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Vol 57 No. 11 : June 2, 2005
Vol 57 No. 11 | June 1, 2005
Yamada Helps Support Cambodian Literature

Teri yamada

Comparative World Literature and Classics' Teri Yamada is bound for the Buddhist Institute in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, this month to attend the Third Nou Hach Literary Award Ceremony.

The yearly literary awards are sponsored by the Nou Hach Literary Journal based in Phnom Penh, and are meant to recognize a new generation of Cambodian writers, translators and literary scholars.

The journal, which saw its first volume in 2004, was supported by the Nou Hach literary project, an international organization of academics in support of the development of Cambodian literature, writers and academics. It is based at CSULB under Yamada's direction. Funded for its first two years by the Toyota Foundation and now seeking support from the Rockefeller Foundation, the journal is a collection of fiction and essays selected from Khmer writers both in Cambodia and France, with most of the selections awarded prizes at the 2003 and 2004 Nou Hach Literary Competitions.

In collaboration with the international Cambodian community and an editorial board of scholars and writers, the Department of Comparative World Literature and Classics co-sponsors the journal, which will be published in part on the World Wide Web with a complete print edition for Cambodia. The journal has been named after the great modern Khmer writer, Nou Hach, who helped to establish a high standard of literature in Cambodia during the 1950s. Cambodian writers in Cambodian, English and French established the Nou Hach Literary Journal to promote the production of literature and scholarly work as well as Cambodian arts and popular culture. It also strives to explore the Cambodian Diaspora and welcomes translations of short fiction and poetry by Khmer writers.

“People have been extremely impressed with the journal,” said Yamada, a Rancho Palos Verdes resident who joined CSULB in 1988. “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 Xerox 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.”

One of the most meaningful things about the project to her so far was her escort of several Cambodian-American students as her research assistants for what became 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,” said Yamada. “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 become more engaged with the local Cambodian community. They realize how lucky they are.”

By the late 1950s, Cambodia was well on its way to developing a modern literary tradition. There were popular novels, literary journals and an emerging discourse in literary criticism centered in the capital city of Phnom Penh. All this creative innovation slowed down during the politically tumultuous times of the late 1960s and was nearly crushed during the Khmer Rouge era of 1975-79. Since then, the rebuilding of a modern literature has been difficult. Even today, writers have few venues or events where they can gather to discuss their craft. They have no central distribution system to ensure that their novels or poetry collections are displayed in bookstalls throughout the country. They face high printing costs, endure low incomes and have few opportunities to see their work published.

Yamada addressed the Spring 2005 Women's Research Colloquium on “Cambodians in Transition: From Phnom Penh to Long Beach, 1958-2005.” She earned her bachelor's degree in Asian Studies from UC Santa Barbara and her doctorate from UC Berkeley in 1985. She is the author of Virtual Lotus: Modern Fiction of Southeast Asia, published in 2000 by the University of Michigan Press. Its companion volume, A Literary History of Modern Southeast Asia: The Short Story Genre, will be published by the Association for Asian Studies in their new “Asian Interactions and Comparisons” series.

Yamada believes one big reason for the project's success is the dedication of those involved.

“The managing director is young, inspired and totally dedicated to this project transcending monetary compensation,” she said. “Absolute fiscal transparency is something I demanded from the first. The project has its own accountant. Everything is above board and I have complete control over the financial situation. We have a lot of integrity as far as how people perceive the process.”

To defuse any charges of jury-rigging, Yamada linked the journal to such international scholars as Australia's David Chandler who serves on the research panel of judges as well as experts from such disparate places as Tokyo and Lowell, Mass.

Since she became involved with the project, she has come to see herself as living between two cultures. She has worked with graduate students at Phnom Penh's Buddhist Institute, helping to ensure their success as the first Master of Arts candidates in liberal studies to receive degrees within Cambodia.  

“They're like my daughters and sons, both intellectually and otherwise. These students are totally dedicated to learning,” she said. “That makes it easy to become very attached to the kind of work that I do.”
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