Sunday, November 11, 2018

The Rent Collector

book The Rent Collector in a pile of leaves
Book: The Rent Collector
Author: Camron Wright
Edition: Hardcover, Shadow Mountain, 2012
The cover of this book belies the nature of the story (not that I should be holding a gavel while selecting books), nonetheless, looking at the photograph of shacks clustered together in a dump, I expected to open to a depressing read. Yet, as the book reminds us, stories don't always take us where we expect.
The characters in the story introduced me to how someone could create their home and find beauty even amid squalor; work hard and form strong relationships in their neighborhood even as they work to find a way out. And certainly, throughout the novel, my view of home broadened.   
The Rent Collector is a quick read and an excellent choice for a book discussion. If one of your participants dismisses the choice as "being too depressing" perhaps that's all the more reason to talk about what's shared in this straight-forward novel and take your group on a discussion of multidimensional poverty— individuals who experience deprivation across areas of health, education and standard of living— such as the families portrayed in the novel.

Internet Resources

The Rent Collector was inspired by real people living at the Stung Meanchey garbage dump in Cambodia. You can peek into their lives in the documentary River of Victory. Watch the full documentary if you can. At a minimum, view the trailer for River of Victory, to glimpse images sharing the lives of this young family.
Photographer Maciej Dakowicz captured photos of the Stung Meanchey garbage dump in 2004 and 2005.
The United Nations Development Programme releases an annual report on poverty called the Global Multidimensional Poverty Index (MPI). It looks across three key indicators of poverty: health, education, and standard of living. The Phnom Penh Post summarized the findings for Cambodia.


Sang Ly: narrator who has made her home in Stung Meanchey, the largest municipal waste dump in Cambodia
Kim Li: Sang Ly’s husband
Nisay: Sang Ly and Kim Li’s son
Sopeap Sin: The Rent Collector, whose story unfolds throughout the novel
Teva Mao: Neighbor at Stung Meanchey
Lena: Sang Ly’s mother
Narin Sok: Sang Ly’s cousin who sometimes watches Nisay
Lucky Fat: orphan boy about 10 years old living at Stung Meanchey
Maly: young girl living at Stung Meanchey whose brother wants to sell her as a prostitute
Rathana: The original Sopeap’s sister
Soriyan Song: Sopeap’s past life

Discussion Topics

Here are a small selection of discussion topics for The Rent Collector that may help your book group launch a discussion relevant to your groups’ interests. 


Sang Ly and Kim Li live in Stung Meanchey, the largest municipal waste dump in all of Cambodia. Sang Ly describes her view of the dump as “unobstructed and occasionally quite spectacular” and goes on to say, “I don’t intend to portray the place as miserable or entirely without joy. On the contrary— in spite of its hardships, there are slivers of time when life at the dump feels normal, almost beautiful.” page 6  
She describes the people living near by as “neighbors”; the entire description invokes the feeling of a neighborhood.
Sang Ly also talks about how shelters are elaborate, and may “become an oasis in the filth, a gathering place.” page 11
Sang Ly’s aunt tells her that the dump provides a way for families to stay together and that it provides nourishment.
And when Sang Ly and Kim Li return to the dump Teva Mao tells her that everyone is glad that they are home.
How did you react to Sang Ly’s description of the dump as beautiful? Before reading the Rent Collector had you imagined considering a dump a home? What makes a home to you? How did the novel alter your views of neighborhood and home?

Being Poor

“The work is grueling in this place where Phnom Penh’s poorest families struggle to build a life from what others throw away— a life where the hope of tomorrow is traded to satisfy the hunger of today.” page 10
How did the novel expand your view of being poor? Which depictions were the most tangible and struck the strongest chord for you?  Where do you encounter poverty in your life? 
Read the 2018 Global Multidimensional Poverty Index (MPI) which is an annual report on poverty. People who experience deprivation in 1/3 or more of the 10 indicators fall in the category of multidimensionally poor. Consider a group discussion on poverty around the globe, including topics such as where it is most acute, where positive strides have been made in combatting the root causes of poverty and countries where there has been a significant shift.
What are the root causes of poverty? What possible solution are out there? How optimistic or pessimistic are you and your group on the ability for anyone to escape from poverty?


At the core of Sang Ly’s desire to learn to read is to give her son something to look forward to and an opportunity to provide a path out of the dump and change the trajectory of NIsay’s life. 
How has education changed the trajectories of your life and others you know? What is the power of education?
One day Sang Ly is able to string sounds together and read a word.
Do you remember learning to read? Do you remember seeing a child learning to read? How did it make your feel. Share stories among your members of learning to read. 
Sopeap Sin says to Sang Ly, “you do know child.  You just don’t realize it yet.” page 72. 
What do you think about this quote? Have you ever felt this way teaching someone else? 
Sopeap Sin also tells Sang Ly, “Education is almost always good, especially when it brings us to an understanding of our place in the world.” page 93
What do you think? Do you think education helps us understand our place in the world? Is that fundamental to education? An interesting by-product? Or are education and understanding our place not tightly linked at all in your view?

Changing Your Understanding

The characters in the novel change their understanding of one another right along with the reader. In particular, Sopeap’s history is slowly revealed to Sang Ly. When Sopeap starts crying when she first sees the children’s book, Sang Ly comments, “I understand that the woman— a person I believed to be beyond feeling— is so awash in anguish and torment that I don’t know what to do.” page 20 
Then when she forgives Sang Ly’s rent, Sang Ly muses, “Sopeap Sin, the Rent Collector, the greediest person I have ever known, has never been concerned about our well-being, and she has certainly never forgiven rent.” page 28
Little by little Sopeap’s background is revealed until the end of the novel when Sang Ly reads the story of the elephant and the old woman and thinks that Sopeap is represented by the old woman. Then Sang Ly’s perspective changes once more and she realizes that in fact, Sopeap is the dying elephant.
When has your perspective changed about someone whose past was revealed to you? Describe a recent event when your perspective changed to the positive as you learned more about someone. What about to the negative? Compare how you felt or reacted in each case.


As Sang Ly recalls how province life is so peaceful, her aunt reminds her that “Memory can be such a pernicious monkey.” page 192
What do you think of memory? When have you reminisced positively about an event that others recalled negatively? Much research has been done on memory and its accuracy. If you want to go deep into a discussion of memory check out resources such as Daniel Kahneman’s Ted Talk on experience versus memory and how that relates to happiness. He talks about how we put so much weight on memory relative to the weight that we put on experiences.


“If people realized someone would be sorting through their trash, would they be more careful in what they throw away?” page 24     
“Fight ignorance with words. Fight evil with your knife.” page 103   
“Only later would I realize that there are no words harsh enough, no paragraphs wide enough, no books deep enough to convey the weight of true human sorrow.” page 220                   

The Rent Collector

Book : The Rent Collector Author : Camron Wright Edition : Hardcover, Shadow Mountain, 2012 The cover of this book belies the na...