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from the November 2016 issue

Interview with Suchart Sawasdsri

Veteran editor Suchart Sawasdsri made a name for himself as a literary talent spotter on whose desk the manuscripts of many of Thailand’s acclaimed contemporary writers have landed. Over his nearly fifty-year career as editor of various literary magazines as well as a journal of social and political commentary, he has come to be regarded as an encyclopedia of Thai literature. Most notably, from 1978 to 2010 (with a couple of hiatuses, dividing the magazine’s run into three eras), he edited the legendary short-story quarterly Chorkaraket (Screwpine Garland). For a budding writer to make it into the magazine, and in particular to win its prize, was considered the ultimate stamp of approval. Suchart has been part of the Thai literati since the sixties, the period that led up to two key events in modern Thai history known as the October 14, 1973 Event and October 6, 1976 Event (the first marking the student-led uprising that took down the military dictatorship and the second signifying the massacre of protestors after which the country returned to military rule), which still loom large over the imagination of Thai writers who are now the old guard. In those days, the artist as political activist was the paradigm for Thai writers, and that legacy still has some hold on Thai writing today. While Suchart himself has always leaned left, as an editor he always sought to give writers carte blanche. He has long been a proponent of “art for the sake of art” in a field where “art for the sake of life” has dominated. Now in his seventies, Suchart has been honored as a national artist of Thailand and remains active in the art and literary world (he is a writer in his own right, and also paints and makes experimental short films, some of which can be viewed here). In response to Thailand’s most recent military coup in 2014, Suchart revived Chorkaraket for a special issue.

We spent hours chatting about the development of Thai prose, its evolution through the years, and the close relationship between literature and politics in Thailand. Ever the demanding editor, Suchart is no shrinking violet when it comes to critiquing the literature to which he has dedicated his life.

The following is an edited and translated version of our conversation.

Mui Poopoksakul (MP): You had mentioned the one-hundredth anniversary of the Thai novel. Can you talk about the first one?

Suchart Sawasdsri (SS): In times past, Thai literature was poetry. It was fiction but written in verse. Prose narrative, with explanation and dialogue, started at the end of the reign of King Rama III, going into the reign of King Rama IV. Looking at primary documents, what I think we can call the first short stories came out in Darunowat magazine in 1874, about a hundred and forty years ago. That was when we saw writing in a form that partly showed influence from abroad, from the West. Later, what is said to be the first Thai novel was a novel that mimics—doesn’t quite mimic, but bears a resemblance to—a work called Kwam Payabat, which was Mae Won’s translation of Marie Corelli’s Vendetta. That was translated in 1900, so that’s about a hundred and twenty years old. The first Thai novel was something like a parody of that, but it had a Thai sense. It was called Kwam Mai Payabat (No Vendetta) by the author who wrote under the pen name Nai Samran, better known as Kru Liam or Liam Wintupramanakul. That was 1915 according to the documents, so that’s about a hundred years ago. It’s so young. But if you go back to the first short stories, “Nai Jit Nai Jai Sontana Gun” (“The Conversation between Jit and Jai”) and “Chai Ha Pla Tung See” (“Four Men Fishing”), they actually had characteristics of critical realism. For example, “Nai Jit Nai Jai Sontana Gun” talked about Jit and Jai critiquing monks, critiquing people in the royal court, corruption. “Chai Ha Pla Tung See” wasn’t quite fantasy but I’d call it magic realism. It’s about four men with different personalities and different special abilities—one has ears that stick out, one has a pointy bottom, one has a lot of mucus in the nose, and one has three hands—and they go out fishing. It’s a local parable of our own. Prose in Thailand had a good beginning—it had elements of social critique. It had elements of magic.

MP: You recently came out with a large book recommending a hundred and twenty-one classic works of Western literature. I understand you’re not happy with the Western literature that has been influential in Thailand?

SS: Even though we received influence from abroad, what we were given, like foreign literature translated from English, was second-class literature—Marie Corelli, Sir Rider Haggard. We didn’t get the heart of Victorian literature. These things likely became the model of creation for Thai writers in the periods that followed. When the first book was translated in 1900, it was serialized and published in Lukwittaya magazine. It blew up. It was hugely popular. People who wanted to be modern had to read it. The translation of foreign prose narrative into Thai gained major acceptance, but when you look back, Marie Corelli, if you ask British people now, they don’t know her. [Our translation of foreign literature] has been haphazard. Something would make its way here because someone happened to like it. Translation is still that way now. There’s no system.

