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Pippi Longstocking in Cambodia

The Swedish writer Astrid Lindgren’s character Pippi Longstocking has in Cambodia become a feminist role model for women of all ages. The publisher Huot Socheta eagerly awaits the effects Pippi might have on the next generation of young Cambodian girls.

Credits Text: Huot Socheata April 18 2017

When I discovered Pippi for the first time it was my second year working at Sipar. At that time I was in charge of the communication service. The book was yet to be finalized but once I started the first pages I couldn't stop reading the draft copy. Anyway, when you turn back the cover on an Astrid Lindgren book, it won’t let you go until the final page.

First, Pippi made me laugh. A lot. She is exactly what I dreamed to be when I was a child: financially independent with a sackful of gold pieces, be able to drive and carry a horse, fight against bad boys (there were few in my class), play around all day long without obligation to go to school and most important of all, do what I felt like doing. It is, after all, more or less every child's dream.

Through Pippi I revived my childhood, a childhood in the beginning of the 1980s when almost all titles of over a thousand modern novels published between 1950 and 1975 had been destroyed during the Khmer Rouge regime (1975-1979). At primary school we were not encouraged to read books except text books which repeated communism propaganda and told us how bad the Khmer Rouge leaders were. At secondary school in the 1990s we studied The Rose of Pailin [1], The Wilted Flower [2], and classic works such as folktales, mythology, poetry and chbab (codes of conduct). Imagination and freedom of expression were not in the curriculum.

Fortunately at home I could read some children's books such as Pinocchio (translated from Russian version) and other revolutionary books translated from Vietnamese that my family bought or rented from the market in Battambang. Those books and some other black and white graphic novels, prolomlok[3], were the only supplementary reading material and entertainment at that time.

Pippi came to my life later, when I was adult. How could the story seduce me that much? I suppose because of the second message that Lindgren had hidden behind the girl with freckles and two red plaits which stuck straight out.

Pippi Longstocking is everything but a perfect opposite of a perfect Cambodian girl. She is a girl rebel. Pippi is fun because she breaks with conventional ideas about how girls should behave. Since her arrival to Cambodia, she has helped liberate children of all social classes. She has saved them from adult laws and from the awful pluttification tables at school. She has also helped them express themselves and sometimes make fun of adults' behaviour. So it is not strange that Pippi has aroused the fury of many conservative adults including parents, teachers, and librarians. Children know that Pippi is doing wrong when she drinks lemonade out of a jug at a garden party. Nevertheless, like other popular storybook characters, she has influenced the way they think and behave. A young Cambodian parent stated: “After reading Pippi to my two children, they started to rebel. They said they want to do like Pippi: climbing tree, riding horse, and drinking coffee. But I think it is a good story.”

Pippi is against wastage and consumer society. In the chapter where Pippi is a Turnupstuffer, she looks for the use of all stuff that people throw away. “They thought it was best to begin hunting around the houses in the neighbourhood, because Pippi said that even if there were little grouse deep in the woods, the very best things were almost always found near where people lived.”

Tommy looked rather suspiciously at the tin and asked, “What can you use that for?”

“It can be used for lots of things,” said Pippi. “One way is to put cakes in it. Then it will be one of those nice Tins With Cakes. Another way is not to put cakes in it. Then it will be a Tin Without Cakes, which isn't quite as nice, but it would do well enough too.”

This kind of message is very important in Cambodia at a time when the quality of life in cities is increasing and people are buying more and consuming more because it's the way everybody else does, without considering potential impacts on the environment or our social development.

In parallel, Pippi is not as concerned about her appearance as many other girls and women. Pippi is evidently not prepared to accept the cosmetics industry. Like when she goes for a walk with her friends Annika and Tommy she finds a place where the sun is hot so her freckles could grow. In another series of Pippi (not translated in Khmer yet), she is not interested in the anti-freckle cream on offer in a shop with the sign “ DO YOU SUFFER FROM FRECKLES?” Pippi goes into the shop to make her position clear. “No, I don’t suffer from freckles”, she declares. “But my dear child”, says the startled assistant, “your whole face is covered in them.” “I know”, says Pippi, “but I don’t suffer from them. I like them. Good morning!”. She makes fun of the way women get dressed and put on their make-up. She goes to the market in her giant, mill wheel-like hat, dressed in a full-length evening gown and with huge green rosettes on her shoes. She has also applied charcoal to her eyebrows and coated her mouth and nails with red paint. “I think you should look like a really fine lady when you go to the market”, says Pippi.

Pippi has also provided readers with courage to stand up for the weak and oppressed. She fights for gender equality. It is not surprising that most of people who volunteered to provide their point of view about the books in Khmer were women. One Cambodian woman said: “Even though a playful girl, [Pippi] is intelligent, creative, amazingly weird. She is rebel but courageous. I love Pippi.”

Other female reader made a comment: “I love this story. I love the character, her innocence. And I laugh with her imperfect actions.”

When Sipar first published Pippi in Khmer, I did not anticipate that she might become a role model for Cambodian women’s thinking about gender roles. Having grown up in the wake of a catastrophic devastation of all that was good in our society, I am excited to see what this girl, the brave, bold, independent Pippi, might inspire in her readers. Could it be that one day adults will want to make girls as strong, brave, uninhibited, amusing, rebellious and defiant of authority as Pippi—at least those trying to bring up children in a spirit of gender equality? ​It is clear that Lindgren was not writing an explicit feminist propaganda but that has not prevented Pippi from becoming a source of inspiration for women all around the world.

Pippi's influences do not stop with her readers. When asked about her feelings on Pippi, a young Cambodian female author claimed: “Pippi is an interesting girl. With her actions described in the book, that's incredible. What would it be like if I had a daughter like her? And I wonder how to write such an interesting book.” Another author has just said: “Exceptional”.

As Pippi reaches more and more readers, child and adult, in Cambodia, I wonder what Cambodian character might grow from the seeds her influence. I look forward to meeting her one day.

[1] Kolap Pailin in Khmer, written by Nhok Them, the novel gives the details of Pailin, a province located in the North-west part of Cambodia. The story's main character Chao Chet, a poor orphan came to work for a rich merchant. Eventually he fell in love with his master's daughter, Khunneary.

[2] Phkar Sropon in Khmer, a very sad ending story in Khmer novel history, it is a premier novel of a famous author named Nou Hach. Because of the barrier of different social classes, the main female character is broken up with her lover and forced to marry a wealthy man, which results in a fatal physical and psychological illness.

[3] The graphic novels that often talk about love story.

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