Mekong Shadows

Posted on by Iain Donnelly


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In 2012, a collection of short stories called ‘Phnom Penh Noir’ was released, edited by the highly talented Christopher G. Moore, author of the Vincent Calvino series of books (as well as some very cerebral essays on a number of topics and a few insightful non-fiction books too).

Moore has also just released ‘Memory Manifesto: A Walking Meditation Through Cambodia’, in which he looks back at his own experiences of almost 25 years of visiting Cambodia as well as forays further back in time for the country’s own experiences. You can read a wonderful review of his new book here.

I had revisited ‘Phnom Penh Noir’ a few months back, enjoying the second reading of writers such as John Burdett, Roland Joffe, Suong Mak, Bopha Phorn, and Kosal Kheiv among others when it struck me that there hadn’t been any further Cambodian-based collections of stories since then. The next thought, unsurprisingly, was ‘Well, why not do one now?”

Not long after, a conversation ensued between myself and Mark Bibby Jackson, author of ‘Peppered Justice’ and publisher of Asia-LIFE magazine, and we took the idea a stage further to include a joint competition to try and find two promising Cambodian writers who could be included in the book, with the outright winner also appearing in July’s issue of Asia-LIFE.

As the first entries came in, and as I received submissions from other authors, I realised that the term ‘noir’ was slightly problematic in terms of this collection. Noir is perhaps one of the most contentious descriptions in literature in recent times. Everyone has their own idea of what it means, from the Chandler purists through to the modern offshoots. If we had kept it, there would likely have been an online furore from disgruntled noir fans across the region, beating a path to my door with pitchforks and burning torches. So it was quietly jettisoned with no fuss and the title finalised as ‘Mekong Shadows: Tales from Cambodia.’

The standard of the competition entries was surprisingly high given that the writers were submitting in their second or even third language. But once entries were closed, all three judges were in relative agreement as to the two winners. One thing stood out in the entries we received; there was a lack of male writers entering the competition. Both our winners were not only girls, but also under the age of 20, with our first placed winner being 18, and our second placed writer being 15. It’s great to see that the two schools the girls attend, Liger Learning Centre and Jay Pritzker Academy, encourage creative writing when we normally see emphasis only on STEM subjects. You can read the winning entry here.

One of the other things we decided at an early stage was that all profits from the book would go to a worthy cause. It was Mark who suggested the wonderful Khmer Sight Foundation and I agreed very quickly to his suggestion.

Cataracts are the leading cause of blindness in Cambodia and most of the cases are avoidable. Health Ministry figures showed that in 2007 around 2% of Cambodians suffered blindness in both eyes as a result of cataracts, and more recent figures from 2014 stated that around 5% of the population over five years old had varying degrees of sight impairment (Cambodia Demographic and Health Survey). The good news is that over the last 20 years the prevalence of avoidable blindness has dropped by nearly 70% (The Fred Hollows Foundation). It is still a very real issue though.

In 2015 the Khmer Sight Foundation (KSF) was formed to unify ophthalmology and eye care across the Kingdom, thanks to local philanthropists and to the efforts of ophthalmologists from Australia and New Zealand who regularly donate their time and experience to reducing these figures further and to training young Cambodians. They also arrange scholarships for ophthalmology students to study abroad with the aim of making Cambodia self-reliant.

I’m very grateful for the contributions made to the book from all the writers. We have stories from well-established writers such as John Daysh, John Burdett, and James Newman among others. We also have two excellent contributions from Cambodian writers; Kosal Khiev and Ek Madra, the latter of whom has written Saraswati’s first novel by a Cambodian which is released later this year. There are stories of oppression, of genocide, of love, of hate, a sprinkling of black magic, a couple of forays into The Heart of Darkness, but also a feeling of hope. As with any collection there will be stories you love and stories you dislike; even I have my favourites but it would be unfair to the other writers to single them out. The hardest thing about putting the collection together was deciding the order the stories would go in, a process that saw several changes, but I think (hope) that the final decision is one that sits well with readers.

One of the contributors sent me an email the other day to say ‘well done’ for putting the book together and asking when the next one would be. I cast an eye back at the publication date of ‘Phnom Penh Noir’, thought of the stress of the last few months and answered – with a straight face – ‘2022’.

‘Mekong Shadows: Tales from Cambodia’, edited by Iain Donnelly and published by Saraswati Publishing, launches on August 3rd with an event at the Plantation Urban Resort and Spa in Phnom Penh, and a second event at Bookish Bazaar in Kampot on August 10th. Hard copies will be available at Monument Books and other retailers from August 4th, and the eBook version is available to pre-order now at:
https://www.amazon.com/dp/B0749Q5ZGR

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