For Books’ Sake Talks To: Anne Elizabeth Moore
3rd Sep 2012
Every since our rave review of Cambodian Grrl, we’ve had a major fangirl crush on radical DIY-publishing advocate Anne Elizabeth Moore. We just about managed to keep the swooning and fainting under control long enough to interview her about her latest book, Hip Hop Apsara.
Fulbright scholar, founder of The Adventure School for Ladies and co-editor of the now defunct Punk Planet, Moore has had a busy and varied career, and is perhaps most notable for her work teaching young women in Cambodia to self-publish their own stories through comics and zines.
This journey was documented in Cambodian Grrl, and Moore is keen to note the success stories that have emerged since the publication of the book. “Some of those young women have gone on to careers in journalism,” she explains. “Some have come to study in the States, and some of them have gotten married and had kids.” The team were also able to start a self-publishing archive for comics and zines in the Pannasastra University of Cambodia library.
“I’m currently completing the next book in that series, New Girl Law that’ll detail the next project we did together, but since the time we did it I’ve been back on several extended trips and taught self-publishing to a wider group of women in the country,” explains Moore. “[We’ve] even started a project called the IYDCPC to teach comics there.”
Her latest offering, Hip Hop Apsara: Ghosts Past and Present is a photography book with accompanying essays, which documents the public dance lessons hosted most nights in Phnom Penh, on a restored riverfront in front of prime minister Hun Sen’s home.
The book is described as a document of “a nation caught between states of being”, specifically examining the emerging middle class and the fight for social justice in a country recovering from a turbulent history.
Moore has been the catalyst for many great projects over the years, but the nature of Hip Hop Apsara had her playing perhaps more of an observer than a leader.
“I wouldn’t say that I wasn’t still acting in a leadership role” argues Moore. “I don’t think you always have to orchestrate to lead. In fact, right now what I think we need in the US more than anything else is intellectual leaders—basically, people who act only after they have spent time observing and reflecting.
“This was the first photography project I’ve done in years—maybe a decade—and being able to go back to a purely visual mode of storytelling was really fun. To also be able to stretch what I could do as a writer on top of that was great,” says Moore.
She has nothing but praise for her publisher at Green Lantern, Caroline Picard, whose laid back approach gave Moore space to find the right format for the book, adding, “pretty much whatever I said sounded great to her.” The dual media structure allowed Moore to create, in her words, “a grander narrative” than if she had been using solely images or text.
Although it is unlikely that anyone could doubt Moore’s intentions for all the projects she has undertaken both internationally and in the US, Moore has spoken up about the risk of, as she puts it, “benevolent colonialism”.
“White westerners are really amazing in their ability to not believe they are part of the problem,” she says, and admits that since Cambodian Grrrl, a lot of people with far less experience and knowledge of the local history were motivated to go and carry out similar projects.
“It’s what I call the low-rent white savior industrial complex: people who want to teach English, ‘volunteer’, make art,” says Moore. “These are all helpful things, in most circumstances, but in complex political and historical situations like Cambodia, I’m quickly becoming convinced they’re damaging even in the medium term—in addition to being essentially colonialist.”
Moore explains that she will be discussing this in detail in New Girl Law, adding, “it’s sort of hard seeing the negative after-effects of some of the stuff I’ve been involved in.”
Moore has spent a great deal of her career working in the comics industry, and has done a lot of work addressing the gender imbalance. Questioned on whether she has seen an improvement in this area since she first started working in the industry over ten years ago, Moore is unconvinced.
“I don’t believe the comic-book industry has changed much at all in those ten years,” says Moore. “The book industry, which has smartly seen the same gender issues that I have, has stepped in and given a lot of women cartoonists book deals. And websites are definitely helping shift the wider industry as well, sometimes publishing women at equal rates to men, sadly most of the time without any pay at all.”
She does, however, note a willingness to change, explaining that often conventions with a male-dominated bill will be more than happy to feature more women and trans-people if it is requested.
