In 2007, writer Anne Elizabeth Moore traveled to Cambodia to live in a dorm with the first generation of post-Khmer Rouge female college students and teach them how to make zines. Being myself a former zinester who’s travelled extensively in Southeast Asia, I was pretty sure I’d love Cambodian Grrrl: Self-Publishing in Phnom Penh (Cantankerous Titles, 2011), the book Moore wrote about her experience. Still, once I got my hands on the slim volume, the depth of my passion almost disturbed me. For months after reading, I felt the book pulsing in me like a second heart. I am a cheapskate and a terrible gift-giver, but I bought Cambodian Grrrl for at least four other people, so worried was I that they might dismiss my recommendation if I didn’t press the object into their hands.
A large reason why the book resonated so profoundly for me was that I connected it to the time I spent in Vietnam in 1993, when the country was just cracking open again to the West. I’d gone there hugely self-conscious about being an American in a place where U.S. involvement had devastating consequences, and I’d steeled myself for awkward encounters, especially as an odd-looking woman traveling alone. Instead, I was met in most quarters with an enthusiasm, curiosity, and generosity that nothing in my life had prepared me for. I was invited into people’s homes, singled out among tourists of other nationalities for special treatment, and followed on the streets, where more than once the crowd that formed in my presence erupted in cheers when I bought a baguette or tried to ask a question in Vietnamese. I also encountered a handful of people who very obviously did not have positive associations with Americans, and I confronted poverty and a depth of need that I had never before seen. Meanwhile, I was addled by the beauty of the country and confused by the ways in which its tragic history and decades of economic isolation contributed to the exotic aesthetic I found so alluring. What I saw in Vietnam didn’t quite come into focus when looked at it through a lens of postcolonial criticism, but it couldn’t be understood without it, either. I left the region reluctantly, and with a question that has burned for me since: how—to borrow from Sheila Heti—should a white girl be? Cambodian Grrrl, published almost twenty years after I went to Vietnam, presents the best answer I’ve yet to read.
It’s easier to find examples of how a white person should not be. Moore herself—a journalist and cultural critic who is the author of books including Unmarketable: Brandalism, Copyfighting, Mocketing (The New Press, 2007) and Hey Kidz, Buy This Book (Soft Skull, 2004), as well as the former co-editor of the now-defunct Punk Planet and the founder of the feminist comics collective, The Ladydrawers—often documents the missteps of business and aid communities abroad. Recently, for example, she’s helped organize a critical response to Nicholas Kristof and Half the Sky, the controversial documentary about women’s oppression across the globe that he and Sheryl WuDunn produced.
A critical stance can sometimes make it difficult to move through the world unencumbered by self-consciousness, or can come with its own set of blinders. So I’ve particularly admired how gracefully Moore’s writing on Cambodia presents the complications and contradictions involved with teaching in a country where U.S. involvement contributed to the conditions of a genocidal regime and where U.S. dollars now have an outsize influence on the economy and development. When Cambodian Grrrl came out, Moore announced that it was to be the first in a series of work about the country. She’s been back repeatedly since 2007, and she’s planning subsequent installments that will cover the garment industry and the sex industry, on which she’s been reporting. I‘d been awaiting these books, but what she published next was quite different. This fall, she released Hip Hop Apasara (Green Lantern Press), a collection of lyrical essays and photographs that’s impressionistic rather than journalistic, and that documents, among other things, the emerging public nightlife in Phnom Pehn and the struggle for social justice. The book captures the poignancy a single moment can have when so much is changing, and it highlights the contrasts and constants contained within human nature.
Once again, I was moved. Hip Hop Apsara and Cambodian Grrrl have left me with so many overlapping thoughts and feelings that I had difficulty formulating specific questions to pose for this interview. Moore and I talked for about 90 minutes in her apartment in Chicago.
