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OVERDRIVE: Where is the literary voice of Thailand?

Published on October 08, 2004

During his recent visit to Thailand, VS Naipaul, who won the Nobel Prize for literature in 2001, was overheard asking why there has not been a single Thai writer who has made it onto the international literary scene.

Thai writers are mediocre at best. To make it as a writer in the big league, you need to have a publishing agent in New York City, home of the world's biggest publishing houses.

"Thai writers are writing for a narrow audience. They don't write with a universal scope to reach for the broader audience," said one person who had a chance to chat with Naipaul.

So what is the problem with Thai writers, who, like some of their counterparts in other professions, have failed to raise their work to international standards? The answer - I am not sure whether this was Naipaul's conclusion - is that Thailand has failed to develop as an intellectual society. Most Thai people don't seem understand or want to try to understand their very rich culture.

We have institutions that are the envy of the world. We have the Monarchy and all of the grandiose ceremonies related to that institution.

We have the grand tradition of Buddhism, its temples, its pagodas and its hierarchical institutions.

We have a rich history that goes back more than one thousand years.

We have taken in Brahminism and mixed it with Buddhist rituals.

We have noble practices and etiquette.

We have folk, traditional and religious beliefs, coupled with fantasy, superstition and miracles that are as rich as those found in any country in the world.

We have amulets and Buddhist statues that are symbols of religious grandeur.

We have traditional massage and medicine.

We have the art of Thai boxing.

We live in the most beautiful country in the world.

We have the world's best recipes for food, full of local herbs.

And we also have grand literary treasures from the past.

Yet Thai writers have not made any effort to understand their rich culture and use this gold mine of material to develop plots and create world-class fiction.

Endless amounts of fiction could be written based on the long history of Wat Pho - its place as Siam's first university, its famous reclining Buddha, its origins as the source of various disciplines, from traditional massage to traditional medicine.

Now you begin to understand why JK Rowling has become world-famous with her Harry Potter series, and why Dan Brown has become such a big international hit with his "Da Vinci Code".

These writers create literature with a universal appeal by mixing facts and fantasy. They draw inspiration from the entire canon of Western civilisation.

Indian writers have come of age in the world's literary scene by working with their rich religious and cultural heritage, developing great psychological insights.

Thai writers are still developing. They only play around with words, in vain, writing about romance, searching for meaning in modern society, portraying social injustice, depicting only narrow visions of life or going back to nature.

Few, if any, can combine the grand traditions of Thai culture in a classical sense and reveal it in good writing of international standard and universal appeal.

We can't produce world-class fiction writers because our education system has crumbled. Our knowledge of history is scant. Our appreciation of religion, language and culture is limited. Our society is mediocre.

In the absence of an intellectual society, we cannot expect to create world-class writers or thinkers who may influence the world. The best we can do is to wait for translated works or copy ideas from abroad. What has gone wrong with us?


Chapter thirteen

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