Review of Out of the Shadows of Angkor: Cambodian Poetry, Prose, and Performance Through the Ages
Review by George Chigas
Out of the Shadows of Angkor is a comprehensive collection that spans the entire literary history of Cambodian writing from the earliest inscriptions to the present. The text includes around 100 different examples of Cambodian writing that are organized in two main sections: classical (611-1930 CE) and modern (1930-present). The first group of texts from the classical period are organized chronologically. The second group of texts are organized by genre: poetry; fiction; nonfiction; performance; including an excerpt from a contemporary graphic novel. Marking the transition between different periods and genres of writing are nine compelling black and white prints of oil paintings by Cambodian artist Theanly Chov from his series Surviving. A color reproduction from Surviving is also used for the book cover. Indeed, the collection as a whole makes the case that Cambodian writing has not only survived. It is thriving.
Out of the Shadows of Angkor is an ambitious project whose 352 pages comprise a double issue of Manoa: A Pacific Journal of International Writing, edited by Frank Steward and published by University of Hawai’i Press. Previously, in 2004, Manoa published a collection of Cambodian writing entitled In the Shadow of Angkor, which focused on contemporary writing and included several brief interviews conducted by the guest editor, Sharon May. Sharon May is also the guest editor for Out of the Shadows of Angkor. The titles of the two issues refer to the greater importance attributed to the temples of Angkor, thereby overshadowing the appreciation of Cambodia’s rich literary heritage.
Since the approximately 100 examples of Cambodian writing are all presented in English, Out of the Shadows, technically speaking, is a monumental translation project. To accomplish this formidable task, Ms. May enlisted the talents and expertise of four additional guest editors to create a “dream team” of gifted translators and experts on Cambodian literature.
One of the guest editors is a brilliant post-doctoral student named Trent Walker, who produced the translations and insightful introductions to all but one of the 19 examples of writing from the classical period. This includes translations from Sanskrit, Pali, Old Khmer, Middle Khmer and modern Khmer to produce some of the first English versions of the most important texts of Cambodian classical literature, such as the Reamker, the Khmer version of the Indian epic the Ramayana; and Kaki, King Ang Duong’s Khmer translation of the Thai classic verse novel. Mr. Walker also contributes one of the four introductory essays to the collection in which he provides an overview of the history of the Khmer language, some of its key linguistic features, as well as a concise explanation of Khmer poetry’s meters and rhyme patterns.
Another guest editor is Christophe Macquet, a native of France, who was the coordinator of the translation program at the Royal University of Phnom Penh for ten years. As with Mr. Walker’s translations, Mr. Macquet’s translations of important Cambodian modern writers, such as Soth Polin and Khun Srun, from Khmer to French are also among the first of their kind. In the modern period section of Out of the Shadows, Mr. Macquet collaborates with Ms. May to produce translations of 15 out of the 16 poems in the first half of the poetry section. (One poem by Kong Bunchhoeun is translated by Mr. Walker.) Among these are poems by Suy Hieng, Khun Srun and Pich Tum Kravel that provide a general sense of Khmer poetry since 1930.
Since Out of the Shadows is primarily intended for English readers of the Cambodian diaspora, many of the selected writings in the modern section were produced by Cambodian writers whose families fled Cambodia and were resettled in the US, France, Canada, Australia, etc. The second half of the poetry section includes poems written in English by Chat pierSath, BK Tuon, Princess Moon, Greg Santos, among others. Their work speaks to the experience of liminality, displacement and trauma as they struggle to come to terms with their “hyphenated identities” and traumatic past.
Two of the guest editors on Ms. May’s dream team are Cambodian writers who were born and live in Cambodia. Mr. Rinith Taing is a fluent English speaker and award-winning journalist who contributes translations of Ty Chi Huot (Sky of the Lost Moon) in the fiction section and Bunchan Mol (Political Prison, about Mol’s imprisonment by the French during Cambodia’s struggle for independence) in the nonfiction section. The fiction section begins with perhaps the most well-known Cambodian novel, Wilted Flower, by Nou Hach, translated by the acclaimed New York Times best-selling novelist Vaddey Ratner. Ms. Ratner, who survived the Khmer Rouge period as a young girl before being resettled in the US with her mother, also wrote the book’s foreword that relates the story of her mother’s attempt to resurrect the arts in the Khao-I-Dang refugee camp and sets the tone for Out of the Shadows.
Rounding out Ms. May’s dream team is Ms. Phina So, the founder of Kampu Mera Editions that has published several collections of new Cambodian writing in Khmer, including the first collection of modern Cambodian feminist writing. In addition to her role as guest editor, Ms. So contributes an important essay in the Nonfiction section about her experience as a publisher in Cambodia, as well as an interesting short story about the changing meaning of Khmer words that reflect changes in life experience.
In the final section of the collection under the rubric “Performance,” Christophe Macquet and Sharon May collaborate again to translate several examples of Cambodian song lyrics, including “Champa of Battambang” by the renowned singer songwriter Sinn Sisamouth, as well as examples of a Bassac Folk Opera and an Ayai Folk Theater piece.
This review only skims the surface of this ambitious project that involved a transnational collaboration of over fifty contributors and countless hours of painstaking translation and organization. As Ms. Sokunthary Svay, a founding member of the Cambodian American Literary Arts Association based in Lowell, Massachusetts, states in her introductory essay,
“The works in Out of the Shadows of Angkor stand alone, but would go well alongside the literature of other Southeast Asian countries, such as Vietnam and Laos, and the many ethnic communities that reside in the region. I would also urge educators to include in their curricula- in tandem with this literature- the diasporic works of immigrant groups in the U.S. and to juxtapose them with African American Literature. As members of a relatively new diaspora who came to the U.S. as a result of war, we would do well to discuss those connections to learn how others have coped, survived, and thrived.”
Out of the Shadows of Angkor: Cambodian Poetry, Prose, and Performance Through the Ages, Series editor Frank Steward, Guest editors Sharon May et al. Honolulu: Manoa 33:2 and 34:1 Double Issue, University of Hawai’i Press, 2022.
George Chigas is currently at the Center for Khmer Studies, Siem Reap, Cambodia
 Mr. Macquet has also translated French texts into Khmer, such as Le Petit Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry and a novel by the celebrated French writer Marguerite Duras, who was born in Vietnam (French Indochina) and lived briefly in Cambodia during the colonial period.