Books: DIY Culture Comes to Cambodia

October 5, 2011

By Marites L. Mendoza

Riot grrrl and the Killing Fields would not seem to make the most natural pairing. US coverage of the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge and their aftermath has been more the domain of Asian American studies ethnographies and Western historians than of feminism and punk rock. In Cambodian Grrrl, Anne Elizabeth Mooremakes a case for injecting more screaming urgency in connecting historical crimes to current injustices of global development.

The book chronicles Moore’s experience in 2007 living in a women’s dorm in Phnom Penh, charged with teaching its 32 college student residents how to make zines akin to the handmade publications that gavevoice to 1990s feminist-punk counterculture. The project is inspired by equal parts disenchantment with the cooptation of the cultural underground with which Moore identifies, and an interest in helping Cambodian survivors tell stories borne of the trauma of genocide and uneven global development. This premise can’t help but raise red flags: a white woman traveling to a Third World country -- on a Fulbright, no less -- intent on bestowing her knowledge on an unenlightened population. It’s a blueprint for the benevolent colonialism that is the hallmark of modern US history.

Yet the peculiarity of Moore, a former editor of Punk Planet, bringing her riot grrrl ethos to Cambodia ... works. There are some obvious connections. If any group of women is ripe to carry on the legacy of feminist politics and critique from that movement, it’s Moore’s students, who were selected for the dorm on the basis of their commitment to social justice. You can’t help but admire, as Moore certainly does, the audacity of their career and life goals in a country where corruption and traditional women’s roles will make their dreams difficult to fulfill. And in the wake of Pol Pot’s regime, Moore notes, there is a pervasive ignorance in Cambodia of that history, since the regime not only murdered millions of ethnic minorities, professionals, and intellectuals, but also brainwashed young Cambodians in an effort to kill future collective memory. Zines, then -- easy to put together, aimed at the free distribution of personal knowledge and experience -- may fill a need in Cambodia after all.

It would be easy for Moore’s narrative to err on the side of uncritical celebration and embrace of riot grrrl feminism and the DIY aesthetic that gave it form. Throughout the book, Moore’s students really do embrace her and the excitement of releasing one’s handmade zines and narratives out into the world, despite language barriers. They are curious when Moore explains culture jamming and punk culture, and the creativity it takes to turn a Playboy logo into a Punkboy one, which is also an occasion for Moore to wax on the exploitation of women.

The book, though, is not just about the persistent relevance of DIY culture and feminist politics in a moment when both have lost their teeth in the US, smothered by the preciousness of Etsy and Zoe Deschanel. Perhaps not surprisingly, it’s the basic ethos behind the DIY movement that makes Moore’s storytelling more refreshing and responsible than much US writing about Cambodia. The self-publishing arm of riot grrrl was motivated by a critique of mass media, and Cambodian Grrrl exposes -- whether it was Moore’s intention or not -- how corporate control of the media in the US is continuous with the logic of profitability which creates exploitative conditions in Cambodia.

These lessons aren’t dealt with explicitly in the book, but instead emerge in its more travelogue-like instances, such as Moore’s reluctance to bargain over silk scarves with a shopkeeper whose display had just been ransacked by rude tourists. The two engage in actual conversation, and Moore eventually makes her purchase, noting, “What I had given up were a handful of dollars and a few moments of kindness.” The exchange is not simply about liberal guilt over First World privilege, but about the value of the human labor involved in making and selling goods.

True, Moore sometimes comes off too embarrassed and self-conscious in the book, and may mention a few too many times just how happy and curious her students are. But these are tolerable trades for Cambodian Grrrl’s accomplishments. Independent publishing is not aimed at connecting everyone around the world and neither is this book, though both are premised on the uneven distribution of knowledge. Almost zine-like itself in format, Cambodian Grrrl attains the modest yet important success of making personal narratives and experience matter to critiques of history and globalization.

Marites L. Mendoza is a PhD student in the English Department at the University of Washington. She lives, reads, and writes in Seattle.