Words Without Borders: Cambodia


This month’s issue of Words Without Borders focuses on ‘Cambodia: Angkor to Year Zero and Beyond’. Along with stunning works by Soth Polin, Sharon May and U Sam Oeur, is a story I wrote about a woman whose writing and life I have admired for many years. Oum Souphany is a writer, singer and visual artist and miraculously survived the Khmer Rouge regime, along with her secret diary of this time. You can read the whole story at Words Without Borders.



The Keeper: Oum Sophany

“If we disappear, we die”– Oum Sophany, 1975

April in Cambodia is dry. The temperature reaches a thick 35 degrees Celsius each day and there is no reprieve. The broken streets of Phnom Penh, which flood to waist deep in the monsoon months of June to September, are bleached as old bones; the sky glares down with a sharp blue eye.

I return to Cambodia in April 2009, having seen it only in the monsoon, and the heat is a shock. People, motorbikes, markets, and noise throng Phnom Penh, but there is a desolation and an impermanence to it all—as though everything is about to be packed up and taken away.

It was here, forty years ago—on April 14, 1975—that a twenty-nine-year-old student, Oum Sophany, made an entry in her diary in the heat of the day: “April is the month in which cicada cries fill up the room,” she wrote, sitting in her family home in the center of Phnom Penh, surrounded by mango and banana trees. “They cry with all their hearts. Their cries spiral down from the top of the trees, hitting the earth down below, intriguingly echoing and filling the air.”

At the time, her note seemed insignificant: a woman recording daily events as part of her practice as a writer. Sophany was a student of archaeology and engaged to be married.

But just days after that diary entry, Phnom Penh was evacuated and the city became the site of mass torture and death at the hands of the the Khmer Rouge while the rest of the country was turned into a hard labor camp for the next four years. These changes were so drastic and so terrible that most wouldn’t live to see the end of it. Sophany did. And so did her diary.

Read the rest of this story at: http://www.wordswithoutborders.org/article/the-keeper-sophany-oum-laura-jean-mckay#ixzz3roLrRRX4