Archive for the ‘journalism’ Category
Caroline Picard, my friend and publisher (of Hip Hop Apsara), has been working on a novel for a while called Death of An Animatronic Band, which you can read about (and see video based on!) in her Next Big Thing interview here. The Next Big Thing is an ever-unfolding series of self-interviews (Caroline had been tapped by Mairead Case, and you can follow the chain backwards to discover a pretty diverse and amazing wealth of upcoming books and projects), so I’ve used the opportunity to clarify some things about my pending book New Girl Law, and asked MariNaomi and Melissa Gira Grant to write about their upcoming projects next.
The book’s called New Girl Law: Drafting a Future for Cambodia. It’s probably too late to change it, since the book comes out at the end of the month (March 31!), and it’s already been printed, so I expect this title will stay. If I wanted to change it at this point I’d probably have to do a mass recall from the distributor and buy a shit-ton of Sharpies, which is the kind of thing I would have been willing to do twenty years ago and now couldn’t possibly make time for.
Where did the idea come from for the book?
I spent several years travelling to and doing work in Cambodia around women’s issues—freedom of expression, labor—it’s a very intense place. I’ve talked about it in interviews quite a bit here, here, here, here, and here. I kept a blog while I was there called Camblogdia, and it was quite popular. Then sometime during these years I published a short-run print version of some of the blog posts that together formed a cohesive narrative. This was on a press I started, Pressing Concern, that very very occasionally publishes material relevant to global women’s issues. That little booklet got some attention, and Cantankerous Titles offered to published a more fleshed out version called Cambodian Grrrl: Self-Publishing in Phnom Penh, and I agreed to a four-book series, only the first two of which were under immediate contract. So New Girl Law is the second in this series. The first one talked about the zines we all made together, and what it was like to teach zines in a culture that doesn’t really value women’s public participation, or literacy, or media. This one is about some deeper issues that impact traditional American notions of freedom, and how truly difficult transnational gender issues can be. That’s an incredibly hard thing to write about, but when you stumble across a good way to address it, I think you owe it to folks to try.
What genre does your book fall under?
It’s creative non-fiction, in the memoir/journalistic mode. I don’t really do any writing that isn’t, basically, creative non-fiction. But it is interesting, with this book, that I had to lean more toward “creative” than “non-fiction” for a couple reasons: first, to protect the young Khmer women I wrote about. And second, to more accurately tell a story that hinges on various acts of censorship and self-censorship. Because—and this will make more sense if you’ve read the book—there’s information I just didn’t have access to, like why censorship happens, so I had to find creative ways of presenting options for why it happens to the reader. The truth is that folks who aim to silence rarely articulate why. That is what real censorship is about: not needing to explain silence, just to enforce it. A book, however, requires a why, or at least a series of maybe becauses. It was a challenge to do, as someone who values the tenets of journalism and the notion of truth quite a bit.
Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?
Oh man, I know a lot of people are tired of this question, but for me it’s a really exciting prospect, because there’s only one white American in the story, and obviously that would be played by Anne Hathaway, or Anne Heche, or Ann Magnuson, or Anne Bancroft, because of realism. Or, to get conceptual on you, maybe Quvenzhane Wallis, who by the time this film would be cast, is likely to really have gotten her young mind around the concept of playing people named Anne, plus is awesome, and only an idiot would not put her on the short list to play them in a movie, even if the skin tones and ages and heights don’t match up. Anyway, it’s acting. She could do it. But everyone else—32 young Cambodian women—that’s a wide-open field. So we’d go to Cambodia, do an open casting call, bring in a couple seasoned actresses there maybe, but really provide young women who have few job options besides the garment and sex industries an interesting opportunity. For the most part we’d be starting from scratch, but Cambodia used to have a really thriving film industry before the Khmer Rouge. What a great excuse to help foster and strengthen a revival: a film about a group of young women just getting comfortable but still meeting barriers while making their own media in an emerging democracy. Probably the biggest question, really, would be which emerging female Cambodian director would I hire to run the thing? I’m happy to start looking at CVs now, in case the funding gets dropped in my lap.
What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?
