Duanwad Pimwana is one of the preeminent voices in contemporary Thai literature. As enigmatic as she is celebrated, Pimwana is known for her incisive social observation. Having built her career initially as a journalist and short-story writer, she’s now published nine books in Thai, spanning a variety of genres. Two of these, the novel Bright and the short-story collection Arid Dreams, will be published by Two Lines Press and the Feminist Press respectively this April. Both texts were translated by Mui Poopoksakul.
Pimwana’s narratorial perspective is that of a fly on the wall, but one with a loud, pumping, mammalian heartbeat. She is a master of conveying the melancholy contradictions that characterize human existence. Her characters often frustrate the readers’ sympathy, blurring the boundaries between such facilities as “protagonist,” “antagonist,” and “supporting character.” We take on their coexistent hope and despair, accompanying them as they’re tossed to the mercy of chance and fortune.
In Bright, six-year-old Kampol Changsamran gets left behind by both of his parents when an episode of violence and infidelity drives them both to flee their village and reestablish their lives elsewhere with other partners. It’s sometimes easy to forget just how young little Kampol is; he steps into his newfound freedom with a sense of responsibility, resourcefulness, and wisdom that transcends his age. But in other moments, it’s all too clear that his maturity is a function of necessity. His dearest wish is to be once again embraced by the love and security of family. His neighbors, meanwhile, most of them hardly able to fill their own bellies, show a full spectrum of responses to their new collective charge.
The stories in Arid Dreams pinch and cajole the reader into self-awareness. The characters find themselves confronted by their own lack thereof, as well as their naivete and the walls of their personal prisons. A husband harbors years of resentment towards his wife for letting her appearance go. When he finally broaches the subject, she retorts by pointing out his own ugliness. The wife of a celebrated politician rejoices in his sudden infirmity and probable passing, recognizing for the first time the self-effacement implied in their marriage until she learns that he’s going to recover. The collection has decidedly feminist leanings, often highlighting the ways in which women find agency within the given condition that their lives are determined by contours defined by their men.
In this interview with Asymptote contributor Lindsay Semel, Pimwana discusses her identity as a writer, the translation process, and the two works which will soon launch her presence on the anglophone stage.
Interview translated by Papattaranan Kunphunsup.
Lindsay Semel (LS): An English-speaking fan of yours can find little information about you: you were born in the countryside, you’re one of six women to have ever won the Thai S.E.A Writes Award, you’re the first female Thai writer to be published in English, and your style fuses social and magical realism. So you’re currently introduced to readers via a constellation of markers of prestige and comparison. How would you like to introduce yourself to your English-language audience?
Duanwad Pimwana (DP): It is actually as hard to find my personal information in Thai as it is in English. Even the readers in Thailand who know my work well do not know much about my personal life. This is not a coincidence, but rather a choice not to present myself as a “writer” in a way that might shift the attention away from my “work.” I am happy to watch readers enjoy my work from a corner away from the spotlight. And if any reader asks for the writer, I am willing to show up and shake the reader’s hand with gratitude, then resume my position as an observer in the corner. I would like to tell the readers that, as a writer, I will always observe from behind my work. This is a part of my character and myself.
LS: You’ve said on Twitter that your own name means “moonlight shadow-paint in the forest.” Names and their meanings feature prominently in your method of characterization. In fact, the Thai title of your novel Bright is the family name of Kampol, the young protagonist (and your translator Mui Poopoksakul has actually changed her translation of the eponym from “Sunny Boy” to “Bright” over the course of her process). What does the act of naming a character mean to you? How do you want this layer of significance to come across to your non-Thai readers?
DP: That is correct. Sometimes I like to name the character or the story to communicate an additional layer of meaning, or to allow for multiple interpretations. The Thai title of the novel Bright, Changsamran, means “joy.” But the readers might feel instantly the contradiction when they realize that this is also the surname of Kampol, a boy whose life is not that joyful, as if the writer were using this name ironically. But when the readers finish the story, they’ll likely find that the name is not ironic at all, for sadness in a story can be mixed with happiness. Likewise, in a comedy there might be misery buried at the bottom. So the title Bright portrays the story of a child’s hardship coherently.
However, sometimes I do name characters in a much simpler way than you might imagine. Once I was asked if Chong, the grocery store owner in the novel, was named after Lee Chong, the owner of the grocery in John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row. This question forced me to confess that I did not invent the name Chong myself, nor was I influenced by the character Lee Chong at all. Chong is the name of a man who has been influential in my life as a writer. A Chinese family called him Chong when he was young. And to further speak to your full question, I must also confess that the name Duanwad Pimwana is neither my given name nor my own invention, but was also given to me by this Mr. Chong.
LS: Speaking of Mui, she’s said that you two have a good relationship, and that she’ll send you long lists of questions. Can you tell me more about the process of working together on the translations?
