The Blind Earthworm in the Labyrinth

A review by T. F. Rhoden of The Blind Earthworm in the Labyrinth by Veeraporn Nitiprapha, translated by Kong Rithdee.

Some authors capture a time and place effortlessly. They draw upon aspects of popular culture and spin them into a literary tale that is more powerful and longer-lasting than the milieu from which they sprang. Veeraporn Nitiprapha is such a writer. But as her work has only appeared in Thai, she has been beyond the reach of most of the world.

One cliché that the author has taken aim at recently for the Thai reading public is the Thai soap opera. For context, one of the most viewed television series in Thailand these days is Club Friday—a series in its tenth season, which follows characters as they swim their way through counter-currents of romance, infidelity, and Buddhist karma. Into this media landscape, Veeraporn has published her artful and lyrical novel The Blind Earthworm in the Labyrinth. This is the first book-length translation of Veeraporn’s fiction in English. The novel is a poetic and surrealistic reimagining of the Thai romance, where the main characters are lost between unrequited desires and fantastical dreams that are realer than their everyday lives.

The story follows two vivacious sisters, Chalika and Chareeya, as they… [click here to continue to read full text]

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*Review of The Blind Earthworm in the Labyrinth originally published in Asian Review of Books by T. F. Rhoden; photo image credit for this re-post is via the talented Nick Knight. Unless otherwise stated, all posts on this website are under Creative Commons licence. 

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Too Much Democracy

Despite appearances, something is missing at the heart of Thai democracy.

This rainy season marks eighty-five years since Thailand had its first experiment in democracy. Before 24 June 1932, the country had been ruled by royal absolutism. Many wonder, since the nation experienced a democratic revolution so long ago, why it is under the control of a military-imposed government in 2017. After a total of nineteen coups over the last century, what is holding back Thailand’s embrace of liberal democracy?

An important piece of the puzzle, which is almost always overlooked, goes back to the very nature of that first democratic revolution. Though the revolution may have been “democratic”, it most definitely wasn’t “liberal”.

The real challenge for Thailand is that, despite its repeated attempts at an expansion of democratic processes and inclusion, the nation has sorely fallen behind in its commitment to the natural liberties of its citizenry. Thais, when they do experiment with democracy, almost always place democratic processes over liberal institutions in their understanding of the liberal democratic regime.

Recent events in Thailand have illustrated this problem. The accession and fall of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, with his palpably democratic pedigree after multiple wins at the ballot box in 2001, 2005, 2006 and by proxy in 2007, 2011 and 2014, proved to be as exciting for some voters as it was horrifying for others. The military coups in 2006 and 2014, and the months of public demonstrations in downtown Bangkok that always preceded them, were downstream from a fundamental disagreement between those who emphasise liberal principles of government and those who emphasise democratic principles.

The contention here is that by embracing democracy without first securing liberal rights and institutions, Thailand has had to swing widely from the excessive, utopian-like embraces of democratic elections to even more pathetic retreats into the faux security proffered by the men in olive green.

Revisiting the People’s Party founding document of the 1932 revolution is instructive. One can argue that the seeds of the current calamity were already sown in the six principles of the revolutionary vanguard at that time:

1. Maintain securely the independence of the country in all forms including political, judicial, and economic etc.;

2. Maintain public safety within the country and greatly reduce crime;

3. Improve the economic well-being of the people by the new government finding employment for all, and drawing up a national economic plan, not leaving the people to go hungry;

4. Provide the people with equal rights (so that those of royal blood do not have more rights than the people as at present);

5. Provide the people with liberty and freedom, as far as this does not conflict with the above four principles;

6. Provide the people with full education.

Not until the fifth principle in the People’s Party demands did liberty and freedom make an appearance. Furthermore, those natural liberties were allowed only as long as “this does not conflict with the above four principles”. Basic components of liberalism like natural liberties, balancing institutions, freedom of expression, religious liberties and the right to one’s own property were an afterthought at best—some not mentioned at all.

The reason we can refer to this event in 1932 as a “democratic” revolution, despite its brevity, is that it carried with it a commitment to equal voting rights in general democratic elections. The democratic element of the new regime worked fine. So why did this first attempt at democracy in Thailand fail? Perhaps more importantly, why do nearly all unadorned democracies in the world since the time when Plato and Aristotle theorised about them eventually crumble?

One of the more frustrating blind spots in the study of Thai politics today—and comparative politics more broadly—is the tendency to… [click here to continue to read full text]

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*Originally published in Mekong Review by T. F. Rhoden (also here at Academia); photo image credit of the plaque image from Thailand for this re-post goes to The Isaan Record. Unless otherwise stated, all posts on this website are under Creative Commons licence. 

 

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Authoritarian Desires: Kenzaburo Oe on Masturbation and the Japanese Right

Review of Kenzaburo Oe’s Seventeen & J: Two Novels (OR Books 2016).

