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History's Horrors Inspired Literary Beauty

By: Cat Barton Posted: January-01-2006 in
Cat Barton

Award-winning author Geoff Ryman, 56, was born in Canada but has lived most of his life in England. He is an author and has written numerous award-winning fiction, science-fiction, and fantasy novels. His most recent short story about Cambodia 'Pol Pot's Beautiful Daughter,' has just been nominated for a 2007 Hugo Award given annually for science fiction and fantasy. Past Hugo winners include Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke. Ryman first wrote about Cambodia in 'The Unconquered Country' in 1986, and his 2006 novel 'The King's Last Song,' is set in both the Angkorean empire of Jayavarman VII and in contemporary Cambodia.

What sparked your interest in Cambodia?

In the early 1970s, one of the American glossies that no longer exists ran a photograph of a Cambodian woman by the bedside of her wounded Cambodian husband. He later died. That image haunted me for about 15 years. Every so often I would follow her back from the hospital in my head. In 1975 I read a from-the-scene dispatch in The [London] Times of the evacuation of Phnom Penh and that absolutely gripped my imagination. The writer did a stunning job of communicating why it all felt so out of joint: why were Cambodians who normally smile, scowling at the people who were cheering their victory; why were they forcing hospitals to evacuate? But I couldn't get there to write about it so I wrote a story in a made-up country that bore some resemblance to Cambodia, in a metaphoric landscape of living houses that could mourn their owners and wait for them to return. That was 'The Unconquered Country.'

In 2000 I was invited by an Australian friend to stay at an Australian archaeological dig. This inspired me to write about Jayavarman, and returning to do research, I fell in love with Cambodia all over again, and the way it was healing. I still haven't managed to write about the healing, but two more long short stories and one novel did follow.
'The Unconquered Country' explores Cambodian history through fantasy, and won the World Fantasy Award. 'The King's last song' is a work of fiction.... what determines which genre you will use for a particular story?

All writing is fantasy in one form or another. A story comes to you, it falls into place, you have to find a pen to start writing, you are not asking what genre is this? You're too busy thinking, I've got to get this written down now before I forget it! Fantasy was useful when I couldn't get to Cambodia. 'Ten Years in the life of Hero Kai' was a deeply frivolous story about a real Cambodian hero, an actual monk who led a rebellion against the Vietnamese. But 'The King's Last Song' was an attempt to capture the full sweep and glory of Cambodian history, the unbelievable story. I guess a sense of wonder is a common element [to all writing], and wonder is not the sole province of fantasy.
What was your writing and research process for 'The King's Last Song'?

Once I found out about Jayavarman VII I started to come back about once a year. In the course of doing that research, I made some Cambodian friends and that inspired the modern story of William and Map in the novel. So then I had to try to imagine life for Cambodians. I paid to stay on a friend's family farm near Siem Reap. The tourist police tried to make me stay in a hotel. In London I met a Cambodian gentleman who had left before the Pol Pot era. I took weekly lessons in Khmer from him, but to be honest I find learning languages difficult. I began to use the lessons simply to ask him what Cambodians might say in particular situations. I deliberately wrote 'The King's Last Song' to be a very accessible novel, to open Cambodian history up to the West. When they get hold of it, very ordinary readers with no special interest in Cambodia love it. They all say "I must go! Where can I stay?"
Was it different writing a work of historical fiction, rather than a fantasy novel about Cambodia?

Writing realistic fiction is far easier. You don't have to make up a world, with its social relations, economy and language. You just go and find out what is likely to happen, and if something improbable happens, how circumstances could conspire to create that. What after all, could be more improbable than Pol Pot. So how did it happen?

