Language in Revolt: Contemporary Thai Short Stories

Mui Poopoksakul on Contemporary Thai Fiction

The short fiction aisle is arguably the most happening section of Bangkok's bookshops. As Thai writers often come on to the scene by publishing short stories in magazines and later gather them into collections, short stories are comparatively quicker in capturing the zeitgeist. In recent years in particular, an exciting brand of more experimental short fiction focused on city life has been hitting the shelves. Three S.E.A. Write Award-winning authors—Prabda Yoon, Win Lyovarin, and Uthis Haemamool—are fine examples of writers whose work might be grouped in that genre. With their respective trademarks of quirky textuality, conceptual forms, and telltale word choice, they give voice to contemporary urban life in Bangkok, a city whose collective narrative right now is anything but coherent—and may have been that way even before we knew it.

Embodied by the masses of protestors, one camp in red and the other in yellow, who have taken to the city's streets over the last eight years, the political instability in Thailand is an immensely complicated story involving a confluence of factors. Changing societal structures with a growing urban middle class and a newly politically mobilized provincial population, alleged corruption and political entrenchment, and the specter of a royal succession are usually identified as the tent poles propping up the conflict. The "Yellow Shirts" say they want to reform a faulty political system that repeatedly elects the party favored by the "Red Shirts," who find their power base among the rural poor. The "Red Shirts," for their part, reply that their chosen government is at least actually elected. Your sane and lovely friends and family might be "Red Shirts," "Yellow Shirts," something in between, or just fed up with all of them shutting things down and blocking traffic. Multiple interpretations are always at play.

I, for my part, cannot help but wonder whether the climate of unrest in Bangkok could already be sensed in the literature coming out of the capital even before the protests started. My reading may be symptomatic, bordering on paranoid, but the short stories by Prabda, Win, and Uthis seem to support the theory. What their highly individualistic styles share is that they request—even breed—astute readers who bring in their own interpretations, question what they read, and perceive the multiplicity of meanings. This, of course, is a mode of reading that may lead to fragmentation. But it also teaches open-mindedness, and in that way, I hope it points towards the possibility of eventual reconciliation.

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Prabda Yoon's Kwam Na Ja Pen (Pen in Parentheses) was one of the first works of Thai literature that made me start looking at Thai writing in this light. The forty-year-old writer's voice on paper has a cheeky, smart-alecky overtone, which is both fun and funny. In less deft hands, it might induce a little bit of eye-rolling, but Prabda dodges that bullet through the sheer dexterity of his wordplay and his keen self-awareness. He makes fun of himself—a recurring character made the subject of ridicule in his stories is called "Prabda Yoon"—before you can make fun of him. Prabda's playfulness is endlessly amusing, but underneath his casual tone lies a deep conspiracy with the reader. His is the kind of text that eggs you on to make Roland Barthes's "Death of the Author" your reading manifesto. Prabda's writing across different collections consistently opens up a readerly space; his stories, often with an undercurrent of the absurd, highlight their own textuality. For him, punctuation, idioms, and words themselves frequently become narrative-generating. His texts have a life of their own.

"Ms. Space" from his Pen in Parentheses collection could almost be a cute, typical boy-meets-girl-on-a-bus story if it weren't for the fact that what piques the narrator's curiosity about his potential love interest is that he sees that in her diary she leaves a space between sentences that is as long as the preceding sentence (this is more visually striking in Thai because words in the same sentence or clause are written without spaces in between). The story is punctuated by the bus's stops, as the girl leaves the curious narrator hanging by getting off the bus each time he is in the middle of asking her why she spaces the way she does. The reader is similarly left in limbo as the story comes to a stop with a footnote saying that the ending is not the end but another space. The text, both in the character's diary and of the story as a whole, is always followed by the shadow of its own emptiness.

"Pen in Parentheses," the collection's title story (which appeared in the April 2014 issue of Asymptote), has a circular structure: the beginning of the story is also the end, since the whole thing is a flashback bookended by the line, "I will never change." In the end, the story tells you that it doesn't tell you much: everything happens inside a giant pair of parentheses, as if the whole story is to be de-emphasized as incidental, and the line from the narrator's diary that launches and ends the tale, the only sentence on the piece of paper that is the only object that appears outside the parentheses, is meaningless. "I will never change," it says, but the narrator tells us, "Change from what, I couldn't remember anymore." Like "Ms. Space," "Pen in Parentheses" is a Barthesian text that posits meaning only to take it away.