Reading in Thai, Thinking in Japanese

This combination of two stories by Kenzaburo Oe entitled Seventeen & J: Two Novels has disturbed me. I wish this disturbance upon you as well.

Why? Well because it turns out that this is a fantastic set of stories from a time when Oe was at the start of his publishing career in the late 1950s and early 1960s. What is so mesmerizing is how apt they feel to the times today in late 2016, as well as how well they travel beyond the sea-wet shores of insular Japan.

Read this book. Read it now before the American elections.

Recommended to me by a Japanese-speaking friend, this early work by the Nobel Laureate has been translated only once into English by Luk Van Haute. Because I cannot speak, read, or write Japanese myself, I always try to search out a translation into the only Asian language I am any good at in order to get somewhat “closer” to the language and culture in which the book was originally composed. For me, that’s in Thai.

And, indeed, it may sound silly for an American to be reading Japanese in Thai, but I still remember the first time I read a nonfiction piece by Haruki Murakami not in English, but in Thai. The effect was amazing, and in many ways the author’s voice shone through in a way that it never had in any English translations I had consumed before. What had been a trip to the Thai book store and an encounter with a Thai-translation of Murakami—where I thought to myself, why bothering to wait for the English translation when you can already do Thai well enough?—later became a general rule of mine when reading something originally done in Japanese: to always find the Thai translation first.

For one example out of many: Thai has a way of reproducing the rich variety of pronouns of hierarchy, of class, of family, of gender and so on found in Japanese that burrows toward some delightful, extra depth of meaning. Every wail and whine of a protagonist weighs heavier than it would be if the prose were translated into English.

Alas, though a few of Oe’s texts have been put into Thai, the vast majority of his works have not been, including these two shorter tales. Thus, English translation it was! Below is an interview with the author at Berkeley in 1999.

An Ode to Onanism

Has there ever been a work of fiction dedicated to a protagonist’s journey, which was purely mediated through an exploration of teenage masturbation? I’m almost embarrassed to say that I cannot think of one. Almost. Nevertheless, until I do find such a text, I will allow for the novella-like tale of Seventeen to stand in for that book.

The whole bit about playing with one’s self as a subject of a story is something of a stretch—particularly in its youthful form. But Oe’s genius here is how the act of onanism is combined with sentiments of pubescent, far-Right politics. This is also why I think others, particularly Americans at this moment, should have a go at this story.

The protagonist is an honest enough, though confused, little Japanese boy, who putters about his high school and homestead, arguing with his older sister and parents about the mundane and occasionally pestering them about the political situation of a postwar Japan. Peppered about this narrative are sticky episodes of the most imaginative and picturesque scenes of a seventeen-year-old hurting himself through private exultation.

In one scene, he’ll be alone jerking it. In another scene, he’ll be in a political diatribe against someone in his social circle.

In one more scene, he’ll be at it again, in some spiteful, self-hating-yet-self-loving beating of his manhood. And again in another scene, he’ll be joining an authoritarian, war-hungry Japanese political party—to which will be followed by yet another round of self play.

The interchange and abrupt bouncing back and forth between Japanese Imperialist thought and angst-ridden wanking is transfixing. The combination of youthful fascism with male masturbation hits the reader at some political psychological level that one may have never even known existed.

This is political psychology of the far Right, presented in a form that no one thought could be so stirring for a reader’s intuition.

Universal, Yet Shaded Differently

In this age in the West, masturbation is, perhaps, something of a ho-hum topic for many. Many guys do it. Many girls do it. We all do it, especially if you are young. Though I would assume the frequency is higher for the male of our species. We just don’t go around talking about it like we do the weather.

Though despite the act’s universality in terms of something found in most political societies across time and space, some differences probably persist in how one sex (gender?) or the other may go about their masturbation. This is neither a recognition of the difference in physicality of it (ha!) nor an understanding of the functional differences in how it helps to keep alive the sexual when we are alone. No, rather, this is a difference in the psychology behind the act.

When one is not in the company of others, with no one watching, it is difficult to accept that the thoughts and internal whispering of the mind of men and women are the same when they engage upon this play. The way guys go about it and the way girls go about it—up there, hidden in the psyche and the soul—cannot be the same.

Forsooth, a She Bop will never be a Blister in the Sun.

Oe’s protagonist is male and because of it the story takes unanticipated turns that would be nearly impossible to guess at if the character had been female. Some of these turns were so wild that the second part of Seventeen, where the main character is purported to assassinate a Left-leaning parliamentarian, has actually never been translated into English! Trust me, mix political psychological into the act, and this quickly becomes guy’s-stuff-only territory.

