Witty Postmodern Stories of Bangkok Life: “The Sad Part Was” by Prabda Yoon

Back in January, I wrote a post on an award-winning novel called The Vegetarian by Korean author Han Kang. As I have already mentioned, Deborah Smith (born 1987) – Cambridge graduate and self-taught translator of the book – happens to be the founder of Tilted Axis Press (@TiltedAxisPress, @tiltedaxispress), a not-for-profit publishing house that is based in Sheffield and London. Tilted Axis aims to “shake up contemporary international literature” and publishes “books that might not otherwise make it into English.” Currently, you can see seven artistically original works on their website – by writers from Korea, India (Bengal), Indonesia, Thailand and Uzbekistan(!).

Here’s Deborah Smith:

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The Sad Part Was by Prabda Yoon translated by Mui Poopoksakul (2017, Tilted Axis Press)

I thought of starting with The Sad Part Was by Prabda Yoon (born in 1973 in Bangkok), translated by Mui Poopoksakul, a former lawyer who grew up in Bangkok and Boston. According to Wikipedia, Yoon is a “writer, novelist, filmmaker, artist, graphic designer, magazine editor, screenwriter, translator and media personality.” He has translated The Catcher in the Rye, A Clockwork Orange, and Lolita into Thai. Recently, he wrote and directed his first film, “Motel Mist,” which was screened at the International Film Festival in Rotterdam. An alumnus of the Parsons School of Design and the Cooper Union in New York, Yoon has gained prominence mainly for popularising “postmodern narrative techniques in contemporary Thai literature.” Why did I feel impelled to read and write about an author from “Thailand”? I have lived there, yes, but there are other, more important reasons.

First, I am too bored (and irritated) by the excessive “exotification” of that country by the international community. Thailand is this ideal holiday destination – known for its beaches and temples and nightlife. The problem is when you constantly treat a people as exotic you tend to turn them into “the Other”, “the Alien”, whatever you are not and won’t be and cannot be. You somehow distance yourself from their humanity, you are unable to find common ground. I believe, after a while, one needs to move beyond superficial travel guides and engage with the stories of living, breathing individuals to truly understand a place, its fashions, its richness, its struggles, its capacities, everything.

Prabda Yoon, Wikipeda [Public Domain]
My second reason, funnily, may sound like the exact opposite of my first one. Prabda Yoon’s book is set in Thailand but it isn’t a textbook on Thai culture – and I like that. His voice is confident and original and independent. In The Sad Part Was, he perfectly seems like a writer who just happens to be Thai. I want to be able to read non-White writers “purely for fun”, and not for the purposes of academic research. I’m not at all looking for “the great Thai novel/collection of short stories”, only an experimental and smart and entertaining novel/collection of short stories by somebody who may be a Thai.

The description of The Sad Part Was goes like this:

In these witty, postmodern stories, Yoon riffs on pop culture, experiments with punctuation, flirts with sci-fi and, in a metafictional twist, mocks his own position as omnipotent author. Highly literary, his narratives offer an oblique reflection of contemporary Bangkok life, exploring the bewildering disjunct and oft-hilarious contradictions of a modernity that is at odds with many traditional Thai ideas on relationships, family, school and work.

The title has much to do with the Thai word “Ploang” – a Buddhist attitude of contentment, an approach for dealing with adversities and disappointments. Neither do you dwell on something that causes suffering nor do you forget it. You live with it stoically.

The themes in the book include memories of growing up, childhood innocence and wonder, tensions between provincial and city life, morality and lack thereof, grief over the loss of a friend, even vampire legends. Quotidian stuff like sheets of paper, buttons, chilies and beer are mixed with sharp meditations on the nature of secrets, good and evil, the craft of the author himself. All in all, fantastic. If I had to point out one big flaw here, I would say that these stories end too quickly.

Here are parts from the story “A Schoolgirl’s Diary” that I loved:

How does one plus one make two? Wait. If you have one, where does the other one come from? And why do they put themselves together? Just that is a knotty issue in itself. Suppose Dad is one, plus another one, Mom. That equals three, obviously, because when those two joined together, I was born, making three. Plus, suppose Mom and Dad’s combination doesn’t end here. If later on I have a little sibling, that makes four. Then if my little sibling gets a little sibling, that makes five. Suppose one is a tiger and another one is a rabbit. If you put them together, the tiger would eat the rabbit, so there’s only one left. Suppose one is mercury, and you add more mercury – mercury plus mercury makes one big chunk of mercury – that turns out to be one again.

 

“Suppose one is mercury, and you add more mercury – mercury plus mercury makes one big chunk of mercury – that turns out to be one again.” (Photo by User “Bionerd”, CC BY 3.0, Wikimedia Commons)

 

Tong-Jai doesn’t understand the number two.

 

Where does two come from?

 

[…]

 

…whenever an adult asked Tong-Jai what one plus one makes, she would answer two, unless the asker was a child or an elderly person, in which case she would say, greater or less than two.

 

Tong-Jai concluded that answering in accordance with the opinion of the majority was a requisite for getting by in life.

 

But answering in accordance to one’s own beliefs was a requisite for sleeping soundly at night.

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Prabda Yoon at the Dhaka Lit Fest in 2016:

 

 


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