Eluding Censors, a Magazine Covers Southeast Asia’s Literary Scene

HONG KONG — At Monument Books, a bookstore in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, the magazine racks are stacked with copies of The Economist and other titles from Britain, Australia, France and the United States.

But one top-selling magazine there was founded in Phnom Penh and takes its name — Mekong Review — from the mighty river that runs beside the city’s low-rise downtown.

Mekong Review was first published in October 2015, and each quarterly issue has featured a mix of about 10 to 20 reviews, essays, poetry, fiction, Q.& A.s and investigative reports about the culture, politics and history of mainland Southeast Asia. Supporters say it is a welcome platform for Southeast Asian writers and scholars of the region, as well as a sharp political voice in countries where speech is perennially threatened.

“It’s an incredible beacon of light to see someone bring something like the Mekong Review into being, and I just hope it can continue,” said William Bagley, a manager at Monument Books, which has nine stores across Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar and caters to tourists, expatriates and English-speaking locals.

Minh Bui Jones, Mekong Review’s founding editor and publisher, said he saw the magazine as a vehicle for cross-border connections in a region that lacks a sense of a shared historical narrative.

According to Mr. Jones, it also aims to be for Southeast Asia what he said The New York Review of Books and The London Review of Books had been since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001: “brave, trenchant critics of their respective governments.”

Mekong Review is a long shot on many levels, not least because it covers a region where English literacy is patchy, postal systems are unreliable and newspapers that are not controlled by governments tend to struggle against censorship and chronic financial constraints.

One such newspaper in Phnom Penh, The Cambodia Daily, closed in September, after 24 years in operation, amid allegations by the government that it had not paid millions of dollars in taxes. The closure was widely seen as linked to a steady loss of free expression in the country.

Mekong Review would not be subject to the same direct pressure because it is based in Sydney, Australia, Mr. Jones’s hometown, where he resettled in 2016 after living for nearly a decade in Britain, Cambodia and Thailand.

But Mr. Jones faces other challenges, including a shortage of manpower. He said that while his wife and father-in-law, along with a friend who lives in Kashmir, help out with copy editing, he edits and commissions all of the articles. “It’s a very modest enterprise,” he said.

Then he must arrange delivery of the magazine’s 2,000-copy print run to Southeast Asian cities that are hundreds of miles apart. Mr. Jones said he has an ad hoc distribution system that relies on friends who “mule” copies by plane, bus, tuk tuk and motorbike, and that he also moonlights as a deliveryman when he visits the region.

For its fall issue, Mekong Review expanded its editorial focus beyond mainland Southeast Asia — Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam — to include Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia. It also switched to a printer in George Town, a former British colonial outpost in the Malaysian state of Penang, from one on the outskirts of Phnom Penh.

The switch has further complicated delivery logistics. “Now we have the South China Sea to contend with,” Mr. Jones said with a chuckle.

But the magazine punches above its weight: Its contributors include some of the best-known authors, journalists and academics who follow the region, including Viet Thanh Nguyen, the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist, and Emma Larkin, the pseudonym for a Bangkok-based American writer who has published several nonfiction books on Myanmar.

Ms. Larkin said that Mekong Review avoids the “easy clichés through which the West views Southeast Asia and offers instead a rich, in-depth and nuanced portrait of the region.”

Mekong Review is unique in part because it serves as a bridge between the academic world and Southeast Asia’s literary scene, said Judith Henchy, the head of the Southeast Asia section at the University of Washington Libraries in Seattle. “It’s an attempt at a kind of regional cosmopolitan voice,” she added.

The magazine’s reviews have covered books about Khmer history, Asian street-food culture, the Thai monarchy, ethnic-minority communities and much else. The spring issue included a translated excerpt from “Crossroads and Lampposts,” a 1960s novel by Tran Dan, a Vietnamese writer whose works were banned in Vietnam for decades.

Other articles take deep looks at local news. The fall issue includes “Facing the End,” a diary of The Cambodia Daily’s last days by Jodie DeJonge, the newspaper’s last editor in chief, and a Q.&A. in which the blogger Nguyen Chi Tuyen criticizes Vietnam’s ruling Communist Party and describes what he says is repression by its secret police.

Mr. Jones said he struggled with that Q.& A. because he worried that the Vietnamese authorities might punish Mr. Tuyen for making such provocative comments. But he decided to publish anyway, he said, because he felt that it highlighted an important human rights issue.

“I anticipate a lot more repression in the days ahead” in Vietnam, he said.

Mr. Jones, 48, whose family fled to Australia from Vietnam in 1978, said in a Skype interview that he began his journalism career as a researcher and producer for SBS, an Australian public broadcaster, and then worked as a reporter for the Sydney Morning Herald. He later founded or co-founded four magazines that focused on current affairs in Asia, including The Diplomat, which went digital after he left in 2005.

He joked that he was a “serial offender” for publishing so many print magazines in such a digital era. “There is something, for me anyway, rather magisterial about this tactile form,” he said from his home office.

“And, also, everyone told me that it’s impossible to make money on the internet,” he added. He wore black-rimmed glasses and a Cambodian scarf that brushed against his salt-and-pepper beard.

Mr. Jones said that he started Mekong Review in Phnom Penh, the Cambodian capital, because the riverside city of 1.7 million was a magnet for talented writers who were hungry for adventures and bylines. His goal was to bring the authenticity and cultural depth to articles and reviews that he felt was lacking in coverage of Southeast Asia in major literary magazines. A good example, he said, was a nearly 4,000-word Mekong Review article by Sebastian Strangio that analyzed the brazen murder last year of Kem Lay, one of the Cambodian government’s loudest critics.

Mr. Jones said he also liked to recruit Southeast Asian writers whose work could guide a reader through their respective countries’ cultural “labyrinths.” He pointed specifically to “Life as a Shopping Mall,” an essay by the Thai writer Pim Wangtechawat about consumer culture in Bangkok — an aspect of Thai society that Mr. Jones said was poorly understood by outsiders.

Bernice Chauly, a poet and novelist in Kuala Lumpur who directs the George Town Literary Festival, said that Mekong Review could serve the crucial function of publicizing literature from Southeast Asia that does not yet reach an international audience, and also offering a platform to writers there who feel intimidated by censors.

“There hasn’t been anything like this,” Ms. Chauly, whose latest novel is reviewed in the fall issue, said. “Ever.”

Mr. Jones said that Mekong Review stays afloat mainly thanks to a few loyal advertisers, including Marou, a gourmet chocolate company in Ho Chi Minh City. Its bare-bones website is subscribers only.

Samuel Maruta, the founder and chairman of Marou, said in an email that he purchases full-page ads in Mekong Review because he appreciates good journalism and likes to support free speech “in a region where such a freedom is so rarely seen.” He said that the magazine’s saving grace may be its relative obscurity.

“They’ve somehow managed to stay under the radar,” he said, “possibly because censors are too busy checking stuff online nowadays to bother with something that you can’t read on a screen.”