Inseperable Genres: Of a Few Stories & Many Gender Possibilities

Act 3, Scene 3.

‘’You know he is not really a man in fact…’’. Ong-Always-Cranky (for he is always cranky) says. There has been a silence before that. Not a usual thing with Ong-Always-Cranky. The silence followed the departure of the couple from the hill, as they left the little ascetic community covered up by the forest and the stupas of the former Cambodian royal capital of Udong. The couple had been living here for a week or so. That’s what they did, in life. Going from one hill to another, one monastery to another, one retreat refuge to another, mapping all the country’s unworldly world, together, hand in hand. Today they are leaving to another mount, another place of the sacred. They say goodbye to the inhabitants of the tiny Muslim brotherhood of the Imam San, of which, at that time, I was part of, sort of. Ong-Always-Cranky and I are as usual in cahoots in an agreement to disagree over a you-really-don’t-understand-anything-now-do-you page of a Cham manuscript. The couple is getting smaller and smaller as they crumble the stairs away from the hill. We raise our hands, say our goodbyes. 80+ years old Ong-Always-Cranky uses all the best of his lungs to scream his farewells over the mountain. ‘’Don’t forget to come back soon!! We’ll watch the road for you!’’. And then the pause. The silence. The couple has now completely disappeared. I look at Ong-Always-Cranky, expecting one of his complaints,that now he has lost his thoughts, and how-come-we-are-still-on-the-same-page-still-now-and-again, and now darkness, and now hunger, and now tiredness. But this time he turns to me as for a confidence. He breaks the silence with a whisper – in case there was any human being below 80+ on this mountain to efficiently eavesdrop… He says to me – for this is urgent and important, I need to know, I should know, he just has to say it – he tells me: ‘’You know he is not really a man in fact… He is a woman. Just as his woman is’’.

Act 3, Scene 4.

I am going down to rejoin the cooking fire, the center of gathering for the other 80+ making up the rest of the little band, but also the center of gathering of the cats I want to play with. I run after as usual uncatchable Squinty-Kitty, before I run into the unexpected: ‘’Kssssssssssshhhhh!!!!!!!!’’. Ong-Who-Never-Talks (for he really never talks), comes out of nowhere, scares the cats, sits me, brings up an even more composed face than usual, and says to me – for this is urgent and important, I need to know, I should know, he just has to say it – he tells me: ‘’You know he is not really a man in fact… He is a woman. Just as his woman is’’. Who am I to break the long pondered revelations of the two grandfathers, to spoil their hopes of surprise and their talent for theatricals? I did know that he is not really a man in fact, that he is a woman just as his woman is. I knew from the first day… Didn’t they? Men who are women, women who are men aren’t exactly bizarre encounters, rare introductions, awkward social situations in Cambodia or in Southeast Asia for that matter[1]. Whatever body they were born in, whatever skin they were dressed in, they were just met here and there in the city, in the countryside, among very old ones and among very young ones, in Khmer Buddhist villages, in Cham Muslim villages. I didn’t want to disappoint the grands’ for clearly now, they were getting ready for what appeared to be an educational session, the making of a discovery, for now the whole seven-ish individuals crowd was taking me in for a gossip session. We surely needed to back up a bit, for in Scene 1, years ago, there was the perfume of a scandal on the hill: the man was already staying with the little community with a wife… another wife that is… Before long the first wife came in a furry: screams, cries, insults, and then finally peace, and love, somehow. The perfume of scandal didn’t come from the fact that he was a man who was indeed a woman. It didn’t come from a same sex couple, sleeping here, among the religious and royal relics. It didn’t come out of the gender ‘’confusion’’, or rather the genders inseparability in him / her. It came out of the noises, of the disturbance, of the tumult from the fight in this quite, still place. Rewind to scene 2: the transgender-thing to speak clinically proper, didn’t even come up during my repetitive stays on the hill. I had met the man – sometimes on his own, sometimes with his wife – he had always introduced himself as a man, he was always introduced to me by others as a man. The departure of the couple finally allowed the revealing of a secret, the longing for a gossip moment breaking the stillness in time. But the couple was always part of the little band as just that: a couple. The man was accepted as just that: a man. Because he was also a Muslim man – from another group, another lineage, another village, another region, and yet, because he arrived here, to the hill, to the Imam San’s venerated tomb – he was allowed to approach the tomb, and to perform, along with the grand fathers, the recitation of the Quran, the very holding of the Quran, the benediction over visitors awaiting for the saint’s favors from down there, from the tomb. He was allowed to perform what only men could perform. He was allowed to be a man because he was a man. The fact that he inherited a female body at birth didn’t even come to matter.

