Decades after the fall of the genocidal Khmer Rouge, Cambodian children still find human bones in their schoolyards. Past the tourist thoroughfares, where street entrepreneurs make cheery pitches to foreigners who've come to see the killing fields, very few people speak of them at all. The government salaries of rice and expired canned milk have been replaced with actual money, but teachers still earn so little that classrooms function like bribe mills where “thank-you money” earns a seat close enough to hear the teacher.
Women and girls in post-Khmer Rouge Cambodia have more than a history of poverty and genocide to contend with. Stranded at the margins of a weak economy, their destinies might be rerouted through the violent world of sex trafficking, or their lives are cheapened by subtler means like the Chbap Srei. Under the guise of tradition, this nineteenth-century “Girl Law” delivers its unequivocal lessons: If a boy or man enters the room? Avert your eyes. If your husband beats you? Remain still. And so on.
To be fair, none of the women in Anne Elizabeth Moore's “Cambodian Grrrl” (released September 3) seem to spend much time reading the Chbap Srei, but several of them keep copies on their desks – the same desks where they study to become some of the country's first women lawyers, accountants and politicians. (Full disclosure: Moore is a member of Truthout's board of advisers.) They are the residents of Euglossa Dormitory for University Women, home to some of the country's most driven and justice-minded college students, and – at least for three months – to Moore. The activist-writer-artist, who locked in her DIY cred with her 2007 book, “Unmarketable,” arrives in Phnom Penh with a plan to teach Euglossa's young women the art of zine-making. But how can a sheet of A4 paper overtake the long cultural shadow of the Chbap Srei?
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Theoretically, Moore's goal to help her students channel their voices in a self-made medium is the perfect answer to the corruption, poverty and bereft educational system that blanket much of Cambodian life with an aura of powerlessness. But on her first day in the country, engulfed by disorder and without the “Khmenglish” she and her students will later use to communicate, she has her doubts: “I evaluated the last 24 hours and thought to myself: You came here to make zines?”
And yes, there is something absurd about bookmaking in a country whose national library served as a stables during years of authoritarian rule. But Moore readily acknowledges her own tenuous relevance in the opening pages of “Cambodian Grrrl,” and that humility means we get to hear just as much from the people she meets in Phnom Penh as we do from the writer herself. Most of the second chapter is essentially an oral history with Euglossa's director, Sonrith Channy*:
During Pol Pot time, my father, he make himself like stupid people. He worked for government, before. So: Very danger. And when Pol Pot come, sometimes he cried, sometimes he laughed, sometimes he say something like a bird … It was scary, because he had long hair, and all the children run after him. Me too! I ran after him! Tease him. Chase him. My mother, she was crying, every time. She thought my father had become stupid. Crazy. He did not tell anyone.
After Pol Pot, he become normal again. He become smarter. My mother asked him, “Why you become normal now?” He said, “I made my body become stupid and crazy during Pol Pot regime. Otherwise they would kill me.”
As Moore's stories reveal, the country's legal, economic and cultural infrastructures, already suffering before Pol Pot's takeover, were not as easily restored. She and her students must work in a sort of stilted free-for-all, and her skill at conveying the mood of the country is both convincing and impressive for someone who spends relatively little time there. While “Cambodian Grrrl” is hardly the first book to riff on a now-familiar narrative – funded Northerner travels to poor country for do-gooder project; cue symphony of doubt, shame, horror, redemption – Moore's unfeigned candor, along with an inventive, almost giddy narrative voice that becomes more and more like the voices of her teenage dorm mates, leaves scarce room for readers to indulge their cynicism.
Moore hits the mark on just about every topic. There's the everyday matter of driving: “Cambodia remains an oral culture so rules spread by rumor, or watching. So at every traffic light, the drivers watched each other. He is stopping. I will stop.”
There is Pol Pot's legacy of terror: “They called themselves and their superiors Angkar, pronounced like this: Angka. It means association, organization. The feeling it compels is one of ubiquitous fear.”
And there is the moment when Moore confronts the surreal hour she spent teaching zine-making to a group of former child sex workers whose lives are basically devoid of books: “A cry of anger from the girl in the back, a rustling. She had cut the wrong edge, and crinkled the useless piece of paper into a ball. It is rare to be so angry at something here that you can discern no future potential use for it, and discard. These girls knew that better than most.”
Still, as a relatively wealthy foreigner in a poor country, it's hardly possible for Moore to escape the echo of all the other stories written by the privileged about the poor. Watching her navigate the terrain of cultural precedent is one of the most interesting aspects of reading the book, and only one scene is ambiguous enough to suggest an unexamined entitlement. “Like walking into a room you didn't know would be filled waist-high with puppies,” she says, in a playful description of the endearing girls that avoids condescension until – “every one so ready and charming and enthusiastic that you want to adopt them all.” Whatever it means, it's a brief, honest moment, and Moore doesn't apologize for it or explain it. Later, she is eloquent on the divide between her and her students: “I always remained skeptical [of] my own motives: I love horror movies. Their parents lived through worse.”
As the story goes on – and as the tiny dorm room she shares with several of the girls becomes her home – she seems to almost become one of them, as well as earn respect as their teacher. Their conversations reveal Moore's skill at distilling complicated ideas through a language barrier with a veteran artist's acute irreverence: “The government does not like to acknowledge things that make it look bad,” she tells her student Chandara, who is baffled that an American knows more about her country's violent history than she does. “Like when you meet a new friend, you do not say, 'sometimes I am mean.'”
In a still-repressive political climate where self-censorship is the rule, Moore and her students are risking plenty as Cambodia's first zinesters. They protect themselves by distributing mostly to tourist venues, and they write only in English. And it all pays off, in unexpected ways that are best told in the book itself.
With its slender binding and intimate voice, “Cambodian Grrrl” is kind of like a zine with an ISBN. In 95 pages, Moore risks more, and reveals more, than plenty of those longer books that are practically branded as “serious literature” (you know the ones). Its emotional and intellectual honesty remind us what storytelling is for, and Moore's students are already using their stories to change their country. Even before she leaves, Moore gets to see the results in an email from one of their newsstands: “I hear you are the one who make the zine. We are desperate for zine.”
Correction: A previous version of this article stated that Moore's 2007 trip to Cambodia was funded by a Fulbright scholarship. In fact, Moore was awarded a Fulbright in 2010.