A group of young women in Cambodia create an imaginary set of policy for a country they love, while grappling with the very real conditions of uneven economic and social development. Plus giggling. Two sentences, sorry; I am pretty good at math.
Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?
On this series, I’ve been working with Cantankerous Titles, an independent publisher in the Pacific Northwest, so I don’t have to go either route. They’re a small enough team and we go back far enough in history that we have a flexibility usually only available to self-publishers, but don’t have to bring an agent in to siphon off dollars from a budget. I like agents, for sure, and am bummed that modern publishing seems more and more to leave them out of the publishing equation, but this work is really intersectional—gender and race and international politics and economic factors and and and and and—and in a publishing world dominated by BS like Lean In, what I do takes more than the easy sales pitch. I find agents make projects with the easy sales pitch work better. Self publishing is great when you want to test out ideas or communicate directly to an established group of people—especially those without economic means. And small-press publishing has historically been best suited to teasing out complex political issues.
How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?
Well the very first draft took a year, because it was kept as a journal during the year-long course of events that I describe in the book. But then I transcribed interviews with some of the young women I worked with, to allow them to tell heir own stories, and that took some time. And shaping it all into the structure it eventually became took a few months as well.
But then something happened.
The publisher of Cambodian Grrrl (and now, New Girl Law) started getting some flak from some self-proclaimed young feminists in the field of independent publishing who adopted what they called the riot grrrl tradition. Working from a long-ago rumor that I haven’t been able to verify—so I’m not sure how anyone else would—they decided to ban him from an event in supposed support of freedom of expression where I was a featured speaker, leaving me in a very awkward position. I was told at various times that I didn’t understand, that these people knew riot grrrl, and I didn’t—all sorts of weird, dumb stuff that didn’t address the basic problem, that an organization supposedly in support of independent publishing and diverse participation and freedom of expression had just banned someone from participating. And not just any participant, but the publisher of a book on fostering diverse voices and freedom of expression in a hostile environment, the writer of which was being asked to talk about that work at the event.
Aside from the short-sightedness of such a decision, the denigration of my work, and the personal attacks that emerged from it, the incident came at a really bad moment for me, when I was trying to write a book that offered a fair and even-handed look at other incidents of censorship and self-censorship of young Cambodian women’s voices. I think people who strive to shut others up don’t realize how truly and totally damaging their actions are—a problem worsened significantly by the belief that such parties are being protective. It turns out, when you believe yourself to be right, you stop listening. And not listening, I have come to believe, is the root of all evil.
Anyway, I couldn’t do it. It was another nine months before I could look at the manuscript again. And what made me pick it up again, actually, was maybe even more significant. I met one of my heroes, May Summer Farnsworth, who is probably the person that had the most impact on the way that I thought about gender and social and media justice when I was actually doing riot grrrl-stuff in the 1990s. Now, I have no stock in the riot grrrl mythos and for perhaps obvious reasons am apt to distrust anyone who tries to get me to conform to it, but the conversation I had with May about how she navigated and experienced the end of a movement that she had helped foster, and the kinds of silencing that occurred within it—it became really important to me to find a way to articulate my own silence in the face of so many acts of silencing.
What other books would you compare this story to in its genre?
Three Cups of Tea and Reading Lolita in Tehran have both been comparative titles to this series, and people often come to it when, for example, they want to find a work that describes the global economic condition of women that’s actually by and about women to replace Half the Sky in a college curriculum. But those books all advocate for something; a course of action, an organization, Half the Sky: The Movement. I actually don’t want folks to do what I did in Cambodia, as I’ve made clear in other interviews. Don’t follow my path. Let curiosity and engagement and listening forge one for you.
Who or what inspired you to write this book?
The amazing young women of Cambodia. Why anyone would write about anyone else, ever, is beyond me.
What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?
My publisher has placed one gazillion dollar bill in each physical copy of the book, so there’s a really big financial incentive to buy it at only $9.95. You make, like, whatever a gazillion minus 9.95 is, not to mention that gazillion dollar bills are very rare. Of course, it might have fallen out, or a bookstore browser or disreputable distributor or bookseller may have pocketed it, so we can’t guarantee you that money. But it’s a pretty nice gesture, you gotta admit.
