While A Proper Woman’s title evokes a Victorian-era etiquette manual for how a girl should behave in polite society, Thon Thavry’s debut book instead challenges the notion of what a “proper” woman is, and does so across three different generations.
Though written in part as a memoir, the book at times reads as an annotated interview with her mother and grandmother, in which the 27-year-old lays out the evolution of a Cambodian woman’s social barriers over time.
While Thavry’s mother had a “charmed” childhood as the daughter of a judge during the Khmer Republic, she writes, the Khmer Rouge takeover upended her family’s life. After the war, her mother found herself unable to freely pursue an education.
“My grandmother insisted my mother work to support the family, rather than waste her time studying,” she writes.
Denied the opportunity to complete her education, Thavry’s mother was confined to the rice fields. It’s not an uncommon or unique tale, but Thavry simply states the facts: Her mother did not have the same chances that she did. Nonetheless, the author notes that a combination of luck, as well as her mother’s desire to promote her daughter’s opportunity, meant Thavry would end up attending university in the Czech Republic and travel the world.
In retelling the stories of her grandmother and mother, Thavry broaches subjects ranging from arranged marriage to the role of women in business and family life.
But the book also covers the development of the country since the 1990s in considerable detail. The reader sees the end of the civil war, the arrival of telephone lines and the first elections through Thavry’s eyes as she grew up on Koh Ksach Tunlea, a small island on the Mekong south of Phnom Penh, which is also known as “Widow’s Island” because the wives of men slain by the Khmer Rouge were rounded up and placed there to work during Pol Pot’s regime.
But the most recurrent theme is the power of education to emancipate a woman from social norms.
“Fantasies for many, until very recently, may have been limited to what type of husband they would be married off to. The traditional role of women in Cambodia as someone to just stay at home and support the family has been successfully re-enforced with a lack of access and support for education,” she writes.
The 220-page book, written by a non-native English speaker, provides a compelling and straightforward narrative, interspersed with Thavry’s ideas and observations about life – adding an almost “self-help” feel to the read.
Her intended audience is clearly other young Cambodian women, and while for practical and financial reasons she says she first published in English, a Khmer-language edition is intended, and would surely communicate her story with a deeper and more nuanced expressiveness that can only be achieved by writing in her native tongue.
“Few in my village imagined I would actually succeed with my dreams,” she writes. “And if I or my parents had listened to their advice, I never would have.”
A Proper Woman (220pp) is available for purchase ($11 paperback) in Siem Reap at the Footprint Café and PUC library; in Phnom Penh at Monument Books, SHE investment, KE Café, Emerald Hub, Impact Hub, and SSK; in Kampot at Kepler’s Books; online on Amazon ($12) and Kindle ($6).