Anne Elizabeth Moore is an experienced activist, adventurer, and zinester. But she finds herself in over her head when she signs up to teach self-publishing to teenage girls at one of Cambodia's only women's colleges. The result is Cambodian Grrrl, a book of diary-journalism with Moore trying to make sense of the scarred history of Cambodia's recent genocide, all while living with and learning from the gaggle of ambitious, bright-eyed, and giggly first-generation university girls.
It's a travel journal, a history book, a feminist story—a quick, captivating look at a place and people most of us Americans know too little about.
Moore is the former editor of Punk Planet magazine and author of Unmarketable, a book about "brandalism," and I found her diatribes against capitalism in Cambodian Grrrl wearisome at first. The book could definitely have used some slicing from an editor, but after a few pages, I settled into Moore's off-the-cuff writing style and became completely engrossed in her tales from Cambodia. Moore shares her own intimate impressions of the country as a tourist and outsider in short, story-driven chapters. But, refreshingly, she's careful to talk about the lives of the girls and their university teachers in their own words whenever possible. Their anecdotes of growing up among the graveyards of Pol Pot and striving for independence in a country that's rapidly industrializing, repressive, and corrupt, are moving, hilarious, and unbelievable in the way that only true stories are.
For example, when Moore returns, exhausted, from a motorcycle taxi trip to the Killing Fields Memorial for the 17,000 people executed by the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s, she's surprised to find many of the Cambodian girls have never learned about the genocide or their own country's civil war. "I didn't know if they actually existed," says one student. Another mentions discovering human bones all over her schoolyard, but being told never to ask about them.
Sitting down to read a dense historical book about the lasting impact of the Khmer Rouge is not everyone's cup of tea, so I'm glad Cambodian Grrrl exists to tell those stories in a captivating, conversational form.
While Moore muscles through the day-to-day trials of getting the girls to understand self-publishing, she succeeds in her larger goal of bringing their small, personal tales to a global audience.