Rumpus: Last night I was telling my dad about this interview, and we were talking about the issues raised around Kristof, the way he puts himself and other Westerners front and center in the stories of these women, and ignores the larger contexts. My dad’s been teaching on the Navajo reservation for about twenty years, which he started doing as a way to sort of give back after doing a lot of scholarship there. But what he said last night was that more and more, he realizes that he can only say with confidence that the work has had many positive impacts for him. That it’s less clear what the overall impact has been on his students or the community. Anyway, I was going to ask you about the first time you perceived yourself as an outsider in another country, and then I noticed that in Cambodian Grrrl you talk about having spent some time on a reservation, and I was interested in that, since you don’t have to leave the country to experience another culture.
Moore: I was born on the Rosebud Reservation, in this unique situation where my parents, white people both, were working there at the time. I lived there for my first two years, and I grew up with this weird status of being the white person who has the “in” to Indian Culture. Which I even knew when I was little was this incredibly fucked up, complicated thing. So then in 1998, I went back and did some pretty serious work on a different reservation, on the Cheyenne River Reservation.
Rumpus: What were your parents doing there?
Moore: My dad was in the domestic service. He didn’t want to go to Vietnam. (So I did, later.) So he was working in the U.S. He was a neuroradiologist. He was also involved in setting up all these alcohol treatment centers. But he was also a super raging alcoholic. So he would work during the day to set up these alcohol treatment centers, and then he would get wasted at night. So that gets back to your dad looking honestly at his experience, and looking at the Kristof thing: how much impact can we really have that’s positive, when our own needs and desires and problems travel with us wherever we go?
Rumpus: I was also interested in your experience in Nicaragua in 1994. I have the impression that you were there meaning to investigate Sandinistas or…
Moore: Yeah, that trip was really interesting. I was just barely at the beginning of trying to answer: “What can I do with the skills that I have?” I was writing for The Onion at the time, and working at The Progressive. I went to Nicaragua for a month to see what could happen. I got really sick right away, so I didn’t end up being able to do anything, and instead I almost died of cholera.
Rumpus: A lot of my fascination with your work in Cambodia comes from my own experiences in Vietnam. All the preparation I thought I had done to be an American in a newly opening Vietnam was just totally misdirected. My nationality was so foregrounded, which I guess I expected, but I hadn’t expected it to mostly make me into a complete rock star. I had braced myself for the opposite. I was coming with all this guilt, and I was unprepared for the level of kindness I was met with. And I was unprepared for the poverty, too. I had seen poverty before, but not to this extent, and I just didn’t know what to do in the face of it. There was this list of tips for conscientious backpackers traveling in the developing world that got passed around at the time. Ideas about how not to, in your well-meaning blundering, inadvertently contribute to making a situation worse. You’re not supposed to give cash to beggars, you’re not supposed to give medicine to people, you’re not supposed to give stuff just in general—but these tips didn’t seem to apply very well in Vietnam, where I felt like an asshole or a jerk in complying to them.
But I just fell in love with it there. And after I left, I was sort of desperate to go back, but I only wanted to go back if felt like I had a purpose. And I was still just confused about being an American there, or in the world. When I came upon Cambodian Grrrl, I was struck by your ability to go to Phnom Penh and share your skills with confidence. To know that they might be useful, and that they won’t be harmful. And by your ability to sit in the complexity of a place with so much history and where America has had so much involvement without becoming paralyzed by it. How did you arrive at that place? Was there a difference between when you went as a much younger person to Nicaragua, and then fifteen or so years later when you went to Cambodia?
Moore: You know Betsy Crane? She has this really great line in one of her stories. The character has finally gotten her shit together, and is describing the past when her shit wasn’t together, and she says, “There were some ineffective years.” I always intended to return to Nicaragua and do something, but I didn’t. Partially out of a realization that work was already going on, that there was nothing I could contribute to it. But there’s a little bit of failure on my part to really make that set of experiences and my skills useful. I think that failure definitely set me up for how I wanted to be in the world.
