On Publishing and The Khmer Woman
Posted on April 9, 2013
Anne Elizabeth Moore, Chicago, USA
Editor, Artist, Writer
I had the privilege of interviewing Anne, an editor, artist, writer and activist based in Chicago, USA. Working with young women in Cambodia on independent media projects namely in publishing, Anne has amassed much respect in the global sphere from all that she has accomplished from her work in women and gender issues to discussing media and censorship. Today, she speaks to us on her time in Cambodia, her inspirations, the journey and the takeaways from it all.
I used to run a magazine that was very popular here in the States called Punk Planet. Shortly after we stopped publishing it in 2007, and once my book Unmarketable came out, I started looking into accidental systems of oppression: situations in which, despite claims of freedom of expression and democracy, some participants do not have access to the tools they need to communicate with each other and better their lives.
So I rekindled a grade-school fascination with Cambodia, where “democracy” was defined as the freedom to say positive things about the government, and journalists are regularly beat up or worse for, you know, printing verified facts, and where one of the biggest papers in the country was sold in 2008 to a conglomerate based in Myanmar (Burma). An actual military dictatorship. Eventually, I was invited to come live in a dormitory in Phnom Penh for 32 young women students who were just entering school for the first time because they’d sort of been forgotten about when the educational system was rebuilt in the 1990s. When I was offered the residency, I thought: Oh-ho! This thing that I’ve devoted most of my time to since I was 11, promoting media access via print self-publishing, that isn’t working right now in the States due to what I’d call economic censorship—corporate forces pushing out non-corporate media, particularly that which speaks against corporate forces—I’m gonna see how that flies with the cute and the Cambodian. At the time there was hardly electricity in the country, much less computers or Internet access.
How did you decide on publishing in Cambodia as a specific area of entry?
So the concept of self-publishing is not new in Cambodia; the lack of publishers often makes it the only publishing option. But because of the rampant self-censorship and very real clampdowns by the government on freedom of expression, and because visual artists are discouraged from drawing from a very early age, few examples of self-publishing actually exist. Yet as a group of 33, these young women and I created close to 50 zines on topics as diverse as rice production and agriculture in contemporary society, women’s issues, spirituality, health care in the countryside, and Cambodia’s unique and disturbing genocidal history. I couldn’t believe how well it went over. For a country where there were only three literary publishers that I could find, where freedom of expression is regularly oppressed, where we had to invent the very notion of distribution, and where the average monthly income was $60 per month—well, I thought self-publishing would be a harder sell than it was.
I thought explaining why this was useful and worth spending time and a few pennies on for photocopies would be difficult. But in fact, most of the girls had just been waiting for the chance to express their opinions about the economic hardship of their country, highlight its beauty, outline their hopes for its future.
So we found a way to do it safely—in English, through small social networks we invented ourselves—and wrote and drew to our hearts’ content.
Perhaps the strangest part was, there was no malice in our work. It was all pure, hopeful, and enthusiastic. It is a country without irony.
Did you move beyond publishing?
Since then, I’ve done a ton of other projects—comics workshops and art installations, mostly focused on self-publishing, or around the garment industry. But that was the start.
What were some of the issues you ran into (e.g. money, the law, etc) and how did you find your way around it?
Well, one of the things that we did (my 2011 book Cambodian Grrrl is part of a series of books I’m writing on this work, and the next one is called New Girl Law and addresses this project specifically) was collaborate on a revision of the traditional Khmer text known as Chbap Srei, or Girl Law, which circumscribes proper roles for women in Cambodian culture. It has all sorts of provisions on not making noise when you move, never looking boys in the eye, and accepting the beating your husband gives you. So our version was a letter-pressed, hand-bound book that calls for basic human rights, gender equity, the eradication of corruption, and funding for cultural production. It was, like, a re-envisioning of a potential future for the country. We all wrote it together, and then I designed it back here in the use and hand-bound it based on their specifications. It took a year. You know, Jean, that art is really hard.
But even though funding this work has always been an issue and we always, at every step, faced legal and cultural barriers and concerns, and even language issues (learning any Khmer at all was really hard),
the biggest issue I ran into was that, in the end, this book we’d made together was not well received, neither in Cambodia by some of the people who’d worked on it nor in the US, by people who claimed to want to support young Cambodian women’s voices.
And thinking through the mess of issues raised by censorship and self-censorship and democracy and the US and Cambodia was stultifying. The book New Girl Law, which comes out at the end of the month, is an attempt to look really clearly at the fears and desires that drive the urge to silence, and those are just really hard issues to tackle.
Geez, I don’t even know how to answer this. It sounds like an exaggeration to say that I learned how to be a person in Cambodia, or maybe it just sounds like a dime-store travel paperback. It wasn’t the travel, though—I’ve traveled before, a lot. It was the young women I was living and working with. They taught me how to be strong but kind, they taught me to giggle, all day long, even if the world just doesn’t give a shit about you, and they taught me grace in the face of unbelievable oppression. It’s sort of the easy lesson of Cambodia, that you can survive against insurmountable odds. I’m not even talking about the garment industry, or the endemic poverty or the mass killings, or the violence against women. I just found out today that Cambodia has a much higher than average rate of death by lightning strike. You know? It’s an amazing place.
Anne Elizabeth Moore is a Fulbright scholar, a UN Press Fellow, the Truthout columnist behind Ladydrawers: Gender and Comics in the US, and the author of several award-winning books. Moore herself was recently called “one of the sharpest thinkers and cultural critics bouncing around the globe today” by Razorcake. The multi-award-winning author has also written for N+1, Good, Snap Judgment, Bitch, the Progressive, The Onion, Feministing, The Stranger, In These Times, The Boston Phoenix, and Tin House. She is currently based in Chicago and likes cats and pie.
Say hello to Anne at http://www.anneelizabethmoore.com