And this is where the Truthout strip, Ladydrawers, comes in. It is a research collective originally established around ten years ago when Moore was editing The Comics Journal.
“One reason I didn’t just flat-out start a massive project like this up then was because the problems we address have been so obvious for so long that I felt sure someone who was more passionate about comics than I was would do something similar,” explains Moore.
But when no one did, Moore took it upon herself to research injustice and imbalance in the comics industry and find a group of willing artists to present the data in comics form.
Unsurprisingly for a woman who has dedicated her life to inspirational DIY publishing projects, Moore has expressed some scathing views of the mainstream publishing industry. I ask whether she thinks the rise of self-publishing has taken away any of the power from mainstream publishers.
“In a way, sure. But until there is a working economy again around independent publishing these changes won’t be permanent,” replies Moore. “And although I find self-publishing to be a really important tool, and a step in an important process of media justice, I think it’s got pretty limited impact in the developed Western world.”
Again, she is critical of the comics industry and it’s problems of gender and race, but not nearly as much as she condemns corporate publishing and how it “allows existing cultural problems to be sanctioned as policy.”
“But the model of having more than one person involved in the creation of work has a lot of benefits. Self-publishers tend to forget that,” Moore adds.
The core of most of Moore’s work seems to stem from a deep-rooted belief in the integrity and power of great media and art, and this is thoroughly addressed in her non-fiction book, Unmarketable: Brandalism, Copyfighting, Mocketing, and the Erosion of Integrity.
“Unmarketable was really tracking the middle point in the long slow demise of capitalism—an important middle point, for sure, but it wasn’t the beginning or the end of a story,” Moore says.
I ask if she still has hope of a regeneration of the indie and DIY scenes, and a belief that artists will reject the corporate sponsorship that threaten to discredit their work. Moore is uncharacteristically negative, noting that the changes she addressed in the book are “permanent”, and that people are still not investigating the sources of their funding, allowing their work to be compromised.
“I mean, at this point I can’t even work up the effort to care whether Linda the Street Artist took money from who for what project. Fact is, Linda the Street Artist is painting boring shit on a wall that’s been painted on 47 million times already, has no style or talent, and the content of the work aims only to point us toward Linda’s other incredibly lame work.”
Moore’s books have been praised for their ability to leave readers happy, hopeful and inspired despite their often brutal topics. I ask her if it’s ever difficult to maintain the positive energy.
“Ugh, all the time,” she replies. “I’m actually a very cynical person who somehow believes in the fundamental desire of all people to be good, but that belief has been challenged lately. I’ve had to try to find some smarter ways of remaining happy and hopeful while doing this work.”
She adds that this has meant a reluctant cull of the amount of projects she is undertaking, as well as rethinking the type of projects she gets involved with. She also admits that there are economic factors involved, too.
“Right now funding for international reporting on the impact of globalization on women is really hard to come by, if not impossible—partially because the only way the economy is eking along is by over-relying on women, as in the Cambodian garment industry. So when I can’t actually do the work I’m supposed to be doing it’s particularly difficult to find the good side to it!”
So scarce funding and dwindling positivity aside, what does Moore have planned for her next adventure?
“I have a comics journalism project in the works on the rise of fast fashion and its impact on the international garment trade,” she explains. “We’re seeking a publisher and funding to get it up and going.”
She will also be dedicating some of her time to Ladydrawers over the next year as they explore the impact of gender on the notion of intellectual property rights.
Moore has also managed to find the time to go on a few dates, joking, “It’s nice being a real, engaged, human person every once in awhile, who eats food and has opinions about neighborhood goings-on and thinks about getting a dog but doesn’t. I’m sure I’ll get bored if it soon, though.”
In the meantime, I’ll leave you with some wise words from Moore, the kind of DIY punk inspiration that ensures zines like ours stay in existence; “This whole world can be recreated, and needs to be. Do something new already! Especially if you think it might suck.”