‘Stories About Hope’: Author Thon Thavry on Cambodia’s New Literature

Author Thon Thavry sits before a shelf featuring her autobiographical book, "A Proper Woman". (Image provided by Thon Thavry)
Author Thon Thavry sits before a shelf featuring her autobiographical book, "A Proper Woman". (Image provided by Thon Thavry)
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Thon Thavry, 32, was born in Kandal province and grew up on a farm. Now, as a published author of seven books, her readers see her as a key voice for empowered women in Cambodia. Her book A Proper Woman, an autobiographical story of her and the women in her family, has been translated into three languages.

Thavry sat down with VOD to share her own story of how she became an author – and how a new generation of young writers can find their way. This article is the first in a two-part series on Cambodia’s emerging authors and the readers they attract. Part two, found here, describes the hopes and challenges of this new scene.

VOD: How did you get into writing?

Thavry: A dream. My dream was to become an author, ever since I was 9 years old. I knew that when I grew up I wanted to become a writer. I wanted my identity to be an author who wrote this book or that book. But I didn’t have any clue whether I was capable of doing it, because my parents are farmers and we lived in rural areas. But I never gave up on my dream.

In 2010, Thavry joined a weeklong seminar with nonprofit Room to Read, which included a writing competition for children’s books. She won the competition, and her book was published.

VOD: How did it feel seeing your book printed?

Thavry: I was so happy at the time. After they chose my book, I ran jumping to tell my friend that I had become an author. I was happy to have a book published, even if my book was thin and for children, around 20 pages and lots of pictures.

VOD: What was the motivation for writing A Proper Woman?

Thavry: I was working with an American company that was based in L.A., in adventure tourism, and I needed to go to the U.S. for training as a facilitator. In the spring of 2015, the company asked me if I could write about my experience as a Khmer woman and about social norms, how society puts pressure on women. So I wrote a story that was around four pages, and the company published it and I also posted it on my website.

A lot of people commented and emailed me saying this piece had spoken for a lot of women in Cambodia who don’t have a chance to speak out. After that, I asked myself if I could do more on the four pages. I thought it could be interesting. But I didn’t have experience writing an adult story.

It was so difficult. I worked alone and tried to figure it out by myself. I went to my home village and spent five days there. And I thought, a book about women through three generations, what happened through the three generations to be able to break free of social restrictions, that could be interesting. Because my grandmother did not study at school. And my mother was clever and got the highest scores, but they discouraged my mother because they did not understand the value of it. My mother did not get the chance. And then it was my generation’s turn. I’m the lucky one. I got the chance to get a higher education while being encouraged by my family.

I can say that I am the one who broke the circle. Among the three generations, I am the one who can be independent and do as much as my brother can.

VOD: How long did it take you to write this book?

Thavry: It took me 10 months and 15 days. It might have been one year since I started a brainstorm. I printed it on January 15, 2016.

Thavry self-published A Proper Woman, pooling her savings to make that happen. She has faced many challenges then and since. The writing is always difficult. 

“I almost gave up two times. Once my editor cut around half of what I have written,” she said of A Proper Woman. 

In the past, the unauthorized printing of books — from which writers get no return — was rife, and discouraged writers. But she and others are increasingly finding hope in reading and writing.

VOD: What happened after you published your book?

Thavry: One student texted me a year ago because she had read my book and wanted to talk to me. She said she was motivated to try to get a top grade in school. Recently, she texted me that she had gotten an A. I looked back to see the old conversation. And she had promised me.

Another one, she wanted to kill herself. But when she read my book she gave up on that. She should not think short-term. Life has more gifts. In my book, I have a passage that life is a special gift. That quote changed her mindset. That was a year after my book was published.

That’s only one book. Most of my books are about inspiring people not to give up on their life’s dream. So readers always think about what they have read.

VOD: What has changed for authors from the past to today?

Thavry: When I published my first book in 2016, there weren’t really any young authors. If there were, it might have been easy for me to ask for information from them. It was hard at the time. Recently there are a lot of authors and all types of books, and even the production of books has improved in quality, and there are more readers than before.

Young authors are increasing; they are starting to publish books. We connect with each other through social media. And there are also young authors who have contacted me to ask how they can publish books and where they can print.

VOD: What’s special about books for you?

Thavry: Books speak for countless voices, and when people read they feel it relates to their lives. It’s the stories about hope, not giving up easily, and fighting to follow dreams.

The second article in this series can be found here.

Note: Thon Thavry’s interview has been edited for length.

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