In the realm of contemporary Southeast Asian literature, Narisapongse Rakwattananont is a luminary figure, capturing this year's prestigious SEA Write Award with his compelling collection of short stories Family Comes First.
This Thai writer's literary prowess delves into the intricacies of Chinese-Thai family dynamics, challenging age-old traditions and societal norms. The SEA Write Organising Committee, composed of seven discerning judges, unanimously bestowed this honour recently upon Narisapongse's work, recognising its profound exploration of issues embedded within Chinese-Thai culture.
The judges lauded Family Comes First for its poignant critique of patriarchal masculinity and its impact on family relationships. Through 11 captivating short stories, Narisapongse unravels the complexities faced by the characters, especially women ensnared in the clutches of antiquated customs that once symbolised warmth but now inflict wounds upon its members. The triumph of the book lies not only in its thematic depth but also in the author's adept use of literary techniques spanning realism, magical realism, allegory and the lesser-explored paratext.
Narisapongse Rakwattananont, at the age of 37, is the second-youngest recipient of the esteemed SEA Write Award, showcasing his exceptional talent in navigating the intricate landscape of Chinese-Thai cultural nuances. In his professional life, he dons the hat of a copywriter at an advertising agency, bringing a unique perspective to his storytelling, merging the worlds of creativity and cultural commentary.
As Life delves into an exclusive interview with Narisapongse, we aim to uncover the inspirations, challenges and creative processes that shaped Family Comes First.
Family Comes First. (Photo: Salmon Books)
Congratulations on winning the SEA Write Award. Family Comes First explores the complexities within Chinese-Thai families. What inspired you to delve into this particular aspect of culture and tradition in your writing?
About the inspiration behind Family Comes First. Well, that day was just another normal day. We sat and had a meal with Grandma, and then she said or did something to me that made me feel, 'Wow, my house is absolutely Chinese!'. And then after that, there were many situations where this phrase came into my head from time to time. Plus, that period was probably the time when I was trying to find a concept to write a short story. It was when these two things met, so I thought, 'Well, why not take issue with being Chinese?'. It's a big enough topic to have many different points and angles, and it's just my life, so I had some confidence that I could write it in a way that's understandable and interesting enough.
The judges mentioned the use of paratext in your book, incorporating elements beyond the written text. Can you share more about how you employed paratext, such as the use of colour and Chinese calligraphy illustrations, to enhance the reader's understanding of the core story?
I think we should give credit to our graphic designer who made this cover because my job was only to decide whether I felt it was okay or not. Honestly, from the first moment I saw it, it felt like this cover was right because it was beautiful and impactful. No matter how it was placed on the shelf, it stood out. But actually, whether it was the use of colour or the typographic design, it was already carefully thought out by the graphic designer. The first page before entering the content of each story has been designed with ingenuity and intent on making each story more impactful.
Your book features a variety of literary techniques, including realism, magical realism and allegory. How did you decide on this eclectic mix of styles, and what do you believe each style adds to the overall narrative?
I didn't specify exactly which issues must be used in particular methods of storytelling. Maybe I was just thinking if I want to get my readers' interest, it must be told in a straightforward manner. Or if sometimes I want to emphasise the point clearly, it may take some surrealism to help. But what I really aimed to do from the beginning is to try to have every story have a unique way of storytelling. The reason is simple: if they are all the same, then the reader might get bored and in the end, they won't be able to distinguish which story is which or what the writer is actually talking about.
In Family Comes First, the characters, particularly women, grapple with the impact of outdated customs. Can you elaborate on how you approached portraying the tension between tradition and modernity, especially in the context of Chinese-Thai families?
Personally, I feel that current Thai society is already in a period of intense clashes between the old and the new. So there are many issues for us to observe, watch and talk about. Actually, if we talk about the burden that women face, some issues have been around for a long time such as the expectation to produce a son for the family or receiving less love by default just because you were born a woman. But in an era where old traditions are being questioned, these oppressions have become prominent. In addition to trying to understand the pressures that each person faces, talking to people helps a lot. It makes us aware of suffering that we sometimes cannot imagine. And it makes fiction more powerful when it's used.
You mentioned being influenced by Japanese author Haruki Murakami. In what ways has Murakami's work influenced your writing style, and how do you see these influences manifesting in Family Comes First?
I'll have to separate my answer into two different categories. The first is the issue of language. It cannot be said that I was inspired by Murakami in terms of language because the work of Murakami I read was a Thai translation by Noppadon Wechasawat. When translated into Thai, I felt the language was functional and fascinating. I used that form of language as a model for writing. Therefore, it can be said that the inspiration may be Noppadon 50% and Murakami 50%.
Now the second issue is about emotions in the work. Murakami's mood, which is the sad, lonely and desolate mood of a person whose life doesn't know which direction to take even though life is not without extreme suffering is what drew me in. But I always felt like there was something indented. This was the emotion that inspired me to write short stories in the early days. But asked if those emotions were expressed in Family Comes First, I personally don't think so.
As a copywriter in an advertising agency, how does your professional background influence your approach to storytelling, and did it play a role in shaping the narrative in your book?
Even though lately I rarely feel involved in advertising work, the concept of working in advertising as a copywriter helped in writing Family Comes First quite a lot. For example, finding a hook of some kind that had to tug at the heartstrings of the reader and gradually draw them in, or the thought of finding a big idea to define a theme that can be developed into a short story. It also helped with how to write a story with structure by making bullet points to weave the story in a structured way and not be outlandish. I feel that working in advertising taught me many things.
Family Comes First contains 11 short stories. How did you decide on the structure of the collection, and is there a specific message or theme that connects these stories?
The theme is definitely Chinese culture. As for the message, at the beginning I wrote what topic I wanted to talk about and then I found a way to share that message. I purposely chose issues that were a bit mainstream, such as talking about being true Chinese, adhering to the family institution and how they appreciate sons more than a daughter. I made a list of all the points I wanted to talk about and then slowly wrote one story at a time until there were 11 stories in total.
We heard you are currently residing in Japan. Why did you decide to move there? And how has the country influenced your creativity?
At a certain point, I thought I'd like to try living abroad. Japan answers my questions in many ways. I feel Japan is somewhat in sync with my personality. And if I have to choose to learn a third language, Japanese is the language I'm most willing to learn. Plus, the distance is not too far from Thailand. Travelling back and forth is not that difficult in case I feel homesick. In terms of creativity, I think Japan helps us think about life deeply. The city has spaces that allow people to stop, think, and breathe air into your lungs and many other things that help us reflect on our lives which may also come from other factors such as age or living alone.