Books In Conversation
Duanwad Pimwana and Mui Poopoksakul with Andrea Scrima
Given that so little contemporary Thai literature is translated into English, these two publishing events offer rare insight into the contradictions within Thai society.
Duanwad PrimwanaArid Dreams
(The Feminist Press of CUNY, 2019)
A young man on vacation is intensely preoccupied with the stirrings of his lust: why does a particular village woman arouse him, what is it exactly about her? The precise shape of her hips and buttocks, the traditional garb? She is married, and what's worse, he's renting a room in her husband's bungalow; the narrator tells himself he should seek a girl in his "price range" and request that she dress similarly, in the hopes that this might rekindle his desire. He is a connoisseur of his own sexuality; he knows better than to learn "too many details" about the woman he's fascinated by, that this would force him to perceive her as something more than just the object of his lust. In another story, the narrator's wife has taken to woodcarving; unable to conceive, she creates small sculptures of child-like figures and eventually discovers an all-encompassing, rewarding artistic passion. To her husband, however, this passion is grotesque and even monstrous; convinced that it's a mere substitute for a healthier and more natural instinct, namely, motherhood, he resolves to drive it out of her for good.
Presumably, a degree of objectification is a component of desire for both sexes, but when Duanwad Pimwana probes sexual politics and the divide between male and female sexuality, she more often than not tells the story from the position of power, that is, the male point of view. Of the 13 stories in the collection Arid Dreams (Feminist Press), only two are told from a female narrator's perspective. Men settling scores by stealing each other's women; men beating their wives and girlfriends and each other when their pride is at stake. Yet their power is contingent and their failure inevitable, prescribed by the dictates of poverty, class privilege, and tradition.
(Two Lines Press, 2019)
The second book by Duanwad Pimwana to be published in English translation this year is Bright (Two Lines Press). Originally published in 2002, the novel—a bildungsroman about a young boy who is abandoned by his parents and never quite comes of age—is taught in schools and universities across the country and is well on its way toward becoming a modern Thai classic.
Given that so little contemporary Thai literature is translated into English, these two publishing events offer rare insight into the contradictions within Thai society. Pimwana's writing is disarmingly direct, unadorned, and at times vaguely surreal; her compassionate psychological analysis of the damage inescapable poverty does to the soul sets her apart from the male-dominated "literature for life" movement, the Thai brand of social realism. When she received the prestigious Chorkaraket Award an unprecedented four times, recognition came swiftly. Born to farmer parents, Pimwana attended a vocational school and started off as a journalist at a local newspaper. Throughout her long literary career, she has consistently given voice to the disenfranchised; her political leanings are unapologetically to the left. And yet there's also a current of fancy in her writing; she frequently indulges the superstitious beliefs and magical thinking that permeate Thai society with a loving tolerance that is almost maternal in nature.
In a remarkably short period of time, Mui Poopoksakul's sensitive interpretations have earned her a reputation as the foremost English-language translator from the Thai language. A former practicing lawyer in New York, the Bangkok native spent two decades in the U.S. before returning to literature to study translation at the American University of Paris. In addition to Duanwad Pimwana, she has translated Prabda Yoon's The Sad Part Was (shortlisted for the UK Translators' Association First Translation Prize) and Moving Parts, both from Tilted Axis Press and winners of PEN Translates awards. Outside of academia, Poopoksakul's groundbreaking translations of Duanwad Pimwana's story collection Arid Dreams and her novel Bright—both of which have just come out this month—mark the first international publication in English language of a Thai woman writer.
Andrea Scrima (Rail): Duanwad, in Thailand the social realism you apply to the stories of the collection Arid Dreams is a literary movement traditionally dominated by men. Have reactions to your work reflected this imbalance?
Duanwad Pimwana: In Thai literature, a separation of writing by gender has long been discernible. Said separation is between male authors writing social realist literature, literature that is thought-provoking, that is a reflection of life and society, and on the other hand, female authors writing romance—love stories with a leading man and a leading lady. That's what has been the norm. There has been an increasing number of female writers trying to write social realist and thought-provoking work, but they haven't been able to create a lasting name for themselves. The work they've put out hasn't garnered interest consistently enough, so the proportion of women writers in this area is very low. As for my work, it's always been described as having reached a level where the author's gender is no longer relevant. I am, therefore, called a "genderless writer." That is to say: in contrast with a situation where we had a division of writing by gender along the lines of "this is the kind of work women write" or "that is the kind of work men write," people say the work of Duanwad Pimwana has transcended gender, transcended that separation.