DP: Mui is a detail-oriented person who does not overlook things easily if she still has any doubt, no matter how small the doubt might be. While translating she was very eager to understand, so we discussed things a lot. I would resolve all of her uncertainties in detail. Nevertheless, the process was all very smooth. Mui’s character is comforting to me; she has the attitude of a translator who attempts to conserve the original manuscript as best as possible.
LS: Is there any aspect of your work that you’ve communicated to her that it’s important she preserves? Which of her questions have been the hardest for you to answer and why?
DP: I did not have to request anything in particular from her, and no question was too hard to answer. I was willing to work through each one until we were certain that her understanding was correct.
LS: The family in the story “Men’s Rights” from Arid Dreams and the family in the novel Bright are almost, though not entirely, identical. In both cases, the parents have a conflict, leading them to subordinate their children’s best interests to their own. The father changed his name, Ratom (“misery”) to Wasu in an attempt to improve his luck. Can you tell me about the relationship between the two?
DP: Kampol’s family actually exists. I observed this family and planned the writing project secretly. The original idea was rather strange; I intended to write ten short stories with independent plots linked together by the mention of Kampol’s family. I started the project by writing “Men’s Rights,” followed by “Monopoly.” But as I was about to write the third story, a newspaper contacted me to write weekly in the Sunday literature section. I agreed to write but could not come up with another story. At that time, my head was full of the stories about Kampol’s family and the fact that I had only written two of the ten I’d intended. So I adjusted my plan, combining the two projects by adding the stories of Kampol’s family to the newspaper series “Changsamran.” But due to the limited size of the weekly section, I had to write each one as a short, self-contained vignette that could be expanded into multiple episodes. Later, when I published Changsamran, I had the idea to include “Men’s Rights” and “Monopoly.” But as you can see, I excluded “Men’s Rights” because the mood was too different. This is the background of the whole story.
LS: Bright is defined as a novel, while Arid Dreams is a collection of short stories. But Bright reads more like a collection of self-contained vignettes that elaborate the same characters and situation, while the snapshots in Arid Dreams meditate on common themes. As a writer, how do you select and utilize different forms?
DP: I may have a style that I evolved unconsciously, which my readers might identify as characteristic of my work. But in fact, I have never intended to use a particular form to create style in a distinct way. My intention for every creation is to find a balance in which all elements fit in their own suitable places. I identify the theme first, then think about the mood, the kinds of characters, and the language I’ll use to portray them. Therefore, I have no fixed format, but instead change according to each work. If you found the short stories in Arid Dreams linked by shared themes, I think that it could be due to the choices of the translator. My intention was not to create stories with the same theme. As previously mentioned, perhaps I do have subconscious inclinations, which readers could consider the “style of Duanwad Pimwana.”
LS: In both Bright and Arid Dreams, the episodes are commonly characterized by a moment of grace; perhaps there’s a plot element left unresolved, but a character has had a crucial realization that renders further resolution unnecessary. I’m thinking of the man in “The Awaiter” who finds a wad of cash by the bus stop and spends his whole day waiting for the owner to return. Though we don’t know what happens to either man or the money, we know that what he’s really and eternally waiting for is someone to show faith in human goodness. Or “. . . Make a Person Want to Eat,” in which Kampol and Chong try to feed a starving man and finish the chapter rooting for him to lift his fork. Can you tell me about this feature of your writing?
DP: Exactly. That is how I like to end my stories because it is more truthful, or more similar to the actual world. When I read a text in which the character is driven by the plot, and the writer allows the plot to unfold and end completely, the character’s image stops at one point, leaving me with nothing else to ponder. I often argue in my mind whether the actual world is different from the fictional world. Humans cannot resolve situations as we desire, because things are always above our control. This makes me feel that my characters should also confront the uncontrollable. But in each dire circumstance, the first thing a human can do is to try to understand what she is facing and seek the appropriate condition for her own mind. This is the human capacity which I often make the important issue in my stories. The truthfulness of my work lies in the fact that the situations continue as the world moves on, and my characters must carry on without the certainty of resolution.
Duanwad Pimwana is a major voice in contemporary Thai literature. She won Southeast Asia’s most prestigious literary prize—the SEA Write Award—in 2003, and is also the recipient of awards from PEN International Thailand and others. She has written nine books, and her work has appeared in Words Without Borders and Asymptote. English editions of her work include Arid Dreams (Feminist Press 2019) and Bright (Two Lines 2019).
Lindsay Semel is an Assistant Editor for Asymptote. She holds a BA in Comparative Literature and works as a freelance editor from her home on a farm in Northern Portugal.
Papattaranan Kunphunsup, PhD is a lecturer in Aesthetics and Art History at the Bilingual Product Design Department in Burapha University. She is also an artist and a mother.
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