Archive for the ‘Cambodia’ 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.
by Melissa Gira Grant and Anne Elizabeth Moore
Nick Kristof is a big fan of workplace evaluation for teachers—so we hope he won’t mind if we gather and share the following by way of conducting a performance review of our own.
The occasion? This week Kristof and his wife Sheryl WuDunn’s book Half The Sky premieres on PBS as a two-part mini series, providing an opportunity for his audience to step into his well-worn white savior shoes. From this unique vantage point, viewers will survey the lives of young women whom Kristof and WuDunn have chosen as the best ciphers for their agenda, to, as the subtitle of their book puts it, “turn oppression into opportunity.”
Yet even linguistically, something nags about that title: one does not go from being oppressed to being opportuned—or do they? Perhaps a better question to ask is: for whom does Kristof’s particular mode of humanitarianism provide opportunity? Some young women may benefit, certainly. But NGOs, private-public partnerships, and other enterprising (and entrepreneurial) young do-gooders are jumping into the fray, too. All turning oppression into opportunity—but ultimately not doing much about eradicating the oppression in the first place.
When Kristof is not proposing dubious schemes for advancing women’s rights—like arresting sex workers in order to “rescue” them from prostitution, or enthusiastically supporting the creation of “sweatshops” to accommodate sex workers and other women in the global south—he is marshalling support for such “solutions,” enlisting folks from George Clooney to President Obama, and from evangelical youth missionaries to the United Nations. Everyone seems to love that he’s created simple solutions (Video games! Donating money! Building schools!) but few note that such “solutions” fail to address the deeply embedded, long-standing, structural problems that cause poverty and gender inequity in the first place.
Let’s not forget that although Kristof may position himself like a walking, talking, reporting NGO, Kristof is not himself a charitable venture. He is a media-maker: his job is to talk and get talked about. Each young woman’s story that he tells bolsters up his own brand; each solution he offers casts himself in a prime-time starring role.
Nicholas Kristof: A Collective Evaluation
The Soft Side of Imperialism (Laura Agustín)
Here he is beaming down at obedient-looking Cambodian girls, or smiling broadly beside a dour, unclothed black man with a spear, whilst there he is with Ashton and Demi, Brad and Angelina, George Clooney. He professes humility, but his approach to journalistic advocacy makes himself a celebrity. He is the news story: Kristof is visiting, Kristof is doing something.
In interviews, he refers to the need to protect his humanitarian image, and he got one Pulitzer Prize because he “gave voice to the voiceless”. Can there be a more presumptuous claim? Educated at both Harvard and Oxford, he nevertheless appears ignorant of critiques of Empire and grassroots women’s movements alike. Instead, Kristof purports to speak forgirls and women and then shows us how grateful they are.
The White Savior Industrial Complex (Teju Cole)
I want to tread carefully here: I do not accuse Kristof of racism nor do I believe he is in any way racist. I have no doubt that he has a good heart. Listening to him on the radio, I began to think we could iron the whole thing out over a couple of beers. But that, precisely, is what worries me. That is what made me compare American sentimentality to a “wounded hippo.” His good heart does not always allow him to think constellationally. He does not connect the dots or see the patterns of power behind the isolated “disasters.” All he sees are hungry mouths, and he, in his own advocacy-by-journalism way, is putting food in those mouths as fast as he can. All he sees is need, and he sees no need to reason out the need for the need.
Be Aware: Nick Kristof’s Anti-Politics (Elliott Prasse-Freeman)
Kristof’s ability to frame and deliver the world’s horrors to millions—in a way that keeps those millions coming back for more—seemingly should make him worthy of the hero worship that has attended his rise. Indeed, what is worse than a privileged bourgeois population that knows nothing of the way the other half (or rather the other 99 percent) lives? And yet the devil as always remains in the details—or in Kristof’s case, the lack of details. For, when exploring why Kristof has become a high priest of liberal opinion in America (arrogating the right to speak on almost any sociopolitical phenomenon, provided it involves an easily identifiable victim), we crash into what can be called Kristof’s anti-politics: the way his method and style directly dehumanize his subjects, expelling them from the realm of the analytical by refusing to connect them to systems and structures that animate their challenges.
