Shake Girl is a massive collaborative effort between fifteen students and two instructors over the course of one quarter (Winter 2008). These students comprise the first edition of the Stanford Graphic Novel Project -- a group dedicated to acheiving this monumental task on an annual basis.

The Stanford Graphic Novel Project independently published several hundred copies of Shake Girl that we are using to create awareness about the issues of violence against women, and more specifically, the phenomenon of acid attacks in Cambodia. For these same reasons, we are publishing Shake Girl for free on the web. -- though we encourage readers to donate to charities that help ammend the human right violations that currently occur in Cambodia.

More information on the class itself, and the generation of the Shake Girl story, can be found in Shake Girl's afterword. Much of this information is also reproduced below. If you have remaining questions, we encourage you contact us.

The Stanford Storytelling Project chronicled our class' process. You can hear the podcast about our journey.

The website is built and maintained by Jessica Johnson. Special thanks to Matthew Jockers for his help with page turner.

Read Shake Girl for yourself!Donate to real life Shake GirlsFind out more about Shake Girl!
Shake Girl in the newsHome Contact Shake Girl's creators


Eric Pape

When I lived and reported in Cambodia in the mid-1990s, a generation after the country descended into the abyss, it was hard not to see the mark of the Khmer Rouge regime everywhere and write it into my articles. In a region shaken by the US war in Vietnam, Khmer Rouge brought a once-idyllic oasis of peace to its lowest point. The shadow of the Khmer Rouge period didn't fall only on my reports about political assassinations and spurts of warfare, it ended up in stories about electricity or economics and even traditional Khmer dance or music. Even though a majority of Cambodians were born after the Khmer Rouge regime ended in 1979, the cruel shadow endured.

I discovered just how far the reach of that shadow extended when I met Tat Marina, a former karaoke performer. (Read Eric's original article on Tat Marina) She wasn't even born until four years after the Khmer Rouge leadership fled Phnom Penh. I arrived at her house in New England after a massive snowstorm in January of 2001. She stood before me in a dress and a hooded top pulled over her head, indoors. Despite the heroic efforts of her doctors to restore a semblance of a face, she was unrecognizable as the beautiful teenaged girl that you can still see online today, dancing in old karaoke videos.

I had never looked into someone's face and seen such a total absence of emotion. It wasn't that she didn't feel emotion. It was that her wounds didn't allow her to express them. As we spoke it quickly became clear that what Marina went through was still a mystery in many ways to her. She was struggling to understand. It wouldn't be surprising if she still is, even today.

Among other things, we talked about a popular local warning to girls in Cambodia: Beware of powerful men who may kill you if you refuse their advances, and beware of their wives who will kill you if you do not.

"I had never heard of that expression until after this happened to me," Marina said to me in 2001. "I never thought that I would end up with one of them."

This graphic novel was inspired in part by the story of Tat Marina, as well as those of several popular Cambodian singers and lesser-known girls and women who were lured (or forced) into relationships with rich and powerful men. They live - or lived - in a country where they may have managed to rise toward a better life, but they were still vulnerable.

Marina's tragic story proved to be full of surprises. In the United States under her brother's care she received free medical treatment at the Shriners Burns Hospital, where she was repeatedly operated on until she turned 23. But the "powerful man" who had deceived and manipulated her into a relationship that ultimately sparked the brutal attack led by his wife, remained remarkably dedicated to her. He had already arranged and paid for her medical care in Vietnam, and he sent thousands of dollars to her in the US. To her brother's dismay, the "powerful man" called often, promising that he and Marina would one day be together again.

I have written about many tragedies and a great deal of loss, but something about Marina's story has stuck with me. There were many elements to this, such as the absence of justice of any sort. (This even though Marina's attackers spilled acid on themselves, essentially scarring themselves with their guilt.) And the fact that for more than a year after the attack, Marina still believed, at moments of weakness, that she and her "powerful man" might one day be together again.

But at some point I realized that Marina's story is Cambodia's story too. It is a country of stunning natural beauty with enormous potential, but it is a vulnerable beauty that is used, abused and discarded at the whims of its powerful people.

The question for Cambodia is whether the damage that is being done - by the same sort of powerful people who pour acid on a teenaged girl and get away with it - can be stopped, and whether the nation once known as an oasis of peace can be healed, and regain its former splendor. Like Marina's attackers, those who nearly destroyed the Cambodian people more than a quarter century ago have never been brought to justice, and the current government remains immune to justice as well.