Rail: The questions your writing poses are universally human, but they also carry a specific weight and inflection within the context of contemporary Thai society. To what extent do you see your work as a form of social protest?
Pimwana: Since I first started writing, one aim I've always had is not to repeat what others have done. I want my work to be different and to move beyond the formulaic literature that many were writing earlier. Serious literature in Thailand was, for the most part, "literature for life," writing that held a mirror up to society or engaged in social commentary. But these works emphasized social issues at the expense of developing characters with human dimensions, resulting with characters designed to illustrate problems turn out flat and lack sufficient depth. They are black or white, perpetrators or innocent victims, and so they come off as unrealistic, even though we know the problems are real. So there was a kind of failure to see the whole picture or to present it to the fullest: how, in truth, social problems that have endured for generations are all traceable to human impulses. I started writing with this perspective in mind, that is, to zero in on the human psyche, the psychological complexities of the characters, the cunningness that might be at play.
But because social commentary based on a false understanding will end up breeding even more problems, I've focused on social issues less and emphasized what goes on in the human mind instead. Still, the social conditions that surround and constrain my characters reveal their problems all on their own.
Rail: Mui, I had the privilege of reading some of these stories while you were working on the translations, and I recall some of the literary decisions you were faced with in transforming Duanwad's Thai prose into English. What are the main challenges in translating from the Thai language?
Mui Poopoksakul: Much more than English, Thai tolerates, even embraces, a certain degree of repetition or even repetitiousness. The more stylized variety is done for the sound—in Thai, we sometimes string two or more synonyms together, especially if they rhyme or are alliterative, and the effect isn't to create additional meaning. Another challenge translating from Thai is how to handle honorifics. In Bright, the boy protagonist uses kinship terms all the time when referring to the adults from the neighborhood. I was lucky here because the characters in the novel live in a close-knit community, so translating the kinship terms didn't make them odd or make the relationships confusing. There was one honorific in the novel that gave me a lot of trouble—hia, which means older brother in Chinese. The characters call the grocer "Hia Chong" as a measured sign of respect and also as a recognition of his Chinese descent. It's hard to get all that in smoothly, but we decided to do a list of characters, so I slipped the explanation in there.
Other "Thai-isms" that I tried to tone down were: the way people are often described as sitting or standing while performing the main action when the sitting or standing might already be implied; the way movements are quite frequently described in two steps (for example, extending one's arm out to grab something, as opposed to just grabbing something), which can come off a bit robotic in English; verbs like so-and-so "objected" after a line of dialogue in which they clearly objected.
Rail: Duanwad, many of your stories explore the psychological struggles that go along with rigid class and gender hierarchies. Is your work considered feminist in Thailand?
Pimwana: In Thailand, my body of work as a whole has never been described as feminist. In creating my work, the foundation of my thinking isn't necessarily feminist, but because in my writing I like to dig deep into relationships between men and women, perhaps that by itself brings out the feminism in my stories. Take the short story "Within These Walls," for example, in which a politician's wife is so oppressed that she cannot be herself. She's fed up with having to live under her husband's dominance, and she is ready to stand up and reclaim her own individual freedom. The question that the story poses is whether we, as women, can only reclaim our rights once men have been rendered powerless. There would be a lot more beauty and dignity to it if women were brave enough to stand up and demand their rights from a position where neither side is disempowered; it's about claiming basic rights here, not opportunism. This story isn't about women being above men or men being above women, but humans being equal. Yes, it's feminist, but it's a feminism under the umbrella of human rights.
Rail: Mui, how do you view Duanwad Pimwana's special position in relation to contemporary Thai literature?