MP: The perception is that the main movement in contemporary Thai literature is “literature for life” or social realism. But literature for life has wound down now, hasn’t it?

SS: In the past, the term “for life” exerted a certain amount of inertia. It was a bit stuck on the ideological struggle—the capitalist must be taken down. This was a characteristic of the ideological struggle after the October 14 Event. But “literature for life” under the old meaning is gone. Under the old meaning, it meant that there were ideals, fighting for socialism, for a better society, principles-wise falling leftist. That was how it was forty years ago . . . From 1978, when I did the short-story issue of Lok Nungsue (Book World), which became the first issue of Chorkaraket, the term “for life” got used not as social realism—it might be capitalist realism. The substance of those works was still poverty and social problems, but the surroundings became that of the middle class. When you say “literature for life” you have to talk about the period of its development. You can’t say literature for life is all this way or that way. It has mutated. At the same time, work that leaned on art, symbolism, and experimentation ended up talking about social problems more, and maybe talked about them more deeply because they weren’t didactic but were rather more artistic in their storytelling. That’s what I want and what I was fighting for through Chorkaraket . . .

Thai literature had two pits. The first was the “for life” pit and the second was the melodrama pit. And each side saw the other as no good—“I’m better than you.” That was the circumstance after the October 14 Event. The women writers who published their work in magazines were seen by the “for life” crew as melodrama. But I think as long as they write with craft and artistry, even if their subject matter is family life or love, there’s nothing wrong with that . . . [Some writers who submitted to Chorkaraket] misunderstood—they saw that I looked “for life” and so they wrote stories about the suffering of the poor and things like that, which was OK, I wanted to read them. But at the same time, I wanted to read about the life of the upper class, how the nobles, the capitalists, the bankers, and stock investors live—I didn’t see a lot of that.

MP: Did you see the writing change over the three eras of Chorkaraket?

SS: Yes, it changed a fair amount. During the first era that I was doing Chorkaraket, what changed was that even though there was inertia, meaning the continuing influence of “literature for life” under the old meaning—workers and farmers—it became more lively: the workers had flesh and blood. It wasn’t stuffing Marxist-speak in the mouths of workers or farmers. Before, the thought was that substance took precedence over form: politics came before everything else. It was didactic. Left or right, they were all that way. The right is still that way, even more so. A lot of morals. The left was that way, too. When I started at Lok Nungsue, I wrote a foreward saying that a left that’s repetitive and static can be stale, too. The condition of people working in the arts has to be like flowing water. As soon as you’re stagnant, it might start to rot.

In the second era, the writing was more artistic. The storytelling contained more self-questioning, digging to get to the bottom of things. I gave people freedom to write in any style, with any content. Overall, I still didn’t have quite what I wanted. Mostly, the stories still had to do with the suffering of people of that time, the sense of alienation of people of that time, but the storytelling had complexity, and they hadn’t left behind social problems. In the third era, you could clearly see that the style was more experimental. I had called for experimentation by coming out with a short-story publication called Chorparichart (Garland of Tiger’s Claws), hoping for it to be experimental, but people ended up interpreting “experimental” as my wanting to read fantasies in the vein of science fiction, which wasn’t necessarily wrong, and I like to read science fiction, but at the same time I wanted to see a shift in the way of thinking, but it didn’t happen, so we did only two issues of what I called “experimental” literature. With the special coup issue, you see that people used symbolism to the point that when you read, you have to supply the meaning . . . If Chorkaraket were to go on in the quarterly format, there are promising new writers all the time, but there’s no consistent, defined movements.

MP: Do you see experimental fiction as having more traction now?

SS: People only talk about Prabda [Yoon] and Win [Lyovarin], but if you read Sri Daoruang’s stories, you’ll find experimentation. Or even stories I wrote before [some of] these people were even born—the Kwam Ngieb (Silence) collection, it has experimental qualities. Experimental short stories have existed in every period in a sense. During the era of the Suphapburut (Gentlemen) group (formed in 1929 by prominent writer and editor Kulap Saipradit and other leading writers of that time), there were people who wrote in that way. Using language—its form—is a kind of experiment. For example, Humorist [the pen name of Ob Chaivasu] of the Suphapburut group, I think he has influence on the way people like Prabda Yoon use language, the way they play with language . . . But I don’t want the new generation of writers to get hung up on the experimental. I say, I’ve already experimented. [He shows me his short story “Kwam Wangplao” (“Blank”), which is completely blank.] Only an editor can get this published! Who else is going to let that run? When you use language, you’re already experimenting with something. But if you talk about experimentation to the limit—it’s funny, it’s kind of self-mockery. As it turns out, what sold really well for a while, and they make them even now, are the blank books, notebooks really, that are completely white. They sell blankness. But mine didn’t sell at all!

