Talking books

Thailand's most prestigious literary honour, the SEA Write Award, has announced its shortlist. With nine writers in the race, the largest number ever, we talk to them about their art, awards, politics and literary ideals before the prize is announced in October

Pongwut Rujirachakorn.

Pongwut Rujirachakorn

Now at 33, Pongwut Rujirachakorn's bibliography is already celebrated with more than 50 works of writing, including novels and short stories. Most of them touch on the concept of human minds. 

His first published work was a short story called Fah Lang Fon Tee Plian (A Changed Sky After Rain), which he wrote for a magazine in 2001 when he was in college. Four years later, his first hardcover Pornovel was released. Now Pratade Nheu Jing (A Surreal Country), his first shortlisted novel for the SEA Write Award, takes a fearless turn to talk about the current plight that faces the country. The novel centres around a democracy junkie named Tin who defies the iron-fisted regime by spending his nights trying to influence other people and take control of their minds. 

Is the SEA Write Award still as significant as it once was?

Compared to 15-20 years ago, it may seem like the enthusiasm has petered out. But it is still considered the most significant and prestigious award for literature in the country.

Why should people read your book?

It talks about the society's behaviour at the moment, after the coup d'etat. It has issues about power in the era when news is thick on the ground but truth is hard to find, when prejudice abounds, and when sickness is found in various dimensions, both physical and mental. Apart from that, I intended to innovate a new style of narrative, which can make readers absorbed in a realistic atmosphere.

How did you feel the moment you finished writing the first sentence of this book? Did you know you had a book in you?

I collected information for the atmosphere and the people for three years. Then I wrote a short story. Last year, however, the circumstances shook me up and I felt that I had everything ready, including the structure and the narrative technique, so I started writing. I felt satiated when writing the first sentence as I was able to deliver the social issues I had been noticing.

What did you read while you were writing this book?

When I was working on this book, I probably finished more than 100 other books. But I only read them for fun. The influence on my book was my own thoughts about society.

Any Thai or international writers you'd recommend?

Dan Chaon. His book Stay Awake is a collection of short stories. It's a combination of haunting fantasy and captivating reality about life. For Thai writers, I'm after younger writers and writers of the same age I know such as Pathompong Chaikhuankhan and Chatrawee Sentanissak. I think they are going to play a big role in the industry. 

-- Duangphat Sitthipat


 

Veeraporn Nitiprapha.

Veeraporn Nitiprapha

One of the best-reviewed books of last year, Veeraporn Nitiprapha's pessimistically titled Saiduan Ta Bod Nai Khaowongkot (A Blind Earthworm In A Labyrinth) takes on the oldest form of popular reading, a love triangle, though what elevates it beyond a romantic drama is the strong political backdrop -- she started writing the book after the May crackdown of 2010 -- and her evocative description of food, as well as music.

Inspired by reports of agonised love in tabloid magazines, Veeraporn said that if life is a form of melodrama, so is politics, especially Thailand at the present.

Is the SEA Write Award still as significant as it once was?

The book and music industries are alike for their need of institutional supports. SEA Write can get people's attention. But the opinion of readers is the absolute indicator. A book that never won any awards can be successful too, if it gets good responses from readers. 

Why should people read your book?

There are a million reasons to read books but not a single reason for not to. Ideally, we should read every book being written. Since it is impossible, all we can do is read as many books as we can. We only have one life to live on a planet populated by over 6 billion, and it is almost impossible to see the world as it is. Reading books and listening to music will enable us to comprehend other perspectives and see the world in various dimensions. 

How did you feel the moment you finished writing the first sentence of this book? Did you know you had a book in you?

Alone. The feeling of being alone from living in a land where people are turning against one another, and the conflict heads in a direction that is increasingly violent, overwhelming and without end.  

What did you read while you were writing this book?

When I write, I will not read other books. Yet I remembered listening to plenty of  songs.   

Any Thai or international writers you'd recommend?

Let that be the duty of book critics. I prefer not to cast my judgement on this matter.  

-- Anchalee Kongrut


 

Jirat Prasertsup.

Jirat Prasertsup

Jirat Prasertsup is not new to SEA Write as his Kan Meung Reung Surreal (Politics & Surrealism) made it to the long list in 2011. Pipittapan Sieng (Museum Of Sound) is the first novel by this 30-year-old writer, who works at the Chiang Mai-based magazine Compass.