Poopoksakul: To me, at the very least, she is a practitioner of sameness feminism by dint of the fact that, as she's said, she is writing in a field that has long been the province of men. When we first met—we were sitting in her pickup truck, as I recall—I couldn't help asking her if she felt that she was a representative for women. Her answer was no, but people have called on her to be. At that point, I hadn't read as much of her work as I have now, so I just kind of put her answer in my back pocket. The more of her work I read, the more I think that the feminism residing in her writing hasn't been sufficiently examined or credited. Issues like the objectification and commodification of women, the high value placed on physical beauty, are very much undercurrents in her work. But admittedly, I read her work through the lens of a more western feminism, and my sense is that the concept of feminism is less diffuse in Thailand. That said, I can tell you that the first book of hers that I read was Bright—and this is the novel that made me seek her out—and it doesn't "read feminist," so in translating Duanwad, I wasn't looking to translate a feminist work necessarily.
Rail: What are the specific challenges of translating Duanwad Pimwana's work? I like the way you minimize anything that would otherwise over-exoticize the translation—the way you bring it into a contemporary voice, but leave small linguistic stumbling blocks to remind the reader that this isn't America. So many unseen decisions go into that: issues intrinsic to syntax and grammar and of course culture, diversions in thinking and even in how literature and storytelling operate.
Poopoksakul: I imagine that one aspect of the Thai language that might make it hard to learn is the way meaning often has to be inferred from context—it can feel quite loose compared to English, for example. This is hardly ever a problem for me because I'm a native Thai speaker, and it's not an issue I really had to think about when I was translating Prabda, for instance. But as I was translating Duanwad, there were moments when I came to see my own limitations. Prabda and I share a similar background, so our references are basically the same. Duanwad's stories are set in a very specific milieu, mostly working class in the east of Thailand, and I'm familiar with that world only to the extent that your average middle-class person from Bangkok is (and maybe a little less, because I've lived abroad for so long). So for me there were moments in the texts where the words alone didn't quite lead to the right image, or didn't "tell the whole story." For example, in Bright, I had an issue with a Thai word that can mean "vehicle" generally, but in Bangkok you'd normally take this word to mean "car." Where Duanwad lives, though, the word often refers to pickup trucks. And there's a chapter in the novel that centers around the underground lottery, something I knew nothing about going in, so I had to do research before I could gloss in certain explanations to ensure that the plot was understandable.
Separately, an issue that came up in the novel is the main characters' being referred to both by their nicknames and formal names. This won't bother Thai readers as much, even though the novel has a pretty large cast of characters, because they are used to people having two names, a more elaborate formal name and a nickname that's usually just one syllable and, more often than not, completely unrelated to their formal name (and not simply a shortened form of it). The switch back and forth can be distracting for readers who aren't used to the practice, but I didn't want to let go of this aspect of Thai culture. In the end, we managed to keep the concept, but systematized it more as to when formal names vs. nicknames are used. This issue really shouldn't be Duanwad-specific, but—when I was discussing it with my editor—I realized that actually in a lot of Thai fiction, you don't learn both names of characters, which is arguably quite odd, given how things work in real life.
Rail: Duanwad, the ground water underlying your writing exerts its force through the power of understatement; it's subtle, never on the surface, never obvious. It's like slowly waking up and suddenly seeing the surreal nature of things for the first time—the veneer of "naturalness" is stripped away, and the monstrosity of poverty and of the systematic oppression of women quietly reveal their horrors. It's the entrapment I'm struck by most, the sense of a limited horizon, limited possibilities. Many of your characters attempt to transcend the difficulties of their situation through the virtues of patience, of hope, of waiting—virtues in limited supply in the Western world. In the story "The Awaiter," the unemployed narrator finds a small sum of money on the street, and as he waits until nightfall for its rightful owner to return—because "the choice to do something almost hopeless had to be made by those who refused to abandon hope in its entirety"—thoughts on ethical behavior, on luck, on the social order, on integrity, and on ownership swirl through his head. Through waiting, he finds a purpose—and he engages in a form of resistance against the forces that would strip him of his dignity.
In stark contrast, at the end of the story "Sandals," the young girl—suddenly, acutely aware that she may not, in fact, ever be permitted to return to school—makes an impulsive decision and follows her younger brother's gesture of defiance. It almost reads as an allegory for a fundamental shift in generation. Do you see yourself as lending a voice to the voiceless?