As for research in even fantasy or historical fiction, if I have to research before you can write a word, I don't know enough about the emotions concerned to write the story. I write the first draft and that tells me what I need to go and see and learn. Sometimes you find that what happens in the first draft is too difficult to make work. That's when your writing chops really come in. You take a deep breath and come up with something new. The biggest problem I had with 'The King's Last Song' is I didn't want an unhappy ending. I was committed to a happy ending for the modern Cambodian story, and I practically defied gravity to make that happen. In the end, people who knew Cambodian culture said simply plainly: Map and William will never become friends. The archaeologists microlight with its heat imaging is just not going to work like a police night vision: it can't be used to rescue the kidnapped Luc. To be honest, I fought for about 18 months to avoid Luc being kidnapped. But he would have been.
Through your work as a writing teacher you've involved yourself with groups like the Nou Hach Journal and the Khmer Writers' Association. What is your impression of the Cambodian contemporary arts scene?

Cambodian writers have a humbling belief in the importance of their craft and its power to move. Pal Vannirirak has overcome incredible obstacles to have a spectacular career in storytelling, drama, lyric writing. Yin Luoth keeps alive a modernised Buddhistic tradition in verse. I enjoyed Oum Suphany's novel in English translation (Under the Drops of Falling Rain). It tells the story of a marriage forced onto the heroine by the Khmer Rouge that flowers into true love. I liked the individuality and objectivity of that. New writers and poets are giving young Cambodians a voice. Santel Phin has expressed the need for Cambodian fiction to move beyond the Pol Pot era. But the memoirs of survivors is a profoundly moving body of literature that is still the main way for most Westerners to approach Cambodian culture. Someth May's Cambodian Witness is for more than half of its length a moving description of family life before the catastrophes began. Theary Seng's work, Chanrithy Him's, these are books that have a place of honour on my shelves. No one wants to be stuck in events of 40 years ago, but the wars starting in 1970 shape everyday life here. The problem for anybody writing about Cambodia is you have to deal with both Pol Pot, and the new country that has grown up since 1998.
And the Khmer music scene?

Cambodian and Khmer-American rap is pretty darn literary. Ah Ping writes about life in Phnom Penh now without much reference to the Pol Pot era. Prach Ly is in a class by himself, and his next album Dalama Three, has widened its focus from the Pol Pot era to other aspects of recent Cambodian history as well. Other rappers from Tony Real to DJ Boomer are worth a listen, especially if you speak English. After a load of unexpected problems, I have finally got all the basic work done on one-off radio feature on Cambodian rap for a London radio station.
After 'The King's Last Song' was released you had the dubious honor of being bootlegged around town. What was your reaction when you heard you'd made the photocopy circuit?

I totally expected it. It's how publishing works here. It means writers can't make any money from writing. It's okay for me, I make some money from my books. The lack of a market makes writing a hobby for most Cambodians unless they write TV or pop songs. One thing I expect to see soon is the sons and daughters of the new rich becoming writers. The hidden history of literary creativity anywhere is independent income. This is likely in Cambodia as well.
After 'The King's Last Song' you wrote with two short stories on Cambodia: The Legend of Hero Kai and Pol Pot's Beautiful Daughter. Where did the inspiration for these come from?

'Kai' came from a collection of essays by David Chandler. I bought it in the airport going home. The first essay established that one of my characters could not have yet been born for the ancient story in 'The King's Last Song'. But another essay was about 'Kai'. For some reason I started to write an outline for a structure, and very suddenly I was scribbling away about Kai for the rest of the flight. Other sources of inspiration: Chinese martial arts films. I'm still hoping someone will want to do a Cambodian hero movie with lots of action based on it.

Pol Pot's Beautiful Daughter slammed into me in 2004 when I was lucky enough to be in Soriya Market on the day after high school exams. And I knew Saloth Sith [the story's heroine] was just about the same age as them. It's about how she becomes the daughter of all Cambodians, not just her physical father.
Would you be interested in doing a Khmer translation of your work?

I wouldn't be the one to undertake it! There was talk about serializing 'The King's Last Song' in a newspaper but we would have had to pay for the translation. The novel would be a huge task. I think of them all I'd most rather Pol Pot's Beautiful Daughter was translated. It's a manageable length and I think it deals in a recognizably modern Phnom Penh. The question is how to use sales abroad to fund publishing in Cambodia in Khmer.

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