With the exception of Singapore and Malaysia, where English is relatively widely used, and with the further exception of so-called “expat fiction” featuring foreign protagonists, Southeast Asia seemingly generates fewer novels in English—whether in translation or written directly in the language—than other regions of South and East Asia. This situation has ameliorated somewhat in recent years, a period that has coincided with the rise of a regional Southeast Asian culture and media market. Southeast Asian publishers are increasing sourcing and marketing books regionally.
Sunisa Manning, born and raised in Bangkok by Thai and American parents, educated at Brown, typifies this new crop of authors. Her debut novel, A Good True Thai, is set in the turbulent Thailand of the 1970s, a period that predates the country’s “Land of Smiles” development as a tourist paradise, and which arguably marked a sort of national rite of passage.
A Good True Thai comes at a time when protests are back in Thailand.
Manning opens her novel with quotations from turn-of-the-century King Chulalongkorn and activist Chit Phumisak. The former said that western democracy could not be adopted in full because Thais eat rice, not wheat. And Chit Phumisak said that Thais were fully awake and able to understand the people who “skin them alive and suck the very marrow from their bones.” These are themes that run through the book.
Det has royal blood: he’s the great-grandson of King Chulalongkorn on his mother’s side. His father is a commoner who rose in ranks to become the Minister of Education. When Det is called up for military duty, his father’s clout ensures Det enters officer training. The fate of every 18-year-old Thai male is determined by pulling a card:
If you drew red, you served two years, and you didn’t get the desk job of a volunteer, but were trained to be a real soldier fighting insurgents in the North and Northeast, where the government wanted to stamp out any possibility of the politics of Vietnam spilling into the Kingdom. Each family with a boy aged eighteen hoped for black, schemed for black, thought of nothing but black in the days leading up to the lottery.
Later, at Chulalongkorn University, Det starts dating the Thai-Chinese Lek. The apir for a trio with Chang, Det’s best friend from officer training. Unbeknownst to Det, his mother on her deathbed asked her husband to prevent Det from dating a commoner. Privileged royal status is passed through the father, and since Det’s father is a commoner, Det can only continue living the lifestyle he’s accustomed to if he marries a woman from another branch of the royal family, not the daughter of Chinese immigrants.
The past reaches into the lives of Chang and Lek as well. They knew each other well before university, bonding in high school over their mutual interest in activist Chit Phumisak, a student at Chulalongkorn University supposedly assassinated by the CIA in 1966. Manning employs real events like Chit’s murder as well as student protests, political coups and massacres to shape the dilemmas Det, Chang, and Lek face as they form different ideas of what it means to be an activist. Det believes in communism as long as it coexists with the monarchy. Lek risks expulsion and jail by reprinting a controversial yearbook cover—criticizing the king—that got Chit in trouble back in the 1960s. Despite this issue bringing the couple to a crossroads, they and Chang join a communist cell in Lap Lae Nakhon, a village in northern Thailand which.
is the last outpost before the vast forest that stretches all the way east to Cambodia, north to Laos. Lap Lae Nakhon, or Hidden Village, is the place where Chit Phumisak himself had come for supplies.
The novel takes place between 1973 and 1976, a time devastated by war in Southeast Asia. Thailand was not immune to this strife. The corrupt Prime Minister Thanom flees the country in 1973, only to return in 1976. University students protest his return, which results in a massacre at Thammasat University. But even a year before the massacre, Lek wonders what she and the other activists have really accomplished.
It’s been a time of strange losses in the face of what should’ve been victories. Saigon fell to Ho Chi Minh, and the Khmer Rouge overthrew Cambodia’s royal family, making the students sure Thailand was next, that the force of revolution would come here. Instead, the advances elsewhere have birthed terror in the Kingdom. A right-wing group called the Red Bulls has been breaking up student demonstrations. Pipes meet fists, bombs meet placards, and bodies fly while police patrol the perimeter, advising students to go back to their studies instead of intervening.
A Good True Thai is more than just a primer in modern Thai history. It comes at a time when protests are back in Thailand, demanding some of the same changes the student activists asked for forty-five years ago. One can wonder if these problems were ever solved in the first place.