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Interview : Back in the girls dorm at 37


Alternative-media guru Anne Elizabeth Moore, 37, has just spent two months living in the Harpswell dormitory in Phnom Penh. The Harpswell foundation, established in 1999 by author and physicist Alan Lightman and his wife Jean provides educational opportunities to academically gifted young Cambodians. Most colleges here do not provide housing for students. So in 2007 the Harpswell foundation completed its first three-story dormitory for female college students in Phnom Penh. Now 36 female students, who have all been admitted on the basis of their potential to be “future leaders” in Cambodia, have moved in. Invited to live at the dormitory as part of the Foundation’s new “Leadership Residency” program, Moore found herself sharing a room with three of Cambodia’s female future leaders – all currently 18 years old. “I’m on the bottom of a bunk bed,” Moore said. “Did you put the part where I’m 37?” Moore has written more than 30 “fanzines” – publications by fans of various cultural phenomena – on topics as significant as pie and as meaningless as international coffee-shop chains. Her work has appeared in The Onion, the Chicago Reader and Punk Planet, which she helped to found. Originally from South Dakota, Moore headed back to the US in February to promote her new offering Unmarketable: Brandalism, Copyfighting, Mocketing, and the Erosion of Integrity. Before leaving, she spoke to the Post’s Cat Barton about poisonous frogs, toilet paper feminism and the Cambodian media.


Anne Elizabeth Moore: “It was like, ‘Wow, I’m here for two more weeks and I have nothing to teach you.’”

So how’s the all-girl

dormitory been?

I walked into the dorm and I was subsumed. Thirty-two girls

on me like a tidal wave. I feel I didn’t emerge from that for three weeks. I

didn’t know what to think. Oh my god, I’m 37 and I’m moving into a college

dorm. I didn’t even live in a dorm at college – I’d not immersed myself in that

environment deliberately, it terrifies me.

What have you been


Media has become and seems monolithic and unapproachable and

untouchable for the vast majority on earth – it is true in the US and in Cambodia. So everything I do is

about giving people more access over the tools they need to create it, options

to create their own media, a way to approach it critically, not negatively, but

with an awareness, especially of what goes into making it.

What do you think of

the media here?

I can’t address the Khmer-language magazines. I can’t read

Khmer and I can only understand some conversations about food and baby animals.

But the system doesn’t provide much access. For example, ten of the girls in

the dormitory told me they wanted to be journalists but their parents said, “No,

it’s too dangerous.” I think the system of development that is being sought

after in Cambodia promotes

an opportunism in media that is not about retaining genuine historic interest

or genuine political beliefs, or reflecting the day-to-day life of Cambodia, or

Cambodians. All this stuff – as true as it is for regular people in any class,

of any race, in any system – is especially true for young girls. They never

feel represented in the news media and that’s why magazines like Seventeen proliferate; because they are

the only thing that in any way represents them. But things like that do not

promote education, just things you can buy.

What’s day-to-day

life like at the dorm?

I wake up at dawn, the dorm is three floors and it is a

self-governing, girl-run organization. In this mode of creating women leaders,

they are great – they definitely run their own community. They do all the

cooking and cleaning. A different room cooks and cleans each day. We cook and

eat on the floor. It’s always rice and something on it – “food,” as they say.

If I have a stomach problem and I’m just eating rice they will ask me “Where’s

the food?” and I tell them that in the US we call rice food, it’s not just

something to put food on.

Is it easy to talk to

the girls?

What they lack in vocabulary they make up for in

earnestness. Like, once, there was a frog in the toilet. I was in there taking

pictures, getting up close, like “Wow! Look at this, girls!” And then Melia,

one of my roommates, saw the photos and she didn’t know how to say “That is a

very dangerous, poisonous frog, leave it alone.” But she said very carefully,

“Oh. No. That frog. If spit on you big problem.” I’ve been learning about other

ways of communicating.

What did they think

of you when you arrived?

When I came one girl said, “I hear you’re a writer and you

write about what the government does wrong.” I think there were two kinds of

writer for them – good ones, like Alan Lightman, and ones like me who write

about what the government does wrong. I have tried to explain to them that I

feel sometimes, when you write about what happens, you end up writing about

what the government has done wrong. But I also write – much more importantly –

about allowing people to do what they want. It took a couple of days to sink


Have they been

inspired to make their own media?

It is a normal approach when you start thinking about making

your own media that anything you’ve done or experienced appears normal because

you have been through it. Not newsworthy. Then there is also desire for

approval – whether from the government to ensure safety or from your peers and

social group. All of these things combine to not give these girls in particular

much impetus to express things they find difficult or weird. This happens not

just in media – here there is this culture of make do with what you’ve got. For

example, if you have run out of toilet paper, don’t just buy it; wait, think

about it. I say, “No! You need toilet paper. It is a precondition of being a

feminist.” Well, it’s not, it doesn’t matter, but I wanted them to have it all

and not be stressed out if they run out of toilet paper.

How has your teaching

them to make zines gone?

At first it was average teenage girl stuff – which is great,

there is room for that. But these girls are different, so there has been a second

wave of engaging with the ideas, thinking about what they can do with them.

There has been a second round of results too. Every project has levels of

engagement, time of disengagement when no one is paying attention. I came in

one day and Savy, one of my girls, said, “I’ve finished my first zine, I’ve

transcribed the history of Phnom Penh

from Khmer to English and drawn illustrations and I was in a hurry to publish

it so I snuck out and made photocopies myself. Here’s your copy.” Then it was

like, “Wow, I’m here for two more weeks and I have nothing to teach you.”

Is there space for

people to express themselves in Cambodia?

For me, it’s interesting being here and trying to suss out

what the lines are. That’s how you are able to change them. It’s not that I’m

dedicated to changing it or coming back even, but as a cultural critic that’s

how I work. Mia Farrow comes to town and we ban her from laying flowers and

close all genocide sites near the city. To deny it? What’s the message here?

This incident drew that line a little more clearly.



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