Released in February of this year, the debut novel by Thai author Pitchaya Sudbanthad has been showered with rave reviews. Entitled Bangkok Wakes to Rain, it’s an engrossing work of fiction that isn’t afraid to embrace unconventional narrative structures. Essentially, it’s multi-generational tale, steeped in memories, that drifts back and forth across the decades; carrying in its wake a huge cast of characters whose lives span different eras and locations, and even an imagined future. Through it all, the narrative is constantly pulled back to events that revolve around Bangkok, so much so that the city – and one house in particular – becomes a major character.
Published by Riverhead Books (US) and Sceptre (UK), the book was selected as an Editors’ Choice pick by the New York Times, and a finalist for the Center for Fiction’s ‘First Novel Prize’. It’s also been lauded by The Guardian, The Washington Post, and the Bangkok Post. This overflow of praise has meant that Pitchaya – who was born in Thailand but currently splits time between Bangkok and Brooklyn – is now much in demand on the literary touring circuit. In late October he was one of the speakers at the prestigious Ubud Writers and Readers Festival in Bali, and this month he’ll be a featured author at the Neilson Hays Bangkok Literature Festival, which runs from November 16th to 17th. Prestige caught up with Pitchaya in advance of his Bangkok appearance.
What was your primary inspiration for writing Bangkok Wakes to Rain?
It’s hard to pinpoint any single inspiration, but I believe that I began writing my novel out of curiosity for the city in which I was born, and the rip-roaring velocity of change that I witnessed every time I returned. That curiosity fed my imagination.
Is it difficult to write about a mercurial city like Bangkok?
It’s likely near impossible for my words to perfectly capture Bangkok, especially in a novel that spans centuries. That challenge likely led to my multi-narrative, non-linear approach for this book, so as to connect my characters across the lifespan of the city through momentous glimpses and resonant motions.
Bangkok has now become one of the most visited cities in the world. What do you think draws so many people to this place?
I think most people come here are drawn to the holiday brochure image, but for people who live in Bangkok, the exoticised is far from the everyday. My novel is in part an attempt to reveal layers of complex humanity beyond that “land of smiles” façade.
Food plays an important role in your book. Would you say food is a great conduit for reviving old memories and creating a sense of place?
Food is everything for many Thais, and for those outside of Thailand it’s arguably the primary connection to the country. How did Thai food become what it is? Why has it grown in popularity abroad? The answers would encompass a long history of colonial era trading and blood-drenched wars of empire in the region. To me, the memory that Thai food evokes is not only personal but also societal. In the novel food serves as a conduit for my characters to return to places beyond their immediate lives. It’s also an effective gateway through which to draw in a reader, at first to an evoked sensorial experience and then to more intricate stories and ideas underpinned beyond.
Your book’s future vision of Bangkok is one in which the city is underwater. Should the idea of Bangkok “sinking” be taken both literally and metaphorically?
For Thailand as a whole, it remains to be seen how the climate crisis will play out, as volatility in weather patterns likely worsens in the coming years, against the backdrop of rising seas. Even with almost 98 percent scientific consensus for climate change, Bangkok, like many coastal cities around the world, may not have adequately prepared for a more dire existential future. That fantastical denialism could ultimately prove to be destructive, not just economically but for many vulnerable lives. Some might not associate Bangkok with water, but not more than a century ago Bangkok was a foundationally aquatic city. Canals and other waterways were paved over, as the city refashioned itself to feed short-term, unthinking economic growth. But that true natural shape, like the cumulative consequences of history and the idea of karma, can never be erased. As we’ve recently seen with recent flooding, there’s little that can stop water, because it moves with truthful authority.
The book veers into the murky realm of the Thammasat student uprising and subsequent violence. Was it hard to write about this chapter in Bangkok’s history?
The event was difficult to research, as related books have become harder to find, but it was even harder to read the accounts. I could only proceed a little each day; they saddened me so much. I thought of putting away those chapters, but then a woman – perhaps one of my characters – came to me in a dream and told me, “We want you to keep going. We want you to write about us.” So I did. May compassionate remembrance help to prevent future recurrence.
There are many ghosts populating the pages of this book. What is your most haunting memory of Bangkok?
I can’t locate any one specific memory. This city, in its entirety, is haunting. One is reminded of so much that isn’t there but should be. In modern Thailand, I see ghosts as cautionary remnants. They linger on as society worships capital, sacrificing precious living things and communities as offerings at the shrine of a different kind of invisible, immaterial entity.
You say you feel like a tourist when you make your annual visit to Bangkok. Do you think that helps you to see the city more objectively, which is perhaps better from a writer’s standpoint?
I was born in Bangkok, but my family frequently lived overseas, and so ever since I was young I come back here with what I call a visitor-native point of view. Most of my family is here, and when I’m back I rejoin an everyday Bangkok life, but I can also observe the city and its many layers of stories with a degree of removal. I realise that this negotiation of identity has become more common in globalised times. It allows for fluidity, but can also create immense tension.
In the book the character Phineas Stevens says that the Siamese “live as if they have been born sea nymphs that only recently joined the race of man” and they “have neither the capacity nor the desire for literacy”. Do you think Thailand’s literary scene is improving?
Those words reflect the views of 19th century missionaries whose accounts I came across during my research. The truth is that there has long been a writing tradition in Thailand but much of it remains largely unread beyond the Southeast Asia region. I think that’s changing, but making Thai literature more widely read in the world will require stronger organisational support, much like what I’ve seen in Japan and Korea. I think it’s time.
What other literary works do you think capture the true essence of Bangkok and/or Thailand?
Having read many books in Thai over the years, it’s apparent to me that the greater body of Thai literature has been more than apt in their portrayal of Thai life and thinking. More of it is becoming available in English, with The Blind Earthworm in the Labyrinth by Veeraporn Nitiprapha and Bright by Duanwad Pimwana as notable recent translations.
With the tremendous amount of praise your first novel received, are you already feeling daunted by the task of writing your next one?
The second book is very hard to write, because a writer has to try to create something new, while also helping the first one find its way to readers. All I can say is that I’m experimenting with some narratives. Maybe one of them will become my next novel.
Are there any authors in particular that you are interested to meet at the upcoming Nelson Hays Bangkok Literature Festival?
I’m looking forward to meeting authors I’ve long admired, such as Veeraporn Nitiprapha and Adam Johnson, as well as translators like Mui Poopoksakul. I’m also honoured that there will be a dinner being held for my book at Chakrabongsee Villas [on November 17th]. I feel fortunate that I’m able to take part in a long overdue international literary festival in Bangkok, and I hope that there will be ongoing support so that literary works can fully express the complexity and nuances of Thai life and imagination to the larger world.
Pitchaya Sudbanthad will be appearing at the Neilson Hays Bangkok Literature Festival from November 16 – 17. You can order Bangkok Wakes to Rain online at amazon.com, or get it at all Kinokuniya stores in Bangkok.