Mr. Kristof, I Presume? (Kathryn Mathers)
All of the copies of Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn’s book Half the Sky were checked out of the libraries of nearby universities last summer. My students know that there are problems with the development and aid industries and can even offer biting critiques of celebrity interventions in aid programs in Africa. But they believe that they can do it better, that their generation understands the failures and can solve them, and that their intentions are pure enough to overcome the cynics. Their confidence is made possible in part by the examples of individual young Americans just like them establishing and running educational, health, and technological programs in Africa trumpeted by a serious journalist like Kristof in a serious newspaper like the New York Times. Kristof’s writing about humanitarianism in Africa makes possible a very limited but accessible form of aid by asking his readers to focus on what they can do and the importance of one individual saving another. So, no, I do not want to write about Nicolas Kristof. But I must, because he has claimed such an authoritative voice in conversations about Americans’ relationship to Africans that he has somehow made the act of writing about them an actual intervention in the lives of poor people in the world.
You need Nicholas Kristof (Dan Moshenberg)
If you’re an African girl in trouble, there are only two things you can rely on. Your courage … and Nicholas Kristof. At least, that’s what Kristof would have us believe.
The story Kristof tells is the story he’s told before. This time he’s in Sierra Leone. A 15-year-old girl named Fulamatu is raped by her neighbor. This happens repeatedly, and Fulamatu remains in terrified and terrorized silence. She loses weight, becomes sick. Finally, when two girls report that the pastor had tried to rape them, Fulamatu’s parents put two and two together, and asked their daughter, who reports the whole series of events. They take her to the doctor, where she is found to have gonorrhea. Fulamatu lays charges against the pastor, who flees.
That’s where Kristof comes in… He argues for US Congressional passage for the International Violence Against Women Act, but his story suggests a more important line of action. The story says, if you’re Black and a girl, in `a place like Sierra Leone’, you better have the phone number of a prominent White American Male. You need Nicholas Kristof.
Obama, Please Ignore Kristof For Now (Melissa Gira Grant)
Nicholas Kristof has been issuing ad-hoc Presidential guidance on the sex trade for years now. The archive of his editorial column in the New York Times serves as a record of his proposals. In 2004, he “bought the freedom” of two women working in brothels in Poipet, Cambodia with the intention of returning them to their villages. Kristof wasn’t prosecuted under US law for the purchase of sex slaves — he wrote of this sale as an “emancipation,” and in 2005, he was back in Poipet to check up on the women. One had returned to prostitution, prompting Kristof to offer another round of recommendations to President Bush, pleading with him to commit the United States to a New Abolitionism. Now he’s back with his 2009 agenda, delivered like the others, as a kicker to his column. In it, he asks that the Obama administration pressure the Cambodian government to bust more brothels, on the premise that the risk of going to jail for selling sex will hurt brothel owners’ profits and will protect more women from abuse and violence. Yet such stings and raids are already the centerpiece of a disastrous crackdown on Cambodian prostitution.
Nick Kristof to the rescue! (Irin Carmon)
The narrative proceeded in a familiar fashion: There were villains, even some with military ties; then there is a rescue. Kristof tweeted, “Girls are rescued, but still very scared Youngest looks about 13, trafficked from Vietnam.” And then, “Social workers comforting the girls, telling them they are free, won’t be punished, rapes are over.” He was accompanied by Cambodian anti-trafficking activist and forced-prostitution survivor Somaly Mam. Post-presidential niece Lauren Bush chimed in perkily, “Awesome reporting by @NickKristof as the (sic) raided a brothel in Cambodia with @SomalyMam this morning!” The trouble is, nothing involving sex work is ever quite as cut-and-dried as a sweeping rescue.
The Rescue Industry (Paper Bird)
During the Egyptian Revolution, when the New York Times’ Nicholas Kristof was wandering Midan Tahrir giving the uprising his ponderous approval, I told friends that if Mubarak wanted to get at least one pesky journalist off his back, he need only give Nick directions to Clotbey Street — the capital’s ancient red-light district — and tell him there were girls who needed saving. Such is Kristof’s passion to rescue misused and trafficked women that he would have dropped everything to head there. And given that Nick permits no struggle for human freedom to go on without him, the revolt would surely have been suspended, and Mubarak would still be in charge.
