FROM ICELANDIC SAGAS TO CAMBODIAN EPICS:
MAGNUS SAEMUNDSSON SPEAKS WITH THE KRWF GAZETTE
- You are Senior Education Advisor at SIDA, can you tell us this organisation, how you have come to this role and what have you learned during your tenure?
Sida is the Swedish Governmental agency for development cooperation established in the mid-sixties with the aim of supporting people living in poverty and under oppression to improve their living conditions. One of the key areas of Swedish support has been supporting education as it has been seen as one of the key prerequisites for sustainable development. Sweden has been involved in development aid to Cambodia all the way back to 1979 after the ousting of the Khmer Rouge. I have been working with support to the development of education here since 2007 and I have seen substantial positive changes. There is now a momentum for big improvements, a large number of young educated people are entering into decision making positions. These young people do understand the importance of education for their own lives. And at the same time there is an emerging understanding that the key for success or failure of Cambodian development is education and skills.
- What is the value of holding an international festival of literature, art and song in Cambodia?
The most important aspect of a successful international festival of this kind is that it offers a platform for local and international creative persons to come together, inspire each other, learn from each other, and not least networking. It is less for the general public than for active or aspiring writers, artist and musicians both Khmer and foreigners. A successful international festival can also have an important effect as an engine for the creative industries, both locally, as in this case Kampot, and for the whole country.
- Cambodia has one of the lowest literacy levels in South East Asia, can you describe why this is so?
The short answer is the Khmer Rouge. Not only did they manage to destroy the education system and kill most teachers, they also killed the writers that had been establishing a modern Khmer literature during the “Golden Days” of the fifties and sixties and by that wiped out more or less all modern literature. Establishing a comprehensive education system from scratch with uneducated teachers was a heroic task. What we see now is that this effort is bearing fruit, although the education system seen as a whole has very low teaching and learning quality a huge number of relatively well educated students are coming out into the labour market, academia and government. These students create a momentum, also for a new wave of Khmer literature, art, music and cinema not to forget the exciting modern Khmer dance scene.
- You are also a volunteer and supporter at KRWF and you have recently been awarded a medal for you work in Education in Cambodia – what motivates you to give your time and resources to the festival and more broadly to the development of literacy, literature, arts and education in Cambodia? What is your driving wheel?
Well, I love art, literature and music and I have come to love Cambodian culture, the great heritage of the country as well as its modern expressions. Professionally I have my loyalty to the children and students of Cambodia and that includes trying to support the positive cultural development that is going on.
- You are originally from Iceland, can you describe your own love of literature, what writers have you grown up with? What are the great stories of your native land?
A lot of the identity of being Icelandic is being part of a strong literature tradition. In Iceland more books are written, published and sold per person per year than anywhere else on the planet. The average Icelander reads four books per year, while one in ten will publish something in their lifetime. The Icelandic Sagas remain an intrinsic part of Icelanders’ identity to this day; their presence around the country is unavoidable. The Sagas describe events taking place around the year 1000AD and written down by a series of authors at circa 1200 -1350, that is during the same time as the Khmer Empire is at its peak. So of course I was surrounded with books and stories a child, such as Njal’s Saga and the Prose Edda but also of modern Icelandic writers such as Laxness and Bergsson.
- What is the significance of oral tradition and spoken literature in Cambodia?
Although the literary written tradition in Cambodia dates back to the fifth century and has a rich history of complex poetry, historically there is has been an even stronger oral tradition, and that is a strength of the culture. All over the country people created music and told tales of mystical as well as everyday things. This oral tradition of poetry and storytelling is carried on today by traditional artists as the improvisational chapey master Kong Nay and by a younger generation of spoken-word and rap artists.
- You have been to KRWF festivals since 2015, can you describe a few personal highlights of from previous festivals?
There are so many highlights! The great takeaway from the first festival 2015 was the performance of Paul Kelly, the Indochine Tales and the enthusiasm from the participants taking part in the first attempt to create a festival to promote reading and literature in Cambodia. From last year our presentation of the Khmer edition of the Swedish children’s book Pippi Longstocking was very positive, Helen Jarvis’ presentation of images of Cambodia, Scott Bywater’s poetry sessions and not the least the wonderful performances of Lok Ta and his fellow Bunong musicians.
- Who are you looking forward to seeing and hearing from at KRWF 2017?
It is an impressive line-up this year. Madeleine Thien, Epic Arts, Jung Chang, Esi Edugyan, Master Kong Nay and the unforgettable culture Troup of Bou’sra although sadly without Lok Ta, just to name a few.
- What is the future of the novel in Cambodia?
There is a new generation of writers emerging, a generation that is educated and has got influences from other cultures and not least from the Khmer diaspora. A number of the most interesting new writers are women, such as Thavry Thon and Phina So. An exciting example of the attempts to promote Cambodian literature is the Khmer Literature Festival to be held in Siem Reap in the end of October. This is the first festival focusing exclusively on Khmer literature, a needed and important complement to the KRWF and the Kampot Arts Festival (in development).
- Who is the most influential Cambodian writer? to Cambodia generally and to you, personally?
This is not an easy question to answer. The Reamker is of course the fundament for Cambodian literature, and not only literature but also songs, music and dance and has influenced all aspects of Cambodian culture. But for more modern writers you have for example Oum Sophany who wrote one of the few personal accounts written during the Khmer Rouge and the very few survivors from that time such as Soth Polin, Um Sam Oeur and Kong Bunchheoun. All very interesting authors. Although an emerging literature movement there still are not so many Cambodian authors who publish books every year. A number of them are connected to and through the Nou Hach Literary Association and Slap Paka Khmer. Three of my favourite ones are Thavry Thon, Phina So and Ek Madra .