MP: Can we say that the starting point of contemporary Thai literature was around forty years ago, when the October 14 and October 6 Events happened?

SS: You could say that, in the decade from [the Thai year] 2510 [1967]. Abroad in the 60s and 70s was the period of rebellions and protests, against the Vietnam War, against institutions. During that time, contemporary Thai literature shared some things with their overseas counterparts. People called it “literature of searching” in that period, but I think writers in every period search . . . The generation before that, those who held political ideals, they tended to demand that substance must come before form. The message had to be clear—fighting for farmers and workers—even if the form was rough—farmers talking in Marxist language and things like that. Being didactic was alright as long as your ideas were correct. But I didn’t agree with that . . .

Forty years ago, writers from the earlier generation followed formulas, like formulas with surprise endings, familiar formulas with a beginning, a middle, and an end. In the decade from 1967, when I first started writing short stories, there were writers who were young men and women before the October 14 Event, and this group tried to present work that didn’t repeat what the earlier generation had put out. Broadly, the writing that appeared dealt with the search for something that was the meaning of life, so the characters didn’t have origins or destinations, the endings were ambiguous, there was nowhere to go, no surprise endings. It was a period of talking about one’s own stream of consciousness, or the showing of some symbolism of dreams, that sort of thing.

MP: You said that you wanted to see more variety. Can you talk more about that?

SS: [Writing in the last forty years] has variety in the sense that there are new generations of people who are interested in social problems, but not in a didactic way like before. Plus they are interested in a writing style that plays with language—before that, with a handful of exceptions, I think the language didn’t display a lot of showmanship. I think the new generations pay more attention to playing with the forms of language. But in terms of the substance, I want to demand more. Mostly, we should get beyond the pain of the middle class . . .

We have had democracy, nominally, since 1932, but has there been Thai literature, whether contemporary or older, that has presented courtroom dramas? No. It reflects Thai society. It shows that Thai society still leans on superstitions. Reasoning doesn’t get talked about much, even though there are a massive number of middle-class people who hold PhDs. That gets reflected in our literature. We don’t have literature in the detective genre where the main character wants to know who committed the wrong. Our literature, let’s say since 1932, doesn’t have any mainstream science fiction that has been developing, no detective-story writers identifiable as such, and no works that show the importance of the law, which is a foundation of a democratic society.

MP: What do you think Thai literature does well?

SS: If you want to look at the last forty or fifty years, I think Thai short stories have longer legs than novels and poetry. Thai novels are like stagnant, or even foul, water. Short stories make an attempt to get away from that. It’s because, for one, there’s a variety of people entering the short-story scene. There are constantly new people replacing the old ones. But novels, there aren’t enough of these works yet. I think in the last ten or twenty years, novels are picking up. I want to see them delve deeper. [In the past], most writers who were said to be novelists were serial writers. [Their books] are drawn out. They don’t have elements that form a unity because they just flow from week to week but then they get combined into a book. It might seem like we have a lot of novelists, but what they present is limited; the material they present mostly repeats old formulas—family matters, people in heated emotional fights—and they are mostly serial writers. There are more people who write whole books now but the serial writers still rule the market for novel readers. There might be a few that make it out of that through the SEA Write competition. . . . As for poetry, I think there’s not a lot of innovation in terms of form. Our poetry is outdated, maybe because it was already mature before, so it’s hard to break away. There is an increasing amount of free verse [but] it has existed for a long time. Previous generations wrote it, too.

MP: In terms of substance, do you think that the concerns of poets are generally similar to those of prose writers?

SS: What’s interesting is that poetry, be it free verse or fixed-form, has had an increasing amount of political connotation, perhaps because it can use words to veil.

MP: I feel like there are few contemporary, living women authors compared to male ones. Why do you think that is and do you think it’s changing?

