarding intellectual property laws.

“Some people rewrite the work of other writers and present it as their own, which can be disheartening for the original author,” she tells The Post.

The culture ministry’s Ros shares his concern about quality control.

“The author is the creator of the work, but the reader is the evaluator of the work. If the reader perceives that a piece of writing holds no significance to society, they may be discouraged from reading more widely,” he says.

“We cannot stop anyone from writing, but we can provide guidance to some extent by organising workshops aimed at enhancing the quality of their work,” he explains.

He acknowledges that some writers prefer not to associate with associations, opting for the path of a freelancer.

Publisher Chumnor notes that to become a writer, a person needs not just passion, but formal training. 

“There will be no support for those who plagiarise others’ work,” he reiterates.

Calls for broader support

Avatar’s Socheata expresses her hopes for additional measures to support Khmer literature, such as tax relief at all stages of the publishing process, including production and distribution. 

She believes these measures will motivate writers to create new works, and suggests that additional incentives, such as competitions and prizes, be made available.

Socheata explains that the criteria for recognition should be based on the quality of writing, rather than political considerations.

“Announcing the day does not mean anything, it is the activities that surround it that will make a difference. I am looking forward to seeing what is in store,” she tells The Post.

Professor Manara shares his concerns about the ongoing lack of a culture of reading in the Kingdom, believing that while many teachers promote the concept, they fail to explain the power of the written word to their students.

He highlights how literature can delve into every aspect of the human experience, ranging from death, war, genocide and cruelty to love, but contrasted modern social media content to the approach of ancient writers, who focus on conveying truth through concise yet profound narratives.

He cites the post-Udong era writers as exemplary, describing how they crafted poems which provided guidance, self-expression and preparation for future crises.

Manara rues the focus on victories and defeats in times of war, as well as the preoccupation with survival during times of poverty, as this detracts from the importance of reading and engaging with literature. 

He laments the fate of numerous books and their authors during the Khmer Rouge genocidal regime.

“For three years, eight months and 20 days, authors became essentially worthless and books lost their value,” he says.