Sunday, September 4, 2011

Sunday Evening on the Lower East Side: Anne Elizabeth Moore and "Cambodian Grrrl: Self-Publishing in Phnom Penh" at Bluestockings

This evening we were at the wonderful Bluestockings bookstore for an event featuring a writer/activist we totally admire, Anne Elizabeth Moore, who read from her new book, Cambodian Grrrl: Self-Publishing in Phnom Penh, which USA Today's travel blog called "the best travel book I’ve read this year."

Part memoir, part investigative journalism, Cambodian Grrrl is Moore’s account of teaching publishing to the first large group of social-justice-minded university women from the impoverished provinces of Cambodia, a country scarred by genocide and political repression.

Anne Elizabeth Moore is a columnist for Truthout, and has written for The Progressive, Bitch, Annalemma, Tin House, the Boston Phoenix, and The Onion. The former editor of Punk Planet and the Comics Journal, Moore received a Fulbright to continue her work in Cambodia in 2010, and recently held a solo exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago.

Her book Unmarketable: was said to offer “something distinctly more radical than merely protesting against consumerism: a total rejection of the competitive ethos that drives capitalist culture” by the Los Angeles Times; deemed “a work of honesty and, yes, integrity” by Kirkus and called “sharp and valuable muckraking” by Time Out New York. It was also named a Best Book of 2007 by Mother Jones.

Anne spoke about her mission in Cambodia over the years and what she's accomplished and taught, and even more, what she's learned from the young women she lives with in Cambodia: really, the first generation of women who are empowered by higher education. She read several excerpts from Cambodian Grrrl, which is the first of a projected four volumes, and all of these excerpts showed her to have a first-class intelligence and sensibility, and she's also a fluid and graceful, if informal, prose stylist. Here's a version of one of the vignettes she read (richer with detail in the book excerpt we heard), which we've taken from her blog Camb(l)o(g)dia:

So Christmas Day I got up early and made the girls pancakes even though I’d been up all night puking because they love pancakes and it was Christmas and also because I would have just killed myself if I hadn’t done something. Although the night before I said the same thing which was how I ended up eating half a pound of malted milk balls with the girls watching Tum Teav, a very important Khmer movie, which was probably the reason I ended up puking all night. As it turns out, chocolate is hard for the body to process when you don’t eat it for a month. I never believed people when they told me that. Umm, and then I went shopping. Specifically, I went to buy all the Christmas presents for all the people I probably should have gotten them for before I left town, and I also went to pick up my handmade Apsara skirt, and while I was there some cute shopkeeper foisted some handmade green silk on me so I asked my tailor to make me a dress. I’m not going to tell you what this costs. The US residents will cry with jealousy and the girls will tell me I am stupid for spending so much, unless, as Kalyan says, the dress is VERY beautiful, in which case it does not matter how much you spend.

So, my consumerist duties fulfilled—and, honestly, after spending three days in bed, and musing on the role of the American in Phnom Penh today, I felt like a leech, also kind of a bad friend—the only thing I could think to do with the rest of my day was go to the Killing Fields.

Here is the thing that stays with me, that, I think, will haunt me: that the clothes that littered the site when the Khmer Rouge were killing people there in great droves of 20 or 30 per day—later, 300, when they could manage it (remember, they had to work at night so the neighbors wouldn’t hear, and you know what? They’re still living there, a short distance away, in fact about those between Starbucks in most US downtowns), the clothes that were stripped of victims, or fell off through more natural means, I don’t know: the clothes are still there. Not memorialized (although I guess some are, washed in 1980 because the smell in the stupa was overwhelming), but scattered throughout the grounds, mashed into the dirt, still peeking up near more recently excavated spots. Bones, too, but the clothes somehow are more jarring. They look normal, as if the grounds had been used as a schoolyard for several years and the ripped t-shirts and socks of playing kids had just been left in the dirt to amass, a natural aspect of the utilization of such an environment.

It’s true that people believe that the whole memorial is a bad idea, that it really would be best to chuck it, move on, close it. It is in the best interests of the Khmer people, they say, not to dwell on this. One of the documentaries I mentioned [HERE] here interviewed several Pol Pot regime survivors who still lived in the area who argued quite eloquently for the site’s closure.

And they might be right. There’s not much really to be gained from a genocide museum that can’t be gleaned from an after school special: people can do great evil for very little reason. We know this instinctively, and no amount of further learning, it seems, will compel us to find a way to stop it. At least, so far it hasn’t.

But there are so many things you can’t realize, that you can’t possibly understand about life under the Pol Pot regime and after it that they don’t think to explain. Things that offer small lessons in humane treatment, in decency, in how others stack their agendas. That the watery rice the lucky survivors who did get fed ate is in fact rice porridge, and it’s quite good. I’m eating it right now. But eating it without utensils of any kind? Eating it by the handful? Not an easy way to consume a thick soup, or a bowl of oatmeal. Even this small indignity, though, a lucky option. That the neighbors of Cheung Eck could be heard singing quite clearly, a few meters away, and that going undetected by them for several years considering the volume of work undertaken here is an astonishing feat. And what we learn from this is: to people who do harm to others, appearances matter more than human rights. And: small things hurt too.

Which is why Cheung Eck is valuable. But the urge to profit from the destruction, from the horrible fuck-ups of others who have greatly wronged you and everyone you know—this must be irresistible. I watch few bother to resist: the tuk-tuk drivers who gleefully offer a visit to the memorial as an option to golf, the young boy begging by first impressing you with his English and then asking you for money (How old are you? 12, he says. Where are your parents? I ask. We don’t have. Where are they? Killed by Pol Pot. Ummm, you’re a little young for that), the Japanese corporation JC Royal Co. Ltd that manages the site, extracting two dollars each per international visitor (few, if any, Cambodians visit. When I get home, I discover one of the girls in the dormitory has never even heard of it). And in the last year, visitors to the site have doubled, more a sign of increased tourism in the country than the supposed renewed fascination with the Khmer Rouge the Tribunal has supposedly elicited.

So. Someone profits here. Some merely survive, sure, but others, few, amass wealth and power from the suffering and destruction of many. Again.

We're looking forward to reading the whole book. Thanks so much to Bluestockings, which is undergoing an renovation these days and is temporarily without a cafe or a bathroom. But the books, and the great events like tonight's, are still there. If you haven't discovered Bluestockings, one of New York's most important bookstores, you need to visit one of these days.

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