SS: There are a fair number of female writers. I’ve been trying to find documentation on who the first woman to write prose narrative was, but I haven’t found it. As background, in earlier times, publications for women were done by men. Kulasatree (Ladies) magazine during the reign of Rama V was done by men, the noblemen. It was done by men but called “Ladies.” Later, male writers liked to use pen names such as “Sri” this and “Mae” that (which would indicate female names), even though they were all men. For example, Mae Anong and Sri Burapa, they were both men. So the advent of women writers was in the shadow of male writers. Male writers were the editors, they were the publishers. But it doesn’t mean there weren’t people who worked in this field who were women. There were. For example, in 1928 there was a publication called Siam Yupadee (Young Siamese Women)—this was before the magazine of Kulap Saipradit’s Suphapburut group [the magazine was also called SuphapburutGentlemen], which was 1929. I’ve seen the documents. They state that it was a publication for women by women. The push for equal rights for women started during the reign of Rama VI, and there were some [women writers] before the regime change [from absolute monarchy to constitutional monarchy in 1932], but our primary documents are not systematically maintained, so there’s no research to show the development of women writers clearly. But it had its path. Women writers didn’t start with Dokmai Sot. Before her, there were some, but they might have written under pen names so we don’t know who they were. I’ve been trying to put together an anthology on women writers but I can’t get my hands on the primary documents, so I haven’t been able to.

MP: What about women writers who are working now? When I ask people about female writers who write literature that’s not romance, people are able to give few names, don’t you think?

SS: Yes. In terms of the writers who came through Chorkaraket, as a percentage, out of ten there were three, maybe four. There were some but they were the minority. When you looked at their craft and style, their storytelling, their writing was no less rich than the men’s. Maybe we didn’t do Chorkaraket for long enough. They were starting to come but then our magazine folded. But there were some. I found a number of interesting ones, Duanwad [Pimwana] and others. Before the October 14 Event, there were some known ones, like Suwanee Sukhonta, Au. Chaivorasilp and others. You could talk just about Thai women writers, without the men. They have their place in the history of modern Thai literature. But there’s no clear study on what they mainly wrote about. As far as short stories, women writers have a certain amount of richness, more so than with novels, which have mostly been serialized works that concerned family life—women dominate this field. There are few men writing serialized work. Women writers in Kwanreun, Kulasatree [both women’s magazines], they were popular forty years ago, and they’re still writing.

MP: Do you see differences in the work of writers from different regions of Thailand?

SS: Regionality exists in Thai literature but it’s not pronounced. The central region dominates because of the use of standard Thai and its being taught in school. So the local dialect getting written as standard-Thai sentences, it doesn’t work or is difficult. People who have tried to do this, and where readers of standard Thai read it and can catch the local mood, are, for example, Lao Khamhom in Fah Bo Kan or Kampoon Boontawee in Luk Isan. Southern writers have tried to do this and northerners, too. They do it via standard Thai. There might be something in the way the language is styled. This has been discussed—if you’re going to use a local dialect and footnote the meaning, I think it’s no. You’re not reading an academic text. You have to make it smooth. You have to make the scent come out, make the tone of that language come out, the scent that this one’s southern, this one’s northern, and this one’s Isan. It’s the art of each region. When they send me stories, I see how they maintain local characteristics. The problems of people in each region aren’t the same but there is a shared characteristic: the sentiment of being taken over by city folks, the problem of the gap between the city and the rural.

MP: Can you compare the situation now to the October 14 era in terms of how writers are reacting to the political situation?

SS: There’s an atmosphere of a lack of unity, unlike forty years ago. Back then, artists and writers moved in solidarity mostly—they were against dictatorship, against a military government, they called for liberty and democracy. There might have been ideological disagreements, but they were just ideologies. Even though people held socialist ideals, some leaned more toward communism, others toward liberal democracy. That’s normal for an open society. At least as far as writers go, during the October 14 era, there was freedom. The latest coup has fractured artists into three groups. The first group takes a stand against the military coup. I’ve made it known that that’s my stance. Our stance is there must be an election, there must be democracy, liberty. We have to get back to a society where each person gets one vote. The second group sides with the coup. Since the [most recent] coup, there are artists and writers who don’t show their hand. I call them the “blenders.” A lot of writers are in this third group. They should show some sign in their position as artists. They should have a stance.

MP: For the writers who have shown a clear stance in support of democracy, it seems no one has written literature that comes right out and says it. Are they afraid? How’s the censorship situation?

