International Conference on Thai Studies April 2005 Abandoning the Paradigms: Prabda Yoon and the Development of a Post

-Modern Position in Thai Literature Susan F. Kepner Introduction This paper will examine new directions in Thai fiction at the beginning of the twenty-first century, with a focus on the author Prabda Yoon. About eight years ago, Thammasat University literature professor Chusak Pattarakunvanit made the following remarks: Literature, like [other] arts [in Thailand], is perceived as a medium for the [promulgation of] moral teachings. Literature must be for something -- it must be useful. The old guard writes to promote chaat - satsanaa - phramahaakasat ; and the avant-garde write for the poor, the oppressed, 'the people.' Those are what you have called 'the meta-narratives.'
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About six years ago, the writer "Anchan" (Anchalee Vivathanachai) was telling me about the effects of the American and British short stories she loves on her own writing. "They have had many effects on my writing," she said. "But sometimes I send what I think is a good story to a Thai editor, and the response is, 'What is the point of this story?' If they can't see a point, they don't like it. I am spoiled now. I forget about the point." Always, Thai readers and critics have stressed "the point." But that is changing. Modern Thai Literature
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E-mail message to the author from Chusak Pattarakulvanit, November 24, 1997.

2 Thai fiction in the twentieth century was divided more or less between the Literature of Social Preservation (conservative, moralistic, nostalgic for traditional Thai culture, real and imagined), and the Literature of Social Consciousness (socially liberal, politically progressive, impatient with the pace of change). While there is considerable overlap in the work and the attitudes of writers who represent these positions, almost without exception Thai modern literature has met several basic criteria. 1. It is instructive and didactic, 2. It is reflective of a strong point of view on the ideal nature of society, 3. It is focused on the experience of Thais within the context of Thai society, or on the experiences of Thais in non-Thai settings. and
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4. It is respectful of an author-reader contract concerning the nature, purpose, and construction of a proper story, and concerning subject matter that is acceptable or unacceptable. The work of some new writers, of whom Prabda Yoon is arguably the most outstanding and popular, exemplifies all of the features of a new, postmodern trend. 1. It is demonstrative, rather than didactic;
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The last element in this definition would apply to works from M.C. Akaatdamkerng's Lakhon Haeng Chiwit/l / ≈–§√·ÀËߢ’«‘µ / lakhøn h\‰‰ng chiw|ît (1929), and Seni Saowapong's Wanlaya's Love/ §«“¡√—°¢Õß«—≈¬“ / khwaam r|ak kh«øøng wanlayaa (1951), set partly in Europe, partly in Bangkok; or Sri Burapha's Behind the Painting/ ¢È“ßÀ≈—ß¿“æ / kh»aang l«ang ph»aap (1938) set in Japan and Bangkok. In all of these works, regardless of where they are located, Thais are focused on Thai issues, with other Thais, or viewing other lands and peoples through a Thai lens.

3 2. It is focused on the individual, rather than society, or the ideal nature of society, and ignores rather than rejects traditional metanarratives; 3. It is primarily concerned with presenting the spectacle of contemporary life in a globalized, homogenized world, a kaleidoscope of cultures, languages, attitudes, and behaviors; and 4. It is willing and eager to alter or even obliterate the traditional author-reader contract. "Play" is an important element. Prabda Yoon plays with language, culture, history, genres, and Thai readers' expectations. The Thai alphabet, Thai linguistic history, grammar, usage, sound, and even the look of letters and words on the page provide irresistible and limitless opportunities for play. He writes about all kinds of people, most of them Thais, trying to figure out how to live (occasionally, even whether to live) in the contemporary world. But his stories are neither instructive nor didactic, nor are they reflective of a strong point of view on the nature of an ideal society, nor are they focused particularly on the experience of Thais within the context of Thai society. They are set in many places: Lumpini Park, a Bangkok rooftop, the streets of New York, a snowy field in Alaska -and never is there a sense of cultural or ideological claustrophia overriding the preeminence of pure story. Prabda was born in Bangkok in 1973, the son of well-known journalist Suthichai Yoon. His parents had studied abroad, and at the age of 18 Prabda also to went abroad to complete his education. He was accepted at the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Art and Science in New York, where he received a B.A. in Fine Arts in 1996. After working briefly in New York

