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The Beach Review
FALL 2005
Fall 2005
Rebuilding a Literary Legacy

In the 1950s, Cambodia saw an increasingly thriving literary culture centered in the capital city of Phnom Penh, where writers and artists found audiences and camaraderie.

But it wasn’t to last. All this creativity slowed during the politically tumultuous 1960s and was virtually destroyed during the 1975-1979 Pol Pot Khmer Rouge dictatorship.

Since then, reestablishing modern Cambodian literature has been difficult. Even today, authors, songwriters and artists have relatively few venues or events where they can discuss, publish and distribute their craft.

Seeing attempts to restore the nation’s literary tradition gave Teri Shaffer Yamada the impetus to help the cause. A professor in the Department of Comparative World Literature and Classics and an expert in Asian literature, Yamada helped found and currently directs the Nou Hach Literary Project, named for a modern Khmer writer who helped to establish a high standard of literature in Cambodia during the 1950s.

Yamada personally funded its first writer’s conference in Phnom Penh in 2003 and later received funding from the Toyota Foundation to support project activities. Since then, the project has grown to encompass seven sub-projects in Cambodia in collaboration with the international Cambodian community and an editorial board of scholars and writers. These include the annual writers’ conference and literary/cultural awards, the Nou Hach Literary Journal, writers’ workshops and other activities.

The Nou Hach Literary Journal was first published in 2004 as a collection of fiction, poetry and essays selected from Khmer writers both in Cambodia and France, selected largely from among prize winners at the 2003 and 2004 conferences. This June, Yamada traveled once again to Phnom Penh to attend the project’s third award ceremony.

The project encourages Cambodian writers in Khmer, English and French to produce literature and scholarly work as well as Cambodian arts and popular culture. The project also explores the Cambodian diaspora and welcomes translations of short fiction and poetry by Khmer writers.

“People have been extremely impressed with the journal,” Yamada said. “I’ve had lots of positive feedback, not only for the content, but because the journal looks terrific and only costs $5 in Cambodia. People usually [copy] everything there, but not with such a low price tag. I’m especially pleased with the journal because it is the first Cambodian publication to promote modern literature.”


Cambodian temple art with a photo of Teri Shaffer Yamada and a photo of Nou Hach Literary Journal

During her trips, Yamada escorted several Cambodian-American student research assistants for their first look at their ancestral homeland. “One of these students was a comparative literature student who went on to Amherst on a full scholarship after graduating from CSULB. After presenting a paper in Khmer on the short story genre at the Nou Hach Literary Awards Ceremony, he had an incredibly meaningful experience in another way when he met relatives for the first time,” Yamada remarked.

“A few years earlier, I brought along a student who met his father again after being separated from him as an infant. Typically, the students upon their return to the United States become more engaged with the local Cambodian community. They realize how lucky they are.”

Yamada extols the commitment of those involved. “The managing director [Kho Tararith] is young, inspired and totally dedicated to this project, transcending monetary compensation,” she said. The project has drawn international scholars and experts from Australia, Japan and Massachussetts.

Through the project, Yamada has come to see herself as a living bridge between two cultures. She worked with graduate students at Phnom Penh’s Buddhist Institute to ensure their success as the first master’s candidates in liberal studies within Cambodia. “These students are totally dedicated to learning,” she said.

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