When a Nation Loses Its Literature
On the Mekong Review, and a Burgeoning Cambodian Literary Scene
Not long before coming to Cambodia, I heard about a writer with triumphant dreams. The writer lived in a wooden stilt house shaded by mango and breadfruit trees, a house from where he could hear the rasp of the Mekong River’s spectral wonder. And on the terrace behind his house there was a magnificent view of the Mekong, where the Vietnamese-Australian writer could watch the days end warm and slowly, lingering with low-lying clouds until a sense of darkness haunted the riverbanks. During those unhurried nightfalls, the Mekong was a ghostly river, a sublime setting for the transmigration of souls and, of course, for fostering dreams. And while dreams in Cambodia are too often replete with ethical quandaries, Minh Bui Jones had a benevolent ambition: to start a literary journal full of local soul that would connect each of the countries through which the Mekong runs.
What made this dream so grand, so full of marvel and prodigy, was that despite the Mekong’s heat and history, its wars and brutalities, and how the taunt of its horizon could lead men to grandeur or ruin, there had never been an English-language literary journal aimed at chronicling and reviewing the literature of the Mekong region. As a phenomenon, that would make such a journal something wholly new. It would be a standalone monument to the region’s celebrated stories. And one day last October, the dream to start that journal flared up with sparks of meaning that allowed Bui Jones’s ambitions to catch fire and test the threshold of a new literary future.
It was a mildly temperate October day in the capital. The monsoon season had faded and gusts of southwesterly wind swept through the scattering of palm trees lining Street 29 in central Phnom Penh. Bui Jones, the dreamer, a 47-year-old former newspaperman and a sage editor, walked towards one of his regular haunts: a small café adorned with simple wooden tables and locally-sourced coffee. In the intimate interior of Feel Good Café, Bui Jones joined a table filled with a few friends—a guitarist, a writer, and a web developer—and over coffees they caught up with each other’s lives.
The guitarist was busy booking Khmer bands for upcoming concerts, the writer was putting together panels and readings, and the developer was out of a job after a local magazine had hastily shuttered. The trio of artists at the table, it turned out, also happened to be in the midst of developing the inaugural Kampot Writers & Readers Festival, and they had a proposition for Bui Jones.
The festival was being held in Kampot City, an ever-so-louche enclave set against a sleepy river at the foot of green hills a few hours south of Phnom Penh. It was meant to be a spirit-lifting event, a gateway to promote literacy in Cambodia while celebrating local arts and culture with readings and concerts and parties for anyone from motodop drivers to blotto backpackers to literati luminaries. The co-founders of the festival needed an experienced writer and editor with knowledge of Kampot to moderate a bookish discussion about the history of the province—essentially someone who could shoot the shit about “French protectorates and pirates and pepper plantations.”
When the trio eventually asked Bui Jones to host the discussion in Kampot, it was the first he had heard of the festival. For a few moments, the far-reaching raison d’être of the festival passed through his mind: to promote literacy and literature in Cambodia, to support novels and magazines in the Kingdom. It was in those moments at the Feel Good that Bui Jones first saw how the tide of his literary ambitions could flow through Kampot. There was an opportunity down in the southern province he had never imagined, and he realized this festival offered an ideal occasion to launch a literary journal. “The energy would be there, the publicity would be there, the buzz would be there,” he thought, and so his dream from years back began to take shape.
The dream grew as Bui Jones left the Feel Good Café, lounging in the back of a tuk-tuk as the driver embarked on the writer’s favorite route home: dashing east down Sihanouk Boulevard and slipping north past the park at Wat Bottom. At the palace walls, Bui Jones started working out the particulars of the magazine: “There would need to be an assistant editor, a designer, a commercial director,” he thought as the tuk-tuk turned toward the Riverside, gliding in the shadow of the Buddhist flags blowing above the Tonle Sap River. And then, in the strobe-light swirl of motos spinning around Wat Phnom, his mind ran with minutiae and money and mastheads, all before the tuk-tuk climbed the Japanese Friendship Bridge, heading towards the tranquility of the Mekong. Finally, stepping into the windswept glory of his home, Bui Jones thought, “It’s a ripe time for a literary rag. Timing is everything, and I’m already running out of time.”
