October 27, 2011
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
In Cambodian Grrrl, Anne Elizabeth Moore recounts her experience teaching the country's first generation of young women in college about independent publishing. By honestly sharing their stories as well as modern Cambodia's, Moore has produced in one slim volume one of the most important books of the year.
Truthout wrote of the book:
"With its slender binding and intimate voice, "Cambodian Grrrl" is kind of like a zine with an ISBN. In 95 pages, Moore risks more, and reveals more, than plenty of those longer books that are practically branded as "serious literature" (you know the ones). Its emotional and intellectual honesty remind us what storytelling is for, and Moore's students are already using their stories to change their country."
When I went to Phnom Penh in 2007 after running Punk Planet for several years, the music of the US cultural underground was still the primary way I organized the world. Even my own field, writing and publishing, sort of fit itself in around musical styles, genres, and acts—distinctions I based on matters both aesthetic and political. I like independently produced music and media, sure, but I also feel it's important. Now: I don't play music—I never enjoyed it, to my parents' unending chagrin. But I had been making my own booklets—zines—since I was 11, originally a solitary act that later met up with the early-1990's music and self-publishing scene. So when I was invited to do a project with the first large group of young women to attend college together in the history of Cambodia, of course I planned to show them how to make zines. And of course, to explain what zines were and could do—to young people who are taught to write via rote memorization, and who live under an oppressive regime where journalists are regularly threatened, harmed, or worse for printing facts about the government—I used music. Luckily, one of my students came across the word, punk. She asked me what it was in my self-publishing class—but her only familiarity with US music at the time was Britney Spears. I started there.
"You know how Britney Spears mostly sings songs about boys," I told her, later recorded in chapter five of Cambodian Grrrl, "when really there are many other things to think about? Like cooking, or going to school, or politics? And she makes a bad role model for girls by only thinking about boys? Britney works for a big music company. That's why even though she lives in the US, and she has never been to Cambodia, and maybe has never even heard of it, you see pictures of her every day. A punk is someone who wants music to be different, to not be like that, so makes their own music. And maybe sings about boys, but maybe sings about politics, or cooking, or something else. And they don't just make music, they also make their own magazines, and books, and comics, and clothes."
My students were intrigued, but not satisfied. One of them asked if you had to be a boy to be a punk. Because, in Cambodia, you pretty much have to be a boy to be anything.
"Many punks are boys," I told her, "but there are punks that are girls, too. Girls that think boys get too much attention in society and want to make their own things instead of buying things boys make. They want to support each other in making girl things." I didn't tell them about riot grrrl, because they would say to me, rioting is not good. But they did ask me to make a mix CD—something for them "to exercise to" (which meant: hula-hooping). This was, more or less, what I put on it.
"Extraordinary," Liz Phair
There's a thing in Cambodia called "sweet voice," an extremely high-pitched, lyric and lilting tone that young women, by dint of a several-hundred-year-old document called the Chbap Srei (Girl Law), are urged to use. I put it first on the mix hoping the gritty driving guitar in the opening, Phair's own sweet voice, and catchy tune would cause these young women to wander around the city singing, "I am extraordinary," and that, somehow, the country would take notice.
"Love Me or Hate Me," Lady Sovereign
That part in the middle, where she belches really loud? I think that's great. Fuck yeah, put that in your song. This is why I don't have kids.
"Hang on Kids," Ghost Mice
I did an all-ages show once with Chris Clavin and Hannah Jones' acoustic, folksy pop-punk band, and they played this great little song on the guitar and violin. It sums up the scruffy-loser-punk experience of going to high school as well as, strangely, that of the elite corps of young women leaders of Cambodia, the first large group to be able to go to college en masse. The problem with the song's false promise to these young women—"if you just hang on, I swear you'll be all right"—remains that: for the first large group of women to receive college degrees, there weren't likely to be any jobs waiting for them. They would probably not be able to get married, and after college, they wouldn't be able to find many peers. Still, you gotta get through the day somehow.
"I Wish I Was Him," Kathleen Hanna
The first time I heard this song I was involved in an amazing collaborative young feminist radio project at WORT in Madison WI in 1994. I had been dating boys in bands for years, and was usually the only girl in any given room—and I worked in some pretty aggressive environments (comedy, political publishing). So after Hanna's innocent-enough guitar kicked in, and by the time she started professing deep jealousy over some dude's minor sense of privilege, I was feeling dirty and exposed. The song is honest and unencumbered, another example of sweet voice not being used to comply with what dominant culture may want, but being used to rebel against it. For me, it laid bare the pure jealousy that sometimes sat at the heart of my aggressive stance. I put it on the girls' mix, however, because it precisely mirrored the conversations I had with these young women, who wanted to work in politics or do journalism or run banks—if only they'd been born men.
