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from the November 2016 issue

Modernization and Its Discontents: Contemporary Thai Writing

I often ask myself and others: why has so little Thai literature been translated? We are a country of around sixty-seven million people, and Thai is the twenty-fifth most spoken native language in the world; the numbers should suggest a better outcome. Have we been written off abroad as a good-time country of pad Thai, Phuket, and, troublingly, prostitution, a land where, as Thais like to say, we have fish in the water and rice in the fields, and therefore our people are viewed as not having suffered enough for deep meditation? Then I thought: instead of merely contemplating the question, why not start chipping away at it? When Words without Borders suggested a Thai issue, I was delighted, shaking in my boots as I pondered which authors and pieces to pick among the many I would love to showcase.

The writers back home offered backup. I pounded the pavement and made cold calls to reach authors, many of whom have become friends, and they generously shared their reading recommendations. Especially because Thai literature has been so rarely translated, theirs, I sense, is a Thailand that shows its vulnerable side, not the Thailand that has its best foot forward like in the guidebooks. In these pages, you will find expressions of the disquiet of living in contemporary Thailand, a Southeast Asian nation where the rate of modernization seems only to accelerate.

Thailand is an axe-shaped country with the “blade” flanked by Myanmar, Laos, and Cambodia. The “handle” separates the Andaman Sea from the Gulf of Thailand and touches Malaysia at its southernmost tip. The nation very recently lost the beloved King Bhumibol Adulyadej (also known as King Rama IX), the ninth king of the Chakri Dynasty, which moved the country’s capital to Bangkok in 1782. Contemporary Thailand has known nothing but King Bhumibol as its head, and during his seventy years on the throne he was an imposing ballast for the country. Yet, the kingdom has not been without political turbulence: since its transformation from an absolute monarchy to a constitutional monarchy in 1932, it has seen a dozen coups (plus a number of attempted ones) and is currently under military rule, this time since 2014.

Thai writers have tended to be a socially concerned and politically engaged bunch. As revered editor Suchart Sawasdsri discusses in his interview, Thai literature has had a long tradition of delivering social critique and promoting activism, going all the way back to the beginning of Thai prose writing about 140 years ago. Kulap Saipradit, the distinguished early novelist said to have coined the Thai word for “novel” in the 1920s, was the prototypical writer: a fiction author, journalist, and intellectual in one. Throughout much of the latter half of the twentieth century, the so-called “literature for life” movement, Thailand’s version of social realism, and its offshoots dominated the scene. Its influence has proved enduring, even as realist styles have given way to more modernist narratives and even as the leftist ideology of its heyday in the 1970s has been retuned over time.

With the long hand of the literature for life movement, contemporary Thai literature has often captured social problems in terms of the binary between the urban and the rural, the divide between the capitalist life in the metropolis of Bangkok, so dominant and modern compared to the rest of the country, and the traditional life, often imagined as idyllic, in the provinces. The contrast, handled at times obliquely in the depiction of the everyday reality of Thai life, raises a host of issues that are growing pains of an evolving society, ones that are felt especially acutely in a developing nation: class, equality, tradition, democracy, and abuse of power.

The writers in this issue have shown nuanced takes on this defining dichotomy. For example, Chart Korbjitti, who is as much a household name as any living Thai author, is described by Chulalongkorn University literature professor Suradech Chotiudompant as a writer of tales that show the cracks in old way of life associated with the countryside.

Sri Daoruang, herself a real-life literature-for-life heroine—once a factory worker, she famously has only a fourth-grade education—has been a steadfast female voice in Thai literature since she began writing alongside the social realist men in the seventies. As Susan Fulop Kepner writes in her introduction to Lioness in Bloom: Modern Thai Fiction about Women, Sri Daoruang does not shy away from tackling bold subjects and presenting “ugly” characters as she contemplates the woman’s place in society. Susan translated Sri Daoruang’s “Tanoo” for this issue. 

Duanwad Pimwana, who combines a social realist bent with magic realism, is another female beacon and one of only six women to have won the Thai section of the S.E.A. Write Award in its thirty-seven-year history. Her writing captures the spirit of small-town Thailand with its make-do attitude, at once melancholy and defiant. “Monopoly” is the first chapter of her S.E.A. Write-winning novel, Changsamran, which is excerpted here.

The gutsy Phu Kradat, who is hailed as the new voice of the northeastern region of Isan and described by Sawasdsri as “the new ‘for life,’” chooses to write in his native dialect, however opaque it might be to the general Thai readership. His two poems included in this issue encapsulate one of the key concerns in his writing: to challenge the idea that it is the manifest destiny of the Isan people to become migrant workers.

Urban life, too, features in the issue. Prabda Yoon is the unapologetic city boy who rose to fame, giving voice to a new generation of Bangkokians while making his mark on Thai literature by popularizing postmodern narrative techniques. Before him, another chronicler of Bangkok life, Win Lyovarin, was also experimenting with narrative forms, most notably via the use of graphics.

In all of this, Uthis Haemamool has been capturing the mood of current times with his sprawling novels that challenge the concepts of facts and history. In his story “Light Splash Sound,” translated by Peter Montalbano (who also translated the author’s S.E.A. Write Award-winning novel The Brotherhood of Kaeng Khoi), Uthis again destabilizes accepted values that have long been passed down without being questioned.

As a Thai native, working on this issue of Words without Borders has felt deeply personal, like introducing friends to a new crowd. I realize that I have necessarily painted with a broad brush and framed the picture a little too tightly in this introduction, but it is a start. I hope that the works presented here will begin a longer conversation about writing from Thailand. I myself will be watching what is to come from our authors now that the King’s death has plunged our country into a new era.


© 2016 by Mui Poopoksakul. All rights reserved.

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