4 as a graphic designer, he returned to Thailand and began writing fiction. (It is interesting that another prominent, innovative new writer, Win Liawwarin, older than Prabda but also writing from a post-modern perspective, was and remains an architect with an MBA, a successful writer, designer and graphic artist. Their email correspondence has been published as a book.) Prabda's short stories were immediately successful. The first collected book of his stories, "Muang mum-chak" (Land of right angles, 2000), reflected his experiences living in New York. The second collection, "Khwam na ja pen" (which may be translated either as "What ought to be," or "Probability," 2001), focused on the lives of young urban Thais like himself and his friends. In 2002, he was awarded the SEAWrite Prize for Literature for this collection. In the same year, his third book of collected short stories,
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"Uthokphay nay duang ta" ("A flood in the eyes") was published, and he cowrote the screen play for Pen-ek Ratanaruang's film, "Last Life in the Universe," which was released in Thailand and internationally in 2003, and has received very positive and thoughtful reviews in the Western press. It is this film that is perhaps the most accessible example of what may fairly be called a post-modern trend in Thai literature, if we include screenplays. Does Prabda's relatively privileged background, the length of his tenure in New York, and his "globalized outlook" suggest a divide between young elite writers such as himself, and less affluent young Thai writers who have
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The SEAWrite Prize, awarded annually to rotating genres (poetry, short fiction, etc.), is the leading "establishment" literary award in Thailand; the selection committee is comprised of leading figures in the literary and academic communities. It is criticized by writers representing the "literature of social consciousness" faction, which awards some prizes of its own, but no one in that faction has ever objected to being nominated for the SEAWrite Prize, or refused to accept it.

5 had no access to these things? Do some writers of his generation resent his advantages, and the undeniably international perspective that underlies his dazzling, sophisticated yet down to earth style? Indeed, they do. One established Thai writer and admirer of Prabda's work told me, "If I were those writers, I'd be jealous of him too." Thais who are less than enthusiastic about Prabda's work include older writers and readers who are simply perplexed by it. They don't think he writes all that well. They usually say something like, "I don't 'get' these stories, I don't see what's so good about them." Moreover, the tastes of middle-aged and older reading public were shaped by the "consciousness raising" literature of the 1970s, and stories of the kind Prabda writes do not seem to have a "point." If he is supposed to be such a good writer, why can't he write stories that have a point? What is there to be "learned" from Prabda's fiction? Basically, the reader learns about the world that Prabda has seen during his lifetime, and how some people are living in this world that he has seen. Most authors angrily deny that their work is autobiographical. But not Prabda. When I suggested to him that one alternative to my translating his stories was for him to translate them as first drafts, followed by a collaborative effort, editing and refining the translations, he said that he could never do that, because the stories were from his life, and it would be too painful to revisit them. Once he has written them, he doesn't want to see them again. Thais who went to study abroad twenty, thirty, or forty years ago went and stayed, and rarely returned to Thailand until they had completed their education. People like Sutichai Yoon, Prabda's father, lived either in the Thai world, or in the Western world; and they were able to navigate in either quite well. But it is very different, this globalized world in which their children