The phrase “global citizen” always gets tossed around with my work, and part of it is that, clearly, talking about being a global citizen is the only way we can talk about participating in globalization without feeling like assholes. And so it’s a little bit about being a global citizen, with all the United Nations positive umph that there is with that phrase—it’s about being a positive do-gooder. But it’s also: how can I participate in globalization in a really clear way? Like: don’t leave the house unless you can bring something worthy into the world. And so Nicaragua changed the way that I want to do things.
But the Cambodia stuff was such a conglomeration of need and loss, and interest, and time, and luck, that there’s also this different sense of it. It’s different than anything else that I have done, like the work that I’ve done in Georgia [the former Soviet Block country, not the state], in Germany, and have been thinking about through various communities here.
Rumpus: I’m interested in your focus on print publishing in Cambodia. Is it anything to do with the fact that print publishing might be playing a different role someplace like that, whereas here and now print publishing might have a bigger question mark over it in terms of need or impact?
Moore: Yeah, for sure. So, I was invited to Cambodia to spend time in this dormitory. Let me explain more about that. It’s a single dormitory that was built by an NGO for young women to live in so that they could go to school elsewhere in Phnom Penh, at one of the colleges that were already being rebuilt in the country. But there were also some classes offered there. I was invited to spend some time as a resident in the dormitory, which is called Euglossa, right around when Punk Planet was shutting down.
For me, it was very much about my sense of loss that this form of communication—small-scale publishing—wasn’t having the kind of impact that it needed to be having. It was also at a moment when I was like, I worked my whole fucking life at this fucking career and it’s over. It’s over, you know? There were—I’ve done this part of the interview a lot of times—you can run the data on the thousand-some people that were left without a reliable place to have their voice heard when Punk Planet shut down. I felt responsibility to them. I felt responsibility for not having been able to make a small, scrappy, already-underfunded institution continue here despite the democratic principals the U.S. was supposedly built on. So it was really like: what good am I? What good are these skills that I’ve worked my whole life to ensure? I always wanted to be that person who can be dropped into the wilderness from a plane and they could survive for three years, and I can’t do that. But you know, I can put a publication together really fast, and it’s going to be interesting, and it’s going to be diverse, and it’s not going to have too many spelling mistakes, and it’s going to have good art. So in 2007, when I was first invited to Cambodia, it’s like: I can do this one thing. I happened to be invited to a place where that one thing might prove useful. So. Let’s try it. And it was great.
Rumpus: Can you give examples of things those young women you initially met are doing now?
Moore: So many go on to work for NGOs, because it’s one of the only ways for a professional in Cambodia to make a living. Some just went into banking, straight up. And a wide swath of them did just get married. And many have come and studied in the U.S.
Rumpus: Might they go back?
Moore: Most of them have, and that is a testament to their staunch desire to make it happen there. They’re just getting to the age where they’re starting to have larger questions about how international aid works and maybe questioning their presumptions that the best answer is always the American answer. That part of where things are at is really exciting, but that’s not a conversation I want to have a hand in. I don’t want to be like, yes, I think the American answer is always stupid, or I think it’s always the right answer. So I’m in this weird place there. I’m feeling it out. Cambodia is going through an enormous amount of change right now. Daily.
Rumpus: I want to compliment you on the writing and construction of Hip Hop Apsara. It’s so elegantly written and put together. I thought the ghost theme was really effective, very appropriate on lots of levels. There’s the scene where you’ve having dinner—I don’t know what kind of dinner it was—a lavish dinner…
Moore: …with fancy people.
Rumpus: You’re with the former Secretary of Education, at this lavish fancy dinner. And you’re conscious of all the contradictions, of the people outside who haven’t eaten all day, etcetera. I love how you were at once appreciative of the dinner being offered, aware of the contradictions, and admiring of this man, whom you describe in glowing terms. But I read a friction there as well. This man is warning you about ghosts, and I went back to reread to see if this was a veiled threat, or if it was a flirtation, or if it was to be taken at face value as a friendly warning, a sharing of information.
Moore: It was deep concern that I might get haunted.
Rumpus: Was there a reason he though you in particular might get haunted?