A study released Tuesday found that a full third of the drugs used throughout Southeast Asia and Africa to treat malaria, a mosquito-transmitted disease caused by a parasite that includes fever and other flu-like symptoms and disproportionately (surprise!) afflicts people who live developing nations without regular access to basic health care, were ineffective. Increasing resistance to antimalarials along the border between Cambodia and Thailand has been causing grave concern, and Lancet Infectious Diseases reported that drugs in this region of the world represented a particular problem. “Of 1437 samples of drugs in five classes from seven countries in southeast Asia, 497 (35%) failed chemical analysis, 423 (46%) of 919 failed packaging analysis, and 450 (36%) of 1260 were classified as falsified,” the journal states.
In a country like Cambodia, we think immediately of corruption, the preponderance of black factories, and the inaccessibility of the basic health education or equipment like refrigerators that may make the proper creation, storage, and administration of these drugs difficult. But the problems run much deeper than that. Watered-down versions of antimalarials offer the parasites that cause the disease the ability to build up antimalarial resistance. The counterfeits aren’t just unseemly, that is. Nor do they only affect those individuals that take them. Fake, ineffective, and expired antimalarials are making malaria a more effective disease.
Let’s leave that to sit as an open metaphor for a moment and look at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which claims to be a forerunner in the fight against the disease with classic white savior industrial complex tropes like, “We Can End Malaria,” and “Millions Saved.” In 2004, the foundation attempted to conduct some similarly saviory anti-HIV drug tests in Cambodia.
Now, HIV transmission rates in Cambodia are among the highest in Asia. Rates, though diminishing, are still upheld by a lack of effective health education, a booming informal sex industry, and insufficient access to condoms and dental dams. You’d think, if you didn’t ponder it for very long, that such a place would be thrilled to host an HIV drug-test party. But you should think about it some more.
The study required almost a thousand sex workers volunteer for the trials, but a group called Women’s Network for Unity demanded participants be offered health insurance for 30 years in exchange, in case of possible side effects. Why? Because if a sex worker falls ill in Cambodia, she doesn’t just lose her income from sex work, she loses her ability to work at all. Even if the stigma of the illness didn’t prevent her from gainful employment in the factories, which is likely, her age, probably, would. And there’s basically nowhere else for women to work.
The 2004 incident lead to the shut-down of trials in Cambodia (and, later, Camaroon and Nigeria, as well as protests in Hong Kong and Bangkok). Reporting focused on the supposedly unreasonable demands Cambodian sex workers were making of the US-based trial leaders. A University of California at San Francisco AIDS researcher explained to activists and the press that 30 years of health insurance would be prohibitively expensive. Not to mention unwarranted, as the drug’s side effects included, she said, gas and nausea. But the US Health Department website told activists otherwise, listing kidney and liver failure as potential side effects.
So in addition to the big-picture economic impact that participation in the drug trials could have on individual women, researchers weren’t ‘fessing up to the full potential of medical impacts. Nor were they willing to ensure women’s safety should worst-case conditions come to pass.
But the big blind spot here lay in the social impact of allowing the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation HIV trials to proceed, just barely hinted at in this Washington Post piece—the only one that gets close to explaining the situation as it’s been explained to me in country. Here’s a flash of tail from the real monster:
Soma’s friend Pich Sochea, 38, who with Soma is a leader of a prostitutes’ union, was among the first to hear about the trial, at an HIV prevention workshop in the spring of 2004. Sochea thought it sounded pretty good. The women would get paid $3 a month to take some pills — either 300 milligrams of tenofovir or a placebo — daily for a year.
Yeah. It’s the placebo.
Approximately half of the 960 sex worker-participants would be administered a placebo, a wholly ineffective sugar pill with no preventative effects whatsoever in a country where condom use still lags. In a place where women have access to little in the way of human or civil rights, especially sex workers, and where domestic violence, even when reported, goes unacknowledged. Where rape is a growing concern, proliferating alongside popular depictions of sexual violence as a male youth group activity in pornographic films smuggled in from Thailand and Korea. Where domestic prohibitions against sex with children are a relatively new phenomenon. Where popular mythology holds that sex with a virgin is one way to rid oneself of HIV, and where consistent health education has proven ineffective at fully countering such beliefs. And where the trials were already public knowledge.
