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from the May 2019 issue

Disagreeable, Memorable Characters People Duanwad Pimwana’s “Bright” and “Arid Dreams”

Reviewed by Benjamin Woodard

A novel first published in Thailand in 2003 and a collection of short-stories stretching back to the mid-1990s, both now available in English for the first time, show a confident writer at the top of her game, with a distinctive skill to conjure unique personalities on the page.

Five-year-old Kampol Changsamran patiently waits in his village for the return of his father, Wasu. “I’ll be back in a bit,” Wasu had promised hours earlier, and Kampol believed him, yet by nightfall the boy is still alone. Concerned neighbors, well aware that Kampol’s mother also recently abandoned the family, take him in for the night. So begins Duanwad Pimwana’s poignant Bright, originally published in 2003 and now translated into English by Mui Poopoksakul for Two Lines Press. Poopoksakul has also translated Pimwana’s short story collection, Arid Dreams, for Feminist Press, and the two books hit bookstores in the US in April. These small volumes fashion a mini retrospective of sorts for the Thai author’s work, as some stories included in Arid Dreams stretch back to the mid-1990s, when Pimwana first made her appearance on Thailand’s literary scene. Regardless of the periods in which they were composed, all of the narratives now available in English for the first time show a confident writer at the top of her game, evidence of Pimwana’s world-building strengths and her skill at conjuring unique personalities on the page. 

Episodic in nature, Bright follows Kampol in his dealings with his neighbors, from Chong, the local grocer who takes the boy under his wing, to Oan, Kampol’s closest friend. In brief chapters, Pimwana guides the reader through the instability that characterizes life in the boy’s village, relaying the actions and habits of her characters primarily in a close third person perspective that hovers around Kampol. This infuses the narration of each adventure recounted in the book with a curiosity similar to that of the child protagonist. The resulting contrast between a child’s point of view and our own perceptions as adult readers can have a comical effect. In the chapter “Pony Express,” for instance, Kampol is the last person to speak with local fisherman Tia before his death. Looking through a window, the boy catches the man in the middle of a sexual encounter, but Pimwana’s narration remains close to Kampol’s own interpretation of the episode:

“[Tia] was up to something that Kampol didn’t understand. He was panting and bumping up and down as if he were on horseback . . . It was very curious the way Tia’s body was moving, it looked like he was riding the merry-go-round at the shrine fair, except on a faster horse and didn’t rotate.” 

Tia’s adult daughter later asks the cooks at her father’s funeral about rumblings that the man died while in bed with a woman. The punch line lands thanks to the author’s narration, whose childlike innocence acts as the joke’s straight man, setting the reader up to be knocked flat.    

This innocent perspective also provides Pimwana opportunity to emphasize the harrowing consequences of naivety. Throughout the novel, Kampol’s parents make periodic appearances, real and imagined, and each brief reunion fools the boy into trusting his life will return to its past normalcy. In the chapter “A New Home,” Wasu finally returns to the village to take Kampol to a new house, yet Wasu’s latest partner, Mama Lim, greets the child with “the barest of smiles.” This cold reception is enough to clue the reader in on the impending aftermath of the encounter, yet Kampol fails to notice her disappointment and instead acts like an excited boy ready to start anew. It isn’t until Wasu leaves him back at the village, in front of Chong’s market, that Kampol, clutching a toy, realizes his rejection and shifts into melancholy: “[He] watched his father walk off until he disappeared . . . He opened his hand: the blue action figure glinted in the dim light.” 

Similarly, in the chapter “The Rice Giveaway,” Kampol breaks free from his friend Oan and the boy’s mother because he sees his parents among the throngs of villagers crowding a shrine’s rice giveaway: 

“. . . she was just over there. He got very excited. He yelled for her . . . Kampol tried to push forward in hopes of catching up to his mother but it got him nowhere . . . When he looked behind him another time, he saw his father’s head . . . Kampol yelled to them.” (79)

Again, Pimwana uses Kampol’s curiosity and determination as a driving force in her narration, and in doing so, she removes any sense of doubt from the boy’s observations: Kampol “saw” his father; his mother “was just over there.” Even after the boy watches the final unfamiliar face leave the giveaway, he remains positive he saw his parents, and the narrator refuses to betray Kampol’s hope, creating for the reader an understanding of the boy’s mindset, as well as his crushing disappointment. 

Beyond Duanwad Pimwana’s devoted handling of Kampol’s perspective, what makes Bright a pleasure is her careful effort in crafting a world of people for the boy to investigate. Characters like Chong evolve with each episode, growing ever more fond of Kampol, and despite introducing scores of names and faces, there is never a sense that the author skimps on rounding each character into an individual. Pimwana’s use of characterization is superb, and while not everybody is provided a large arc in which to mature, there’s enough here to give Kampol’s environment heft and dimension. 

This skillful pattern of character building is also present in Pimwana’s short story collection, Arid Dreams, where the lives of the lower and middle classes are explored across thirteen stories. In each, the author speaks to the shifting social landscape of Thailand, tackling gender and economic disparities, and while not every tale sticks with the reader, the hits far outweigh the misses. The result is a book worth recommending. 

In the title story, a vacationing single man becomes uncomfortably enthralled with a beachside masseuse, only to bristle when he learns she also works as a prostitute for non-Thai men. “Kanda’s Eyebrows” revolves around a man, Gleur, disgusted with the way his wife carries herself in public; and “Within These Walls” concerns a woman waiting, somewhat expectantly, for her injured husband to die in the hospital. In these stories, Pimwana keenly works to mold characters who shun the simplicity of a black and white existence. As a result, the reader is left in the uncomfortable position of developing sympathy for Pimwana’s disagreeable protagonists, be it due to the vacationing beachgoer’s initial failure to secure a place to sleep, the reveal of Gleur’s own revolting appearance, or the expectant wife’s surprise when she learns her husband’s injuries aren’t fatal after all. As she rushes to be by his side, praying he doesn’t regain consciousness before her arrival (“A sick person wants somebody to care for him,” she reasons), it’s inevitable to feel compassion for her, if only a sliver. 

Yet not all of the protagonists in Arid Dreams tread on the edge of conventional morality. In “The Way of the Moon,” a father and son hike under moonlight and bond around a campfire, while “Sandals” follows a girl and her brother as they contemplate disobeying their parents’ demands. In these stories, the same inquisitiveness that occupies much of Bright returns, and it showcases Piwana’s authorial range throughout her career. Hers is a powerful voice deserving of worldwide attention. Thanks to the superb work of translator Mui Poopoksakul, a whole new audience will now have the opportunity to discover these enticing landscapes filled with troubled, memorable characters.

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