Act 1, Scene 13.

Me, knocking at my Phnom Penh neighbors window, again and again, for I always forget things there, always when I go play with the kids:

– Thanks for keeping it for me. Oh and I still don’t know how to respectfully call you. I apologize. I am so new to this country.

The mother, a smiling interrogation on her face:

– What do you mean, you don’t know how to call?


– Well you know, I don’t want to make any mistakes, I am trying hard, but the language is so difficult, I am always afraid of ‘faux pas’ when addressing people. Let’s see, is she your older sister, your younger sister, an auntie, an older-auntie? I am so sorry I am confused.

The mother, with a now very large smile turns to the object of my questions:

– I don’t know… what do you think honey?

Honey, is as usual, fully absorbed by the TV, karaoke mike in hand. Yet again the large smile, in lieu of a response.

The mother:

– Just call him uncle, or older brother, as you want. She is my husband.

Act 2, Scene 1.

I will later on faint in the middle of this very village. In front of all my classmates. What a shame, what an embarrassment. Trying so hard, to fell so low… We still laugh about it once in a while, at reunions, at weddings: ‘’So Emiko, still fainting in the middle of sites visits’’! But right now it is all so serious. A whole class coming to do ethnographic observation and interviews in this potters’ village. Notebooks, pencils, recorders, questions, live-stories. The potteries are drying up under the house. A woman is preparing one right now, turning around it to shape it. Our professor – the one who will later on pass her hand in my hair, lie me on a real bed, give me a sip of water – calls for our attention: anything about division of labor? Right. Absolutely. Women. Women only. The pottery just isn’t stuff of males. The know-how is transmitted from women to girls, never boys. Always. Except… There is this little guy there Professor! He is about 12. ‘’He is a gentle one that one’’ says the auntie. The two genders were just here from the beginning, here till the end. Inseparable. The boy was never a boy. He may have been born in the body of a boy, but he was in fact always a girl in it. So she grew up as a girl. She was raised as a girl. She became a girl. And now she is a potter, in her own right.

Act 4, scene 4, 5, 6.

‘’Bulub. Bulub’’. ‘’Bulub. Bulub’’. The two foreign clients, later to become friends, are speechless. An evening, in the middle of the northeastern regions jungles, on an impromptu stone mine, in a karaoke shack with no electricity. Bumpy roads in cars, falling apart motorbikes trails, and then the dreaded never ending walk… Exhaustion. The interviews will start, tomorrow. But for now, right now, just a rest, such a longed-for rest. We yet have to set the hammocks between the trees, we could very well sleep on the mud for all we cared. The matron of the shack, of the karaoke-not-playing, of the restaurant with no menu, of the grocery store with nothing for sale, the matron goes on again, right in front of them, in their faces, while they are just trying to ingest a soup of not-much-left. ‘’Bulub. Bulub’’. ‘’Bulub. Bulub’’. She carries around her daughter, hugging her close, cuddling her dear. A pretty baby-girl, with good cheeks and silky curls, bubbling with her mouth, big eyes wide open. ‘’Bulub. Bulub’’. ‘’Bulub. Bulub’’ noisesthe mom, playing with the testicles of the girl in front of the two strangers. A little too frontal for a late evening. Or for a dawn breakfast. Or for a drunken night. For it will happen again and again during the stay in the forest. ‘’Look, my daughter, she was born with balls’’. The girl had it all, the little balls, the little penis. But since birth it had been declared that it was too small of a package to be of a man’s. So now she was to be a woman. There was no question about that. She had a pretty girly name and already a nice little pink wardrobe. A woman was born. The detail that she will also be wearing the skin of a man, inseparable from her own skin, isn’t relevant, is not the point.

Act 0 or 5. End & beginning.