A human trafficker defends Cambodian sweatshops (Erik W Davis)
Kristof suggests that an expansion of bad sweatshop conditions (and despite relatively better conditions, Cambodian factories are largely sweatshops) is a solution to poverty. He’s full of it. His heart might be in the right place, but he’s stopped using his reason. The factories are not doing the job that development economists expected it to do from the beginning, which was to industrialize the country and expand the off-farm job base (and therefore, reduce poverty). Today, 91% of Cambodian heads of households still list agriculture as their primary employment, and at least 80% still live in the impoverished provinces. The factories won’t expand (indeed, as I point out, they are rapidly shrinking) just because Kristof thinks that the scavengers at Stung Meanchey dump could use a better form of subsistence.
FarmVille (Maggie McNeill)
If Kristof had ever demonstrated some actual regard for the complex and often contradictory desires, needs and behaviors of real women I might not read this subtext into his silly game, but he hasn’t; females of every age are simply props to him, little game-pieces whose function is the aggrandizement of Nicholas Kristof. He treats the real lives of sex workers as FarmVille players treat the existence of their virtual creatures: as things to be manipulated for profit and “points”. He uses the stories of girls to build up his own reputation, exaggerating their lurid details and reworking them into enslavement porn from which he reaps the profit while condemning others as “pimps” (talk about pot calling kettle black…) He participates in Hollywood cowboy “brothel raids”, then never stops to wonder what happened to the women he “rescued” afterward. And he no more bothers to consider what the girls he “rescues” and writes about might want than a FarmVille player considers the desires of his digital farm animals. To Kristof, individual women are as interchangeable and passive as endlessly-duplicated digital beasts, and our function is to stay wherever he puts us and earn him money and status.
Cross-posted from POSTWHOREAMERICA, where Melissa put it up earlier this morning.
Melissa Gira Grant writes on gender, sexuality, politics, and more often than she would like, on badvocacy like Half The Sky. She is indebted to the sex worker rights’ activists around the world and in Cambodia in particular for their firsthand accounts of the damage this dude has wrought.
Anne Elizabeth Moore has been working in and around young women’s issues in Cambodia for five years. Her book Cambodian Grrrl has been suggested as a Half The Sky alternative, for folks made reasonably uncomfortable with white neoliberal portrayals of feminism.
The official description of the 2011 documentary film Brother Number One reads:
Brother Number One is a New Zealand documentary on the torture and murder of New Zealand yachtie Kerry Hamill by the Khmer Rouge in 1978. It follows the journey of Kerry’s younger brother, Rob Hamill, an Olympic and Trans-Atlantic champion rower, who travels to Cambodia to retrace the steps taken by his brother and John Dewhirst, speaking to eyewitnesses, perpetrators and survivors.
More or less, it is an accurate description. But in the context of documentaries about the Cambodian mass killings and genocide, of which there are very few (read my review of Enemies of the People on N+1 here), we need to read between the lines: this is a documentary about the white experience of a unique and definitive part of Southeast Asian history. It is one tragic story among almost two million—Rob’s tale one of fourteen million survivor’s tales. Only a handful of which are the stories of white English-speaking folk. In other words, the events documented in Brother Number One happened, certainly, but they are not the story.
Keep in mind: genocide is a term that does not apply to all the killings that occurred under the Khmer Rouge, and certainly not most of the almost 12,500 that occurred in the S-21 prison where Kerry Hamill and John Dewhirst met their ends. But in the Westerners’ case, because they were of a different race and ethnicity from the killers, it does. This is a significant point, because the justification for this film—uttered several times within the film itself, and by the filmmakers in texts that present the film, as well as by the human rights organization that hosted the screening I saw—is that having a Western perspective on a non-Western occurrence is necessary to capture the attention of the international audience. (Whether or not “the attention of the international audience” is itself necessary is an issue we can address at some future point.)
In other words, for Kerry Hamill and John Dewhirst—and for the two other white people killed at S-21, as well as other non-Cambodians—the Khmer Rouge regime was, clearly, a system of genocide. For Cambodians, however, who made up the majority of the population of the torture prison, it was not.
So already the story Olympian and Trans-Atlantic rower Rob Hamill tells is atypical. Because of their white skin, height, and inability to speak Khmer—and because, as the film explains but does not explore, Kerry and John had sailed thoughtlessly into a war zone—the Westerners were targeted as outsiders. Brother Number One does not therefore convey what life was like for all but a handful of those who met their ends at the S-21 prison, nor does the film address the most pressing ongoing difficulties the majority of Cambodians face in seeking justice today. In fact, as we will see in a moment, it skims over them completely. Although this particular story would not have been told without Rob Hamill—one of the most internationally renowned New Zealanders to emerge from this otherwise under-understood country (still better understood than Cambodia, however, at least from a US perspective)—his privilege in telling the story of S-21 is significant, because it changes the story he tells.