"Keep on the Sunny Side of Life," the Carter Family
I am not a performer by nature, but was asked to appear in a staged reading of a biographical comic adaptation David Lasky was undertaking of the Carter Family's story (should be out in a couple years). I agreed without thinking too seriously about it and was really only on stage before I pieced together that I was about to sing. Out loud. For people. Cartoonist Ellen Forney—the other pretend Carter sister—pretty much carried us through this song and "Chewing Gum," and I grew to love the Carter Family after that. Plus, for second-generation genocide survivors, the young women I was working with were amazingly perky, so it just sort of fit their mix, even though it's not a great hula-hooping song. Which I heard about for weeks, believe you me.
"Ways To Save Our Lives," Holy Roman Empire
The post-hardcore act headed by killer-voiced Emily Schambra, then on Hewhocorrupts Inc., was one of the funnest shows I saw in the waning days of Punk Planet, shortly before I left for Southeast Asia, even though I did crack a tooth in the mosh pit, which caused me no end of embarrassment since I was, you know, an adult at the time.
CocoRosie's psychadelic imagery and goofy-girly nostalgic sound is charming and everything when you're an American adult woman, but kind of profound when you're, like, a Cambodian teenager really thinking about what the future could be like. The girls I was living with believed in true love, believed that honesty could trump all evil, believed that tigers came out of the forest sometimes to snack on cruel elderly women. OK, that last thing? They believed that because it happened a few months before I arrived in town, and I found out because I make a lot of jokes about women needing sensible shoes in case of tiger attacks, and they didn't go over very well because, as the Cambodian young women explained to me, "if a tiger want to eat you, it will eat you." So in a world where you are approximately as apt to get eaten by a tiger as you are to find a job after college, CocoRosie offers a fairly logical worldview: "If you look hard you can find a/Rainbow trail that's deep inside ya/Fear not you're a rainbowarrior/Goldenlight on everything gleaming." It's a pretty delightful way to think about the world.
"We Are Family," Babes in Toyland
God, I was lucky to grow up in the Twin Cities when Babes in Toyland was still around. This punk cover version of the R&B classic is my favorite, ever. I put it on the CD for the Cambodians because they thought Americans were cold since we didn't hold hands everywhere we went together, didn't refer to all our close women friends as sisters, and didn't live with our parents after high school. That all may be true, but I rocked out to this song with a bunch of other losers at a club instead of studying for a math test one night in junior year, and I got the same sense of belonging then as I would, later, walking around Phnom Penh holding hands with my Cambodian sisters.
Cambodian Grrrl describes the very first zine-making project I did with young women in Phnom Penh, but the next book, New Girl Law, starts to look at women's issues in Cambodia more generally. These same young women and I eventually rewrote the Chbap Srei (Girl Law) and created a set of rules they felt they would be comfortable abiding by, if they were in charge of Cambodia. One of the first rules of the New Girl Law was echoed in Mira's amazing, sweet-voiced protest against oppression, which they had been listening to by then for a few weeks: "We have a right to exist, to be free and brave." When we completed the book, it was a simple, hand-bound, letter-pressed, gold silk-covered demand for women's human rights. It didn't go over very well among the older generation of Cambodians, and I had "Monument" on repeat for months to remind me of what mattered when you work with other people.
Hidden Bonus Tracks:
"Rebel Girl," Bikini Kill
"Rock 'n' Roll Nigger," Patti Smith
"Sadness of a Karaoke Girl," the Messenger Band
I tried to play Bikini Kill and Patti Smith for the girls in the dorm once—Heavens to Betsy, L7, and Bratmobile were on that playlist too, natch—but they, well, didn't connect to the rage, righteousness, guitar, growling, or drums. The Cambodian style of promoting women's issues is much more akin to the Messenger Band's "Sadness of a Karaoke Girl," which, in musical style and lyrics [http://www.messengerband.org/?mid=6&lang=#_Toc202235198], tends toward the pity-laden lachrymose, and is most definitely not how I learned to approach being a girl in a hostile world. Still, I was able to go on tour with the Messenger Band over the winter, and saw that their style of demanding change had an incredible effect. Even if, musically, it was as foreign to me as Rebel Girl was to a teenaged Cambodian.
Anne Elizabeth Moore and Cambodian Grrrl: Self-Publishing in Phnom Penh links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
other Book Notes playlists (authors create music playlists for their book)
100 Online Sources for Free and Legal Music Downloads
52 Books, 52 Weeks (weekly book reviews)
Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
Atomic Books Comics Preview (weekly comics highlights)
Daily Downloads (free and legal daily mp3 downloads)
guest book reviews
Largehearted Word (weekly new book highlights)
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Shorties (daily music, literature, and pop culture links)
Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
Try It Before You Buy It (mp3s and full album streams from the week's CD releases)
weekly music & DVD release lists
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