Since late 2007, I’ve been travelling between Cambodia and Chicago, doing informal media justice work with young women, mostly in and around Phnom Penh. I started my own career in the literary arts as a zinester, “inventing” the hand-made book in that naïve way all self-publishers do, determined to create some kind of physical proof that I existed in the world. I was 11. Saturday-morning cartoons and the other media I was consuming in the early 1980s were beginning the process of deregulation—a consolidation of advertising and entertainment immediately evident from the increased product placement that regularly appeared before me when I wanted to learn about the world. Carving a space for my own voice as a counterpoint to constant consumer messaging saved my sanity.
But in Cambodia at the time, the situation was somewhat more dire. The early 1980s there saw the country in a state of shock, having just emerged from the Khmer Rouge regime that killed a quarter of the population and, through starvation, forced labor, rape, and other daily injustices, traumatized those who remained alive. The Vietnamese invasion that ended this period kicked off two decades of civil war. Public elections in 1992 aimed to prove the country had finally democratized, but accusations of strong-arm tactics, voter fraud, graft, and corruption still emerge as a regular part of the political landscape.
Yet democracy means more than voting: it means freedom of creative expression, too. However, in a country where few escaped abuse—whether as perpetrators or recipients—free expression is not always welcome. The Khmer Rouge years are still not taught in most schools, still not discussed in ruling party-controlled media, or, for more understandable reasons, still not bandied about the dinner table. Why dwell on the negative? Is the explanation I’m often given for why young Cambodians don’t know their nation’s history.
And they don’t. The first year I worked in Cambodia, a survey indicated that the majority of the booming youth population simply didn’t know that the Khmer Rouge regime happened. That’s changing now, but the refusal to say anything negative still predominates, which far too often means that many remain silent. Particularly women, who are subject to a fairly strict set of traditional rules and values called the Chbap Srei, which outlines a cultural code of feminine silence in all aspects of public life, and many aspects of private life as well.
So when I went there, initially to work with the first large group of young women in the history of the country to achieve higher education, then later to continue my work as a journalist, college professor, and media justice worker, I naturally started by teaching zines. Small, self-published booklets that we created in English to avoid government overview, copied in small quantities, and distributed in locations we felt were safe and amenable to young Cambodian women’s genuine concerns, interests, and dreams. Thirty of us made over 50 zines in the first two months, then when I returned a year later we made 75 more. The young women I worked with have since gone on to teach zine-making in their home provinces, in English and in Khmer. Some have entered the field of journalism. Around 2007, there were only 6 female journalists in the country. That’s changed now, significantly. Last year I taught a college class on independent media making, and how it can be an effective response to a globalizing media environment. Cambodia didn’t have advertising until the late 1980s, but Cambodians now see almost as many ads per day as Americans. Critical media literacy is an essential first step to creative expression. In a developing economy where ads feature Western amenities at Western prices—moreover one that prefers and rewards feminine silence—inspiring an urge to speak at all can take time. But it grows, and spreads, fast.
This project has only been possible because it remains informal. Although I have been funded by many organizations, foundations, and individuals, the work would necessarily change, were I to establish a literacy program for young Cambodian women. For one, such a program would allow for government monitoring—NGOs in Cambodia suffer a great deal of scrutiny—and thus a new set of fears for folks just learning to raise their voices in any medium. But also, the nature of gaining control over a language, and constructing a world and worldview through it is viral. The love of it grows too quickly to establish an institution around; it passes too fast from one person to the next. I can barely keep up with the torrent of passionate emails from my young friends, much less do the paperwork required to establish this project as a 501(c)(3) organization.
Keeping the project informal also means I can share resources freely without worrying about the defamation of my project. The small 8-fold zine I use to teach—first in Cambodia, but more recently elsewhere in the world, too—is available, in English, or in translation in Khmer, German, Arabic, Georgian and other languages. You can check out the first in my series of books on this work, Cambodian Grrrl: Self-Publishing in Phnom Penh, here; the next in the series looks at what happened when we collaboratively decided to rewrite the Chbap Srei. It’s called New Girl Law, and you can check that out here. Then sometimes, I try to bring other people in to share resources, since democracy is best explored from a range of perspectives. You can read about my comics project with Sara Drake here, or read some of the zines and comics my collaborators have made. I’ve found little in the world that is as inspiring to the global women’s literacy movement than global women’s amazing creations.