(Seriously, someone translate Part II of the story into English or Thai for me so I can read it. I’m looking at you Jay Rubin of Harvard and/or you เดือนเต็ม กฤษดาธานนท์ of Chulanlongkorn; let’s get cracking on this to help the non-Japanese-speaking peasantry like me confront our demons.)

Right or Left?

If you are of the Left yourself (what is mis-termed “liberal” for you Americans), then you may be smirking to yourself right now. For surely, if one were to mix masturbation with any political sentiment it would have to be the intuitions that traverse the mind of the far-Right or the fascistic. Correct? Conservatives with an authoritarian bent like to wank it when no one’s looking. Right?

Not so fast. And I suspect that Oe may agree with me on this one.

The protagonist male could just as easily been composed as some milksop, easily-offended, weakling of a Leftist and enjoyed masturbating twelve times a day. That is, the solipsistic act of male onanism could have as easily been paired with the political psychology of Right-wing jingoism as it could have with the political psychology of Left-wing statism.

Does not the awkward, mamma’s-boy communist also enjoy a wank from time to time? Who really goes at it more often?

Now that is a topic worth pursuing a Ph.D in.

Wonderful Read

Again, if there ever were a time and a place for those of you of the West to consider reading Kenzaburo Oe’s Seventeen & J: Two Novels, the fall of 2016 is the time to do so.

I highly recommend this delightful tale of Japanese political psychology and adolescent self–(destruction)-gratification.

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*Reviewed by T. F. Rhoden. Any image-photo credit for the top of this post via Kotaku. Unless otherwise stated, all posts on this website are under Creative Commons licence. 

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History of the Shan State: More Nationalism, More Stupidity

A review by T. F. Rhoden of History of the Shan State: From Its Origins to 1962 by Sai Aung Tun.

I didn’t think that Thai royalist propaganda would surface when I started reading Sai Aung Tun’s History of the Shan State: From Its Origins to 1962. I did expect a good dosage of Shan nationalism, but why Sai Aung Tun attempted to tie it together with debunked theories of Tai (Tai without the h) ancient ancestry is beyond me. I’m tempted to go right for the ad hominem, but I’ll try to stick to what he wrote.

Overall, this is simply the worst history that I’ve ever read for anything coming from our contemporary period on Myanmar (Burma). There are quite a few elements that one could criticize here, but the most annoying for me was the issue of the Kingdom of Nanzhao (南詔, also often spelt as Nan-Chao), which was located around modern-day Yunnan area of China during the 8th and 9th centuries AD. I had read different histories of Nanzhao before and had noticed that different historians like to give their own spin on the ethnic and linguistic makeup of this old kingdom. The oldest Western accounts (mostly British) tended to think of the Nanzhao as Tai. N. Elias (1876) is a good example of this.

Early 20th century histories written about Siam (Thailand) were instrumental in cementing this Nanzhao-were-ethnically-Tai “fact.” The two writers who come to mind first are W. C. Dodd (1923) and W. A. R. Wood (1933). The main culprit for propagating that Nanzhao-Tai myth for Thai history though goes to Damrong Rajanubhab (ดำรงราชานุภาพ) the so-called “father of Thai history.” His most popular works for Thais were his Royal Chronicles (1912) and Ancient History of Thailand (1925).

The main reason why segments of the Thai court (Damrong was son of King Mangut) would want to count Nanzhao as the progenitor of the “Tai race” was in order to point to a more auspicious past then they probably really had. Saying that the Tais were once even a match for the Chinese before their kingdom was bravely beaten back by Genghis Khan (and hence had to migrate south to “Thailand”) sounds a lot better than the current understanding that the Tai people probably originated in the black hill region of Northern Vietnam and Southern China (or possibly ever farther east toward Taiwan island).

The ministry of education for Thailand has been reluctant to stray far from Damrong’s propaganda. Of course, all of this “race” stuff is ridiculous if we go back time far enough when we all came from Africa, but there you go.

(Read Liang Yongjia’s (2010) “Inalienable Narration: The Nanzhao History between Thailand and China” in the ARI Working Paper Series at NUS for a brushing-up on all of this fun stuff. The journal article is free to download.)

Since the Shan, like the Thai, are both considered to be part of the Tai migration into Southeast Asia, Sai Aung Tun had the option to draw from the older, more essentialist, accounts of the Tai’s supposedly glorious past or more contemporary research that points toward a less-than-majestic carpetbagging down into the lowlands of mainland Southeast Asia. Sai Aung Tun went with the former interpretation and strangely aligned his history with Thai royal propaganda. On page 12 of his history, he does mention that there may be a “controversy among some scholars”, but he does not consider this to be worthy argument.

He cites as his source on this another member of Thailand’s royal circle, Prince Chula Chakrabongse and his (1960) Lords of Life: A History of the Kings of Thailand. Most of this work is a rehashing of Damrong’s ideation from a generation earlier. Anyone with any honest appreciation for Thai historiography must acknowledge that Damrong pretty much made up most of his history himself when it comes to the Thai’s ancient past.