Kerry Hamill and John Dewhirst’s linguistic and physical differences also offered the filmmakers privileges—unacknowledged in the film. Take for example Rob Hamill’s method for retracing the steps of his brother and companion: The hero wanders around the countryside with a photograph of the Westerners, asking people (with the help of a translator, natch) if they remember seeing a tall white man at S-21 prison. Sure, they say. There were only four of them. Rob’s difficulty in finding people who remember Kerry is not high. But keep in mind that even the photograph—any photograph—was itself a privilege inaccessible to the majority of families who lost members at S-21. The country was simply too poor for photography to be common. Nor, of course, could Cambodians so easily query each other on their memories of medium-height, ragged-clothed, dark-haired, brown-skinned men or women. There were slightly less than 12,500 of them during the almost four-year run of the facility.
So the method of inquiry the film utilizes was not available to the majority of those whose family members suffered the same fate as Kerry Hamill. And although surviving family members of Cambodians killed at S-21 were also invited to testify at Duch’s hearing, Rob Hamill’s fame and foreignness certainly offered him the freedom and flexibility to attend, which many Cambodians could not afford, financially—or perhaps more significantly, socioculturally—to do. The country is still quite poor, and the tribunals viewed with skepticism. Not to mention that the funding and marketing of the film hinged on Rob Hamill’s fame. Neither, in other words, could this film have told the story of a Cambodian killed under the Khmer Rouge, nor would there have been a film at all, had this not been Rob Hamill’s story to tell.
Much of which is reflected in the title: “Brother Number One” is supposed to refer to Kerry’s status as the elder brother, not only the Khmer Rouge regime in power at the time of his death. However, the real, actual Brother Number One was Pol Pot, or Saleth Sar, who makes only a marginal appearance in the film (seemingly stuck in to justify the title, n fact). The film is not so much about the Khmer Rouge as a whole, however, as it is about S-21 prison, which many former Khmer Rouge have since attempted to marginalize in relationship to the Angkar. This is theoretically a way of distancing former party members still active in politics (including the prime minister himself) from the most evil Khmer Rouge invention, the prison. But it is also smart politics: Duch’s hearing was the first slated in the Khmer Rouge Tribunal, and only three others slated at all, now each in jeopardy. Pretending S-21 was the worst of what the Khmer Rouge had to offer, and then punishing Duch for it, lends the appearance of justice to a much more complicated situation. The film’s title builds on the false equivalence that the prison was the worst part of the four-year regime, which is problematic. Yet the self-importance and cuteness of referencing Pol Pot in the title, only to position Kerry as the central figure in this history of mass killings, torture, and other evils, is distressing. Imperialistic. Orientalist. And will go unnoticed by most viewers.
Most viewers, of course, are what the film’s creators call that desirable “international audience”. They are Westerners, prized ostensibly for cultural predominance, ability to influence international affairs, and control of the majority of the world’s resources. It is true that the film would not have been made were it not about Rob Hamill’s brother. This is what the filmmakers, the organizations that sponsor screenings, and Rob Hamill himself feel is its true value. That a film exists on this subject at all, that Westerners can relate to. But. While what happened to Kerry Hamill and John Dewhirst was awful, and what Rob Hamill and his family went through must have been unbearable, too, this film does not tell a larger truth about Southeast Asian history. It tells a story about the persecution of Westerners. Who, the film fails to explain at all, played an extremely significant role in the events that lead to the Khmer Rouge revolution in the first place.
I am reminded of this line in Brecht’s Writing the Truth: Five Difficulties:
[I]t is not untrue that chairs have seats and that rain falls downward. Many poets write truths of this sort. … [but] their truths are truths about chairs or rain; they usually sound like truths about important things. But on closer examination it is possible to see that they say merely: a chair is a chair; and: no one can prevent the rain from falling down.
They do not discover the truths that are worth writing about.
Brother Number One is certainly a true story. It is meaningful, it is sorrowful, it is unfortunate. But in telling this truth, other ones—the ones worth telling—get hidden.