Moore: It wasn’t about my adventurous spirit/problematic political stance. It was entirely, “You probably don’t know about ghosts because you’re American, so we have to talk.” That was an amazing, amazing moment. I think a lot of people I know could have had that experience, and been like, “What a back-asswards country, and what a ridiculous thing to be concerned with.”
Rumpus: Here’s this guy with all this power…
Moore: …and he’s going on about ghosts. But I don’t want it to be read as: and that’s what he cared about? What he cared about was that I might not have the knowledge to avoid this dangerous situation. And that’s why I talk about ghosts as politically important, because they’re like little teeny fears and belief systems that don’t get newspaper coverage, they don’t enter into the debate, they’re always kept elsewhere. But in my experience both in South Dakota and in Southeast Asia, agreeing to the possibility that here’s stuff that we don’t understand is a) a great political moment as an American; and b) something that just lets you talk easier with people. If someone is talking to me very seriously about not going in the banana trees because they’re haunted, and I accept what they’re saying, it’s so much easier to move on to talking about the state of education in Cambodia, because you’re not stuck on “you’re crazy.” So, ghosts as political metaphor.
Rumpus: So in part I was reading a potentially romantic subtext in this banquet scene. Did you date while you were in Cambodia?
Moore: No. And I was just thinking about that. I was watching this Thai horror film, and I was really attracted to one of the characters, and I thought, I wasted my time while I was in that part of the world. I should have gone on a dating spree! I should have slept with everyone! But no. If I’m entering a situation where the political economy needs to be foregrounded, there’s no way that I’m even going to see people in the could-potentially-date category. Which means I spent a lot of time not getting laid. Which is totally unacceptable!
Rumpus: I was interested in the way you talk about the young women at Euglossa. You describe the girls in the dorm so vividly—their prettiness, their adorableness, their sweetness, how much they giggle. They’re very feminine. I think it can be hard to talk about groups of young Asian woman without talking about…without focusing on the beauty of them. The absolute charm and fetching-ness of them. I’ve wrestled with that. How easy it is to be infatuated by a group. Sometimes in Southeast Asia I would find myself feeling like a fifty-year-old man on a sex holiday. I’d be surrounded by these lovely women, and I’m thinking: “You’re so solicitous, and you’re so lovely, and it’s so wonderful to be around you, and…”
Moore: And all we do is hold hands…
Rumpus: It was very confusing for me. So there you are: you’re an American woman, and a Caucasian woman, in this place with these strong gender roles. How did it affect your sense of yourself as a feminine or masculine person, as a sexual or asexual person?
Moore: Right. And I’m queer. So I’m like: young, hot women slaving over me? Don’t even think for a second that… Sure, the elementary schools that adopt Cambodian Grrrl into the curriculum aren’t going to want to hear this, but making a decision to maintain a sexual distance does not mean that it’s not this constantly running thread in my head. I’m actually physically turned on by some of this stuff. And again, the political economy in that particular environment means that, if my attraction ever coheres as a thought at all, it’s never going to be verbalized, because that will mess up the education environment, it will mess up everything. You cannot claim to be doing good if you’re moving in that direction.
I think immediately of the white American businessmen that I see every night on the riverside there, soliciting the services of young Cambodian women. They think that what they’re participating in is an even-keeled emotional exchange, but the young woman involved believes that it is an economic exchange. You’re never going to be able to comprehend what the other person is thinking. Even if we ignore the sexual assault, the rape, the abuse, all of the other fucked up things about the sex industry, just in terms of a relationship, you are never going to be able to communicate. But I am still the person that I am.
Hip Hop Apsara was about giving myself space and time to let these ideas play out a little bit more, especially in the writing, and the images, and the way they intersect. It’s not journalism, but there’s a way it allowed me to be more emotionally accurate than I was allowed to be in Cambodian Grrrl.
Rumpus: Is there any visible queer culture is Phnom Penh?
Moore: Very little.
Rumpus: In Hip Hop Apsara you talk about the Messenger Band show you attend, and there was a transgender fashion show as part of that.