What I was told, straight up, by former activists with the Womyn’s Agenda for Change, was this: if Cambodian women had participated in these trials, we would not have been able to explain to the country that it did not make us immune to HIV. Violence, abuse, and rape would increase. Women’s struggle for human rights would not advance, perhaps backslide. And HIV rates, ultimately, rise.
I’m working on a longer piece right now on the White Savior Industrial Complex, and have some basic ideas I’m trying to get down on its larger effects. You may be wondering why these aren’t appearing on Camblogdia, or why you can’t access Camblogdia right now at all. Well, I’ve had some sensitive work in an art show in Phnom Penh up for a few weeks, and I’ve wanted to limit access to my in-country records. But also, I’m not just writing about the WSIC as an external observer: I’ve been an agent of it too. Unwittingly, but I think it deserves careful examination. And I’d prefer that work not be fully accessible before I’ve reconsidered it.
Al Jazeera‘s “People & Power” reporter Juliana Ruhfus released a new investigation today into, basically, a low-rent version of the white savior industrial complex. Called “Cambodia’s Orphan Business,” the 25-minute video postulates what those in the country already know: that orphanages are largely tourist attractions, for-profit endeavors that benefit owners by playing off Dickensian notions of poverty, a wretched yet noble entertainment for those unafflicted. An estimated 10,000 children live in such group homes, and you, the tourist, can not only stop by and visit during your three-day stay in Cambodia but, if you wish, return to volunteer for a longer stint—a month, three months—where you will most likely be asked to contribute your expertise on such pressing national topics as speaking English.
It all seems so easy, doesn’t it? You can go help out a good segment of the 14 million residents of the country, most of whom live in poverty, by doing something that comes so naturally to you that you probably don’t even think of it as a skill. Plus: kids are cute. Cambodian kids, especially.
Now it is true that they are. Cute. But it is not necessarily true that they are, technically speaking, “orphans.” In Cambodia, orphanages are, like everywhere else, homes for young people who would not otherwise have a place to live. The implication is that they do not have a place to live because their parents abandoned them, or died. But this is not always, or even mostly, the case: many orphanages in Cambodia have visiting days—days closed to tourists where parents can visit their children. Orphanages in Cambodia, in other words, don’t necessarily house only orphans.
The People’s Improvement Organization at Stung Meanchey—the district that houses the massive garbage dump that, prior to the last decade’s orphanage boom, acted as a depository for kids in a surprisingly similar manner—is help in the video as a best-practices model. Perhaps it is, but the down-the-road organization Center for Children’s Happiness, servicing children from the same public dump, was where one of the young residents herself told me she missed her mom, and couldn’t wait for her to visit, on Sunday. She then apologized, because she wasn’t supposed to tell foreigners she still had parents. She was 8. She had HIV. She spoke 6 languages.
There are in Cambodia almost 500 orphanages, and the majority rely on volunteerism to generate income. While this seems unseemly at first, many grow used to it. Everyone feels good about the work done at Cambodian orphanages, on the record. The volunteers believe they are “helping Cambodia”; the Cambodian young people, even those whose stations in life may be only marginally improved in the group home, develop an international coterie of enthusiasts and friends; and the organization, basically, keeps Cambodians—or, increasingly, foreigners who own businesses in Cambodia—in jobs, which are still rare in the developing nation.
The trouble spots are easy enough to see. Ruhfus and her crew walk in off the street and ask a facilities manager if they can take four kids out on the town for the day and, despite an increased awareness of and laws restricting child sex tourism, a few minutes later they have four kids to themselves in a private vehicle. No oversight, no paperwork. They haven’t even been asked for IDs.
Viewing the Al Jazeera report, it’s difficult to place sympathy. Two former orphanage residents are interviewed, Yan Chanty and Kong Thy, who complain of depression in the orphanage. This we would rather expect orphanage residents to experience, because it is a hard life. Forced to put on a cheery face for visitors, however, the two suffered a sort of uniquely Cambodian problem: they needed to meet the cuteness expectations of tourists. That was, more or less, how the company could survive. What we don’t like to see, but what is true, is that the Cambodians who run the orphanages keep them in deliberately decrepit conditions, because that makes the ask, from the comparatively rich tourists, much easier.
