Tuesday, 10 November 2015

Sue Guiney: Philanthropist And Author

Sue Guiney is the British-based American founder of Writing Through, a charity working with children in Cambodia to promote conceptual thought and self-esteem, through the teaching of creative writing. Instruction is in English, so classes also help students develop fluency in a language that opens doors otherwise closed to them.  

Sue is also a poet, and a novelist.  Her novels explore modern-day Cambodia.  I met her in Singapore, to discuss both her philanthropy, and her writing.

In 2006 Sue took her very first visit to Asia, when she joined a house-building trip to Cambodia. “I looked out of the tour bus window, and fell in love with what I saw.” She said. The schedule included a visit to an orphanage in Phnom Penh. “This was before there had been any publicity about treating orphans as a tourist attraction, yet the visit left me feeling conflicted and uncomfortable.” Her discomfort resulted in both her first novel, A Clash of Innocents, which explores ideas about innocence and guilt, set against the backdrop of Cambodia’s violent past and the beginnings of its new Tribunal for justice, and also in the founding of Writing Through. 

A Clash of Innocents was a new departure in more ways than one. “There was no contemporary literature about Cambodia, when I started my first novel, only historical fiction set before the time of the Khmer Rouge, and also memoirs of the Khmer Rouge, mostly written by people who’d got out. I decided I should tell the stories of Cambodian people today, for a Western audience, and also explore the current role of Westerners in Cambodia.” 

Sue  decided she’d have to give something back to the country, and the people, that had so inspired her: she began leading writing workshops in an educational shelter in Siem Reap. “I knew I had to make a long-term commitment. I couldn’t only go once. These were children with difficult families, children who’d been betrayed, abandoned, I couldn’t abandon them again.”

Some of the minor characters from A Clash of Innocents reappear as major characters in Sue's second novel, Out of the Ruins, which explores the treatment of women: “I wanted to expose the lack of healthcare for women, and the sex trade.” Sue plans at least one more novel, and possibly two more, in which minor characters in one story become major ones in later books in her cycle of novels of contemporary Cambodia: “I want to have a body of characters, and for readers to get to know their backstories.”

Sue’s novels have been well-reviewed in the West, but she laments the lack of popular interest in them there: “I’m writing literary fiction about a subject people don’t care about in the West.” Distribution is a constant problem – the books are not carried by chains selling mostly mass-market paperbacks, although more up-market chains, and independent bookshops carry them.

In general, poetry sells even less well than literary fiction. Nonetheless Sue's publisher suggested she should write a collection of poems about Cambodia, and  she is now in the middle of doing just that: "As a poet, I am much concerned with place, I am enjoying working on a themed collection with such a strong sense of place."  

As to Writing Through, that is going from strength to strength.  In June 2014 the charity started working with French NGO Enfants Du Mekong, and it now works with 10 NGOs in total, and it is rolling out its programmes across Cambodia.  It is building networks of enthusiastic volunteers, many of them based in Singapore, to provide funding, and support – some have even trained as workshop facilitators.  If you’d like to get involved, check out the website, here.

Details: Sue’s novels are published in paperback and eBook by UK-based publisher Ward Wood.  They are available here.  They are priced in GBP, so you’ll need to convert the price to your own local currency.