The book was inspired by his master's degree project which examines sounds in different cultural contexts, and the narrative focuses on relationships between people, as well as how people communicate in the contemporary world as the main character is in the process of creating a museum of sound.

Is the SEA Write Award still as significant as it once was?

The SEA Write Award can only guarantee that it will boost the book's sale. The award has framed most people's taste in only one direction while there are actually hundreds of good books to choose. It would be better if other award standards are improved while writers should experiment with more creative ways in writing.

Why should people read your book?

I have made an attempt to narrate a story by transforming sound to text just like the characters try to capture sounds, which are intangible, into the museum. Apart from enjoying reading, I hope readers will experience sound and a different way of storytelling.

How did you feel the moment you finished writing the first sentence of this book? Did you know you had a book in you?

I realised that there is no such thing as real silence in the world we live in. Even the thoughts inside our head have their own voice. Since we have to live with it, we should be aware of this fact and try to be pleasurable with it as much as possible.

What did you read while you were writing this book?

I didn't read any book but I did listen to many songs. I listened to The Black Keys, The Naked & Famous, Arcade Fire, Robert Johnson, Nina Simone, Muddy Waters, as well as old Thai folk songs.

Any Thai or international writers you'd recommend?

Jonathan Safran Foer is my favourite. His experimental writing in The Tree Of Code is fun. As for Thai writers, I would recommend Samut Thithat. His short stories collection book called Gorn Kwam Mhai Ja Hai Lub (Before Meaning Vanishes) is very sharp.

-- Pattramon Sukprasert


 

Wipas Srithong.

Wipas Srithong

A native of Phatthalung, Wipas Srithong had a medical training before becoming a writer. It paid off when he won the SEA Write in 2012 with his novel Kon Khrae (Dwarf), a dark novel that explores the web of human relationships.

This year his new book makes it onto the shortlist again. Long Lob Leum Soon (Vanishing) openly criticises while also seeks an escape from the confusing, modern contemporary world. Pakorn and Wit are the two protagonists whose disappointing journey reveals the fact that the only way to get out of the maze is, as the title suggests, to vanish.

Is the SEA Write Award still as significant as it once was?

Our reading culture is still weak so it is merely a rough measurement for mainstream popularity. The standards are inconsistent but there is no other award as legitimate as this one in our country.

Why should people read your book?

The novel does not only challenge the old perception but also criticises current contemporary society's obsession and addiction to social media and smartphones.

How did you feel the moment you finished writing the first sentence of this book? Did you know you had a book in you?

The first sentence is always mixed with fear and courage. I was hesitant because I never know when I am ready.

What did you read while you were writing this book?

I read The Land Of Green Plums by Herta Müller, Sevastopol and other various novellas by Tolstoy, As I Lay Dying by Faulkner, and my own novel Dwarf to avoid repetition and self-plagiarism. I read beautiful prose because it can speak to us and lift our minds allowing us to transfer those beautiful conversations onto a blank piece of paper.

Any Thai or international writers you'd recommend?

I'd like to recommend Tom McCarthy, Pu Kradat, and many other authors, especially Ngao Jan (Moon Shadow). 

-- Aree Iam-Aoran


 

Jadet Kamjorndet.

Jadet Kamjorndet

Nakhon Si Thammarat-based writer Jadet Kamjorndet is prolific and versatile. After winning the SEA Write Award with short-story collection Daed Chao Ron Kern Kwa Ja Nang Jib Kafae (The Morning Sun Is Too Hot To Sit Outside And Sip Coffee) in 2011, there was a poetry collection Phu OK Bap Sen Khop Fa (Skyline Creator) and short-story collection No Sea In Melaka, which made to the award's shortlist in 2013 and 2014, respectively.

This time, it's The Used Man, a novel about a fictional city where memories of its citizens are erased as soon as they turn 25. The citizens don't remember who their parents are while all marriages are arranged by the state. In the book, the older generation is neglected and forgotten, and the main character is someone who sets out to search for his lost father. 

Is the SEA Write Award still as significant as it once was?

For teachers, those who don't read and those who are sensitive about this award, it's still something very sacred. Those who win may not be a representation of the quality of our literary scene but the award can reflect the quantity and movement of the literary scene as a whole.

Why should people read your book?

I try to create a romantic story with politics in the background. It should be read because I have put in so many things for readers to interpret. There is a lot to ponder and search for. Even after you have interpreted it, there's more to think about, like a protester who stands very still and a character who tries to camouflage himself with a wall.