I was extremely pleased to be invited to participate in the Cambodian LGBTQX Pride art exhibition this year, alongside some of my very favorite Cambodian and Cambodia-based artists. (My piece, a wall version of New Girl Law, is on the left; the amazing Viet Le’s love bang! is on the back wall.) The issues of silencing and self-silencing that I have been investigating in various ways for the past few years—in Cambodia and elsewhere—are really difficult to understand in the context of sexual freedom unless, as this piece in the Guardian pointed out yesterday, you are a Cambodian lesbian:
Traditionally, a Cambodian woman’s main role is to marry well and raise children. School lessons often reflect this and are geared towards preparing girls for these roles. As a result, many girls believe that this preparation is more important than academic aspirations. The Chbap Srey or Women’s Code of Conduct, which until recently was taught to all school children, outlines the importance for women to be feminine, modest and obedient thus limiting decision making power, political power and women’s social and professional capacity to express themselves and build relationships.
Although female employment is relatively high, women are more commonly employed informally by family members on a low wage. As a consequence, women are rarely financially independent and are typically dependant on their parents or their husbands. This factor is particularly significant for Cambodian lesbians as they are often financially incapable of living on their own or with their female partners. … In many cultures, women are discouraged from seeking or expressing sexual pleasure and their sexuality remains hidden.
One barrier was a simple book, a staple of Cambodian culture called the Chbap Srei, or Girl Law. The 19th-century book outlines women’s place in Cambodian society based on very traditional restrictive cultural values. Unsurprisingly, its male-centered counterpart—Chbap Bros, or Boy Law—is much shorter. …
“What I was able to see when I lived among this group of strong, independent, forward-thinking young women was that most of them still had copies of this book on their desks,” Moore said. “Yes, they were studying them from a legal perspective and attempting to be critical of them, but the fact that it was still a day-to-day part of their culture was amazing.”
By enforcing such aged constructs of gender, Cambodian culture likewise enforces heterosexuality. Moore said the young women she encountered considered it common sense that they should be married to men by the age of 24. The country is in the midst of a growing gay movement, Moore said, but the idea of any sexual relationship that defies heteronormativity is still shocking.
The Chbap Srei (Srey), of course, was the text we re-wrote during one of my stays in Cambodia, as a group. Then once the text was published, it was censored. In Cambodia. By some of the people who helped make it. And also in the US. By some of the people who claimed to want to help.
This situation, and the multiple veilings and censorings and discussions it spawned, was the basis for presenting this piece, in this way, as a part of Cambodian Pride in Phnom Penh. You can see the installation (held at Meta House, with images below and above by Jim Mizerski) here:
But significantly more important to me was the other work I contributed to in the space, a small zine-making station, with copies of How to Make This Very Zine in both English and Khmer. I was moved to tears that my work teaching self-publishing in Cambodia could help model a space to experiment in free expression, especially in the context of sexuality. And even more proud, of course, that girls got all up in it.
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.
Angee Lennard of Spudnik Press has been making this crazy cover for my upcoming Green Lantern Press book, which you can read a little bit more about here, and which features images from Phnom Penh’s emerging middle class first previewed here and here, as well as a brand-new essay. Perhaps the most exciting part is that we had to invent a font—rather, Danielle Chenette did—which is awkward and crazy and cool. I’m working on a book trailer for it, and will post when that’s ready.
There have been some delays, but How To Make This Very Zine is again available for download in German, Arabic, English, Khmer, Spanish, Greek, Russian and Georgian, on my “real” internet web-page, here. If you would like to translate this document into Swedish, Vietnamese, Portuguese, Mandarin, Lakota, Thai, Swahili or Latin, please let me know! Just not French. I’m not into that.
On November 18, a week in advance of Black Friday, a group of people went to the H&M at 22 North State Street in downtown Chicago, and at exactly 3:30 p.m., suddenly fell to the ground for a couple of seconds.
Here’s why: Since late July, close to a thousand Cambodian garment workers in plants that manufacture H&M clothing have fainted on the job. (See here and here.) Workers—who already earn only half a living wage, and regularly skimp on food and healthcare to feed their families—have reported weird smells and noxious chemicals. It is also relevant that H&M has lately increased the volume of clothing they produce to six times what was produced six months previous. H&M agreed to investigate the situation, but found nothing wrong with their own actions. Because the garment industry is the struggling nation’s third largest source of income, the Cambodian government has done nothing. Local press, largely controlled by the government, has failed to fully investigate, and the international press has done even worse: one major media outlet claimed the women are suffering from “mass hysteria,” for example, and other outlets have failed to run anything at all. The end result seems to be that women falling sick to make your cheap fashions just isn’t big news.