It all started with a picture. One of the many I was making doubles of. A dog-eared cliché from the 60’s, like so many that had burned down during the fires, been eaten by the worms from the dirt they were hidden in during the muddy times. I can’t deny my own romanticization of the vintage. Of this glorious golden age Cambodia once knew, once lost, that we are so often told about. Studio portrait in Casablanca’s shades of grey. Happy families united in panoramic numbers. Farmers in ‘Sunday’ attires turned movie-goers. Pearls on the neck of girlfriends. The shine of grandma’ silk. I started to photograph those photographs not so much as a mission to save the glorious memories of an idealized past. Not so much to make sure this time there would be a double, a permanent digital to use and re-use for the family, for the descendants, for the running around kiddos. I did it out of fascination for the image itself, and for the longing for the stories that always came out of the printed still. A picture of five teenage Cham girls. Srae Prei village, Kompong Chhnang Province, 1964-ish. Sisters, cousins, girlfriends. Passing by or passed away. Nop who drank the poison when the war came in, Peh who was sick till gone, Tima’h the generous one hanging on the picture, Pa’en who married the professor, and Sath who was a girl after she was a boy and before she was a man. Sath’s sister is still alive: a beautiful woman on top of things, and on top of her sixties. Lymah: luminescent skin, oceanic blue eyes, taller than I will ever be. The posture of a queen. ‘’What do you mean did our parents say anything… No, there was nothing to say… I don’t understand… I mean it was up to him, to do whatever he had to do’’. And to add: ‘’Everyone in the village knew he was a woman anyway’’. It’s tea-chat time: under the house, are seated or unseated half a dozen of women from that generation, joining in agreement: ‘’Yes there was something with him since he was born, you know, down there’’. Follows a cacophonic, yet very graphic description of the ‘’eggs’’, that were like this, when they should have been like that. ‘’When he was 8 or 10 he already wanted to be a woman. He saw me wearing women’s clothes and he loved that, so he did the same’’. And so life went on. Sath who should have always been a woman, lived his life as the woman he was. Until the war came in. Like many Chams of the region, she was deported to another province, Kompong Thom, separated from her family and anyone she ever knew. And then there was the truck accident. She was brought to surgery. Stripped down of her clothes. His masculinity exposed to the Khmer Rouge guards his didn’t know, who didn’t know. The ‘’new society’’ burns down roads and bridges to divide the country, separates families, breaks marriages. There is no place for inseparability. There is no room for the inseparability of genders that Sath bears within hers and him-self. Sath is forced to come back as a man. Soon enough he is part of one of many mass marriages of the time. He is wed to a young nice Cham girl, from a village on the other side of the country. For some time after the war they will try a bit of life there. But Sath wants to come back to his village, his family, his life. ‘’When we came here, his sister and some others were still alive so it was really nice. Then I heard they were all surprised that he came back as a man, for he had always been a woman. I didn’t know…’’ says his wife, Peah. She talks fondly of him, looking at a picture they took a few years ago, before he died, a picture they would bring as a present to siblings in Malaysia, when they will make a trip there, together. There were no kids. ‘’It was just too small’’ simply puts Peah. ‘’We were already together, married, good together. I didn’t care if he had been a woman’’.

WE WERE GOOD TOGETHER. Peah and Sah were inseparable. Like the couple on the hill. Like my neighbors in Phnom Penh. Is it about crossing genders: for the potter girl born a boy, for the karaoke boy turned a girl? Or is it just about genders inseparability? Not transcending, for this would mean something else, a third gender, a third thing. Just the embrace of both genders there, just here, in one body? The inseparability of the male and the female right there in the individual.

Curtain raiser.

A radio programme[2]. Abdelwahab Meddeb and his guest Marie-José Mondzain pay a visit to the newly opened Islamic Arts branch at the Louvre Museum. They talk of the predominance of the letter, without forgetting the image. They talk of the immanence of both the letter and the image, of their presence on objects where the tension lies between the legible and the illegible, the visible and the invisible. They talk about those representations, those characters, those bodies, those figures made of the indetermination of the gender[3]. And then the voice of Marie-José Mondzain:

‘’What separates is always at the very same time a crossing over, always (…). What separates is only interesting in how it communicates what is separated. And even maybe, finally, to be done with the identity summons (…). It is precisely the clouding, this putting in touch, this connecting that has no connection whatsoever. To cloud those summons, those identifications, that fixity (…). I believe that it is constitutive of hospitality that each body welcomes what makes of the other. Including sexually. And to acknowledge within oneself the presence of all possibles. I believe only art gestures can enable a body and a look to welcome the world in all its possibles, without any determination of, a priori, a rule of law, or a balance of power’’[4].

They are talking of Inseparability. The inseparability that The Man, The Neighbor, The Potter, The Baby Girl, and Sath all embody.


The Couple. Udong Circa 2003.

The Couple. Udong Circa 2003.

The Girls Picture. O'Russei 1964. Sath on the right.

The Girls Picture. O’Russei 1964. Sath on the right.

The Last Portrait. O'Russei Circa 2000'. Sath on the left.

The Last Portrait. O’Russei Circa 2000′. Sath on the left.