D.P: The story "The Awaiter" is an appeal to the conscience. The story involves a trivial occurrence: something that might happen and simply pass you by, something that doesn't cause a ripple in society, that might go unnoticed as if nothing had happened. A man finds a modest sum of money, he waits for its owner until nightfall, and then he puts the money in his pocket and goes home—there's hardly anything in the picture worth pausing to think about. But I wrote about this little occurrence with a psychological magnifying glass so that readers can follow the path one man's thoughts take when a little thing like this happens to him. The time span is brief, but his thoughts travel far and something crystallizes. I want to say, the crystallization that takes place in this man's mind is of great importance, because the moral choices an individual makes about the little things in everyday life speak to his conscience and affect the choices and decisions he will make regarding everything down the road. And this, certainly, will affect society as a whole.
In "Sandals," I didn't offer readers ready answers or conclusions because I felt that leaving it open-ended, so that readers can continue to ponder on their own would be more suitable, given that the issues on the table are clear. The two children's actions at the end are open to different interpretations. The siblings approach their problem differently. The sister tries to bide her time, viewing the world optimistically, whereas her younger brother has no time for patience and just wants to push through a dead end. And with these two different approaches, regardless of who emerges as the leader, the other side has to take joint responsibility for the action. This is an outcome we always see in society (I'm interpreting my own work as a reader here).
Of course I want to lend my voice to those without opportunity, those who are oppressed, and those who have been denied justice. Injustice has existed for a long time and is ever-present in this world. Likewise, literature has long been lending voice to these issues, to the point that the approaches and the issues have been repeated over and over. This has been my mounting challenge. Our responsibility as writers is to find ways to present these issues without boring readers, without making the points feel dated, so that the message remains affecting.
Rail: Mui, whether you wish to don the mantle or not, you've become the foremost translator of Thai literature into English. How do you cope with the responsibility of your position?
Poopoksakul: I really started off just thinking, if I could translate one book and get it published, that would already be pretty great. Even after The Sad Part Was (my first book-length translation) was picked up, I still had no clue if I would ever get to put another book out. Rational or not, at the back of my mind, I have this lingering fear that Thai literature is a novelty for the Anglophone world, meaning that once the novelty wears off, the interest will dry up. All that is to say, I've always viewed my task much more modestly than it might appear. To me, I'm just fighting for one book at a time—so that makes it easier to cope. But of course I'm keenly aware of how little translated Thai literature there is out there, and how, because of that, relatively few books have the power to be canon-shaping. At the moment, I take comfort in the fact that the two authors I work with are so very different. Through the two of them, I can already help show the range that exists in Thai literature.
Rail: You're not only a translator, but you're also an advocate, an interpreter, and—in a certain sense—a gatekeeper for the reception of Thai literature in the English-speaking world. You've written essays, traveled to festivals, organized readings, found publishers, and helped promote the authors you believe in. Among the essential intellectual occupations, literary translation is notoriously underpaid. Do you run on idealism?
Poopoksakul: Idealism sounds too heroic! In this endeavor, I would maybe describe myself more as single-minded. When I take on a project, besides doing the actual translation, I want to do everything I possibly can to help the book succeed, and if that means writing pitches or essays, helping to contextualize my authors' work, organizing events and whatever else, my attitude has generally been: bring it on, yes, I'll do it. I still view the publication of a Thai book as a rare opportunity, because I work with independent presses and I'm sympathetic to their cause. But it is disheartening how much goes unpaid in literary translation. I do not earn enough to live on. To borrow a Thai phrasing, "idealism is not edible". For that reason, I haven't given up my bar license—my realist side won't allow it.
Rail: Duanwad, can you tell us a bit about the book you're currently working on?
Pimwana: My new book that's waiting to be published is a political novel about a coup in Thailand. It's unclear, though, whether the publication can go ahead while the junta remains in power. I also have another novel that I haven't finished—it's a sad story about a romance that doesn't conform to traditional rules—but given the still-undemocratic and ongoing conflict-ridden state of the country, I sometimes put it down and switch to writing political short stories and poems, which I'm collecting on the side. I'm not sure yet which of these works will wind up getting published first.
Rail: Well, one thing you can be sure of is that your English-speaking readers are looking forward to the translation. Many thanks to both of you for taking part in this conversation.