Veteran editor Suchart Sawasdsri made a name for himself as a literary talent spotter on whose desk the manuscripts of many of Thailand’s acclaimed contemporary writers have landed. Over his nearly fifty-year career as editor of various literary magazines as well as a journal of social and political commentary, he has come to be regarded as an encyclopedia of Thai literature. Most notably, from 1978 to 2010 (with a couple of hiatuses, dividing the magazine’s run into three eras), he edited the legendary short-story quarterly Chorkaraket (Screwpine Garland). For a budding writer to make it into the magazine, and in particular to win its prize, was considered the ultimate stamp of approval. Suchart has been part of the Thai literati since the sixties, the period that led up to two key events in modern Thai history known as the October 14, 1973 Event and October 6, 1976 Event (the first marking the student-led uprising that took down the military dictatorship and the second signifying the massacre of protestors after which the country returned to military rule), which still loom large over the imagination of Thai writers who are now the old guard. In those days, the artist as political activist was the paradigm for Thai writers, and that legacy still has some hold on Thai writing today. While Suchart himself has always leaned left, as an editor he always sought to give writers carte blanche. He has long been a proponent of “art for the sake of art” in a field where “art for the sake of life” has dominated. Now in his seventies, Suchart has been honored as a national artist of Thailand and remains active in the art and literary world (he is a writer in his own right, and also paints and makes experimental short films, some of which can be viewed here). In response to Thailand’s most recent military coup in 2014, Suchart revived Chorkaraket for a special issue.
We spent hours chatting about the development of Thai prose, its evolution through the years, and the close relationship between literature and politics in Thailand. Ever the demanding editor, Suchart is no shrinking violet when it comes to critiquing the literature to which he has dedicated his life.
The following is an edited and translated version of our conversation.
Mui Poopoksakul (MP): You had mentioned the one-hundredth anniversary of the Thai novel. Can you talk about the first one?
Suchart Sawasdsri (SS): In times past, Thai literature was poetry. It was fiction but written in verse. Prose narrative, with explanation and dialogue, started at the end of the reign of King Rama III, going into the reign of King Rama IV. Looking at primary documents, what I think we can call the first short stories came out in Darunowat magazine in 1874, about a hundred and forty years ago. That was when we saw writing in a form that partly showed influence from abroad, from the West. Later, what is said to be the first Thai novel was a novel that mimics—doesn’t quite mimic, but bears a resemblance to—a work called Kwam Payabat, which was Mae Won’s translation of Marie Corelli’s Vendetta. That was translated in 1900, so that’s about a hundred and twenty years old. The first Thai novel was something like a parody of that, but it had a Thai sense. It was called Kwam Mai Payabat (No Vendetta) by the author who wrote under the pen name Nai Samran, better known as Kru Liam or Liam Wintupramanakul. That was 1915 according to the documents, so that’s about a hundred years ago. It’s so young. But if you go back to the first short stories, “Nai Jit Nai Jai Sontana Gun” (“The Conversation between Jit and Jai”) and “Chai Ha Pla Tung See” (“Four Men Fishing”), they actually had characteristics of critical realism. For example, “Nai Jit Nai Jai Sontana Gun” talked about Jit and Jai critiquing monks, critiquing people in the royal court, corruption. “Chai Ha Pla Tung See” wasn’t quite fantasy but I’d call it magic realism. It’s about four men with different personalities and different special abilities—one has ears that stick out, one has a pointy bottom, one has a lot of mucus in the nose, and one has three hands—and they go out fishing. It’s a local parable of our own. Prose in Thailand had a good beginning—it had elements of social critique. It had elements of magic.