I was drawn to Lang Leav’s pearl necklace. She was wearing it in all her pictures. It was a gift from her mother – a symbol of a mother’s love, and the struggle that accompanied it. It does not only connect mother and daughter but also to their homeland – like an umbilical cord that is never severed.
It is a reminder that she was luckier than the millions of Cambodians who were not able to escape the genocide perpetrated by the Khmer Rouge under the Pol Pot regime.
Lang Leav’s family along with thousands of Cambodians fled their country and stayed in refugee camps across Thailand. The third of the four siblings, she was born in a camp on September 8, 1980. Refugees are stateless until they find a third country that will take them in and give them citizenship. Many spend decades in camps, denying the children the chance to live a normal life. Leav’s family was fortunate to be able to migrate to Australia when she was 11 months old in 1981.
In Australia, Leav grew up learning English and reading English books that were otherwise not accessible to students in Cambodia. Thus her flirt with words started early on.
From a refugee to a migrant, to launching her poetic career through the internet in 2013, Leav went on to become an internationally best-selling novelist and poet. She is known as an instapoet, popularizing “groups of mushy words or sentences” and calling this poetry, posted in her Instagram and Tumblr accounts.
Her first book, Love and Misadventures, was a massive success. She won a Qantas Spirit of Youth Award and a Churchill Fellowship.
Despite the negative reviews, Leav is here to stay for now. Her “groups of words,” whether we (or others) like it or not, become poetry. She manages to create her own “brand” that appeals to millions of readers – except perhaps in Cambodia.
Lang – who?
In Thailand, her books cost about 470-695 baht (US$15-$22). But most English books in Thailand are expensive anyway. With her success and background, I wonder why many Thais and Cambodians haven’t heard of her.
“Lang – what?”
“Sorry, I haven’t heard of her.”
My former student Chamroen, who is now a teacher in Cambodia, asked me who she is. I sent him a picture.
“Where’s her location in Cambodia?” he asked.
Sao Pal Niseiy, a journalist in Cambodia, told me he doesn’t know her either. Through a quick Google search, he found Leav’s social-media account.
“Despite her international recognition, Cambodian people are not able to get to know her well. Maybe some group of people like artists or writers might know her,” he said.
Niseiy hopes that Leav will one day visit Cambodia.
Iain Donnelly, an expatriate who owns Saraswati Publishing in Cambodia, explained that Leav may be popular to some young and educated Cambodians or the expatriates.
“As far as books in English is concerned the most popular genre among young and educated and entrepreneurial Cambodians is self-help books, particularly in the business field,” Donnelly said.
Personal is political
Lang Leav does not write in Khmer. Was she taught to speak in another language, but not Khmer?
She writes in Memories Lost:
“If I could, I would erase every trace of myself from your memory.
You would lose all recollections of loving me.
You won’t remember why you stopped.”
Critics say Lang does not use her influence to speak about genocide or refugee issues.
Yet she writes in Love Looks Pretty on You:
“Don’t stay where you are needed. Go where you are loved.”
“Don’t let them tell you that your pain should be confined to the past, that it bears no relevance to the present.”
But are these poetry? Maryanne Moll, an award-winning Filipino fictionist and a literary criticism student, said Lang’s poems are her way of exercising the trauma she inherited from her mother.
Ramil Digal Gulle, an award-winning Filipino poet and critic, believed that we need to define poetry like other things – mundane and abstract. “But we must also realize that definitions are not meant to be fixed. They are not meant to be changeless and eternal,” Gulle explained.
Gulle believed that the source of much fighting in the literary community are among those “who define what poetry is” – the formalist and the academic camp that prescribes rules of craft and aesthetics, while the Marxist camp says let the people decide.
“This Marxist view, ironically, is what helps make Lang Leav and her publishers rich. By saying that the people, the readers, must decide, then, of course, they will decide with their wallets. For me, it’s useless to try and get one camp to agree with the other.”
Moll said: “Marxism also considers creators of pop culture as legitimate participants in discourse, whether that particular piece of literature is beyond our own standards.”
Potential EFL material
In English as a Foreign Language (EFL) teaching, Leav’s poetry can be explored as an introduction to English.
An English professor at Naresuan University in Thailand, Thitirat Suwannasom, thinks Leav’s poetry is a good teaching material because the language is not too difficult to understand.
“It’s youthful. All about love and relationships and teenagers love that. We cannot use old poems to teach young people,” Dr Thitirat said.
Reuben Esteban, an EFL lecturer in Rajamangala University, agreed. “Her poems can stir their critical approach towards the topic or content she has written. They are very relative and apt for this generation of students in Thailand”.
Another Thai professor, Dr Waewalee Waewchimplee, who teaches Introduction to Literature at Nakhon Ratchasima Rajabhat University, also agreed. “It is interesting. I also relate to some poets on Tumblr. If I have time to read her books, I might include her for the next academic year,” Dr Waewalee said.
Donnelly said: “I found most of the poems in the book [Love and Misadventures] simplistic and naive, and some of the imagery was of school standards. I can see its appeal to a certain audience but cannot see her name going down as one of the greats of the genre.”
Lang Leav’s brand of poetry may not be acceptable to the gate-keepers of the literary circle. There are always bad reviews, speculation on who controls what she writes, that she capitalizes on being a refugee to gain an audience are merely trivial compared to what her half a million followers believe. Leav is a savior. She is reaching out to us. And we easily reach her without compromises, without asking questions and meanings. It is up to you to give meaning to her bouquet of words.
Gulle aptly defined poetry: “Let us be open to expanding the definition of what poetry is. Poetry is alive – it is alive because living, breathing people enjoy and celebrate it. If it is to stay alive, then it must change, like all living things. If we confine poetry to one strict definition, we are killing it.”