How did you feel the moment you finished writing the first sentence of this book? Did you know you had a book in you?

At first I didn't know how to start. There was this kissing scene in a karaoke place which I really liked so I started with that. Even though that was the first scene, it's with the next scene that I realised that the story could really continue.

What did you read while you were writing this book?

I read about bees, general history, Ngao Si Khao [Dan-aran Saengthong], The God Of Small Things by Arundhati Roy, 1984, The Dark Tower by Stephen King, Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro, some of Murakami's, some comic books.   

Any Thai or international writers you'd recommend?

Maybe the latest one I read, Last Orders, but I can't remember who wrote it [Graham Swift]. For Thai writers, I recommend Rattanachai Manabutra. He's pretty weird. Reading his book Ling Ploei (Naked Monkey), I was like, 'How could he have written this?'.

-- Kaona Pongpipat 


 

Ampai Sangsuk.

Ampai Sangsuk 

Ampai Sangsuk has different sides to her life. She is a schoolteacher in Phetchaburi province, and she's also on the Thai literary scene as Ngao Jan, her pen name which means "Moon Shadow".

Ngao Jan's  previous works, a short story collection Prathana Haeng Sang Jan (Desires Of Moonlight) and novel Nai Roop Ngao (In The Shadow), were on the SEA Write shortlist in 2007 and 2011, respectively. This year, the author graces the list once again with Rak Nai Roi Baap (Love In Sinner's Trail), a story of how love, hate and jealousy roll into a single thread. Dark, twisted human nature wreaks havoc on Lada's family, the novel's main character, to the point of destruction and tragedy.

Is the SEA Write Award still as significant as it once was?

It is still an important award. Some people don't read anything else. They just wait to read the books that win the SEA Write Award, no matter if it's better or worse than the ones that didn't win. The writers that win could just stop writing and become a speaker to train new writers nationwide.  

Why should people read your book?

It delves into the dark side of human minds. A reader has told me the book is so raw and intense that it scares him. 

How did you feel the moment you finished writing the first sentence of this book? Did you know you had a book in you?

I chose to begin the book with the main character hearing a baby's cry because, at the beginning of life, children cry. Humans don't cry forever, but society's victims always cry in the silence of their heart. We should pay close attention to children or else their hearts could never love others, not even themselves.  

What did you read while you were writing this book?

I was reading James Herriot's works. Herriot -- a British writer and veterinarian from Yorkshire -- wrote about the beautiful countryside, including the farmers, and all the cats and dogs he treated with gentle care. 

Any Thai or international writers you'd recommend?

Among Thai writers, I like Dan-aran Saengthong [last year's winner] more than anyone. I read Luis Sepulveda's works a lot, too. 

-- Melalin Mahavongtrakul


 

Chairat Pipitpattanaprap.

Chairat Pipitpattanaprap

As the youngest finalist this year, Chairat Pipitpattanaprap entered the world of literature in quite a contemporary way: through cyberspace.

With Prapt as his pen name, the 29-year-old writer found fame in writing at a young age as an online fiction author on Dek-d.com, a popular online community among teenagers. Ten years ago one of his online comedies was published, and in late 2014, Chairat decided to test himself with serious writing and produced Kahol Mahoratuek, a thriller set in Bangkok during World War II which revolves around a young policeman and his investigation of a murder of a young girl, whose body was tattooed with puzzling words that seem to connect with other unsolved murders.

Is the SEA Write Award still as significant as it once was?

It has its own identity. It may champion some books but that doesn't mean other books without this honour are bad. I personally think that the significance of this award is how it encourages readers and excites the literary scene, but not as a measurement of Thai literature.

Why should people read your book?

Should sound like I'm forcing people to. So I would say my book is entertaining, especially those who love Thai linguistics and history. And when I say entertaining, it is much better than interesting.

How did you feel the moment you finished writing the first sentence of this book? Did you know you had a book in you?

I wrote this book to submit to the Naiin competition. I only had three months left before the deadline. I started my first month by collecting as much information as possible, together with designing the structure of the story. After one month, I started writing. I wouldn't have finished this book if I had had one more year. It is also because I wasn't confident that I could write it. I'm not an expert in history. I have never known anything about the police or the field of investigation, and I've never written a serious investigative book before.

What did you read while you were writing this book?