Another thing to keep in mind is that it’s illegal, actually, for US residents to adopt Cambodian children at the moment—this is likely true for Australia and some of the other foreign nations with strings of convicted child sex offender nationals as well—so there’s no hope that an emotional bond will grow into a permanently nurturing one. The relationships fostered can only be purely commercial.
But accurate coverage of this complex situation is not always easy to find. The Al Jazeera report, for example, opines Kong Thy’s earnings—”only $3 a day”—having claimed earlier that the average wage earned in the country is $65 per month. This is kind of true—if we look at who is earning wages at all, and what their average earnings are, and then spread this out across the number of people in the country they share those wages with, yes, we get a figure that’s about $65 per month. But we can’t pretend that the developing nation has 100% employment or that this is an average salary, by any stretch of the imagination. Nor can we, therefore, pretend that $3 per day, or an average of $90 per month—$72 per month being the national living wage—is anything less than pretty good.
It’s also unclear to me what the meaning of this kicker is: “The sad reality is that … these children could never be reunited with their parents.” If alive, or willing to step forward, the children’s parents certainly realize their kids are being offered educational and economic advantages likely unavailable at home, in all but the worst of the orphanages. That’s sort of life in a country in poverty: the 1950′s-era image of the nuclear family has little precedent in homes where three generations often live under the same thatched roof and food acquisition is a daily concern.
The report does feature, however, great interviews with folks inside the commercial volunteerism industry. It’s easy to call them jaded and cynical, but the truth is, the folks who have seen how international aid plays on the ground in developing nations and became sickened by it are the best foreign policy advisers we got.
In all, the report is a cogent evisceration of Cambodia’s orphanage system, supported by international volunteer placement agencies like Projects Abroad, which charges “volunteers” around $3000 USD per placement, sends around $9 of that—total—to the local organizations, and pulled in profits of around $3mil last year—a third of which was split between the two directors.
In this way it becomes clear: The low-rent version of the white savior industrial complex supports child sex abuse, disallows genuine emotional connection, and turns a mighty profit for the white savior industry at large.
But, you know, the kids are cute.
Now, before you ask, I’m not going to tell you who sent this, either to me, or to whoever sent it to me. I don’t think it matters and on condition of publishing it I agreed to keep all names out of it. (I have taken the liberty of keeping Twitter, You Tube and Facebook logos intact just for visual pizazz. Also because those logos are now so bland that they may actually counteract the notion that a single entity may be behind a note like this one, when in fact, it’s a bigger phenomenon than that—just try finding someone interested in “male graphic novelists” on Facebook!)
What I will tell you is that this happened fairly recently. And that the person who received it identifies as female, and as a cartoonist, although has a gender-ambiguous name (kind of), which I’m not exactly certain the marketing agent, who is also female, understands. I won’t here go into the full range of implied differences between calling someone a “cartoonist” and calling someone a “graphic novelist”, but the bottom line is that the latter was a term invented to try to sell more expensive books inside bookstores—as opposed to comics shops—which makes it a marketing term, and kind of a useless distinction. Unless you’re a marketing agent, I suppose, when marketing terms are what matters. And in this case, a “graphic novelist” was seen as necessary to the project.
A male one.
The cartoonist’s response was thoughtful and far more engaged than mine would have been, considering that the cartoonist had no hope of being compensated for either the friendly suggestion of the graphic novelist—or of landing the gig herself. In other words, by even responding, she was donating her labor, to the cause of terrific male graphic novelists.
To which the marketing agent responded, quite hurriedly:
Now, as I said, the specifics of this project don’t matter to you: it’s dumb, you can trust me on that. And the brand I’ve hidden from your view—the reason “it has to be a guy”—is equally unremarkable (although you can apparently find them on Facebook, if you’ve ever seen that site). To put this plainly: the individuals involved in this particular exchange don’t matter. What matters, and I think it matters a lot, is this logistics of this exchange:
CARTOONIST: Hm, I can try to do some free labor for you if you tell me a little bit more about what’s involved and also why you are specifying a gender for the laborer?
