Thailand between the lines
Literary gems that offer a glimpse of Thailand’s multiculturalism and changing sociopolitical landscape
It’s hard sometimes to make sense of a country, especially one like Thailand that boasts a long history and a rich, diverse culture. One entertaining way to put the pieces of the puzzle together is to look at Thailand and its people from the perspective of its artists. Bookworms should be happy to discover that there are substantial literary works by renowned and respected Thai authors available in English (and possibly many other languages too) that showcase the changing sociopolitical landscape at different times through characters that represent people of varying social status and ethnicity in Thailand. Here are some suggestions.
Ghosts (1957) by Seni Saowaphong
Ghosts (Thai name pee sard) is considered one of the greatest and most impactful works in Thai modern literature. Written by Seni Saowaphong (the penname of Sakchai Bamrungpong, 1918-2014), a diplomat, author and journalist recognised by the National Artist in Literature award in 1990, the novel criticises the feudal system and old values through a new-generation Thai couple who wants everyone to be treated equally, regardless of their socio-economic status. Vocal, provocative and clearly ahead of its time, Ghosts became a national hit after the 14 October 1973 political uprising backed by student activists.
The Judgment (1981) by Chart Korbjitti
The Judgment, or kam pi paksa in Thai, is a gripping and tragic story of a simple decent man, Fak, whose life goes into a downwards spiral just because of how society projects him – the classic case of an outsider being judged and cast out by others, which still resonates well almost 40 years after its release. The book won Chart the S.E.A. Write Award (🇹🇭). The Southeast Asian Writers Award has been presented annually since 1979 to poets and writers of Southeast Asia.
If you like Chart’s honest yet intriguing writing style and his detailed observance of the simple, mundane things in life, you might want to check out his other stellar novel, Time (1993) or wela, which earned him a second S.E.A. Write Award in 1994. This bittersweet tale tells an intimate story of aging and being helplessly senile through the eyes of young adults well before the “aging society” became a pressing issue in Thailand and many parts of Asia. If you’re over forty, this one will definitely make you laugh till you cry – or perhaps also the other way round.
Chart, born 1954, was named a National Artist in Literature in 2004, and was among the honorees of the inaugural Silpathorn Award, given to Thai contemporary artists.
A Child of the Northeast (1987) by Kampoon Boontawee
Kampoon Boontawee, Thailand’s first S.E.A Write winner and 2004 National Artist in Literature, based his novel on memories of his own childhood in Isaan, the northeast of Thailand, in times of drought and poverty. Luk Isaan, to give it its Thai title, portrays the hard life of the underprivileged Isaan people in remote areas through the eyes of an innocent child. This novel was selected by Thai scholars as one among the 100 good books recommended for Thais to read. It has been translated into several foreign languages, including Japanese and French.
Letters from Thailand (1969) by Botan
Winner of the now defunct SEATO Prize for Thai Literature, jod mai jak muang Thai is the story of Tan Suang U, a young man who leaves China to make his fortune in Thailand at the end of World War II, and ends up marrying, raising a family and operating a successful business. The novel unfolds through his letters to his beloved mother in China.
Penned by Botan, real name Supa Sirisingh, the novel is one of the few that portrays the immigrant Chinese experience in urban Thailand. Supa’s Chinese ancestry inspired her to write the novel and drew on the details, atmosphere, and certain traits from the Chinese community in which she lived to show how Chinese immigrants struggle to fit into the Thai culture while at the same time trying to uphold their Chinese heritage.
The book has been translated into ten languages but was never formally published in Western markets. Awarded National Artist in Literature in 1999, Botan, now in her 70s, penned more than 60 novels with mostly strong female characters, many of which have been successfully adapted for television and film.
The Four Reigns (1953) by Kukrit Pramoj
An all-time classic and national gem, The Four Reign, or see pan din, is a portrayal of the lives of minor nobilities during Thailand’s most volatile and changeable sociopolitical period that spans the reigns of four kings, from King Rama V (1868 – 1910) to King Rama VIII (1935 – 1946) as well as WWI and WW II.
Penned by master storyteller, scholar, politician and professor MR Kukrit Pramoj (1911-1995) whose royal lineage and foreign education allowed him to delve so deeply into the lives of the nobility from a personal standpoint, the novel, written originally as a serial for the Thai daily Siam Rath, follows Ploy from her childhood at the inner court to adulthood and married life, where she struggles to adapt to modern life and values. Readers observe economic and social changes, coups, political turmoil, abdication and tragedy through her eyes while at the same time experiencing the sophisticated Thai ways of life of the bygone era.
Very Thai: Everyday Popular Culture (2004) by Philip Cornwel-Smith
If you’re wondering what “Thainess” is all about, the answers are probably in this book. Thailand-based, British author Philip Cornwel-Smith celebrates Thai pop and folk culture beyond the traditional icons to reveal the everyday Thai culture, way of life and anything and everything Thai. An essential and insightful guide for anyone navigating a life in Thailand. The writer released the sequel, Very Bangkok: In the City of the Senses, earlier this year, that offers an alternative look at subcultures of his second home in Bangkok – the city of mesmerising juxtaposition and wonders.