Moore: Yes, but that’s a relatively new thing. Again, here’s an upside of globalization: transwomen have become more visible. But that does not in any way, shape, or form mean that queer women’s rights have been even put on the agenda.
It wasn’t even until this last trip that I was able to have any sort of frank discussion of lesbianism at all. It was very much off the record. It was with a woman who wasn’t claiming to be a lesbian herself but said she knew someone. And there are a couple figures in Cambodia who are, it’s widely know, in long-term relationships with other women, but it basically comes down to rumor.
The ways sexuality plays out in political economies is central. And Cambodia’s political economy is organized around this notion of family. So lesbianism is actually perceived as being threatening to a degree that it would have not been, for example, under socialist East Germany. But it’s one of the essential issues of women’s freedom: Do you get to do want you want to do with your body? Not if you don’t know what your body is for. Not if you believe that your purpose is to be married to a man who will annoy you with his sexual advances until he finally impregnates you, which is how a lot of young Cambodian women talk about sex. It is not my job to go and be the sexually liberating force in that culture, but it’s a conversation I’ve been excited to watch, a little bit.
Rumpus: I was thinking back to Thailand, when I was traveling by myself. So many young women are super-friendly and affectionate, and a couple different times, there were cases where I was totally being hit on by woman, and I didn’t realize until far into the process what the intention was.
Moore: And how that interaction cannot be divorced from the presumption of economic reward means that I get uncomfortable around that pretty quickly.
Rumpus: That’s not to mention the times being out late in Bangkok clubs or whatever, and the hour strikes when the women who aren’t going home with any men will go for the lesser payoff of trying to get a woman to pay to go home with them. My friend had to point it out to me. I thought we were all just tearing up the dance floor and bonding and having fun. But no, this was their job.
Moore: Yeah, and you are playing a role in their working environment.
Rumpus: It was fascinating to me, to go somewhere and be seen as a potential sex consumer, when I had spent so much time on my guard, thinking everyone was trying to get in my pants. Which was often enough the case. So I was attracting one kind of sexual attention while also being on the other side of it.
Moore: But that also means power, in this very deliberate way. It’s really interesting and instructive for women to spend times in political economies where they do have power. It’s such an enormous reflection of how little we’re seen to have economic power in the United States. Those are the questions I’ve been interested in more recently. How much does globalization mean that women don’t have access to power, economic power, political power, market power, voice, etcetera.
Rumpus: In Cambodian Grrrl, several times you mention your own cynicism, and you talk about how previously you would have responded to the kind of excessive sweetness the girls showed by thinking, Oh barf. But you felt your cynicism of dissolved in the face of …
Moore: …Unrelenting cuteness.
Rumpus: How has your relationship to your own cynicism shifted because of your work in Cambodia?
Moore: It is not inaccurate to say that I learned more and got more out of that work than the young women I worked with there did. It’s super important to foreground that. It wasn’t even about losing or questioning my own cynicism, it was about this…trial by fire of learning how to love. It sounds so dippy and romantic, but it’s…I’m this punk rock outsider wearing dirty ripped whatever, this scruffy haired loser, being dropped into the most adoring and caring environment that I believe could possibly exist on the face of the earth. Thirty-two young women that were just about: “Are you happy? Are you happy? I’m happy just to be alive!”
It only took about twenty-four hours before I was like, Whoa. This is not the way I grew up. This is not the way I see the world. I’ve got to get my shit together if I’m going to survive this love, because it’s going to kill me. And I had to learn to appreciate the effusiveness and the genuine care for people that underscores it. In terms of my personal relationships, it’s definitely where I learned how to love people. All my failed relationships before that, we can trace it back to not having lived in a dorm with thirty-two Cambodian women. It wasn’t even that I dropped my cynicism. It was—over the five years that I’ve been spending time there, and thinking about these experiences, and getting into meditation, following up on some of the threads that came from that—it was really about accepting what is offered, and trying to meet it. So cynicism aside, it was very deeply spiritual, and very important emotionally, yeah. My life changed. Fundamentally.