6 live, a world that spans, includes, and homogenizes Berkeley and Bangkok, Chicago and Chiang Mai. These young Thais play the same video games as their contemporaries in the U.S., Hong Kong, Rio or Rome, they wear outfits bought in New York but made in Thailand in Japanese factories; and their world view is largely shaped by television and films. Which is not to suggest that they have no interest in Thai issues, or ideas, including Thai pop culture. They are quite likely to throw Thai singer Katlyea's best-selling new CD into their carry-on bag, to listen to on the plane to Bangkok, or from it -- or the new CD "Thaitanium Hip Hop" CD. This, from the eThaiCD website: Thai Hip Hop pioneers where they take you where you've never been before. October 16th, 2004, the day Thai Hip Hop stands up and fights for the respect in the Thai music industry. Let it be known they're here and they're to stay, Hip Hop Revolution.
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Young Thais who do read Thai fiction (and it must be said that many rarely or never do) like Prabda Yoon because he speaks to their condition. He is a human being in the world, who happens to be Thai. What are the features of this writer's work that exemplify a shift to a post-modern sensibility? It evinces a markedly indifferent attitude toward metanarratives in general, and cultural artifacts in particular. He neither loves nor hates them. He plays with them. In the story, "What Ought to Be," the narrator and hero (or, anti-hero) is a young man who, having stumbled through a few early career failures (particularly in art, Prabda lampooning his own initial career goals), is now a successful creative director in a Bangkok advertising agency.
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From the eThaiCD website: eThaiCD.com :: Concert VD : Thaitanium - Hip Hop Stands Up.

7 As a boy, orphaned when his parents died in a car accident, he had gone to live with his grandfather, an eccentric noodle shop owner who showed old black and white "Dracula" movies to the neighbors every Friday night. The narrator tells us that his grandfather looks a lot like Dracula in the movies, but the evidence is against it. Despite his appearance, Grandfather was just a normal rice porridge seller during the day, and he was not much different at night. No changing into a bat, flapping his wings and flying around biting the necks of the neighbors and scaring the wits out of everybody. I never saw him raise his arms, shaking and terrified, shielding his face from the sight of garlic. He could eat all the garlic he wanted. Anyway, Grandfather was a Buddhist, and said his prayers faithfully every night before his head hit the pillow....Grandfather told me that Dracula wasn't anything like Thai ghosts, who wander around sticking out their ugly tongues and making their eyes bulge out, going around hating people, seeking revenge and haunting them, or hacking their chests open....But vampires were worse off than Thai ghosts, Grandfather said, because they were unable to die. They were forced to live forever as evil beasts, and that was why he considered them to be the most unfortunate of beings.
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From Transylvania to Thonburi and back again...no problem. The depictions of family life in Prabda's work reflect traditional Thai sensibilities,

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From my unpublished translation. Forthcoming in Susan F. Kepner, editor How We Live Now in Siam: An Anthology of Contemporary Thai Literature," Silkworm Books, Chiang Mai, edp 2006.

8 and notions of family values, but they are frequently mocked and subverted. He remembers his relationship with his father, when he was a little boy. ...there was one time in my life when I considered suicide. I was feeling ill-used and downhearted because my father would not buy me the plastic robot, even though it cost much, much less than the bottle of wine he had just bought. I went to his bureau and took out one of his neckties and tied it around my neck like a noose. I went to my father holding the necktie up above my head with one hand to show my intention, and with tears streaming down my face I informed him that I was going to hang myself. This picture is indelibly printed in my mind, because it was a prize-winning performance. My father stared at me for a moment, and then walked away saying, "After you're dead, don't forget to call home. But at that time, I had no income and no cell phone.
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Another story in this collection, less cynical and in fact quite tender, takes place in Bangkok and in Alaska. A Thai woman has a son who, when he was four years old, came to her bedside early one morning and solemnly presented her with two handfuls of grass, saying, "Snow for you, Mother." He has been doing this every morning since, and he is now in his thirties. She patiently saves money, until at last she is able to buy two tickets to Fairbanks, Alaska. The sight and the feel of real snow, she hopes desperately, will cure him of his strange behavior. Standing on a frozen field in Alaska, bundled up in his new parka, the son looks confused at first, then smiles, picks up snow

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Ibid.

