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The city and the writer: In Singapore with Amanda Lee Koe

Can you describe the mood of Singapore as you feel/see it?

Singapore is how your favorite prawn noodle hawker auntie still remembers you take your meal with extra chili even after you’ve been out of town for six months; Singapore is the scrawny kid in the playground whose name no one can remember—until with showy discretion he takes out from his back pocket the latest gadget no one else can afford, then he’s king for all of ten seconds and he believes it too; Singapore is the silent scream scoring this CAConrad poem in which you are driven to fellate flowers before security cameras orb by orb to prove in vain that you still hold true to that Cartesian dualist cliché: I think therefore I am, not the statist perversion: We think therefore you are.

What is your most heartbreaking memory in this city?

Eating homemade daal prawn curry with a bunch of migrant workers in an unfinished bungalow around Mountbatten, a Myanmarese man with bright eyes and a tired smile tells me that on one of his off days, he was in a shopping mall when he saw a toddler girl stumble, about to fall. He lunged down, reaching out to steady her, as he heard the Singaporean Chinese mother scream: “Don’t touch my baby!”

What is the most extraordinary detail, one that goes unnoticed by most, of the city?

That the city is an island is a country. We have no hinterland, no capital. We know this as a fact, but do we realize how this fact shapes us, outside in? Change is effected by instruments of the state directly—and quickly—on the sociophysical body of the city itself. As the inhabitants of this body, these modifications rub off on us, whether we are aware of their effect on us or not, whether our class cushions us less or more.

The extraordinary detail manifesting within the extraordinary detail is encrypted individually and variously in everyone you meet, it’s really only a matter of whether you are willing or able to find a way in.

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Interview with Suchart Sawasdsri

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.

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Modernisation and its Discontents: Contemporary Thai Writing

I often ask myself and others: why has so little Thai literature been translated? We are a country of around sixty-seven million people, and Thai is the twenty-fifth most spoken native language in the world; the numbers should suggest a better outcome. Have we been written off abroad as a good-time country of pad Thai, Phuket, and, troublingly, prostitution, a land where, as Thais like to say, we have fish in the water and rice in the fields, and therefore our people are viewed as not having suffered enough for deep meditation? Then I thought: instead of merely contemplating the question, why not start chipping away at it? When Words without Borders suggested a Thai issue, I was delighted, shaking in my boots as I pondered which authors and pieces to pick among the many I would love to showcase.

The writers back home offered backup. I pounded the pavement and made cold calls to reach authors, many of whom have become friends, and they generously shared their reading recommendations. Especially because Thai literature has been so rarely translated, theirs, I sense, is a Thailand that shows its vulnerable side, not the Thailand that has its best foot forward like in the guidebooks. In these pages, you will find expressions of the disquiet of living in contemporary Thailand, a Southeast Asian nation where the rate of modernization seems only to accelerate.

Thailand is an axe-shaped country with the “blade” flanked by Myanmar, Laos, and Cambodia. The “handle” separates the Andaman Sea from the Gulf of Thailand and touches Malaysia at its southernmost tip. The nation very recently lost the beloved King Bhumibol Adulyadej (also known as King Rama IX), the ninth king of the Chakri Dynasty, which moved the country’s capital to Bangkok in 1782. Contemporary Thailand has known nothing but King Bhumibol as its head, and during his seventy years on the throne he was an imposing ballast for the country. Yet, the kingdom has not been without political turbulence: since its transformation from an absolute monarchy to a constitutional monarchy in 1932, it has seen a dozen coups (plus a number of attempted ones) and is currently under military rule, this time since 2014.

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New Palestinian literature examines exile, memory and nostalgia

Words Without Borders, the widely-respected magazine of world literature in translation, has devoted its May 2015 edition to new writing from Palestine.

As the blurb for the special edition emphasizes, the “eight young authors here work in multiple languages and hail from five continents, testifying to Palestinian literature’s vast thematic, stylistic, and linguistic range.” Continue reading


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India/US: Is there a ‘Real’ India?

One that is somehow not accessible to someone who happens to visit only places such as Jaipur, Agra, Delhi, Kolkata, Mumbai, Goa, Kerala…? asks Diksha Basu in The Outlook

I recently attended the ‘ Words Without Borders’ tenth year anniversary benefit in a lovely open warehouse space in TriBeCa. Established in 2003, ‘ Words Without Borders’ works to promote international writers and writers in translation. It is an impressive organization and the guest list at the event proved that many industry giants obviously support its efforts.

Towards the end of the evening, I ended up standing next to Teju Cole. 38-year old, Nigerian-born Cole is slightly shorter than me and has a warm and endearing face that makes you want to confess your darkest sins to him. We got talking and I soon realized that I was in the presence of quite an intellectual. He seems to know about everything. I quickly tried to move the conversation to the one thing I thought I’d know more than him about— India. “My wife is Indian,” he said, “And my sister-in-law. I’ll be there in January. I love the country.”

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