Bui Jones became a man inspired, a man in hot pursuit of a righteous cause, busting his ass for an off-the-cuff literary magazine that needed to be conceived, written, designed, edited, funded, printed, and distributed in just four weeks to be launched in time for the Kampot Festival.
The next day Bui Jones aligned his team of dreamers. There was a 49-year-old veteran journalist and whip-smart wordsmith by the name of Rupert Winchester, an Englishman, who came onboard as the assistant editor. There was Oliver Cahalan, a British voluptuary of 32 who agreed to moonlight as the journal’s commercial director when he wasn’t working as a regional director for the Tribune Content Agency. And then there was Robert Starkweather, the web developer from the meeting at Feel Good, a 44-year-old American expat who had an extensive knowledge of Cambodia’s publishing industry.
When these men brought their expertise and artistic vision to the Mekong team, Bui Jones felt for the first time there was order and control in the journal’s conception. And so there ensued a race to publish the journal. Bui Jones hit it the hardest, pouring all his creativity into the magazine by commissioning a murderers’ row of esteemed academics and Cambodia-based journalists to write reviews and think pieces and letting the rhythm of longform essays about Henry Kissinger, cult-classic gossip columns, and rock ‘n’ roll set the tone of the journal’s initial issue.
A few weeks passed like this and myriad tasks upsurged like Mekong floodwater. There were always more words to read, more emails to send, more themes to discuss, more designs to scheme, more Angkors to drink at the end of more hot nights. That was the sweet trumpeting of a machine in progress, the sound of striving for greatness or something like it, the sting and hum of desire and urgency, the only reason Bui Jones, Cahalan, Starkweather, and Winchester got into this gamble: to enter a creative venture emotionally, to feel it all very intensely until the night when the deadline loomed.
And when that sun rose at the end of four weeks, on the sixth of November, the four men had a slick, artful beauty of a debut journal. They called the thing the Mekong Review and whisked it down to Kampot.
* * * *
But this is not merely a story of one small and exceptional magazine’s genesis, nor is it the story of a short-lived one-hit wonder. This is also the story of what happened after the Mekong Review hit the shelves, and what is continuing to happen as the team prepares to release its third issue. It’s about how a city crawling with Western journalists, artists, and businessmen have turned the Mekong Review into a startling success, and how the journal has enlivened the discussion regarding the state of Khmer literature in contemporary Cambodia. It’s about how, as Minh Bui Jones likes to put it, “Timing is everything. A magazine has to be out there at a time when people are interested.” And so, in the end, it’s about how I went to Cambodia to see why now, more than any other time in recent history, is the time for the Mekong Review to prosper.
Let’s start with a party on a Saturday night. Everyone is here: writers and poets and journalists and aid workers, all sharing drinks in the wavering light; Americans, Australians, Brits, and Cambodians; Bui Jones, Cahalan, Starkweather, and Winchester. It’s late April, and over the past six months, following the launch in Kampot, the first two issues of the Mekong Review have sold over 1,300 copies in print. “It’s remarkable clearance for an English-language journal of its ilk in a country like Cambodia,” Bui Jones tells me. “I’ve been in the business for more than two decades and I’ve never come across anything like it.” The Mekong team is understandably thrilled. They are fresh-faced, they’re a bit drunk on their own joy and cans of Angkor, and they are suddenly planning to last for a year, maybe three—it’s hard to know what lies ahead. They were never expecting to make it past the first issue.
The party is being thrown to celebrate the literary journal’s initial success, to draw attention to the forthcoming third issue—which was released during the first week of May—and to thank contributors and donors for their support. The loft in which the party is held sits above a bistro that looks out onto Phnom Penh’s Street 240. After greeting the Mekong team, I take a long walk through the gathering, being introduced to writers and diplomats, and eventually making my way to a breezy set of stairs. A collection of writers is sitting in the balmy night near the entrance to the loft, beers at their side or wine glasses resting on their knees. I take a seat next to Phorn Bopha, a reporter and writer who, at 31, finds herself in a small tier of Cambodian authors who are writing sophisticated literature in English.
With a deft and economic style, Phorn has provided crackling reportage for The Cambodia Daily and, more recently, for the Voice of America in Cambodia. She has been the target of an assassination attempt, won the International Women’s Media Foundation’s Courage in Journalism Award, and in 2012 her debut short story, “Dark Truths,” was published in an English-language anthology called, Phnom Penh Noir. After finishing her drink in the stairway, Phorn steps into the party and, a few moments later, returns carrying a copy of the anthology.