MARKETING AGENT: Now you must sign a NON-DISCLOSURE AGREEMENT.
So I write about gender, and labor, and IP issues, and marketing. You all know that. And when the cartoonist first asked me about this situation, I thought it sounded bad, the perfect conflation of friendly-seeming but coercive marketing and the standard-issue gender-based discrimination that we’ve come to expect in comics. But I didn’t think it was illegal. Now I’m not so sure.
Here’s what the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission says about such things [emphasis mine]:
Sex discrimination involves treating someone (an applicant or employee) unfavorably because of that person’s sex. … The law forbids discrimination when it comes to any aspect of employment, including hiring, firing, pay, job assignments, promotions, layoff, training, fringe benefits, and any other term or condition of employment. … Although the law doesn’t prohibit simple teasing, offhand comments, or isolated incidents that are not very serious, harassment is illegal when it is so frequent or severe that it creates a hostile or offensive work environment or when it results in an adverse employment decision (such as the victim being fired or demoted). The harasser can be the victim’s supervisor, a supervisor in another area, a co-worker, or someone who is not an employee of the employer, such as a client or customer.
Still, the marketer persisted …
… utilizing the “we’re all in this together!” theory of marketing (forgetting that, in fact, she wasn’t actually helping out this particular cartoonist, but using her to find one she could ”help out”), with a heavy helping of “I used to be just like you!” BARF.
The cartoonist, sympathetic, understandably responded with an email agreeing not to mention her name, or her employer’s, or the client’s, to anyone. I respect that. As I said: this type of exchange happens often enough that it’s not actually just about this one bad marketing agent, or this dumb firm or lame brand. It’s about who believes who owes who what, and who owns what is said in the course of negotiating it. In an email I won’t reproduce, the cartoonist again refused to sign the NDA, and refused to recommend anyone for the project, but she did agree not to make a big stink about it.
I agreed to no such thing. From this moment on, with full respect (and admiration) for the cartoonist who sent me this exchange in the first place, I’d like to request this: If you’re asked to sign an NDA during an informal exchange, don’t do it. If you’re a female identified creator in the comics industry asked to work for free on anything, don’t do that either. And if someone uses gendered, raced, or classed language—even if we’re just talking about art, or comics—get a lawyer, file a complaint, go public, or do whatever else you have to do to shut them down.
Why? Because these are bigger issues than any individual can see. We’ll soon be releasing Ladydrawers stats that talk about average earnings by gender, average submission rates by gender, and average publication acceptance rate by gender, and they. Are. Bad. I won’t ruin the surprise for you. What I will tell you now is this: male-identified creators are earning over three and a half times as much as female-identified creators, at the same average level of experience and doing the same amount of labor in the industry, in a divide that just barely straddles the poverty line (favoring, of course, the higher earners). Those who don’t identify along a gender binary in comics? That’s where it gets really rough: We’re seeing numbers that indicate they pull in about a seventh of what female creators do. Not enough to cover a single month’s rent in any city I know of.
In other words, for people who work in comics that don’t identify as male (or, for that matter, as “graphic novelists”), biased hiring practices and our widespread willingness to remain silent about them are an issue of survival.
Hey! I made a new book, mostly as an excercise to teach myself to silkscreen, but also because of my love of working really hard on pointless projects that end up being very frustrating involving pants! Speaking of which, I also have a new piece up on Truthout:
About a year ago, record numbers of garment laborers in factories across Cambodia—which exports 70 percent of the garments manufactured there to the US—were reported to be suddenly and mysteriously falling to the ground, unconscious. Hundreds at a time – sometimes less, although sometimes more. Workers at many scenes reported foul smells, difficulty breathing. Halting investigations took place at select plants by various parties involved: government officials; labor unions; human rights groups; business associations; monitoring organizations; and, weirdly, the international big-name brands that sell the clothes being made. A consortium of factors was considered: hypoglycemia, the direct result of workers not eating enough; minor factory infractions that managers promised to address immediately; a common cold outbreak emanating from Canada; overwork; mass hysteria; workers partying too hard over the weekend; and spiritual possession. In the end, no single cause was named for the nationwide epidemic. Besides a 5$ “health bonus” for qualifying workers, no sweeping policy changes were offered to keep the incidents from continuing.