9 in both of his mittens, and trudges toward her. "Snow for you, Mother," he says, offering it to her. It is a devastating moment, so final -- nothing will change, he will always be a four year old boy who brings her handfuls of snow every morning. Later, back home in Bangkok, reflecting on the great sacrifice she had made on his behalf, she says to herself, "What a fortunate person is my son, to have such a mother." She has made her peace with reality. This could be interpreted as a significant "Buddhist message" -- but really, there is no traditional message in this story, of the kind that used to be required, in Thai fiction. Here is a mother, here is a son, this is how their life is, in this world. We have observed them for awhile, and now we are leaving. "Last Life in the Universe" Prabda co-wrote the screenplay for this very successful 2003 film, with director Pen-ek Ratanaruang. It is readily available, with English subtitles. This film meets all four of the criteria I have enumerated, describing the characteristics of a post-modern position. The main male character is Japanese, not Thai. The main female character is Thai. People in the movie communicate in Thai, Japanese, and, most of the time, in the universal language, English. They converse, they share, but they do not talk specifically about how they feel about anything. The film is supremely demonstrative, and visual, rather than didactic. Its only "purpose" is to give us, the audience, two hours in which to observe the anomie, strangeness, and confusion of the characters' lives. Like living chips in a cosmic kaleidoscope, they drift, they rise, and they fall.

10 We may assign countless meanings to many things in this film. My own favorite character in the film is a house. The house that belongs to the Thai woman, a prostitute for the Japanese business community who looks forward, more or less, to moving to Osaka. The house is an architectural, cultural artifact and remnant of the 1960s or early 70s -- an American-inspired ugly stucco monument to the gods of economic development. It has been neglected for years. The house is filthy, the garden is wrecked, the swimming pool is grown over and, with the tree that has taken root in the middle of it, has the appearance of a jungle ruin, a modernistic monstrous repository of lost dreams, lost human beings, a civilization imagined but not achieved. The woman lives in a ruin, weirdly haunted by the ghosts of development and westernization, of plastic furniture, eight-track tape players, and parties on the patio, beside the tiled pool. The characters in the film see the house through lenses of their own; its meaning for them we cannot really know. The man attempts to clean and fix the house; the woman barely sees the wreckage, climbing over it to sleep, eat, bathe, dress, and go out once again to her Japanese businessmen. I look at this house and I cannot help but think, "annicang"...impermanence... but what does she think, the owner of this place? What does he think, this young Japanese man, adrift in the universe? And what are we supposed to think about all of it? As is the case with so many of the stories Prabda has written, we are given no instructions. We have to think for ourselves. Sources and Suggested Reading Thai

11 Chusak Pattarakulvanit. Cherng-at watanatham / เชิงอรรถวัฒนธรรม / Footnotes to Literature. Bangkok: Matichon, 1996. Prabda Yoon. Khwam na ja pen / ความน่าจะเป็น / What ought to be. Bangkok: Amarin Press, 2002, Win Liawwarin. Sing mii chiiwit riak wa khon / สิ่งมีชีวตเรียกว่าคน / Living things ิ that are called people. Bangkok: Double Nine Printing,1999. English Kepner, Susan F. Married to the Demon King: Sri Daoruang's Tales of the Demon Folk. Chiang Mai: Silkworm Books, 2004. (Sri Daoruang "played" with Ramayana characters, placing them ni contemporary Bangkok, in seven short stories she called "tales of the demon folk." These stories, reviled at first by Thai critics, who found them "inappropriate" or "not real fiction," were precursors of the postmodern trend in Thai fiction.) Win Lyovarin. [Win Liawwarin] "The Chaniang Pot by the Window." Translated by Malithat Promathatavedi. Asean Short Stories and Poems. Edited by Srisurang Poolthupya. Bangkok: Thai P.E.N. Center, 1999. Film "Hom Rong." (The Overture) Directed by Itisunthorn Wichailak. Available from eThaiCD.com (No subtitled version available as of this writing.) "Last Life in the Universe." Directed by Pen-ek Ratanaruang. Available from Amazon.com., with subtitles.

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