I read War: Lives Of Thais During World War II by Sorasul Pengsapa. I read a research called 4 Dimensions -- Investigation Management: Crime Suppression Division and legal papers relating to the Royal Thai Police. I also read news clipping from that period at the National Archives of Thailand.

Any Thai or international writers you'd recommend?

Khaled Hosseini. He is definitely not a new face and I've only read one of his books, The Kite Runner, but it is amazing and it inspired me to get to where I am today. For a Thai writer, I have to give it to Veeraporn Nitiprapha, who's also shortlisted. Her Saiduen Tabod is a testament of how great she is. 

-- Yanapon Musiket


 

Tanad Thamkaew.

Tanad Thamkaew

Tanad Thamkaew, known by his pen name Pu Kradat, has been writing short stories for various publications in Thailand since 2000. Mostly he published short stories, and in 2006 he won the Supa Tewakul Award from Confiscate: A Shorter Telling Of A Long Story.

His SEA Write shortlist, Exile, tells the story of a man from the Northeast against the backdrop of various significant political events, from the 1932 Revolution to the military coup of 2006. The story aims to shine a light on the complications suffered by the people of the mostly impoverished Isan region, complications that stem from the perpetual corruption and exploitation by the upper class.

Is the SEA Write Award still as significant as it once was?

It's an indicator that Thailand still has an abundance of quality writers every year.

Why should people read your book?

I think my book will really appeal to people who like my method of presenting a narrative. This is referring to my use of both Lao and Thai, as well as the perspectives presented in the book.

How did you feel the moment you finished writing the first sentence of this book? Did you know you had a book in you?

The first sentence of any of my books, be they long or short, always feel like the opening moments of lovemaking to me.

What did you read while you were writing this book?

All The Names by Jose Saramago, as well as various other articles written by the likes of Nattapol Jai Jing, Tongchai Winichakul and others.

Any Thai or international writers you'd recommend?

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Mookhorm Wongthes.

-- Kanin Srimaneekulroj


 

Uthis Haemamool.

Uthis Haemamool 

Uthis Haemamool won the SEA Write Award for Lap Lae, Kaeng Khoi (The Brotherhood Of Kaeng Khoi) in 2009. Lak Alai (The Mourning Of A Scribe) and Samarn Saman landed their places on the shortlists of 2012 and 2014 respectively. This year, the novelist is vying for the award again as the final saga of his Kaeng Khoi Trilogy has been nominated. Juti (Rebirth) is a dramatically complex novel as it -- through an intricate layer of times, literary genres and styles -- breaks all storytelling barriers.

Is the SEA Write Award still as significant as it once was?

In the literary circle, the SEA Write Award each year is a major gathering of diverse literary works. In this aspect, I think, it's still an important platform for readers to witness the evolution of Thai literature.

Why should people read your book?

Divided into five chapters, this novel has five narrators who tell the stories in different periods. Each of them portrays a genre of narrative of its own time. The writing style imitates a chronicle, an academic writing where the main texts contradict the footnotes, and finally a deconstructed writing to examine that a grand narrative has no fixed formula, particularly for narratives. That is also to show that history and memories can be made up as time goes by.

How did you feel the moment you finished writing the first sentence of this book? Did you know you had a book in you?

I felt alert, energetic and fully ready to write. The information and stories in my head that I wanted to narrate would spontaneously tell me. They were ready to turn into words. I was ready to work on it every day from then for at least a year. It's always been a great feeling to start a new novel.

What did you read while you were writing this book?

It took me more than a year to finish the first draft. As reading is my routine, at that time, I was reading a lot of foreign novels. Among them were Thomas Mann's Buddenbrooks, Antonio Tabucchi's Sostiene Pereira, Colum McCann's Let The Great World Spin and Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children.

Any Thai or international writers you'd recommend?

Margaret Mazzantini. After reading Non Ti Muovere (Don't Move), I've found that she's an interesting author as she tells the story through the eye of a man who is the main character. She can also peel off men's emotions through a compelling perspective and technique. And Veeraporn Nitiprapha for the local counterpart. Her first piece, Blind Earthworm In A Labyrinth, shows her deep understanding and sharp eyes in observing lives through a manner, style and analogy that are hard to see in contemporary Thai literature. It has moving strokes -- almost excessive and redundant. Yet the writer must be seasoned to possess a clear voice and great balance in order to create such an exquisite style.

-- Pimchanok Phungbun Na Ayudhya

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