Caffeine, Culture and Cambodianess

Bun Tharum talks to Din Darathtey, the kick behind Cambodia’s darling Substack newsletter, Campuccino
Darathtey Din
Darathtey Din

A writing aficionado from an early age, Din Darathtey is now the author behind Cambodia’s leading email newsletter, Campuccino.

Her fortnightly dispatches provide a roundup of local news sprinkled with witty social commentary. She began writing it while holed up in small-town New Zealand, adrift between cultures and longing for home. While politics plays a lead role, Campuccino covers other topics such as arts and events, culture and food.

Darathtey’s initial splash in writing circles came with her contribution to “Cambodia 2040,” an influential volume published in 2020 by the Phnom Penh-based think tank Future Forum. The publication contemplates what the nation will look like 20 years in the future.

Darathtey contributed a chapter titled "Cambodian Identity, Culture and Legacy." She holds degrees from RULE, Pannasastra and the University of Warwick in the U.K. As a student, people often said she wasn’t Cambodian enough. Identity plays a recurrent theme in her work.

Darathtey talked with Kiripost’s Bun Tharum. The interview has been edited lightly for length and clarity.

Could you please introduce yourself?

I’m Darathtey, writer and founder of Campuccino, communications specialist, identity research enthusiast and black-coffee-no-milk-no-sugar drinker.

When did you start blogging? And why?

My very first blogging experience started as early as 2011. A friend inspired me at the time. I was walking in the PUC library and saw her blogging about the wedding of Prince William and Kate, using one of the library’s computers.

My first platform was Blogger, and I wrote about random stuff in my life. I guess I knew quite early that I enjoyed writing. I used to write a lot of Khmer essays when I was in high school, and I read a lot as well. I read so much my mother told me that she couldn’t afford to buy new books for me that fast. So yeah, it seems that I am drawn to many things writing-related.

Tell me about Campuccino. What prompted you to launch the email newsletter? What do you want to achieve with this medium?

Campuccino was created out of desperation to keep myself busy and to stay up-to-date with news in Cambodia while I was away and jobless living in Aotearoa (New Zealand). The pandemic was hard for everyone and I was no exception. There I was in a new city, I couldn't find a job or new friends, and at the same time I felt as if I was slowly drifting away from home as well. I felt like I belonged nowhere. I wasn’t quite accustomed to life over there and I was slowly losing touch with home. I knew I had to hold on to something, and as a result, I chose to hold on to Cambodia.

Regarding the email newsletter aspect: I chose Substack because that is what everyone seems to be doing these days, and I thought it was cool. You write and your subscribers choose to read your content through subscription.

Frankly speaking, Campuccino was a trick to make myself read news about Cambodia again. I knew I was coming back and I didn’t like the feeling of not being on top of the news like I used to be. So the newsletter was born.

At the beginning, the only thing I wanted to achieve was to get a sense of home, to want to read news again. Now, one year later, I want this newsletter to be a go-to place for people to get a sense of, or reconnect with, this country of mine. What started out as a curated news aggregator with a little commentary has slowly turned into a newsletter about all things Cambodia.

I enjoy the freedom of curating Campuccino utilising all the knowledge I’ve gathered, from my Cambodianess and childhood experiences to Khmer folktales and day-to-day encounters here.

What topics or issues interest your readers the most?

It varies for every newsletter. However, I’ve noticed that whenever I offer food-related content, that always receives the most clicks. The Arts & Culture section drove multiple subscribers to write to me personally and share their experiences with certain topics in the section.

Any challenges finding interesting, meaningful news headlines to comment on?

Yes and no. There are always interesting things around, in my opinion. But then again, it is all subjective. What one reader might find interesting might not be that interesting to others. What I find difficult, though, is curating the content, making things relate and flow together well. Each issue ends up taking more than an hour or two. Regarding comments on news headlines: It is getting easier for me to not comment on some of them because they are old, recurring issues.

I’ve learned to leave space for my readers to digest and come up with their own comments on some issues.

What are your thoughts on the current media landscape?

It is tight, as you know. Reporters have much less space and freedom to do their jobs, and the space gets even tighter if they report on certain issues. That is especially true for local reporters. However, I’ve also noticed the rise of new media channels created by young Cambodians to discuss issues they care about, or issues that don’t get covered enough in traditional media.

Young people have turned to the tools they are familiar with — Facebook, Clubhouse, Telegram and TikTok — to initiate dialogue about issues such as mental health, body positivity, reproductive health, sex education, entrepreneurship and so on.

You wrote "Cambodian Identity, Culture and Legacy," a chapter in the book “Cambodia 2040.” Was there anything that really captured your attention while researching and writing that?

I let my imagination run wild for the short-story blurb at the beginning of the chapter. It is essentially a day-in-the-life scenario for someone who lives the ideal life in 2040. I even got a question from someone asking where they could see that psychedelic Kse Diev concert that I referred to, not knowing it was all in my head!

About working on the chapter: It was a desire to explore a topic that doesn’t get talked about enough but still means a great deal to many people. It started with me exploring my own identity while I was doing my MA at Warwick [University in England].

I am one of those people who was told way too often by my fellow Cambodians that I am not Cambodian enough. So you can see why the topic about identity has become very fascinating. Along the way, questions came up more than answers, and that was when I realised I needed to do something about it. Hence, I researched and wrote this chapter for Cambodia 2040.