I open the book at random, read a page, and flip to the table of contents. I’m pleased to find Phorn’s name listed among other local writers, like Suong Mak, an emerging young novelist, and Kosal Khiev, a once-jailed poet. Yet these three Cambodian authors comprised the entirety of the Khmer contribution to an anthology expressly devoted to their country’s capital city. Of the 15 authors anthologized in Phnom Penh Noir, 11 were Western-born of non-Cambodian heritage. I recall an earlier conversation I had with Bui Jones, an exchange in which he mentioned how a few readers had inquired as to why there weren’t more Cambodian writers contributing to the Mekong Review. I had to admit, I was surprised to learn that only one Khmer writer had contributed to the first two issues of a literary journal based in Phnom Penh. Inevitably, with the curious eye of a literary enthusiast, I began to wonder why.
Saturday nights in Phnom Penh weren’t always abounding in lavish literary parties attended by the intellectual set. Nearly 41 years ago to the day of the Mekong loft party, on April 17, 1975, Phnom Penh was invaded by the Khmer Rouge and emptied out, gutted like a river fish until it became a ghost town. The capital’s inhabitants were put on trains and sent to the countryside to work as farmers, setting in motion the groundwork for Pol Pot’s doomed vision of an agrarian Khmer society.
For four years the Khmer Rouge effectively eliminated all facets of Khmer arts and culture by killing virtually any person who could read, write, or displayed any semblance of intellectualism—for simply wearing glasses, a Cambodian could have been killed. Then in 1979, the Vietnamese army overthrew the Khmer Rouge, establishing a pro-Vietnamese People’s Republic of Kampuchea to control Cambodia, which led to 12 years of war between Vietnam and numerous Cambodian resistance groups. During this time, few works of literature made it into the public eye, and those that did were subject to strict state scrutiny and produced through state-run publishing houses. The Khmer Rouge era and the Cambodian-Vietnamese war officially ceased in October 1991, yet the cultural devastation wrought by the turmoil has continued to encumber Cambodia’s literary scene.
Nine years after the end of war, an American named Sharon May arrived in Cambodia to search the Kingdom for Khmer literature. Inspired by the cynicism of many skeptics, May spent several years translating contemporary works written by Cambodians, collecting pieces from refugee camps, and started to compile an anthology for Mānoa, a literary journal published by the University of Hawaii Press. The result of her endeavors was In the Shadow of Angkor, an anthology published in 2004 featuring essays, fiction, interviews, poetry, and even lyrics from a Khmer rap artist. In a review of the anthology published in The Cambodia Daily, Thomas Beller—a longtime contributing editor at the Daily and a founder of the New York-based lit mag Open City—acknowledged that the very existence of In the Shadow of Angkor was “a triumph,” but was quick to qualify his praise, adding, “But it is a complicated triumph.”
The rationale behind Beller classifying the “triumph” as “complicated” is that most of the anthologized stories “fail to achieve a presence and density of feeling, humor, or perception,” Beller says, and this failure “is where the defiant triumph of bringing together so many Khmer writers . . . runs into its limitation.” While Beller’s lukewarm assessment of In the Shadow of Angkor does not diminish the anthology’s achievement, it does, however, provide a baseline doctrine for why publications like the Mekong Review have not featured more work from Khmer authors. The work by many modern Khmer writers has failed to wholeheartedly impress the editors running these publications, editors who are seeking what Beller refers to as “craft and style” and the “sort of storytelling innovation, in which voice and character are primary.” Those inherent qualities of modern literature, he asserts, are mostly missing from contemporary Cambodian literature.
On a summery Monday evening, at the end of the Khmer New Year, I had dinner with Bui Jones at his stilt house on the Mekong. The setting sun threw blades of scarlet through the house’s airy, opened windows, and I asked him to describe the Mekong Review’s philosophy regarding the essays, stories, and poems the journal selects for publication. “The main driving concern is the quality of [a piece], the only thing we care about is whether it’s well-written, that it tells a good story, and whatever the author is trying to say is conveyed.” A few days later, at a lunch with Winchester, the associate editor emphasized the journal’s search for well-written essays and stories. “We obviously want [a piece] to be relatively high quality,” he said, “and we’re doing everything we can to be as inclusive as possible.” Near the end of our lunch, I raised the question of Cambodian writers and whether they would begin to appear more in the journal. “Absolutely, yes, of course. You know, we’re just trying to encourage people to be interested in books and literature. . . We’re just trying to push things forward in the best way we know how. We don’t have an agenda. Anything anyone writes we would consider.”
