Much has changed in Cambodia since Pol Pot’s regime came to a bloodied end in 1979. These days, tourists are steadily flowing into the kingdom, and its ancient temples and Killing Fields are now entered via a ticket booth. A world away from Cambodia, in a smart, gleaming white café in Melbourne’s inner north, KYD Online Editor Emily Laidlaw sat down with Australian author Laura Jean McKay to discuss her extraordinary short story collection, Holiday in Cambodia, which tackles cultural memory and the questionable role of tourism in developing nations.
What originally drew you to Cambodia, and how did the kingdom inspire your writing?
I started working for aid agencies when the 2004 tsunami happened…and through that a lot of my writing and work was about Southeast Asia. In 2007, I scored a job in Cambodia and found out what the expat scene is like. The aid work scene is so contradictory, there are so many amazing and dedicated people, both local and expatriate, but then there’s this really dark side that I don’t think gets shown often. I also started getting this romantic notion of what Cambodia was like before the Khmer Rouge. I was interviewing a lot of elderly people and those who’d made it through the regime.
I also discovered an incredible Cambodian ’60s surf rock scene. Basically, people in Cambodia were getting the airwaves from the American GIs in the Vietnam War and hearing a lot of protest music and taking it on and creating their own amazing sound. They became local superstars, the kings and queens of Cambodian rock and roll…but of course, they all died. I wanted to write a novel about them but as I was working on this historical manuscript, all these other stories of present day Cambodia kept infiltrating. The real Cambodia took over, and I was going to call the book ‘The Real Cambodia’ for a long time.
In your KYD essay, ‘On Exchange, Things Taken and Things Left Behind’ [available online shortly], you consider the notion of cultural exchange and what it is tourists bring to a foreign country and what it is they take. During your time in Cambodia, how did you negotiate this so-called exchange?
When I was working with Cambodian people on aid projects run by local people, I feel there was a real exchange…Through Asialink, I was working with the only independent literary organisation in Cambodia, Nou Hach. They write poems despite everything. They get death threats because the word is considered very powerful in Cambodia, which is both a very good and a very bad thing. Working with those people was incredible. It was the same when I conducted a few workshops with kids who live on a rubbish dump in Phnom Penh. In those situations I feel like I got a lot more out of it than I gave. As far as what I left? This might sound cheesy but I suppose I left a lot of my ideas about the way things are – something you get from growing up in Australia.
Many of the expats and tourists you write about have a seedy air to them: most are depicted as ignorant of local customs and exploitative. “Ethical tourism” seems to be a buzzword these days; how do you think Westerners should approach places like Cambodia, and can tourism in developing countries ever be truly ethical?
I think a better term is “awareness tourism” because I don’t know whether there can actually be ethical tourism. I don’t think it’s all us exploiting everybody else because that’s assuming locals don’t have ownership over their own country. Just knowing what you’re doing and why you’re there is important, as is stopping to think when you’re haggling over $2 for that sarong…
One of the main reasons I changed the title from ‘The Real Cambodia’ to ‘Holiday in Cambodia’ is…the idea of a holiday seemed very poignant to me. How can you have a holiday somewhere like Cambodia? The term holiday is very loaded, I think.
Am I correct in assuming that, as an Australian, you’re in a privileged position whereby you’re able to write candidly about Cambodia’s dark past and present? I imagine many of the topics you touch on in the book would be highly sensitive to many Cambodians, and local writers would possibly be censored.
That is something I’ve grappled with. There’s a lot of sex and death in this book; I don’t know whether that would be looked upon kindly by the authorities…
I did a masters degree about that subject, looking at who can write about Cambodia and who can’t. What does it mean when an Australian writes about Cambodian people, especially in the first person perspective? This was largely my focus point.
How did you approach the task of writing through the perspective of a Cambodian person? Were you nervous about adopting the voice of another culture?
I was very nervous, yes. As writers, though, we’re always writing about otherness, even if we’re writing about ourselves. Of course, it can get contentious when it’s a white girl writing about brown people [laughs]. One of the very last stories I wrote was the one set in the Khmer Rouge camp. I felt there were some subjects as an expatriate tourist that I could touch on and others which weren’t really my business. There’s a quote from Cambodian writer Soth Polin: ‘Even if you are reaching in your imagination for a new destination, you cannot get past their cruelty. When you try to write something without mentioning the Khmer Rouge, you can’t’. That was something I felt all the way through the book, definitely.
What this book tries to do is decentre the dominant white subject. The people who are local are Cambodians and the foreigners – the aliens – are everyone else who visit Cambodia. I didn’t want to write as though Cambodians are ‘other’. [The book] is not just a comment on the expat culture but also a comment on myself. It made me question what I was doing there and my motives.
Aside from talking to locals and your on-the-ground research, how else did you prepare yourself to write about Cambodia’s history and culture? Did you spend much time reading and going through the archives?
Yes, extensively. There’s an amazing place called Bophana which is slowly collecting all the materials which were thought to be lost. There’s all these amazing photographs and film footage, a lot of it in French and Khmer, which I don’t speak, so they were mostly visual references. There’s also the Reyum Institute, which produce amazing exhibitions and incredible books about cultural influences…like Cambodian art, music, and theatre; they weren’t things I could access in Australia. Through Asialink, I met all these incredible Cambodian writers. I also got access to many Cambodian short stories, translated into English. I’ve since become fascinated in the short stories and essays which have come out of Cambodia over the last 20 years.
I’m curious as to why you chose to write Holiday in Cambodia as a series of short stories – why not a novel?
I love short story writing and I feel most comfortable in that genre. Some of the best books I’ve ever read have been single author short story collections, like J.D. Salinger, Lorrie Moore, Raymond Carver and Janet Frame; they are all writers who’ve influenced my writing. I was coming across a number of stories in Cambodia and it felt as if I was taking a series of snapshots to try to capture it all. I felt as though it would be a good novel but I wanted to write a great short story collection.
Have you received any feedback from Cambodians about the book?
I’m doing a launch at Monument Books in Phnom Penh next month. Because Black Inc doesn’t distribute to Cambodia, I’m taking a bag full of books with me [laughs]. It will be really interesting to see what the reception is over there, both from Cambodian writers and the expat scene…I’m looking forward to that feedback and I’m happy for any criticism, also.
This is a tricky question but if there’s one thing you hope readers take away from Holiday in Cambodia, particularly those foreign to the kingdom, what would that be?
I guess I want readers to take away that there’s more to Cambodia than a holiday and that when you go to Cambodia, you’re not just going there as some neutral sunburnt essence that leaves smiles and takes away photographs; you are taking away and leaving things and you are impacting…Again, I suppose the real question is: what is a holiday?
There’s a quote from Graham Greene I really like ‘With a return ticket courage becomes an intellectual exercise, like a monk’s flagellation’. As an Australian, the idea that we always have a return ticket no matter what we do… is very interesting to me. We can go motorbike riding over the Cardamom Mountains, for example, and if we crash Australia will come and rescue us…Or in 1975, when the Khmer Rouge came, Australia would come and airlift you out. That’s easy to forget: there are those who visit and those who stay.
Tweeters: join us Wednesday 25 September, 3:00pm-4:00pm, to discuss Holiday in Cambodia as part of this month’s #kydbookclub.