So we held a mostly silent action to commemorate this mostly silent series of events.
If you’d like to hold your own action at your local H&M, please send images to artshowheckyeah at gmail dot com, subject header: FEINT. We’ll post them here at Democracy Guest List. Feel free to use the handy email guide below (but don’t post your plans to social media!)
- Choose a time for the action, and set your phone alarm to silent and vibrate.
- Get to the store before your chosen time. (The earlier you can get there, and the fewer people that enter with you, the less suspicion you will attract.
- Find a comfortable place inside the store a safe distance away from clothing, tables, stands, workers, or other customers, and at the proper time, fall to the ground for a few moments.
- If someone offers to help you up, and asks what happened, please consider responding, ”Around a thousand women in H&M factories in Cambodia have fainted on the job in recent months, and the company, the government, the press, and fashion consumers have done nothing. Thanks for your help.”
- However, unless they ask what happened—even if they help you up—please don’t offer any explanation at all.
REMEMBER: Don’t take items down with you as you fall. (This could be considered vandalism.) Don’t fall on anything or anyone. (This could be considered a physical attack.) Don’t steal or hide anything as you fall. (That will get you arrested and you will deserve it.) The only danger you are in will be of your own creation. Falling down is not a crime.*
*In Cambodia, however, garment workers are often required to sign contracts stipulating that fainting on the factory floor is a relinquishment of their job. That is, once they wake up, many no longer have a source of income for their families.
The Museum of Contemporary Art collaborative performance project continues apace, and as of yesterday around 200 people had come in to sit with me for a while to talk about my research into the international garment trade. I’ve become pretty lax about actually addressing Cambodia, workers’ rights, or the various trade agreements in place; I’ve found that it doesn’t take too long before people pulling apart a pair of jeans by hand start asking of their own accord who made these jeans, and if it was as difficult to put them together as it is to take them apart.
In the mean time, people are really deeply enjoying themselves in this meditative space, doing something seemingly pointless—at least, the physical end results of which are, at best, unclear. But they come in and sit and pull jeans apart with me anyway, even if they say they don’t want to at first, even if they tell me they think it’s kinda dumb, even if they “have a lot to do” and “only have a minute to see everything.” Usually I’m not even the one to say, “It’s really fun.”
We had an amazing conversation yesterday with a 10-year-old, a number of museum visitors, and about 30 Californians who had stopped by in a group from the Sonoma County Museum of Art. Or somewhere. They were all about the sustainability thing; the water waste of cotton production. And they wanted a lecture on the project instead of to do the project. They asked what I had to teach kids about Cambodia and the international garment trade. I asked the young girl what she already knew; she had participated in a school activity last year to raise money for a well in Cambodia. So what I got to say was, Look. I don’t have to teach anybody anything. You already know that the reason the garment trade needs examining is because the women who made these jeans can’t afford to dig their own well. That the system we support, as consumers—because we are all wearing clothes—is keeping the people who make them for us from water.
Later, things got a little quieter. The rain had let up and people were spending their Saturday afternoon at the Air and Water Show. I assume.
A woman came in to sit at the table with me and a few other visitors, and became very engaged in asking about Cambodian garment workers. After close to an hour, she asked me: “Do they even know they’re oppressed?”
I waffled. They don’t. In fact, in context, the factory workers have jobs. And all the things that jobs come with here: a sense of freedom, a sense of independence, a sense of duty. A fitting in. The way I explained it was really problematic: it would be possible to hear and walk away from and think: then the garment trade is awesome.
But I guess the real point I would like to find a way to explain is not about their responsibility for their own awareness as oppressed peoples. What I need to find a way to explain is that those of us who are asking the the question need to be responsible for responding to it. Yes, the international garment trade is a global system, and it is everywhere. But the beneficiaries of it mark themselves: we mark ourselves. Willingly. And while I would never ever respond to her smart and innocent query, “Do they even know they’re oppressed?” by saying: “As well as you know that you are oppressing them,” I would like to find a way to try.