Friends and reporters in the US ask frequently why I would pick up and go to Cambodia after the long-running magazine I co-published and edited for three years in Chicago folded last summer. My book on the problems plaguing independent media in North America -- Unmarketable -- was just released, too, and I cut touring with it short to, well, move into a college dormitory with 32 women almost half my age.
I admit, it probably seemed rash.
But the issues troubling independent Cambodian media production and that made in the United States are not as different as they might seem. Despite claims of freedom of speech in both countries, societal pressures, hidden economic dealings, and lack of access to educational resources combine to silence voices and keep many stories unheard.
So when I was offered a "leadership residency" at the Phnom Penh dormitory of the Harpswell Foundation -- an NGO whose mission is to raise the next generation of national women leaders -- I agreed, proposing a project to plant in these future leaders the same desire to create and disseminate my own media that lead me to start self-publishing my writing when I was around their age.
Of course, the differences between me in my 1980s American youth and the 17- to 22-year-old women in 2008 Phnom Penh are vast; the women here are, for one, significantly smarter than I was. They're studying law, medicine, accounting, and IT; I went to art school.
But art school has never been an option for Meng Hun, despite several early awards for drawing. Her time with pencil and paper was labeled wasteful, and she's lost many of her early skills. Panha, on the other hand, never spent much time drawing -- like some of the country's own history, it's not taught in schools -- but trying to draw made her giggle, and she liked it immediately. After spending some time reading through comics (I brought a supply of handmade books with me from the States, as well as samples of their legitimately published brethren), and upon drawing a reference guide to the Khmer New Year, Panha started calling herself a cartoonist.
Some students have taken their self-publishing projects as opportunities to show off the country they love to the rest of the world. They have created small recipe booklets, instructions for coining, agricultural pointers, and illustrated views of Cambodian student life for foreigners.
As excited as they've been to create the small books, however, it's been difficult to convince them of the potential of the form. That is, until Meng Hun and Samouy complained a few nights ago that between the older generation's disinterest in talking about the Pol Pot period, and the difficulty of learning about it in schools, several of their fellow students seemed not to know their own history -- even what their own parents went through.
What if you had a way of writing it down so other people could read about it, I asked. Meng Hun got to work on a book about her village's story right away. It will have many pictures.
Another major difference between when I started self-publishing and the girls here doing it now is that by the 1980s, women in the U.S. had gained seats in political office, the Equal Rights Amendment was in force, and there was a working, and widespread, independent media system that not only kept a close eye on larger issues of social justice, but also created a welcoming workspace for me.
The Harpswell girls don't have all that. But they've just begun to create it.