I’m trying to decide why “Cambodian Grrrl” is the best travel book I’ve read this year.

Part memoir, part travelogue, with a dash of manifesto here and there, “Cambodian Grrrl” is the story of Anne Elizabeth Moore’s experiences living in a women’s dorm in  Phnom Pehn, where she’d come, at the age of 37,  to teach young women how to self-publish zines.

It’s a  giant challenge, not just because of the expected language barriers, but because of  cultural and governmental controls on free expression, and restricted access to information  — for example, many of the young women did not know very much about the genocide that had affected their own parent’s generation; Moore finds herself in the awkward position of telling them about it.

When I first opened the book, I was on the lookout for the pitfalls that often plague this genre:

  1. One: The self-righteous narrator: watch as the crusading Westerner swoop in on the downtrodden folk and save the day!
  2. Two: The paean to the Noble Savage — why life is so much better when you are freed from Western comforts!
  3. Three: Policy wonkage — a slight story wrapped around a policy white paper.

“Cambodian Grrl” avoids all of these. Moore hits the right self-deprecating notes necessary to avoid the first problem, and is clear-eyed enough to avoid the second. (For example, she handles both of these at once in a deft set piece on washing her own dirty underwear by hand.) And while she does get in an enormous amount of information about the political, historical, and economic situation in Cambodia, it’s slid in the context of her own adventures and misadventures, and through the words of Cambodians. There are a couple of places where she directly discusses her own politics and philosophy, but she swerves away from the shrill, and everything is leavened with a great deal of humor

From a travelogue perspective, Moore does a great job of sketching the confusion of getting around town in a place where streets and buildings are numbered auspiciously, rather than…well, numerically.  She discusses shopping in the markets, the widespread advice to tourists to bargain and how bizarre it seems to haggle over such a small amounts with people who comparatively have so little.  And she also points out one of the weirder facets of dark tourism, or tourism based on human tragedy. Tour guides standing around, for instance, brightly offering tours of the Killing Fields.  I’ve not been to Cambodia, but I have traveled in Poland, and have seen the same bizarre brightness applied to tours of Auschwitz. (And posters and other souvenirs…not sure what anyone really does with those.)

There’s also the opportunism that comes with this, for example, a boy standing outside Tuoul Sleng, a torture center, begging for money, is asked his age, which he says his 12.

“Where are your parents?”

“We don’t have,” he said, gesturing to a shorter kid a few meters away.

“Where are they?” I asked.

“Killed by Pol Pot.”

 

He was too young for that to be true, but the women next to me mumbled with concern and handed him a dollar. He has benefited from her lack of knowledge.

 

Of course, this is also a story about how young Cambodian women began to make and distribute zines.  I found this part equally absorbing, and moving– the essential aspect of communication (and communication freed from commerce, imagine!)  a freedom of expression that is still so rarely used in these United States, even though we seem to communicate an awful lot about things that don’t matter that much.  It struck me that even as a person who has been involved in commercial publishing for her entire adult life, I’d never heard the sentence that Moore tells her students: “if you want to, you can start to change what people know.”

The one thing I really wanted, after I’d finished this slim book’s 95 pages, was to see the zines that Moore’s students made. I checked out Moore’s blog, clicked through a few pages of older posts, and didn’t see any. Perhaps some examples will be available soon. (Updated: there are a couple of older posts with images of the zines here and here, with others on the way. More as it happens.)

 

 

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Alison J. Stein

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