The Rent Collector by Cameron Wright
Read Feb 27, 2017
This book was inspired by the documentary, River of Victory, written, directed, produced, and photographed by Cameron Wright’s son, Trevor Wright. Trevor Wright’s film explores a young family, mother Sang Ly, father Kim Lim, and their son, Nisay, as they live in and make their living from scavenging recyclables from Stung Menchey, the largest municipal waste dump in Cambodia. Nisay is chronically ill with diarrhea and Sang Ly believes living among the stench and filth of the dump is a driver of that illness. However, the family seems to have few choices for making a living as revealed when the family returns to their homeland to visit a healer. As she reunites with family and friends there she is reminded that the financial situation in her homeland is as dire as theirs.
Cameron Wright decided to take this real-life story and retell it adding a fictional story regarding the woman who collects rent on their shack in the dump. This framing provides Cameron Wright a platform for describing in words and book form the difficult life the documentary reveals: the filth and danger in just existing on and in the dump, the hand-to-mouth level of existence of collecting and selling bits of material “picked” from the dump. The book includes the trip Sang Ly and her family make to their homeland and the trip to The Healer. The treatment is not discussed, but apparently it is effective while treatments received in the city from both western and homeopathic medical practices have not worked.
Sang Ly discovers that the dreaded, usually drunk, and mean Rent Collector can read. Sang Ly and asks the Rent Collector to teach her to read. The Rent Collector eventually agrees and Sang Ly progresses from learning the alphabet to reading words and eventually reading stories and poems and experiencing the riches that great literature can provide. This is possible as it happens that the Rent Collector was a teacher educated in the US and, most probably, a professor of literature. Soriyan (the real name of the Rent Collector) lost her husband and baby to slaughter by the Khmer Rouge during their “cleansing” missions to rid Cambodia of all intellectuals. Soriyan’s housekeeper, Sopeap, is killed instead of Soriyan when she pretends to be her so Soriyan is doomed to live under a false name and pretense. Soriyan eventually is able to provide for Sopeap’s family and does so for many years without the family knowing the identity of their benefactor. This story allows Cameron Wright the ability to remind us of the brutality of the Khmer Rouge and other similar regimes that have risen to power in various times and places in history. It touches on the theme of self-sacrifice and the reality of the resulting survival guilt and the burden accompanying it.
A primary purpose Cameron Wright seems to have for bringing together the Rent Collector and Sang Ly is to discuss the role and value of literature: the universality of many of the important stories that various cultures tell in various ways (ie Sarann in Cambodia, Cinderella in North America, Ye Xian in China, etc); dreams as inspiration for and subject of various works of literature; the indistinct boundaries between good and evil, heroes and villains, and especially the ability of literature make us think differently than we ordinarily would or could.
Through teaching Sang Ly, the Rent Collector regains her connection with humanity. Although she had provided for her housekeeper’s family, she had isolated herself from everyone and everything, finding solace only in alcohol. The Rent Collector leaves Sang Ly a collection of essays and stories as lessons for her after the Rent Collector leaves for a reason she is unwilling to articulate. Cameron Wright decides to tie everything together for us and the characters; I won’t detail the ending here. He does let us know, however, that Sang Ly and her family remain in the dump although Sang Ly is certainly in a different state than we found her at the beginning of the book.
I was sometimes unconvinced by the tenor of the Sang Ly’s voice as narrator and had to accept the seemingly rapid rate of learning of Sang Ly to progress from alphabet to the study of serious literature. I also found some of the subplots almost distracting as they were not fully developed so we only got a very brief hint of the theme they carried. Cameron Wright touches on multiple human themes including: what a mother will do for a child; what a father will do to protect his family; surviving dire financial circumstances; self-sacrifice; survivor guilt. Cameron Wright’s book was primarily written to enable us to learn about life in Cambodia post- Khmer Rouge and the challenges the Khmer Rouge wrought on the population. An even better version would have more fully developed all of the themes which interest him while telling it within the framework of the post-Khmer Rouge situation.
Some describe the book as one with a message of hope. An apparent goal of the Khmer-Rouge was to wipe out all sources of education and thinking not authorized by the government. There is certainly a warning in this book that all must diligently oppose any kind of force that seeks to fulfill such a goal. However, if there is a trace of literature available and any willingness to share it, that literature will enable humankind to continuously grow, learn, and expand its capability and capacity to make a positive difference in the world regardless of current circumstance. That is truly a hopeful message.