Prabda takes "The Death of the Author" to another level in two other stories. In "บารmeของพ่อมัน" (which might be translated as "hIs Daddy's Influence") from a 2005 collection called Kwam Sa-ad Kong Pu Tai (The Cleanliness of the Dead), the first-person narrator, named Marut, describes a certain Prabda Yoon as a fame-hungry poser with an influential father (the real-life Prabda's father has long been in the public eye as a journalist and head of a media group). Through a chance encounter on a boat somewhere between the twin islands of Hong Kong and Kowloon, Marut becomes a ghost writer for Prabda, and he is writing the story as an exposé of the "author." "hIs Daddy's Influence" is not the first time we meet Marut. Kwam Na Ja Pen, which was published in 2000, contains another story called "Marut by the Sea," where—as we later learn in "hIs Daddy's Influence"—the same Marut makes his first appearance. The story is told from the perspective of Marut, the character that is being created before our very eyes. Marut makes cruel fun of Prabda throughout the story. Together, the two Marut stories dispel the myth of the author and leave the reader with the text. The character Marut even tells readers, "Believe me, every single thing that you think you learn from him, in fact, comes from you yourself." The power that Prabda gives to words, as well as punctuation, idioms, and characters, might appear innocent, but the fullness of his language ultimately proves too much that they end up highlighting the textuality of his writing. His stories reveal themselves as nothing more than texts, waiting for readers to endow them with significance.

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About three-quarters of a generation older than Prabda, Win Lyovarin is an experimental writer whose inventiveness with form keeps readers on their toes. A former ad man, Win makes extensive use of layout design, giving his stories a visual as well as textual component. This tactic is particularly on display in the 1994 collection Aphet Kamsuan (Ominous Wail), where the themes of pragmatism and Machiavellian means to a legitimate end now seem eerily allegorical. "Lohgee-Nippan" ("Earthly-Nirvana") contains two parallel narratives presented in a black column on the left and a white column on the right. Similar actions and dialogue take place side by side in the two columns, but in completely disparate contexts: the left-hand story involves a prostitute and the right-hand one, a monk. The differences between the two sides break down, however, as the narrator (presumably the same in each story), a philosophy graduate looking for the meaning of life, finds the monk, who is always busy with blessing ceremonies and magical tattoos and trinkets, and the prostitute to be rather similar in that they are both practical-minded service providers. On one level, this multi-layered story tells us that context is everything—the same descriptions can take on vastly divergent meanings, depending on the context—and readers surely bring their own preconceptions in deciphering a text. On another level, the story tells us not to be so quick to see things in black and white. Or in red and yellow for that matter. Win has a light-hearted story called "Rung Gin Naam" ("Rainbow"), from the 2012 collection Sen Sommut (Supposed Lines), in which the protagonist, a Burmese immigrant working as a street vendor at a protest site, couldn't care less which side is camping out as long as he is making money to wire home. Once again, we have a pragmatic narrator who just wants to make a living.

The same question of whether the end justifies the means appears in two other stories in Aphet Kamsuan. "Muek Yod Sudtai" ("The Last Drop of Ink") is made up of newspaper clippings and interviews, and chronicles the rise of a no-name author who fraudulently publishes under a famous author's name in order to get his book noticed. We are told by a prize committee that his book is of literary worth, and the cunning author seems, at least initially, well-intentioned in wanting to disseminate a work he truly believes in. The title story, "Aphet Kamsuan," tells the tale of an elderly, once-idealistic village chief via his soliloquy to an aging water buffalo. As a young man, he had returned to his home village in hopes of improving education and instilling the values of democracy, but he ended up making a deal with vote buyers who promised to build a school for the village after the government told him that it would not get around to his village for years. Thereafter, the village experiences an apocalypse, with snow, epidemics, and other strange occurrences, but the character of the village chief, with his heart and good intentions, elicits the reader's sympathy. In light of recent events in Thailand, the question raised by these stories has regained timeliness, and one might more calmly debate it in the microcosm of literature.

But Win is not one to get his readers' juices flowing through themes alone. Because he plays with graphics, he is able to leave more unsaid and thereby give readers more room to fill in the blanks. In Sing Mi Chiwit Thi Riak Wa Khon (That Living Thing Called Human), a 1999 collection of short stories and essays in alternating order, Win has a story composed of only nouns (sometimes with modifiers), each separated by a slash. In its showcase of individual words, the story, called "Choo" ("Paramour"), does not tolerate a passive reader. Rather, readers have to connect the dots in their own heads, and in the process they write what they want into the text. The slashes mark the space for readers to read between the lines, or in this case between words, for themselves. Similarly, another story from Aphet Kamsuan, "Mueng Khon Bap" ("City of Sinners"), is composed of exchanges of dialogue that take place during nine different cab rides around Bangkok. Each snippet begins with a heading indicating the time, fare, pickup, and drop-off spots, and a description of the passengers. Readers get the bare bones of a narrative, encouraging them to look out for the unsaid.