Admittedly, this is only a small issue in a much larger work of over 600 pages. But, the more one reads of this history the more one encounters similarly out-of-date explanations for historical happenings. This book might be useful for some, but probably not in the way that it was intended. If you do pick this up for yourself, just make sure to keep one’s attention on the end notes. It’s actually embarrassing how little of recent scholarship Sai Aung Tun actually uses in his history. Who knows, maybe he couldn’t get access to it in Myanmar when he was doing his research?

One last thing, be ready for odd nationalistic, pro-government pinning sprinkled throughout the text. For example, in his first chapter on who the Shan are as a people he tells us:

“The Shan have been in Myanmar since time immemorial and like the other nationalities they consider the Union of Myanmar as their native home because they helped to construct it. They live in harmony with other national ethnic minorities and are always ready to help maintain this country as a sovereign nation now and in the future.”

I guess this means he’s never heard of the Shan State Army? Or of the Shan refugees who occasionally flee across the border into Thailand or China?

You are better off not buying this book. That is unless of course if you are interested in purchasing something that can be used as example of how not to do a history, then I cannot recommend Sai Aung Tun’s monogram enough.

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*This review of History of the Shan State: From Its Origins to 1962 by Sai Aung Thun was originally published in an older version of this blg by T. F. Rhoden; photo image credit for this re-post goes to Lanabyko, found at The Global Commute. Unless otherwise stated, all posts on this website are under Creative Commons licence. 

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Thailand Inspires Alumnus to Write Books

Story by Andy Arb from The Journal of Webster University on T. F. Rhoden’s first literary venture in The Village.

When the University of Maryland University College decided to close its international campus in Schwäbisch Gmünd, Germany in 2001, Thomas Rhoden had to find a new school to attend. Rhoden liked the international campus location options of Webster University, and settled at the Thailand campus. This is where he got his inspiration for his four books, including his novel, “The Village.”

“What I wanted to do with the book was capture what life was really like in the village in modern day Southeast Asia,” Rhoden said.

Rhoden, also known as T.F. Rhoden, his pen name, is originally from Dallas. After graduating from Webster University-Thailand in 2003, he moved to China before moving before moving back to Thailand when he joined the Peace Corps. Rhoden left Thailand again, but returned after he went to Arizona to earn his MBA.

Rhoden spent seven years off and on living in Thailan, so he knew the state of small communities in Southeast Asia, and wanted to clear up any misconceptions people might have.

“A lot of what you might read from… [click here to continue to read full text]

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*Originally published in The Journal of Webster University by Andy Arb; photo credits for this re-post via by Tom at Isan Life. Unless otherwise stated, all posts on this website are under Creative Commons licence. 

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Outrageous Thai: Slang, Curses and Epithets

New book on Thai language!

First-ever real guidebook to learn Thai slang, published by Tuttle Publishing, entitled Outrageous Thai: Slang, Curses and Epithets. Purchase through any normal book distributor or online with Amazon.

Description

The Thai people love fun and laughter. They appreciate foreigners who speak their language. But how would they react to foreigners who throw insults in the Thai language and know how to make them blush at the use of direct and vulgar Thai words? This Thai phrasebook, while designed to teach non–Thais to understand that spoken language on the street or in everyday life, also teachers powerful words that could easily get them punched in the face–probably worse. So, be cautious. This little book contains powerful words. A non–Thai, especially a Westerner, will appreciate the opportunity to learn some really strong and direct language that his Thai colleagues would rather he not know. Learn how to call someone hot or ugly, a walrus or a potbelly, stupid or a hypocrite. Know how to put off lechers by saying “Piss off!” in the strongest possible way.

Intended for just about anyone who wants to get the most reactions from any Thai within hearing distance, this book is simply the best reference you need to survive Thailand. Not just a simple phrasebook, Outrageous Thai teaches how to really speak Thai, and understand the Thai language. Know what Thais really mean and answer back. Features of this Thai phrasebook are:

– Compact travel size.
– Hundreds of colorful Thai phrases organized by topic and use.
– Extensive explanations of context and culture.
– All phrases shown in written Thai script, Romanized Thai and English.

Intended for students of all levels and anyone interested in how Thai is really spoken, this book is absolutely indispensable for foreigners who live in Thailand and want to know what is being said when someone insults you in Thai!

Paperback: 168 pages
Publisher: Tuttle Publishing; Original ed. edition (2009)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0804840539
ISBN-13: 978-0804840538
Product Dimensions: 5.2 x 0.5 x 8 inches
Shipping Weight: 2.4 ounces

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*Original copyright for book is held by T. F. Rhoden; photo credit for image of this post via Top10TripList. Unless otherwise stated, all posts on this website are under Creative Commons licence. 

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