It seemed to be just more bad luck for Cambodia… [but] the real bad luck for Cambodia … is that thousands of workers falling ill on the job isn’t enough to catch the fashion industry’s attention.
Read “The Fashion Industry’s Perfect Storm” here. (You will probably wish to know in advance that the story, which lists 3,000 faintings over the last year, is no longer accurate, as 500 more occurred within five days of publication.) Buy the limited edition red-white-and-blue silkscreened book, Capitalism and Its Discontents, here.
My pal Adam Hart and I have been secretly watching horror films together and separately and then having arguments about them for several months, the exciting part being that we’ve decided to make all our bitching and moaning public! With an online horror film review repository called The Blog is Coming From Inside the House.
Here’s an excerpt from my review of The Crocodile Man, a Cambodian film from 2005 that I haven’t stopped talking about since I picked it up last winter:
Real animals, for example, get as much screen time as our Crocodile Man, and when they attack, genuine chaos occurs. The soundtrack, likely dubbed from an American horror movie chase scene and put on a Garage Band loop, is droning and repetitive, and totally inappropriate for scenes in which, say, a snake lunges at our heroes but they get away handily. I have no desire to ruin this film for you, but since I doubt you’ll ever be able to track it down, I must explain that the subtitles for these animal attacks look like this:
I have no idea what it’s supposed to refer to, and I don’t care. It is simply too brilliant to question. … Similarly, the special effects deserve particular consideration: no attempt is made to integrate them into the storyline, nor do they seamlessly trick the viewer into an otherwise impossible experience. Scenes that take place at night were seemingly shot at night—maybe for purposes of authenticity, sure, but this technique does convey the distinct discomfort of, you know, not being able to see what is happening in the movie.
We sincerely hope you enjoy it or, if you are a horror filmmaker, that you do everything we tell you to do so we will have more things to like.
I wrote this last month for Truthout, and then the site was attacked and the piece has been offline since. It’s been a major bummer, since during the few days it was up, I’d received emails from all over the world from inquirants asking how they could begin such a program in their area. (I have no idea, of course. I’m just the word-jockey here.) Luckily, whenever I write on Cambodia, my work is mirrored on all sorts of smart offshore sites, and I was able to salvage this text from one of them. Please enjoy.
Bright and extremely early one Sunday morning in January, slightly more than 400 young women and a handful of young men trundled out of bed to attend class on the east side of Phnom Penh, Cambodia. (While the notion of a Christian day of rest doesn’t exist in the Buddhist country, it was their day off – for some, the only one they have for weeks.) Students sat in classes, repeated lessons back to instructors, took breaks to laugh and play in the courtyard and dreamed about their futures. It looked and felt like any college campus in the world—at least, any low-income college campus. Except that these women were learning about labor law. Because—oh yeah, did I forget to mention this?—they’re garment factory workers. Read the rest of this entry »
It is ridiculous, hilarious, and true that the US government was threatening to shut itself down recently over what amounts to women’s access to a full range of reproductive health options. I mean: we know this was merely a preposterous salvo in an ongoing war over control of resources, meaning mostly money, but for those of us concerned about the sovereignty of our own (female) bodies, it was something else, too. Because however hard we may be laughing over the inflated numbers, specious reasoning, and basic fucked-up-ness of a roomful of moneyed white men making decisions about women’s needs—and most of us, really are not—what we’re seeing is that the battlefields in the fight for women’s basic human rights are, again, shifting. Read the rest of this entry »
I got an email the other day, thanking me for a radio piece I did for NPR’s Snap Judgment. Now, I’d never put much thought into fanmail, because to me: you read the story, cut and paste the name into Google, hit “contact,” and voila! Fanmail. But audio is, and will always be, a fundamentally different beast. For one: no spellings. For two: you listen to it during commutes. For three: people who listen to audio think about stuff differently than people who read. See point one. Etc., etc., etc. So emails for audio are rare anyway, but certainly they are more rare when they come from former kidnapees.