The story of Shake Girl is dedicated to the more than 100 Cambodians who have been victims of acid attacks in recent years. This includes Tat Marina, of course, but also Chhoun Yem, who was attacked with acid while she slept with her one-week old daughter, and many others. It is also dedicated to the memory of Cambodian star Piseth Pilika, who wrote in her diary that a prominent Cambodian police official warned her that Cambodia's First Lady intended to kill her. Pilika's killers have never been identified. And it is also dedicated to popular singers like Touch Sunich and Pov Panha Pich, who were shot by hired gunmen and barely survived. It is dedicated to a nation where normal people endure violence and fear that no one should, more than three decades after the Khmer Rouge reduced the country to Year Zero. And lastly, it is dedicated to all the shake girls, not only in Cambodia, but everywhere in the world.

Eric Pape interviewed Tat Marina and her Cambodian-American brother Tat Sequndo in 2001, less than a year after she arrived in the United States. His feature story about Tat Marina was later published in the New York-based literary magazine Open City. The original article can be read here.

A Note from the Editors

Adam Johnson and Tom Kealey

In retrospect it seems a little miraculous that the fourteen students of the Stanford Graphic Novel Project wrote, illustrated, and designed Shake Girl in six weeks time. But here, we seem to hold the evidence in our hands.

We began without even a story. We had a mission that we wanted to tell a narrative from the real world and that the creating and publishing of it should make a positive difference in the lives of others. At one point we looked at the blogs of American soldiers in Iraq, and at another time we looked at the story of ISHI (look that one up). In the end though, it was Eric Pape, our visiting journalist, who told us the story in class that would ultimately be the foundation of Shake Girl. After tossing ideas back and forth for what seemed like ages, we settled on Shake Girl in about ten minutes.

The process of collaboration - we think all of our students will agree - was both one of the most frustrating and exciting experiences of our lives. A lot of the first in the first two weeks, much of the second in the last four. Those of us writing the script seemed to trip over one another in the early stages. We wrote, researched, rewrote, tossed drafts aside, argued, yelled sometimes, tossed our hands up in the air, and then started over. The illustrators waited patiently, until patience ran out, and we were finally left with this mission statement: 1. We want to get this project completed, and 2. We want to make everyone moderately happy.

And with that, we made the jump to light speed. How many late-night hours did we draw, redraw, rewrite, design, redesign, and mostly... really enjoy each others company, efforts, and camaraderie? We wondered, in an early panel, why the brother character seemed to be petting a flying fish? Why was it also that one page was in present tense and the next in past? Why was the older sister six feet tall in this chapter, and five feet one in the next? The answer was that there were eight illustrators, five writers, and three designers, all working closer and closer toward making this project what we wanted it to be.

Throughout the process, the subject matter - this particular Shake Girl - and telling her story with heart, accuracy, and complexity was what kept us going.

The end product is not perfect, though considering the time limitations and the collaborative nature of the project, it does indeed seem miraculous to us. We're very proud of this work.

The students X and Dana spent countless hours in the layout process. They seemed like magicians to us. K assisted, and also pulled double and triple duty in the illustrating and printing process. The project would never have been completed without them. Our eight illustrators brought zero egos and all effort and heart to the project. We've never seen eight people work so well together. Nadeen's illustrating talents, enthusiasm, and sense of humor pushed us through many a night, while Jennifer, Claudia, and Shelly's "drarwings" always amazed the class and very often lifted our spirits. Justine and Jessica not only organized the illustrators, but they took on some of the most difficult sections and were the definition of leaders-by-example throughout the process. Sara Sisun very quietly and consistently set the pace for everyone in both quality and quantity. The only thing the illustrators demanded was blue pencils and good pizza. They took care of the rest.

Austin and the previously mentioned K were everywhere and anywhere: research, writing, production, and anything that was needed. Austin also provided Australian chewing sticks, which was very important. Our writers Lauren, Robert, and K wrote, rewrote, edited, and kept us on track throughout the stages of this work. Eric Pape had a vision for this work, and most importantly, very generously and gracefully allowed the students to remold that vision in their own way. Outside of insisting that women ride motorcycles side-saddle style, he was flexible, collaborative, and a true joy to work with.

As for the editors, this was one of the most amazing and humbling teaching experiences in our careers. We helped out as needed. Our sincerest of thanks to our students for sharing their talents, passion, and personalities with us.