I have been willing to work on this little text for years, when I first came across ‘’The Girls Picture’’, showing Sath and her entourage in a 60’s O’Russei. I didn’t know how to approach it, for it was all over the place and yet nowhere, I had all those bits and yet nothing. I knew I didn’t want to write anything ‘’academic’’ about it: not only I had nothing to start with or from, but moreover, those stories were too ‘’a fleur de peau’’ for any academic writing. They were love stories, departure stories, worn stories and stories of wearing. Imposing the linearity of academic writing would have felt like sewing another skin over those stories, a skin that wasn’t adequate. Imposing the dry prose felt like drying the skin of a lizard under the sun: a slow, painful burning, before the skin finally cowers up. So I waited. A few weeks ago, while discussing fiction and ethnography in Writing Ethnography Seminar, the stories came back to me: they shouted they didn’t want to be boxed in, divided up to be ruled, ordered and ordered. The reading of Kamala Viswewaran ‘’Betrayal’’[5] came in synchrony, at a perfect timing. I was inspired by the way she organized her very thoughtful demonstration in an allegoric, dramaturgical form. I was convinced by the necessary confusion therefore generated between fiction and non fiction. Yet I thought necessary to go a step further and voluntarily confused the reader – and myself – in the sequences of this play. I wanted to keep the chronology of the events (Act 3 did happen, in real time, after Act 2 and 1, scene 3 before scene 4… We are talking years here my friends…), because I guess those timings do matter in how I processed the genders approaches in Cambodia, among the Chams, and (m)anywhere. But I didn’t want a linear, ordered, rendition of those moments: they did have different levels of importance – either to me personally, or either to make more sense in this demonstration. Some were barely episodes in my life, passing by, leaving away, that I would have probably not paid attention to, if not for Sath. The disorder is also, of course, a device to lose the reader on the road of well-defined categories and explanations. For – again and again – it is all so magnificently blur outside, and by the way, there is also a beautiful mess inside… In that sense, scene numbered 13 insists on the many, indefinite, trivial repetitions of a banal daily life instant at my neighbors. The scenes numbered 4, 5, 6, are also indicative of a repetition but in a chronological sequence, delimited in time and episodes. ‘’Act 0 or 5. End & Beginning’’, marks that this is where it all started for me (finding and discussing the picture of Sath), where it all ended for Sath (Sath is the only dead person in this story and in my own search). It is where it all began for him (he was born a man), and ended (she was to be a woman). Where it all began again (she had to go back to the village as a man, reborn in a new man’s life) and where it all ended again (there was no going back to being a woman, and Sath died a man). And finally this is also where it all ends and begins for me: the story is finally written, end of the story. It is a side story, right? One of those sides that have, over the years, grown so central to my work and, I would even say, my life. The doesn’t-matter-why-care that matters so much, that we should care so much about. So that’s the end. Or maybe that’s the beginning of it: of a work in progress, of ideas to grow, of a reflection to carry on. On inseparability.

[1]Bugis in Indonesia refer to 5 genders among which male and female are just two. In Bengladesh, Hijras ‘’neither male or female’’ are now recognized by the law as a third separate gender ( More examples of ‘’same sex mariage’’ and genders crossing in Cambodia and SEA can be found here :

[2]Cultures d’Islam, France Culture, 23 November 2012, ‘’L’image et la lettre (les Arts de l’Islam au Louvre)’’.

[3]My own interpretation of the programme itself and of its presentation on the website:’image-et-la-lettre-les-arts-de-l’islam-au-louvre-2012-11-23

[4]My own translation of the French : ‘’Le registre qui sépare est en même temps le registre d’une traversée, toujours. (…) Ce qui sépare n’a d’intérêt qu’à condition de faire communiquer ce qui est séparé. Et peut être même d’en finir avec les assignations à identité. (…) C’est précisément la façon de brouiller, pour mettre en rapport ce qui est sans rapport. De brouiller les assignations, brouiller les identifications. D’empêcher les assignations et la fixité. (…) Je trouve qu’il fait partie de l’hospitalité que chaque corps accueille ce qu’il en est de l’autre. Y compris sexuellement. Et de reconnaître en soit la présence de tous les possibles, sans qu’il y ait une détermination, à priori d’un état de droit, ou d’un rapport de force’’. (Abstracts from the programme).

[5]Kamala Viswewaran 1994 ‘’Betrayal: An Analysis in Three Acts’’, Fictions of Feminist Ethnography, Minneapolis / London, University of Minnesota Press.

Ithaca, March 28, 2014, Emiko Stock.

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