📖 🇹🇭 #52: Thai stories on the male gaze
Duanwad Pimwana on working class life in Thailand
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Arid Dreams comprises thirteen stories in which Duanwad Pimwana examines the lives of working-class Thai characters who have been worn down by the patriarchal, capitalist structures they live under. Though it’s Pimwana’s debut English-language collection, the stories in Arid Dreams were originally published in Thailand between 1995 and 2004.
All but two of Pimwana’s protagonists are men. Pretty much all of them are deeply misogynistic and a handful of them are also violent and predatory. Though Pimwana didn’t write these stories with a collection as her end goal, they do share a handful of common themes: unhappy marriages; corruption and poverty; dreaming of a better life.
My favourite story was the titular Arid Dreams. In it, a Thai man visits a small island and becomes obsessed with a masseuse who doubles as a sex worker. He follows her around, ultimately striking up a conversation, only to learn that she has several jobs and that she has a policy of sleeping exclusively with foreign tourists to avoid getting a reputation locally. She also reveals that her mother is unwell and in hospital. As soon as the narrator sees the subject of his infatuation as a real person, he loses interest. “I realised, he says, “that with women you’ll never stand a chance of sleeping with, it’s better to learn as much as you can about them, until lust gives way to other feelings.”
Another highlight is Kanada’s Eyebrows, a story in which the narrator grows frustrated with his wife when she starts to lose her beauty and stops making an effort. “I was living with a stranger,” he says, “a woman who made no effort to take care of herself, who ran herself ragged with housework, who was always sweaty, her face oily.” But the narrator meets his match when he confronts his wife. “You’ve completely forgotten why I ended up with you, haven’t you?” she asks. “It’s because you forced yourself on me. I didn’t want to, and you knew it.”
Other stories I enjoyed include Sandals, in which two children are forced to leave school to help out on their family farm; The Attendant, in which an elevator attendant describes feeling dissatisfied with his job; and Within These Walls, in which a woman experiences a higher level of freedom as a widow than as a wife to her corrupt husband.
Pimwana writes in very sparse, uncomplicated prose, and her stories are written in a mixture of first and third person. As individual pieces of writing, I enjoyed them, but I was left wanting a little more variety from the collection. Pimwana writes vivid, complicated characters well and she does a great job of invoking the male gaze on her female characters. That said, I did get a little tired of her protagonists inevitably arriving at some kind of neat epiphany by the end of each tale. Nonetheless, this is an interesting and ambitious collection.
Arid Dreams by Duanwad Pimwana, translated by Mui Poopoksakul (The Feminist Press, 2019)
More books by Thai authors:
Letters from Thailand by Botan, tr. Susan Fulop Kepner
The Judgement by Chart Korbjitti
Sightseeing by Rattawut Lapcharoensap
Bright by Duanwad Pimwana, tr. Mui Poopoksakul
The Blind Earthworm in the Labyrinth by Veeraporn Nitiprapha, tr. Kong Rithdee
Bangkok Wakes to Rain by Pitchaya Sudbanthad
The Sad Part Was by Prabda Yoon, tr. Mui Poopoksakul
Moving Parts by Prabda Yoon, tr. Mui Poopoksakul
What have you read recently?
If you’ve read a brilliant book in translation or you’d like to pass on a recommendation, I’d love to hear about it! For this project, I’m focussing on contemporary fiction and short stories, with a preference for female authors—but I’m always happy to venture further afield for a good recommendation.
You can get in touch by replying to this email or leaving a comment. I’ll be featuring your recommendations in upcoming newsletters, and I’ll keep a growing list here.
Bookmarked is written by Tabatha Leggett. If you know someone who would enjoy this newsletter, please forward it to them!