The audio piece was about my friend Jason McLaughlin, who was kidnapped in Colombia and subsequently spent a year living with the FARC. Since meeting him—at a dinner party, as I describe in the piece—I’ve become totally fascinated by the ways that kidnapees describe their experiences. Because, essentially: they are forced, suddenly and without advance preparation, to change what they believe to be normal. On its own, kidnapping is not like having a spouse die, or watching your house go up in flames, or surviving a natural disaster. Although those things can coincide, which is probably unbearable. But pure kidnapping: it’s an unplanned lifestyle change, under imminent physical threat. Kidnapees renormalize, they must, or die. And, think of it: A kidnapping is a single act. The initial moment. The transition. After that, it’s just a different kind of life. Probably an unpleasant one.
This is what I found fascinating in Jason’s story (an essay exploring this more fully is still looking for a home since my first publisher went under) and it’s also what the letter-writer picked up on:
“Two years ago to the day, I was kidnapped in Guatemala,” she writes. “When the media got hold of my story and started to ask me questions, I was actually told why I didn’t say more ‘negative’ things about my captors. In fact, I learned not to read comments on news stories after a reader called me a “dingbat” for “excusing” the men who kidnapped us for giving us water and putting us in a shady spot (though I think the news source twisted the story a bit, to make it look like I had a little bit of Stockholm Syndrome.)”
Obviously, Stockholm Syndrome (and related phenomena) fascinate me. But here it becomes obvious: That what we call “Stockholm Syndrome” is a coping mechanism, a mental health tool that, for no good reason, pathologizes survival. Unadulterated victim-blaming.
The note goes on: “Everything I read about myself felt sensationalized. No one asked what I thought of kidnapping or the guerrillas, and it was only until I pushed one reporter to include my reflection on my kidnapping did that even appear in one story . . . I guess I want to thank you for asking the right questions to give the answers and reflections that I wanted to hear, especially as a person that had been kidnapped.”
When I say that emails about radio pieces are rare, I’m sort of talking out of my ass. I’ve received a number of emails about this piece, and spoken to any number of people about it in person, and through one circumstance or another, let’s just say I’ve developed a healthy spate of friends who have been kidnapped. I know. I don’t want to get into it. But it’s true. And what I can tell you, based on a generalization that I am now going to make about my bazillions of friends who have been kidnapped, OK I am exaggerating now, is that a lot of people say similar things. A lot: My story felt sensationalized. They interviewed me and didn’t use any quotes from me. They photographed my bruises but didn’t ask me what happened. I have never read a news story about kidnapping that I can relate to.
More than almost any other contemporary event, this speaks to me of an ongoing and totally unacknowledged crisis in media. Media makers want to hear drama, and they want to hear evil. They want to hear clean black-and-white good versus bad. But they are unwilling to hear facts. Media makers, without planning to, conspire to tell the narrative they believe to be true, overriding the evidence presented to them of objective truth. Their job, they feel in this case, although they would not state it so, is to misrepresent. Yes. They will tell you that if it bleeds, it leads. They will say that the drama is what sells the story. They will gain notoriety for having gotten “into the thick of it” and told that dangerous story like nobody else can, and then they will get more dangerous assignments and then have great careers about certain evil things that, perhaps, we are never presented with enough evidence to ask if truly evil. In my vast experience, of hanging out with kidnap victims, it is more frequently the case that kidnapping stories misrepresent than they are accurately told.
And my question is: how many other sets of stories are so thoroughly scripted in advance?
Just a quick intro to some of the work I’ve been doing over in the last few months at Camb(l)o(g)dia: Your Home For All Things Anne Elizabeth Moore Does in Cambodia—please see there The Messenger Band Tour Diary, a series of posts on the most amazing concert experience of my life (although truth be told I still have fond memories from a particular ’86 Journey/Loverboy Bloomington, MN stop OMG just kidding I mean I went to that concert but it wasn’t that great I just thought it would be funny to write and now I totally regret it.)
Anyway, it’s inspired a few thoughts lately on international solidarity and translocal cultural work I rarely have the excuse to realize or frame, which basically amount to me having a line from a Weakerthan’s song in my head all the time:
I choose to sit here next to you and wave.
Because the truth is, decisions about how and where and when we position ourselves to be friendly are probably our most significant political acts.