Perhaps the most educational explanation for the dearth of Khmer writers featured in major literary publications comes from Sharon May herself. “Given Cambodia’s history, it’s unclear how long it will take to rebuild and fully establish a new Cambodian literature,” May says, writing to me by email from California where she is editing a new anthology of Cambodian literature for Mānoa. “The extent of the catastrophe of the war in Cambodia and its continuing effects through succeeding generations, inside and outside of the country, cannot be underestimated. Cambodia has undergone trauma to its people, culture and literature to an extent few countries in the modern world have experienced. . . The educational system, publishing infrastructure, literacy and libraries still have not recovered.”
And yet, despite Cambodian literature existing in a present-day purgatory suspended between the oppressive wars of its past and a story-rich future, contemporary Khmer writers continue to persevere and endure adversity. “Cambodians have displayed remarkable resolve and ingenuity in the face of huge challenges,” says May. “That inventive spirit in the face of overwhelming odds continues in the new generation of writers today, who are exploring many subjects and forms of storytelling and poetry.” The feeling presented by May is that in the years to come contemporary Khmer talents will emerge and, “In the meantime, those of us who believe in the vitality of the arts should do everything we can to support, train, and build community among Cambodian writers.” And for May, Bui Jones and the Mekong team are demonstrating their belief in the vitality of Khmer arts: “the Mekong Review is part of the process of recovery and re-creation of literature in Cambodia. It’s an exciting development in promoting transnational literary dialogue and international community. I expect we’ll see many more contemporary Cambodian writers publishing in the near future as the word gets out.”
In the days following my dinner with Bui Jones, I flitted around Phnom Penh for the better part of a week and, in a way, I got the word out. I spread the word not by advertising or canvassing, but simply by bringing copies of the Mekong Review to lunches and drinks I’d scheduled with Khmer writers and the like. On my literary crawl across downtown, I had lime juice with Yeng Chheangly, coffee with Sok Chanphal, beers with a circle of poets, sach moan chhar with Heng Sreang, and in between I swapped emails with Phina So and Dr. Teri Yamada. At each meeting I would ask the writers if they were familiar with the Mekong Review, what they thought of it, and whether the writers believed they, or any of their literary friends, could write for the journal.
Most of Cambodia’s bright, young writers spend their days working a job unrelated to their literary ambitions. After laboring as a farmer in Kandal Province, Yeng Chheangly earned a degree in management and started working for a telecom company in Phnom Penh. As a poet, the 27-year-old has been awarded the second-place prize in the Nou Hach Literary Association Competition, an association started as a non-governmental organization to support the development of modern Cambodian literature. When I slide the second issue of the Mekong Review across a café table, it takes Yeng a moment to recognize the journal. “I used to hear people talk about it, but I never saw it. I should read this. I should buy this.” When I tell Yeng the issue is for him to keep, he smiles warmly and flips a page, discovering Ocean Vuong for the first time. In the day’s fading light, the young Khmer poet reads “Aubade with Burning City” with a concentrated fondness and high regard.
In many respects, Phina So is a saint and a savior, and she might just be the person who can help Khmer literature flourish. As the head of the Women Writers Committee—a charter of PEN Cambodia—Phina So writes and edits anthologies featuring stories with strong, smart female protagonists aimed at empowering Khmer women to overcome hardship. Her ambitions are mindful of the challenges to encouraging literary development in Cambodia. Specifically, So has an all-encompassing wish list of what should be done to improve the climate for Khmer writers that includes: establishing a creative writing school; calling for urgent and strict implementation of copyright law; imploring the government “to allocate sufficient funding to promote writing and reading” through grants that support residency and exchange programs; for the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts to host an annual writing competition; and for the government to “promote and guarantee freedom of expression” in literature while also promoting a respectable public image of writers.
