When I saw the book cover of The Rent Collector, with a photo of tin and cardboard shanties built on a HUGE mound of garbage, I was curious and intrigued. The book cover was well worn, as it seemed to be a book that had been checked out and read by many. After reading The Rent Collector, it is now one of my favorite reads of the year.
The Rent Collector, by Camron Steve Wright, is a fictionalized account of a real family who live on the Stung Meanchey, the largest municipal waste dump in Cambodia. Sang Ly and her husband Ki Lin are pickers at the dump, scavenging recyclables to sell to earn a meager living for themselves and their chronically ill son, Nisay. They live in a one room cardboard hut with only a tarp for a door. For the right to live on the dump, they must pay rent to the Rent Collector, a miserable, drunken old woman. By chance, Sang learns that the Rent Collector, whose name is Sopeap Sin, can read. Sang begs her to teach her to read, so she can make life better for herself and her family. In exchange for a special children’s book that Ki found in the dump, the Rent Collector agrees to teach Sang to read, thus starting a remarkable journey for both women. Their lives become enriched through literacy and literature, as Sopeap passes her knowledge to Sang. Sang’s overriding concern is for the failing health of her son, which takes her on a literal journey for a cure. In addition, Sopeap’s backstory unfolds slowly and powerfully, taking the reader on an emotional journey that will not be forgotten.
The Rent Collector is at its best when Sang and Sopeap are discussing books. The story becomes a testament to the power of literacy and literature, showing how learning to read can change someone’s life and how literature can transport the reader to different places and give meaning to one’s life. In this case, since Sang lives at a dump, anything that can transport her somewhere else and bring beauty into her life is desperately needed. By Sopeap mixing poetry, ancient fables, and fairy tales into Sang’s weekly reading lessons, Sang envisions a future of hope and happiness.
Many of the characters in the book are real people. Their photos can be found in the back of the book. The author, Camron Steve Wright, was inspired to write this book after his son completed a documentary film on the Stung Meanchey, which included Sang Ly and her family. By taking real people and writing a fictionalized story around them, the story jumps to life. The character’s daily lives show the hardships of living on the dump, while simultaneously sharing the bright spots that one can make out of even the worst of living conditions. The Stung Meanchey dump becomes a character itself in this wonderful story.
The book is beautifully written and flows well. The reader definitely gets a feeling for life at the dump, and although the ending has a fairy tale quality to it, I found this story to be thought provoking and uplifting. As I said before, The Rent Collector is one of my favorite reads of the year.