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A writer who has taken the political crisis head-on is 39-year-old Uthis Haemamool. In his hot-off-the-press collection Samaan Saman (which might be translated as Base, Basic), Uthis takes up the theme of reading while adopting the protests and class issues as his motifs. Most of the story titles in the book are made up of two near-homophones that have completely different meanings. Through the titles alone, he, like Win and Prabda, asks readers not to trust language easily, and at the same time, hints at the two-sidedness of stories. He also seems to echo an observation, noted by novelist Atibhop Pataradetpisan in a column in the online newspaper Prachatai, that the Thai language is structurally classist because of the multiplicity of pronouns we use. Our many ways of saying "I" or "you" or referring to third persons slot people into their positions of power (or lack thereof) immediately, be it within the family or the larger social structure. Just as the French language lacks gender neutrality, as the writers of the ecriture féminine point out, the Thai language is embedded with class bias, and indeed one facet of the current political conflict is said to stem from class divisions. The final story in Samaan Saman, "Bangkok, Bangkok (2)" (something of a sequel to the first story, "Bangkok, Bangkok (1)"), contains several vignettes of city life, with narrators using different pronouns that cast them in their social roles immediately. We have, for example: using a crass form of "I," a working-class mother whose son dies in one of the protests; using a middle-of-the-road male form of the pronoun, a middle-class guy getting frustrated with the flood (presumably the severe floods of 2011); and using an extremely formal, almost archaic, form of "I," a lawyer whose clients we know are of high birth because of the pronouns by which he refers to them.

Uthis had already taken up the subject of class through word choice in a 2008 collection, Mai Yon Keun (No Return), via the use of foreign words in one of the stories. "Wan Naan" ("That Day") deals with the issue of socio-economic class as it unfolds in a relationship between a couple in their twenties. In the story, they go to the Emporium, a posh Bangkok mall, so that the male protagonist can sell part of his CD collection to earn some cash. The story is loaded with foreign words and names: pasta, salmon, cream sauce, house wine, CD Warehouse, Kinokuniya, Power Mall, CD, DVD, video, album, café, deejay, stylist, computer, virus, sign, pop, counter, Suzuki, U2, Massive Attack, Pink Floyd, and many more. In an ironic (although still objectionable as a matter of cultural imperialism) twist, class discontent shows up here as a Thai language under siege by a barrage of foreign terms, which make regular appearance in current Bangkok speech of a certain set.

And then, there is Uthis's caveat lector. In "Bangkok, Bangkok (1)," a teen steals his mother's motorcycle to go joyride and gets stranded on the streets the night of a military coup (presumably the coup that ousted Thaksin Shinawatra in 2006). The next day, his mother beats him with a bamboo stick, while his friend looks on and films the scene with his cell phone. The footage ends up on a TV show, and the mother is portrayed as a vicious child abuser. By the end of "Bangkok, Bangkok (2)," however, we find the boy, seven years later, missing his mother, who, he now realizes, had worked hard as a street vendor to support him and was willing to play the role of the villain on TV so that the program would help take him out of the slums. "Bangkok, Bangkok (2)" also has a vignette that is an interview of a politician or official, wherein the character talks in circles and uses big, buzzy words to appear to be saying something of substance, until he manages to make the time run out without answering the question. "Samlak Samneuk" (which might be translated as "Retch, Wretch") from the same collection has an abhorrent character, a social-media-addicted civil servant who gets busted for soliciting bribes. She is pleased with herself when lots of people online "like" her mean-spirited comments attacking celebrities she knows nothing about other than what she gathers from pictures and headlines. She can't be bothered to read even a whole article of celebrity news and is outraged by a writer's comment telling people to read between the lines. She is a nightmare of a reader—she even gets scammed buying an apartment because she fails to read the fine print in the ad. The character is our cautionary tale. The call for readers to discern and question in Uthis's stories is the same call that we see in Win and Prabda's work, but with the country's current political climate the way it is, the imperative is coming to the fore more prominently than ever.

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I used to prefer reading the pre-unrest stories by these authors more as "art for art's sake," but the political situation in Thailand has made me revisit their work and re-view their writing as a harbinger of divisive turmoil. It is not that they contain prophesies of any sort, but they do reveal a certain mindset. Win, Prabda, and Uthis's writing challenges readers not to sit back and take words or narratives as givens, encourages them to question the status quo of authority represented by the author, and opens up the possibility of multiple meanings. The groundwork for, or the reflection of, a nation broken into two camps that do not see eye to eye on the same story, and that are willing to stand up against a ruling power they see as illegitimate, was quietly there in the stories that preceded the strife, and these writers' newer stories continue to cultivate the same philosophy of reading. Readers who know how to take a text and run with it do not necessarily all end up in the same place, depending on the contexts and preconceived notions they bring, but it is more important than ever to read with an open mind and a discerning eye, in order to see the possibility of there being different sides to a story. These authors' stories ask that of us. And they deserve to be read.



Mui Poopoksakul is a lawyer-turned-translator. She grew up in Bangkok and Boston, and practiced law in New York City before returning to the literary field. She is currently wrapping up an M.A. in cultural translation at the American University of Paris and previously studied literature as an undergraduate at Harvard College. She is in the midst of translating Prabda Yoon's short-story collection Kwan Na Ja Pen (Pen in Parentheses) and is working to promote Thai literature through translation and writing.



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