At the Kampot Writers and Readers Festival, Phina So held a panel with Bopha Phorn to discuss the current state of Khmer women’s literature. As a speaker at the festival, So was in Kampot when the Mekong Review was launched and she was therefore aware of the journal when I asked her how well known it was among Khmer writers. “I believe the Mekong Review is not yet known to many [Khmer] writers, especially the older generation,” she said before bringing up the language barrier facing many Khmer writers. “I believe that there are capable writers out there that can produce quality work in English. However, the confidence, time constraints, and the pressure of their ‘full-time’ jobs might be obstacles.” Yeng Chheangly echoes So’s lament regarding the difficulties of Khmer writers producing English-language literature. “The point is that the translation is very hard for me.” Ultimately though, like So, Yeng remains optimistic when I ask him whether contemporary Cambodians are producing work that could appear in influential literary journals. “Yes, I think maybe so. It would be good because young writers keep writing silently.”
The most decorated young writer in Cambodia today is Sok Chanphal. Modest, congenial, and soft-spoken, the 32-year-old has an inquisitive air, always listening to the world around him. In 2013, Sok was presented with the S.E.A. Write Award, a regional award given annually to a writer from each country in ASEAN, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. It’s the region’s most prestigious literary award and, by winning the honor, Sok was the first Cambodian to be presented with the award in five years—ASEAN nations are not required to give the award annually, and Cambodia has not presented the award to any writer since presenting it to Sok. Over coffee, I give Sok a copy of the Mekong Review and for several minutes he flips through the pages with interest. When I ask whether Sok believes he and other Khmer writers could contribute to the journal, he hesitates for a few moments. “Yes, but I’m not sure about it. . . In Cambodia, people don’t feel pride in their [work]. . . I’m so worried about it because as I grow older and I become part of the [literary] society, the people around me are almost, like, they just don’t have any career goals.” He trails off for a moment, stealing a glance at the waters of the Tonle Sap River. “This is why I worry about Cambodia. I am 32, but I feel very young in knowledge and I start to worry. I wish we could have more knowledge and we could do something for our country to develop.”
Dr. Teri Yamada, a professor of Asian Studies at California State University, Long Beach, is another advocate supporting the development of modern Cambodian literature. Since 2002, during her summers away from academia, Yamada has been running the Nou Hach Literary Association in Phnom Penh as a non-governmental organization to “foster greater literacy” and to help Cambodian literature “recover from the excesses of the Khmer Rouge era.” Later this spring, the association will publish Modern Cambodian Literature, the second volume in an anthology series featuring English translations of contemporary writing from Khmer authors and Cambodian Americans. The association also publishes the Nou Hach Literary Journal annually, which has featured work in Khmer and English from writers like Yeng Chheangly and Sok Chanphal.
In Yamada’s effort to encourage young Cambodians to embark on literary pursuits, she has also been presenting awards to emerging writers for more than a decade. To the delight of Yamada, many of the past winners of the competition have gone on to publish their own books, write screenplays, and receive other esteemed awards. One of those success stories belongs to Sok Chanphal.
In October 2012, a few years after Sok won the Nou Hach Literary Association Competition for short fiction, Yamada was contacted by the Mekong Review’s Rupert Winchester, who had recently returned from the S.E.A. Write Awards in Bangkok. Winchester was covering the awards for the Phnom Penh Post when an organizer of the event mentioned how it had been years since Cambodia had honored one of its writers. The organizer asked Winchester if he could explore the possibilities of awarding a Khmer writer for the 2013 ceremony, and he willingly began the pursuit. Back in Phnom Penh, Winchester got in touch with Yamada and the duo proceeded to set up a committee along with Heng Sreang, the longtime president of PEN Cambodia. A year later, the committee selected Sok Chanphal to receive Cambodia’s S.E.A. Write Award, in large part due to his publications and exposure from the Nou Hach Association.
Given Yamada and Winchester’s considerable involvement with the S.E.A. Write committee, I was surprised to learn the committee has neglected to award a Khmer writer since 2013. When I inquire as to why no writer has received Cambodia’s annual award in three years, Winchester suggests that Heng Sreang has wrested control of the committee and effectively stymied its initial progress. Over lunch one afternoon, I ask Sreang about the matter. “We don’t really have a ‘best’ writer that could be given an award,” he says. “It’s hard to establish an award when really we have no writer who can collect it, so I’m reluctant to do that. People push me a lot, but I’m afraid that there will be conflict.” I listened with a kind of fretful awe. It seemed like a startling confession to make for a man holding arguably the highest-ranking literary position in the country, especially considering the entire aim of the organization he runs is to promote literature in Cambodia. A few days later, I tell Winchester about Sreang’s comments and Winchester tiredly guffaws, saying, “That man has screwed up the awards. I don’t want to have a full on coup d’état, but it’s crossed my mind once or twice. I think a Khmer woman should have a chance to run PEN Cambodia.” By and large, the SEA Write committee debacle appears to be an illustration of how Cambodia’s literary intentions never quite seem to land in the right place.