SS: It’s self-censorship. With writer and artists and poets, the picture is not the same as forty years ago. I’m talking about people who are fifty and up, who are sixty and seventy, people my age. What’s interesting is young people, the people who are the future of our country, they’re the ones coming out and showing movement and showing signs, and they get bullied. So it’s turning out to be the people of the new generation. I have hope. Among writers, people have to censor themselves. When they want to write anything about the royalty, they have to praise, they can’t criticize. There isn’t total freedom. It’s become a political tool. They should be allowed to talk about it creatively. There are people who have to tried to form an initiative to repeal the section [the lèse majesté law] but many have been punished.

MP: How did your pen name Singh Sanamluang come about?

SS: Sanamluang just refers to Sanamluang [the public square near the Grand Palace in Bangkok], and back in those days, people used singh (a mythical lion) and sua (tiger) in their made-up names [to jazz them up with some fierceness]. It started when I was editor at Lok Nungsue, after the October 6 Event. I was thinking about how to make the magazine sell, since there were people who followed advice columns. Back then people liked to read “Dear Abby”-type columns for matters of the heart, so I answered literary questions, writers’ questions. I wanted to become close to readers by correspondence. When I was a student at Thammasat University, there were secondhand book stands along Klong Lod, in front of Sanamluang. What opened my reading world, my second university, were these secondhand bookshops. I read secondhand books—funeral books, foreign pocket books—from these shops. First, they formed a bridge to international literature for me, and second, they helped solidify my habit of reading. I had the habit of reading since I was a kid. I would steal money from my mother to buy books that I read for fun. My mother would hit me, not for reading but for stealing. She was illiterate. When I encountered these books, they broadened my reading world. I collected old books. They became useful when I worked on the magazines. Back then there was no Wikipedia, so these books were my knowledge base for answering questions like ‘Who’s this author?’ Sanamluang had to do with my reading life.

MP: I had read a little about “one-baht books” in another interview with you. What are these? Can you talk about their significance?

SS: These were publications by university students during the era of Thanom-Prapas, when it was still a military dictatorship or a quasi-dictatorship. Back then they didn’t let you put out publications with the same title repeatedly. If you wanted to publish under the same title, you had to ask for permission from the special-branch police and you had to register. So the one-baht books were published by changing the titles continuously. They used the names of flowers and other things. They might be put out with a group name, such as Prachan Siew (Crescent Moon) or the Num Nau Sao Suey (Young Lads and Beautiful Girls), but the names of the publications changed. These were the various groups that were interested in writing—short stories and poetry, etc.

MP: So they’re really literary journals?

SS: Yes, it was literature but they didn’t have fixed publication cycles, like weekly or monthly. It varied. Whoever was able to write and print them would go and hawk them in front of the universities [for one baht in the beginning]. Back then the one-baht books were an outlet for the expression of ideas, beginning with interest in literature and the arts. Later, the degree of it escalated, and they expressed demands and opinions against the war, against dictatorship. It was a phenomenon of the new generation of fifty years ago that banded together, and it eventually led to the student movement, the October 14 movement.

MP: How do you feel about the SEA Write Award?

SS: At least it helps encourage people to publish according to the cycle of the competition. Like this coming year is going to be poetry, so all kinds of people are writing poetry. It rotates [between poetry, short stories, and novels], which is strange because artistic writing should come in more than three categories. There should be nonfiction. We’ve been seeing a greater amount of nonfiction work in the last forty or fifty years. People have proposed it for the SEA Write but nothing has come of it. They should expand it to drama and things like that. There’s more people putting on stage plays now. But there are still just the three categories. There’s discussion whether the SEA Write is a promoting or hindering force . . . For example, Danarun Saengthong wrote the novel Ngaw See Kow (White Shadow) that was shortlisted. It was viewed as too crude, it had too much sex. With writing, with art, you have to be a step ahead. People who judge, too, they have to be ready in that way. Ours isn’t ready. The creators are ready, and the readers, too, but the transmitters—the institutions, the judging panels, the teachers—are not.

MP: Will you return to Chorkaraket again?

SS: Its spirit still lives on but I probably won’t work on it in the same way. Chorkaraket’s existence was good, but even without it, people who have what it takes to make it will still make it. I still see new people coming along, and it’s all new people who are ready to speak over the fear. It’s not people my age, not people within the institutions. I still have hope.

© 2016 by Mui Poopoksakul. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2016 by Mui Poopoksakul. All rights reserved.

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