Hang Borin is a Khmer writer whom I had the great pleasure of meeting recently.
He was born in a refugee camp in Thailand in 1987. His mother had made the perilous journey over the border alone with a young son.
She arrived in Thailand and made her way as a single mum selling peanuts in the camp. Borin’s father tried to woo her but at first she was not easily convinced by his advances. However, Borin’s father was a soldier for Son Sann and Borin told me that his father persuaded his mother fairly forcefully that his position as a soldier meant that he was a good catch for her and they did eventually have a temporary marriage whilst living in the refugee camp. Borin was the first of their children, and three younger brothers followed.
“Life was difficult and we didn’t have a lot to eat but the UN and King Norodom Sihanouk sent food, clothes and medicine to us all”
“During the daytime life was OK but at night you had to watch out for the moon man. There were many thieves who would try to rob or hurt you. We called them the moon men.”
Borin also recollects a near kidnapping when he was about five years old…….
“I was playing with my friends and some old lady came to me and gave me some sweets, so I got some then she tried to grab me but luckily my Aunt saw and came running over to wrestle the woman away. I know a lot of children were kidnapped and taken to Bangkok for prostitution.”
Rain in the War
The rain was falling and,
my home was yelling in the dark.
You saw me in the park;
it was so hard to see love in the enemy’s feeling.
I know my home would be gone,
and the smoke would cover the tears and
you cannot hear but can only see.
Thailand and Cambodia,
fire and oil,
swan and the stream,
forever, would never be dead.
So when I was born,
the war just began,
the world was like a fake dream,
you would make sense and,
it would be gone,
but not really true.
“I wrote this Poem in 2012 when I heard the war near the border and my feeling was going down and I felt so alone in my rental room in the place I lived. It refers to Thailand and Cambodia and the conflict between these countries are always exploding. I compared those things to Thailand and Cambodia – stream and swan, fire and oil……the rain means the tears of people who lived in those two countries.”
When the family moved back to Cambodia, in 1992, Borin remembers seeing oxen for the first time as they moved in with an Auntie in Banteay Meanchay and tried to assemble some kind of normality in their homeland. His father became a moto-dop driver and his Mum sold a melon dessert.
After five years they moved to Battambang and this is where Borin started his education.
“Some of the worst memories of my life came from those tent schools under tamarind trees. Because there was still a lot of danger and fighting, we had to change our tent school location every three months and I would walk mostly 4-11 km to school every day. We would see smoke dragons from wars in the forest and feel worms on our clothes whilst we studied.”
Finally, permanent schools were built and Borin could go to study under more stable condition, but he said during these primary school days he was mostly a daydreamer.
When I asked him what made him want to write he told me about his Aunties and other women from the village telling stories at night, often to deliberately scare him the other children.
“These were folklores, but most of these things, you know, we really believed them!!” Borin told me, with a wide –eyed smile.
Borin’s interest in writing his own stories began when he was about 13.
“I wrote a story at school about a gecko in the dry season who saves his food up for later but other animal friends come around and steal it all. I believe in the spirits of all things and that the trees and animals all have spirit.”
Cambodian folk-lore and religion as well as true life experience mix together in Borin’s imagination to make him into an excitingly modern Cambodian writer.
Borin stayed in a pagoda during most of his education.
“I lived in a Pagoda because my family had no money to support me and one more reason was that my home was very far from my high School. The monk could give us food and dwelling. I had only one very old bicycle. So, staying in pagoda was the last choice and the safest choice for me although my tears fall down now when I remember this…also when I was at high school I was a cowboy”
“What do you mean cowboy, like a gangster?” was my idiotic instantaneous response.
“No! I mean like a boy that takes care of cows” he replied.
Borin continued to talk about his studies in Battambang.
“I wasn’t too interested in high school and did not have much interest in reading when I was younger. When I wasn’t studying I was always with the cows in the rice paddies. However, in grade 10 one of my friends gave me a book called ‘Gloom Flower’ and told me I must read it. He said – ‘You will cry’. Of course at the end I did”
Borin compares this book to the story of Romeo and Juliet as it is about love between a rich and a poor couple.
“It is also a trilogy…just like the Twilight saga. After that I was hooked and I just borrowed so many books from friends. I would read for ten hours sometimes!”
“Then something very lucky happened. A family friend that we had known in Thailand got me a scholarship to study and then I could go to Panhasattra University. His name was Vibol, which means venerable one. I said goodbye to the cows in Battambang and hello to the city of Phnom Penh”.
Borin is now in his third year of studying International Relations.
“I study this because I am interested in sharing ideas with other people and building relationships between cultures.”
Borin is also a professional writer as well as a student. He has already had a book published by Boeng Tonle Sap Publisher…
Hang Borin`s bestselling novel: Blood From Hell, written in Khmer is being translated into English. He was recently awarded a Certificate of Achievement for his work from the American Embassy here in Phnom Penh.
I asked him what he was writing at the moment…
“Ok, so in this story it is told from the perspective of a young boy…perhaps maybe 10 or 11 years old and he lives with his auntie. Many cats always come into her house and she doesn’t like them but her husband does. One day one of the cats ate her fish and shat in her house… so she slashed the cat’s neck when she thought no-one was looking but in fact a boy was peering through the door. She hid the dead cat behind the house. Soon after she became pregnant, but instead of having a baby growing inside, many tiny kittens grow and claw her womb to pieces. She dies a slow painful death as the kittens destroy her womb from the inside and cat fur fills her throat until she suffocates. We know the cat is very powerful and is the object of menstruation for women in the belief of Hinduism. To destroy the cat is a sin: she suffers greatly from this aunt”
I take a sip of iced water and shake my head in admiration. I am now Borin’s biggest fan and decide when my Khmer reading skills are sufficiently advanced, this will be the first story I read in Khmer.
“Who are your favourite writers now?”
“My favorite foreign writers are Steven King, Steny Mayor, Nicolas Spark and J.K. Rowling. My favourite Khmer writers are Pin Ya Thai, Kong Bunchheorn, Mao Samnang, Oum Sophany and Oung Leourng.”
I asked Borin about his writing and why he writes.
“I write any time of the day, morning or night, whenever I get an idea or I want to write and I write because writing makes me believe that people can understand my feelings and that we can all understand and share our feelings together”
Hang Borin’s bestseller ‘Blood from Hell’ is available at Khmer bookshops and Monument books. The English translation will soon be available.
“I think people here don’t read because mostly it is just romance rubbish. I hope to steer clear of this and write about important things for us all in Cambodia and everywhere”