Yamada declines to comment on that matter, though when I ask her about the Mekong Review, she is more than willing to speak. “I think the Mekong Review is a wonderful idea,” she tells me by email from Long Beach, mentioning how it “provides a good model” for Khmer writers who might be interested in starting their own literary journals. This notion of influencing young Khmer writers is a point Bui Jones also feels strongly about. “What you hope [the Mekong Review] does for aspiring writers—or anyone,” he says, “is that it inspires them to great stuff, that they want to reach up to that level.” But Yamada remains cautious regarding the reality of homegrown Cambodian literary journals, asserting that, “the problem with 99 percent of the [Khmer] writers I know is the cost of publication. I know of no wealthy writers in Cambodia who could back the cost of publishing a Mekong Review; nor do I see the type of entrepreneurial spirit required to seek ad revenue among those writers I know at present. They are busy trying to survive.”
More and more though, as the hostilities of the past fade into the rearview, Khmer writers are starting to find time to tell their stories through self-published works. In May 2015, Chheangly and his Khmer writing circle produced a zine called, “De Zine,” which, despite its photocopied construction, is an intimately created work of care and consideration featuring 20 pages of poems, flash fiction, and art. It is uninhibitedly amateur, but contains the sort of anarcho-punk aesthetic that came to define zines of a certain era. It’s precisely the sort of ingenuity one hopes to see from writers with limited access and resources. And that, to me, is a testament to the lasting influence a literary association like Nou Hach can have on writers in Cambodia. As young Khmer writers gradually discover the mechanisms through which they can tell their stories, the country’s literature will only grow richer and writers who once expressed their voice through self-published zines can soon contribute as well to top-notch literary magazines like the Mekong Review. It’s not a transition that will be accomplished swiftly, but Cambodian writers are stepping out of the shadows and becoming a part of their country’s artistic community.
Let’s go back to that Saturday night loft party. Everyone is still there, though the lights are a little dimmer, the drinkers a little drunker. Several small groups have assembled around the loft—on the balcony, at the top of the stairway, in the parlor room—everyone buzzing and chattering away. Eventually I take another long walk through the crowd, recalling Bui Jones’s avowal that, “A magazine has to be out there at a time when people are interested.” And it’s when I’m in the throes of the writers and their seamless sense of community that I can recognize how genuinely interested everyone is in the Mekong Review’s continued survival.
It’s true that the spirit of a literary magazine requires an abundance of homegrown passion, and the reverence on display in the loft on nights like this is why the Mekong Review can thrive in Phnom Penh. The social scene here contains a trace of Tangier in the 1950s, when the American author Paul Bowles began to bring global awareness to local Moroccan writers while his apartment served as a hub for carefree literary gatherings. Even more so, these Mekong Review parties contain a trace of Tribeca in the late 90s, when the magazine Open City would throw legendary “rent parties” in Robert Bingham’s apartment, showcasing an indomitable literary spirit. And so I make my way across the loft in Phnom Penh, listening to the breathless enthusiasm that has turned the Mekong Review into an unlikely magazine of the moment:
Bui Jones is telling me how he’s thrilled to have commissioned Emma Larkin of Finding George Orwell in Burma fame to write a piece for the fourth issue, and how he’s now working on getting Bopha Phorn to contribute a story; and oh, there’s Chath Pier Sath, a Khmer poet Bui Jones wants to speak with and he’s off; and then Bopha Phorn is saying how she’s planning to write a novel, something perhaps set against the backdrop of pastoral Cambodia; and a few moments later Jay Raman, the Public Affairs Officer at the U.S. Embassy, tells me how the Mekong Review is now on reserve at the library in the embassy’s Information Resource Center for curious Cambodians to read; and out on the stairway Wayne McCallum, the writer from the Feel Good, is talking to Robert Starkweather about how they plan to enrich and improve this year’s Kampot Writers and Readers Festival, where the Mekong Review will celebrate its one-year anniversary; and on the balcony, writer Sebastian Strangio is talking about his latest book, the nonfiction tour-de-force, Hun Sen’s Cambodia; and next to him is William Bagley, the purchasing officer at Monument Books—Southeast Asia’s preeminent independent bookstore—who’s telling me how there’s a remarkable thirst for the Mekong Review because the region has been yearning for a magazine that’s “on a literary mission.”