Rumpus: That’s so interesting to me, because on the one hand, there’s this desire on the part of Westerners, a certain kind of Westerner, to go out and see the world, to find ourselves in other places. I’ve totally bought into that, but I also see it as problematic, as using the world—and developing economies in particular—as a set for our own self-discovery. Yet at the same time, it’s easy to come back to it. I don’t mean to disparage the positive work you’ve done, but it seems the element that keeps you going back to Cambodia is this very meaningful personal experience.
Moore: This is the danger with pretending that I’ve dropped my cynicism, because I really haven’t at all, so I’m going to problematize that. The very truth of the matter is that American exceptionalism is such a clear defining character trait of everyone who lives in the U.S. that has any sort of means whatsoever, that you do have to be placed in a pretty different environment to recognize it. If you’re not in a place that is making you question the political economy that drives every decision you’ve ever made about how you consume media, how you participate in the world, who you are as a person, then you’re never going to have those breakthroughs of: I’m an idiot, and…how can I explain this? Here’s an example of how it plays out in personal relationships. When you’re young, you think that a relationship is good because you’re dating someone who is hot—not to disparage my previous partners. If you are never placed in a situation where you question where that message came from, which is from Hollywood movies, from TV every single night, from every ad you have ever seen in a newspaper…
Rumpus: What about chemical responses?
Moore: Fine, but are chemical responses exclusively available to you from the way that someone looks?
Rumpus: No, but—this is a sideline—I can think someone’s so hot, but you don’t think they’re so hot, and we’ve been looking at the same ads, right?
Moore: Totally, totally, but I’m just talking about those ways that we think relationships work when we’re really young. What we think that we want out of being in the world. We blame chemical responses, we blame the romantic notions we’re raised with, but until we’re in a situation that we have to question our assumptions in these really personal ways, we’re never going to figure out that there are different ways of being in the world than that set of presumptions has allowed for.
Rumpus: Maybe it’s especially hard to do that if you’re coming out of a punk subculture, or any other kind of subculture that takes a critical stance toward the world around you. I mean, it’s easy to feel like you’re not part of the problem if you’re disavowing the forces that are the problem.
Moore: I would definitely agree with that. I get e-mails weekly from people trying to emulate the Cambodian Grrrl experience. I’m getting a distressing number of, “I’ve never made zines before, but I just agreed to do them in whatever part of Southeast Asia.” And I’m like, “Don’t. Do. That.” This is not an experience that is available to everyone. It was an experience I was lucky to have, given a specific set of circumstances. It’s an experience that has fed the way I participate in the world elsewhere. These are really complicated issues. So, yeah, you do have to have that thing where your head is split open. You do have to have that thing where the very basic ways that you think you work in the world are questioned fundamentally in order to start seeing where you’ve been getting the lessons you’ve learned as a part of a system that not everyone has access to.
Recently I’ve been thinking that I need to not be concentrating on these problems elsewhere, when there are some deeply-seeded local problems that are just as pressing. Like, Kristof, guess what, dude? There’s poverty in the U.S. So my Ladydrawers stuff has been one big way of organizing around that. I’ve begun to think that what’s problematic about my work is that in opening up the media environment to people from other cultures, it opens them up to a market that I fundamentally disagree with.
Rumpus: So here we are at election season. I wondered if you were doing anything around this election.
Moore: A bunch of cartoonists I work with through Ladydrawers are making a Congressional pop quiz, based around Representative Todd Akin’s hilarious comments about how women’s bodies work. We’re submitting questions to Congress intended as a test of what they think happens in the female bodies. So it’s super jokey, super whatever, but at the end of the day, Representative Todd Akin believing that women are having abortions for fun when they’re not even pregnant, that’s a really serious problem. And it becomes even more serious under globalization, where that shit gets broadcast to places like Cambodia where women themselves don’t know how their own bodies operate sometimes, because there’s no educational structure around it. So that. That is the thing.
Congress doesn’t have a basic understanding about women’s bodies, and that’s a disaster when the U.S. is guiding public health policy around the world.