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Southeast Asia’s new wave of authors

June 15th, 2005 · No Comments

Gazing at the wonders of Southeast Asia, through the words and experiences of an author, provides a unique opportunity to explore this diverse region. Those who write in English have particular influence in their capability to inspire the world’s biggest book buying market to venture to distant shores. However, the occidental view is not without its pitfalls.

Filtering the experiential perspective of life in Thailand and its environs, may be necessary to make a tale accessible for Western readers, but it masks many of the subtle nuances and cultural realities of life here. Moreover, it too often gives birth to the greatest of literary irritants. The stereotype.

Unfortunately for Thailand, the vast majority of fiction published on, in or about the country (in English) fails to gaze further that the bar scenes around Patpong, Nana and Soi Cowboy.

Subtle cultural nuances fly out of the window as a gaggle of old men attempt to ascend to literary stardom through fictionalized accounts of sexual exploits, crime and corruption.

The gaze falls short.

Thailand becomes renowned for one thing, sex. Thai people are reduced to amiable noodle sellers, prostitutes, bent coppers and dodgy cab drivers.

While not being a puritan or too much of a snob, it seems a pity that the old hands fall short at writing of anything other than a clichéd world dreamt up by an imagination anaesthetized by too much Mekong whiskey.

For some writers the problem of how Thais are represented in works of fiction runs deeper than their portrayal in plethora of banal Bangkok novels, as author Rattawut Lapcharoensap explains.

“So often Thai characters just seem like props for the resolution of someone else’s conflict. [In my book] I wanted Thai folks to have their own conflicts and to have a sense of humor, to be cruel to each other and to be kind to each other in ways I hadn’t seen before.”

Rattawut, 26, is probably fast becoming the most widely known Thai writer of recent times. He received a US Dollar six-figure advance for Sightseeing, his recently published collection of short stories.

Born in the USA and raised in Thailand, Rattawut studied contemporary American Literature at Cornell University in New York, and went on to do a Masters in Creative Writing. He is currently on a fellowship at the University of East Anglia, England.

While his influences are Western Sightseeing provides a unique, authentic perspective on elements of life in Thailand.

Malaysian author Tash Aw, 33, set out to settle a few literary scores of his own with his debut novel The Harmony Silk Factory (which has just been released in Asia).

He wanted to take a sledgehammer to the stereotypes of Malaysia, created by the likes of colonial author Somerset Maugham, or the more dandy Noel Coward.

“I just got fed up of this idea, this image of 1930s and 1940s Malaysia being dominated by white men in white smoking jackets. I wanted to write something that was completely different to that.

“Ninety-five percent of Malaysia had nothing to do with the world of Somerset Maugham. He wrote about a really small circle of people and that image of Malaysia has come to dominate our literary perception of the 30s and 40s there.”

Tash was born in Taipei to Malay-Chinese parents, moved to Kuala Lumpur age three, and then on to England to study at Cambridge University when he was 18.

While he says he is “100 percent Malaysian,” he admits that his book, in terms of style, is not.

“It’s one of the great parodies. All of my literary influences are American or European, but the sensibilities are Malaysian. What makes The Harmony Silk Factory unusual is that all the emotions behind it are very Malaysian.”

Tash recognizes the same dynamics in Rattawut’s work. “His book to me felt very Thai, but in terms of the techniques employed are definitely influenced by American style, which makes for a really interesting blend.”

The Harmony Silk Factory itself is a beautiful book. It follows the life of Johnny Lim through the eyes of three narrators, his son, Jasper; his wife Snow Soon; and his eccentric English friend Peter Wormwood. Each narrator gives a different perspective on Johnny: as a devious gangster; an unsatisfactory husband; a close friend caught up in pre-war anxiety, with Malaya on the brink of a Japanese invasion.

Spanning more than 60 years, from Johnny’s youth up to his death and funeral at the age of 77, the characters reveal as much about themselves as they do of Johnny through their views on him. They also provide a unique window into the country’s past as the presence of British Empire fractures, giving way to a new Asian imperial master, and as the tale comes to an end you wonder if you really know Johnny’s true character.

“That was very deliberate,” Tash says. “The idea is that you as the reader are the only one who see all sides of him.

“You have to make up your mind.”

Tags: books · features · IHT ThaiDay

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