“The Rent Collector” by Camron Wright is an historic novel based on the life of Sang Ly. The story is set in current day Cambodia 35 years after the Khmer Rouge massacre and deals with the social injustices caused by the war in Cambodia.
The author’s son, Trevor Wright, filmed a documentary “River of Victory” about Sang Ly and her family and the daily life of the trash pickers who lived in the Steung Meanchey municipal dump outside the capital city of Phnom Penh.
The landfill, 11 acres of trash and 100 feet deep, was closed in 2009, but before that hordes of families lived in the shantytowns surrounding the dump, seeking out a living by scavenging the recyclables from the trash brought in by the garbage trucks.
In an online interview, the author said, “One of my goals was to have it help the family who inspired the story. A portion of the proceeds earned from ‘The Rent Collector’ helped those living at Steung Meanchey.”
The story focuses on Sang Ly and her husband, Ki, and their chronically ill infant son, Nisay, who live in Seung Meanchey, the largest waste dump in Cambodia. This is a story about the resilience of this little family as they save money to save their son.
Although the family lives in squalor, they are hopeful that someday life will get better. Sang Ly remembers the Buddhist parables that her grandfather used to tell her. And one day she dreams that he tells her that this is her lucky day. That day, the rent collector, Sopeap Sin, comes by. The character Sopeap, an ill-tempered old lady, is based on the real-life angry rent collector. She demands the monthly rent, even though the residents build their own day shelters.
The family has a children’s book, which Ki has brought home from the dump that day. Sang Ly notices that the rent collector goes pale when she sees the small book. She further realizes that Sopeap can read. And that, Sang Ly decides, is how she is going to heal her son. Sang Ly will get Sopeap to teach her to read so she can eventually teach her young son.
In the process, Sang Ly discovers that Sopeap is highly educated; the two begin to read and discuss literature together. Sang Ly does not realize that reading books is going to change everything.
When Sang Ly and her family return from visiting a healer, they discover that Sopeap is gravely ill and has disappeared. The family sets out to find her and solve the mystery of her mysterious past.
Mr. Wright wants the reader to see past the dump and focus on the treasures of family, relationships and sacrifice.
He writes, “As good stories – stories that touch your soul, stories that change your nature, stories that cause you to become a better person from their telling – these stories always contain truth.”
“The Rent Collector” shows how right can overcome negative might and how the ability to read can help overcome poverty.