And the Mekong Review, after its initial success, is on a literary mission. After being embraced by its audience in Phnom Penh, and after realizing the journal’s potential for becoming a major cultural force, the editors are bent on taking the Mekong Review to new heights by expanding its reach to new cities. Out on the stairway Winchester tells me how arrangements are being made for the journal to be distributed in cafés and galleries in Siem Reap, Saigon, and Hanoi, and how they soon hope to establish a presence in Bangkok, Singapore, and Yangon. Regarding distribution, Cambodia is a land of the hustle and do-it-yourself exporting, where established trade routes are unrealistic for small-press journals and where any acquaintance with a plane ticket is a potential magazine courier. So when I mention to Bui Jones and Winchester that I have plans to meet a few former colleagues in Myanmar the following week, their interest is sufficiently piqued. As the party slowly wanes, we make plans for me to transport thirty copies of the third issue to an art gallery in Yangon.
Time slides away and heat lightning is blanketing the sky every half-minute, illuminating the clouds above the loft where only a few guests remain. The rains have still not come to relieve the country of its drought, and dust blows through the silver light of the distant boulevard where locals laugh at little tables, the smell of frying ginger peppering the night. I think of how the Mekong Review is not a curative for Cambodia’s lost literary legacy, but how it can certainly aid in registering Khmer literature on the global radar. Over time, I know its pages will undoubtedly feature more contemporary Cambodian voices. The third issue features a poem from emerging Cambodian-American writer Sokunthary Svay, Bui Jones and Winchester frequently give guest lectures at the city’s universities to encourage students to write and submit stories, Winchester is currently spearheading the search for a Khmer writer to represent Cambodia at this year’s S.E.A. Write Awards, and it seems likely that the winner’s work will appear in the journal. Still, even with these forward-looking developments in the works, more outreach can surely take place to move the narrative of Khmer literature forward; and if a literary journal like the Mekong Review can use its influence to help develop Khmer literature, it will generate a magazine and a literary scene that is ultimately more rewarding.
Successful literary magazines are rare and fleeting, but for as long as the Mekong Review can last, the journal will surely serve to expand Phnom Penh’s repertoire of great writers, bringing together the expat and Khmer literary scenes when it can: at writers festivals, at awards ceremonies, at loft parties on Saturday nights. I gather the sense that Bui Jones, Cahalan, Starkweather, and Winchester will remember this time fondly, a time when they had their eyes on the pulsing horizon, chronicling the cultural shift of a region as its literature was being reborn as something thoroughly new. And whatever happens to the Mekong Review—whether it lasts a year or two or three—it will always be connected to the literary lore of a Kingdom grasping to find its modern voice.
 Other literary magazines covering Asia exist—Asia Literary Review, Eastlit, LONTAR, Asian Review of Books—but none are specifically tailored to the Greater Mekong Subregion of Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand, and Vietnam.
 A note on Khmer names: in Cambodia, a person’s name typically appears with the surname first, followed by a given name. In more recent times, some Cambodians prefer their names to be written to align with Western conventions, with the given name first, followed by the surname. Names in this article appear according to each individual’s preference. When referring to a person by one name, their surname is used.
 The Cambodian writer is Soth Polin, whose contribution to the Mekong Review was an excerpt from his well-praised 1996 novel, The Anarchist, which was originally published in French. By most accounts, Polin now drives a taxi in Seattle.
 While only one Khmer writer contributed to the first two issues, writers of Burmese and Vietnamese heritage also contributed.
 In 2013, when Chheangly won the second-place prize, no poet was awarded the first-place prize.
 The Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts does currently host one writing contest, however, as Phina So points out, the prize of $200 for a novel of 200 pages or more with only a possibility of publication is entirely inadequate.
 Bingham also happens to have written Lightning on the Sun, one of the classic Western novels set in Cambodia.