Anne Elizabeth Moore’s travel memoir, Cambodian Grrrl, is a humourous, self-effacing tale of an American abroad.
In this universally acknowledged but much maligned age of memoir, travel literature is easy to find. Even first-person accounts of ventures in international development – a narrower sub-genre – have become commonplace. Given this, Anne Elizabeth Moore’s story of teaching in Cambodia could easily blend into the din of first-world soul-searching and gentle socioeconomic commentary. Instead, Cambodian Grrrl presents a quirky, brisk, and piercingly honest recitation of one woman’s experience in a post-conflict society overseas.
An acclaimed writer and activist at home, Moore (author of Umarketable) is an unlikely candidate for social entrepreneurship in Southeast Asia. In Cambodian Grrrl, she describes herself as the owner of “a semi-legitimate career” in independent publishing, and, a bit sardonically, as a purist of self-reliance, related peripherally to the trend-ridden DIY movement. Insomuch as counterculture accepts the notion of expertise, she is as an expert in underground print. However, this serves to disadvantage her as a traditional emissary of first-world know-how to developing nations: When she arrives, she comes bearing not the expected marks and capabilities of an American citizen, but lessons from a movement that is poorly understood even in the US itself. Self-publishing and small-circulation zines are such novelty concepts that they risk becoming meaningless outside of their original surroundings.
Perhaps for this reason, Moore does not structure her book in the traditional narrative arc of insurmountable obstacles, followed by perseverance, then by personal crisis and, finally, success. Instead, Cambodian Grrrl consists of a series of vignettes, each a very personal meditation on subjects like adjusting to a foreign place, societies in crisis, and the pitfalls of collective memory. Moore does write about her students and their growing interest in self-publishing, offering many humorous anecdotes of dorm life and cross-cultural communication. However, the formal lessons she teaches and the content of her students’ zines take a back seat to Moore’s general reflections on Cambodia. In broadening the scope of her narrative away from the day-to-day of zine-making, Moore shows self-publishing as just one aspect in the ongoing journey of her students and Cambodian society in general.
Moore is generous in showing the complexities of her pursuit. For starters, she is charged with an all-female group of first-generation college students. In a society of strict gender roles – where exam questions may ask about “the advantage and disadvantage of girls in higher education” – this instantly expands Moore’s role. She is no longer someone who knows the logistics of zine-making, but someone who must advocate her students’ need for self-expression in general. Yet Moore’s account carries no obvious monologues on female empowerment. Instead, Cambodian Grrrl shows the delicacy of Moore’s cross-cultural discussions through humorous, sometimes awkward scenes. In one chapter, Moore must explain to her students why their publications have equal value to those of an official newspaper. In another, she spends several pages clarifying the irony of a T-shirt which reads, “Punk boy,” and bears the Playboy commercial logo.
Another narrative twist is the discrepancy between Moore’s expectations and the reality of her students’ chosen subject matter. At the start of the book, Moore reveals her interest in Cambodia to have started with the bloody Pol Pot years. In providing this personal detail, she illustrates the way Cambodia is regarded in the U.S. en bloc–as a grim, dangerous place haunted by historic bloodshed. When Moore arrives in Phnom Penh, however, she finds the Killing Fields to be absent from Cambodian conversation. This piece of history, she learns, is kept alive mostly for the benefit of tourists; and despite her urging, her students show limited interest in expressing themselves on the topic. Towards the end of the narrative, the girls’ zines are shown to focus largely on benign scenes taken from their home life. Unobtrusively, Moore shows us that the need to know and to vocalize is, in some cases, a very American concept.
Despite its generally subtle approach, Cambodian Grrrl leaves room for criticism in cultural sensitivity. At one point, for instance, Moore unexpectedly simplifies Cambodian life to extremely basic metrics: “The man pointing the gun at you was bad. The woman handing you food and stroking your knee was good. People’s desires seemed straightforward.” By maintaining her light and self-effacing tone, Moore makes it difficult for readers to distinguish between thoughts which are retrospectively self-mocking and those she holds to this day. Meanwhile, discussions with Cambodian citizens are transcribed word for word and deliberately maintain grammatical errors. Though this lends an air of authenticity, it also serves to keep a shroud of potential misunderstanding between the book’s Cambodian characters and American readers.
Cambodian Grrrl is unlike most books on similar subjects. It is not Carol Livingston’s meticulously journalistic Gecko Tails, nor Peter Hessler’s deeply contemplative River Town. Instead, by virtue of its fractured timeline and abundant personal commentary, it is perhaps as close to an immersive experience as travel writing can come. Readers can compare it to a series of blog posts or, more traditionally, to a traveler’s journal. At its core, the book provides a frank snapshot of the thoughts any development-minded traveler may experience during their first months overseas. As an added benefit, readers will gain insight into the world of zines and Anne Elizabeth Moore’s offbeat sense of humor.