Decoding a half-century of writing from the Northeast

Decoding a half-century of writing from the Northeast

Lao Khamhawm, Khampun Bunthawi and Khamman Khonkai changed the literary landscape


Between the mid 1960s and mid 1980s, three of the most acclaimed writers in Thailand came from Isan, the Northeast. As told in Martin Platt's illuminating account, each took up writing in very different circumstances.

Isan Writers, Thai Literature, Writing And Regionalism In Modern Thailand by Martin B. Platt, NUS Press, Singapore ISBN 978-87-7694-129-1 1,259 baht

Lao Khamhawm (Khamsing Srinawk) was part of the very political world of journalism in that era. He began writing pithy and sardonic short stories about Isan villagers as a form of political expression.

Meanwhile, Khampun Bunthawi had drifted around many jobs before becoming a prison guard and relieved the job's boredom by reading in the prison library. He chanced upon Little House On The Prairie, which inspired him to write an extraordinary evocation of his childhood in Isan in the 1930s, Luk Isan (Child Of The Northeast).

As a youth, Khamman Khonkai won scholarships that earned him a university degree and a teaching job. He wrote his famous Country Teacher as a campaign for education reform which would enable more Isan children to follow his own path.

These three writers caught the wave of a growing urban readership as the Thai economy lifted. They were published in a new genre of literary magazine and won newly coined literary awards. They also caught the eye of the growing number of foreigners interested in Thailand.

All three were translated into English, one by lawyer Domnern Garden, one by anthropologist Gehan Wijeyawardene and the other by literary academic Susan Kepner. International acceptance added to their local acclaim. Their work has lasted and their major books are still in print today.

As Platt notes, the "Isan literature" they helped create is a strange animal. The genre has no roots in traditional literature of its region, but has been transposed from the literature of the West. The language is not the Lao-Isan of the writers' home and family, but Central Thai, because national language policy ensured that this was the language they learned to write and the language that most readers wanted to read.

Platt calls this first phase the "Era of Search", when experimentation reigned. These three writers were very different in approach, style, content and politics. They shared a pride in origins and protested against the way Isan was dominated and denigrated by Bangkok.

In the 1970s, many more upcountry kids travelled to Bangkok for education, and there encountered the rock music and leftist politics sweeping the world's youth. Art now had to be committed to changing society. In the new phase, called "Literature for Life", Isan writers, along with everyone else, wrote tales of exploitation by capitalists, bureaucrats and imperialists.

In 1976, most of the writers fled to the jungle. Among them was Surachai Jantimathorn, the most successful of the Isan writers of this era. But he was much more successful and famous as Nga, leader of the band Caravan.

The masterpieces of this era are songs. No story or novel won lasting acclaim. None was translated to English.

When left-wing politics collapsed and the Thai economy started to boom in the 1980s, the "Literature for Life" movement was condemned as trite and repetitive. It had changed nothing. Critic Suchart Sawatsri acidly summed up its usual plot as "father is ill, mother's in pain, the child's dead, and the buffalo's gone".

But there were now many more writers and a lingering conviction that literature could have a social purpose. Some of the writers who had experienced the upheaval of the 1970s settled back into village life in Isan. Some new writers emerged from the growing ranks of Isan youth migrating away to work in Bangkok and elsewhere.

From this milieu emerged a phase known as "Localism". In the stories and novels of this era, Isan is the cradle of good values such as honesty, hard work, comradeship and simplicity, while Bangkok symbolises every bad value, especially consumerism and greed. The most acclaimed product of this movement, Yong Yasothorn's Kham Ai, is another evocation of an Isan childhood. It has not been translated but is still available today, 25 years after its first publication.

In the final chapter, Platt reviews 11 Isan writers at work in the late 1990s (including the first woman to appear). He hopes for great things to come, and he predicts that an Isan writer will soon win the SEA Write Award for the first time since Kamphun in 1979. But none of his 11 has made a big breakthrough. And the SEA Write Award seems to have become a monopoly of writers from Bangkok and the South.

Platt teaches at the University of Copenhagen. His book is, I think, is the first attempt to review a regional contribution to modern Thai literature. He covers a lot of writers, providing capsule biographies, lists of publications and details on their life and work from personal interviews. He sets their work into its political and social context very deftly.

The book originated as a thesis researched in the late 1990s, and it's a pity there is no epilogue, given the huge changes in the self-image of Isan and its role in the nation in the years since. But that's a minor gripe. This is a very sympathetic and sensitive study of writers and writing over a half-century of complex politics and shifting cultural forces. Anyone interested in Thai literature and Isan as a region will appreciate this very readable and enlightening study.

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