“Cambodian Grrrl” Brings Self-Publishing to Phnom Penh

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It’s difficult to summarize Cambodian Grrrl: Self-Publishing in Phnom Penh. Part travel diary, part cultural study, part biography, Anne Elizabeth Moore‘s new book covers her time spent in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, teaching self-publishing to 32 teenage girls at The Euglossa Dormitory for University Women. As she convinces the girls that their own stories are worth telling, they transform from a group that looks to their teacher to provide them with topics, to individuals who eagerly write and draw and express, distributing their “zines” around their community. It’s not an insignficant thing, this self-expression of young women in a country that has traditionally oppressed their voices in every way. (Though, as Ms. Moore notes, most of the nation’s youth don’t believe the Khmer Rouge existed.) And in the end, Ms. Moore notes, they learn “how to make media that is outside of government, that isn’t associated with a business. If you want to, you can start to change what people know.”

Ms. Moore, an author and artist who resides in Chicago, will be holding a release event on Tuesday, September 13, at the Chicago Cultural Center from 6-8pm, in partnership with the the Cambodian Association of Illinois. In the meantime, we chatted with her about making zines in Cambodia and what future prospects await these impressive girls.

What about the zines made them so popular amongst the people to whom you distributed them?

We distributed the zines—which we created in English—in tourist and ex-pat centers and, as I write, they were gobbled up pretty quickly. I think that foreigners in Cambodia we so eager to read the zines was because they were just plain old curious about this tightly guarded culture. Women in Cambodia—and all over Southeast Asia, to varying degrees—are discouraged from participating in public life, and taught to care primarily for men and children not only in the home, but in most social interactions. They’re often kept out of school after the third grade, even today, to work the family farm—and if they’re not, they’re generally sent to work in the factories in the city center. Garment factory workers represent the third largest industry in the country (textiles) and financially support the second largest industry (agriculture) with their earnings. The downside of garment factory work, the masses of young women with few to no options on their own in the city center, makes up the sex industry, which pretty healthily supports the country’s first largest industry: tourism. So young Cambodian women are largely invisible to visitors, and yet support all the development the country’s been able to undertake in the last 35 years. Invisible but unbelievably influential. I think that makes people curious.

Later on in their work, you write of them exploring their cultural history through the zine. But what other topics were addressed in the zines?

Oh, great stuff. Fun games they play together, things you can do with rice, their favorite water buffalo, the unique Cambodian landscape, boys. This book looks at the first batch of work I did with young Cambodian women in 2007, which was really mostly zine-making. It’s the first in a series of four books that will each track a different development area among different cultures of young women in Cambodia. In 2007, there wasn’t any internet to speak of in the country. There was often no electricity. Zines made an enormous amount of sense, and took advantage of the plentiful if undermaintained photocopiers around Phnom Penh.

You came in contact with these girls at an early point in their adult lives. What are your hopes for them as they leave the community at Euglossa and navigate their lives and careers in Cambodia?

Well, interestingly enough, the next book will start to explore a little bit more about their futures. One of the problems with the current mode of economic development in Cambodia is that it’s so U.S. (and Australian and European) supported. The end goal of many youth programs there is “economic opportunity,” which basically means leaving the country and working in the U.S., Australia or Europe, for at least awhile. So at this moment, individuals are given the possibility to financially uplift themselves and their families, but there are few structures that actually support the long-term development of Cambodian industry and social justice. The country—and foreign aid programs—are essentially pushing young people toward entrepreneurship, which is sort of the capitalist ideal. Every man for himself, right? Bootstraps and all that? So the self-publishing project, and some of the other cultural, social and media justice projects I’ve been involved in since starting to spend time there, are about ensuring that the young women I work with retain a healthy skepticism about selling themselves and their stories to get by. I’m all for travel of course—obviously. And international networks, for sure. But Cambodia will require a lot of care and attention, and that shouldn’t emanate from international sources, intent on culling the place for business opportunities. It should come from young people who care about their own history and want to improve their own futures.

You spoke often about the tension between students, teachers, parents and government. What was the response or reaction of the girls’ families to the media they created under your supervision?

I actually didn’t get much of a chance to see what their families said about the zines—their families live in the provinces, so I didn’t get to meet them more than a few times. But the next book, which I think will be called New Girl Law and come out in the spring, will start to talk about some difficulties we faced with making that work public. At one point, one project the young women and I worked on together—a book we co-wrote—was actually censored, both in Cambodia by one of the young women’s mentors and in the U.S. So it was one thing to develop this space to explore freedom of expression and really set down on paper what that might entail, but eventually it became clear that allowing young women to speak plainly about political desire was seen as threatening in some surprising circles. The silencing of this work was really, truly painful.

Can you share with us a memorable story written by one of the girls?

One of my favorite zines was a really beautiful retelling of the folktale, The Tortoise and The Hare, that one of the young women drew, called The Rabbit Want to Compete With a Turtle!! I liked it because it told a familiar story but from a totally different cultural context, narrated mostly through interior monologues by the two main characters, who were charmingly drawn by the artist, Raksmey. She’s really smart and clever, so the rabbit and the turtle developed these distinct personalities: The rabbit starts off the tale by thinking to itself “La la! I am so smart! And handsome! It’s perfect.” He spends most of the rest of the zine thinking great things about himself, and napping of course, and meanwhile the turtle, who we know already will win the race, is thinking things like “I’ll show you my best trying!!” and “Start.” A turtle is asked to enter a race and of course, what else is the turtle going to think about? The turtle is going to think: “Start.” I’ve worked in comics for a really long time now, and this piece—a lot of their pieces, actually—just display this raw, unfiltered desire to communicate some basic things about the way young Cambodian women see the world, and how they construct its problems and solutions. Another thing I love about this piece is how the turtle ends up being a pretty obvious self-portrait of Raksmey: she’s a steady, dedicated, well-paced young woman with almost no ego to speak of.

What are you working on now?

Often when I give lectures at universities or among Cambodian communities here in the States, people come away with a really insightful understanding of what Cambodia feels like from a young educated woman’s point of view. Increased cultural understanding, particularly between nations with histories as complicated as the U.S. and Cambodia’s, is an important component of media justice. It was really gratifying over the winter to have the opportunity to implement this zine-making business into my work with the U.S. State Department as a Fulbright scholar. I was able to pass off several of the zines as well as the how-to documents to the Peace Corps, who I was told would use them to teach zinemaking around the country. If that works, and genuinely offers more people the chance to state their own interests in their own futures more clearly, then I am happy. Zines are only interesting in as far as they allow others to communicate something about themselves to me and whoever else reads them.

Cassandra_Gaddo

About Cassandra A. Gaddo

Cassandra A. Gaddo is managing director of Step Up Women's Network in Chicago. A passionate advocate for gender equality and the advancement of women and girls, she is also a board member of Rape Victim Advocates, and a Young Professionals Ambassador for The Chicago Council on Global Affairs. She writes and speaks about local, national and international women's issues, including in her blog, "Twice As Well."