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Talk to the Practitioner: Sunisa Manning

Sunisa Manning’s debut novel, A Good True Thai, is a sweeping book that takes us through portions of Thailand’s history that much of the English-speaking world does not know.

Sunisa Manning
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A Good True Thai dares to address thorny parts of the country’s history through three points of view, one of which has traditionally been taboo: that of a member of Thailand’s nobility. The book is also set against the student uprising of 1976 – an event that’s also a taboo subject to discuss in Thailand – and follows Det, a descendent of a former king of Thailand, who befriends Chang, a commoner, and falls in love with Lek, a Chinese immigrant. 

 

 

The Writer: Can you tell us a little bit about your track to writing A Good True Thai?

Sunisa Manning: I was in the process of making a linked story collection. I had this one story about these students [in Thailand] in the 1970s, and Antonya Nelson read the whole manuscript. I think she’s a master of the short story. And she was like, ‘You’ll never land this arc of radicalization in a story. It’s not possible.’ She suggested I break it into two [stories], and instead of trying to do so much, just write these moments. So the first story was Det meeting Chang in officer training camp, and there was actually a lot more of a story there than ended up in the final novel. But I was really interested in Thailand as the most well-stratified country in the world, which most people don’t know. In that scenario, how do I get someone like Det to meet someone like Chang? The only way I could think of was the military conscription system because they’re both men, and somehow Chang, who is not wealthy, ends up kind of getting his way into officer training camp, which keeps [the characters] safe. So that was the first story.

I just kept writing, and eventually I had 100 pages, and I was like, “Well, it’s not two stories. It’s going to go on. Maybe it’s a novella.” It is a realist epic, and it was actually, in an earlier incarnation, even longer. Because so much happens, and there’s so much ground that it covers that has never been covered in English – barely in Thai – that I just really needed a lot of space. 

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TW: Is it history that you understood and knew about growing up in Thailand?

SM: I lived in Bangkok until I was 18. So I did know about it. My mom and uncle were at university in between ’73 and ’76 at Tula and Thammasat [Ed. note: Thammasat is the university at which the student massacre of 1976 took place]. So they knew intimately what was going on. They didn’t join the activists. But [they had told me about] the massacre of ‘76, which is a really taboo subject in Thailand. 

I’d say most people who are Thai, who grew up in Thailand, they know about it. But it’s not the kind of thing that anyone discusses with an outsider. And there’s so much shame still kind of coiled around this episode that I found it really intriguing. 

Now that the book’s been published, the number of Thai diasporic folks who come to me and [say], “My parents were in that…” There’s a lot of folks whose parents have immigrated to the States, and they’ve never been able to talk about the one very big reason they came to the States: that they were involved in and survived the massacre and that after that, they wanted to leave Thailand. So, yeah, it’s something I knew about, sort of. Through hearsay, but I didn’t know about officially. And I had a hard time kind of putting my arms around what really had happened until I started digging into the archives in the States. 

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TW: Did the fact that the massacre is still taboo weigh into your deciding to publish the book or how you marketed it? 

SM: It’s something I worried about a lot. It’s part of what took me so long trying to decide how much to say and how I could say it. I have two citizenships, I’m Thai and American, and I wrote the book in English, although I’ve been told in some ways it kind of reads as a translated work. (I thought of it as a work of translation myself because I’m bilingual.) Those calculations are ones that took me a long time to decide what to say and how explicit to be. It gets to the question of audience because…Thai audiences will read the symbols, and they’ll understand what I’m gesturing at. And I thought that a non-Thai audience, you know, even if they’re Singaporean, they could be Southeast Asian – [would I] would have to make things more explicit for them? It was really hard to decide how much to do when the book was going to print.

A prominent Thai writer read it and blurbed it. And he contacted me privately, and he said, “The book will be banned.” He was like, “You shouldn’t come home for a while.” It was this real moment of truth for me, and I was like, “I don’t think it will be because it’s a paper book.” You know, I wouldn’t say some of the stuff I said in the book in an article that is searchable online. The censors would have to read in English, which they typically don’t. They’d have to read a long fucking book to get to some of the stuff. There are easier targets. I have an American citizenship, I have a white American husband.

Frankly, you know, I kind of feel like I’m in a perfect position [to say the things I did]. If I lived in Thailand and had only a Thai citizenship, there’s no way I would have written the same book. It was a really hard moment, and both my parents are really stressed out. To a Westerner, [this book] doesn’t feel politically explicit at all. But because it’s so dangerous to talk about the massacre, so dangerous to talk about a monarch, you know…my publishing house gave me my cover, with a house on fire, and I was really like, “Oh, you understood this.”

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I haven’t been back to Thailand since my book published, but [the book’s virtual launch was] at was the Foreign Correspondents Club in Bangkok, and BBC journalist Jonathan Head was hosting, and then Jasmine Chia, a Thai Inquirer journalist, was hosting, too. And Jonathan was late for the launch because Thai students were protesting the monarch and the military dictator, and it was the largest protest since the events of my novel. Jonathan came in, he’s like, “You’ll never believe what’s happening outside…It’s like your book. The kids are not standing for it.” 

I’m hoping to head home this summer. And I do feel more safe because the student activists have gotten far beyond what my book said. So I feel like obviously anything can happen, but, you know, the goalposts have moved, and I’m happy for it. I’m happy that students and young people are taking a good look at the country.

TW: When you’re writing about something that seems foreign to Western eyes, how do you avoid creating a sense of exoticism?

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SM: A lot of countries in Southeast Asia suffer from exotification, but Thailand has a particular spin with the sketchy “white guy-Thai woman” thing going on and because it’s such a tourist destination. I just wanted to cut all of that out. Not that it doesn’t exist, but I felt like that was all this perimeter, and I wanted to write a book in which whatever I chose was entirely from within and wasn’t overly concerned with how white folks perceive us and how hospitable we are or aren’t, none of that. 

I thought a lot about Toni Morrison and how she just spoke from within and did it with so much dignity and insisted on that dignity. As a writer of color, as a global writer, I’m always being asked to justify my place in my audience in a way that a white writer really isn’t. I happen to have grown up in this country. I’m from it. 

I thought a lot about point of view and where I was locating agency and perspective because a Thai person wouldn’t think about the caste system and go, “that is so weird” necessarily. You know, Lek, as a recent immigrant, has the most ability to do that because she’s not really from Thai culture. And in that sense, she’s useful to being, like, ‘You guys are so random the way you fill in the blank,’ sure, because her parents are really Chinese and she’s such a good study of Thai culture. But I had to be really careful because, by far and large, non-Chinese are reading this book, and I was like, “How are they going to understand everything if I’m not going to translate it?” I think I leaned a lot on context, and then I leaned a lot on having three points of view – which was a pain in the ass in other ways.

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TW: Did you pick your three characters specifically with needing to explain things to outsiders in mind?

SM: What I came across in my research was that members of the nobility radicalized. Not all, but some. And I was like, ‘That makes no sense. It never makes sense [to radicalize] if everything is working in your favor.’ But in a small country like Thailand, it’s particularly sort of nonsensical and idealistic in this way that I was really inspired by. We know adolescence has certain hormones pointing towards risk. Love is a good reason to [radicalize]. And then belonging. And so I made Det and Chang because Det was really who I was thinking about. So I made Chang and Lek [so Det could] fall in love with someone. And then I needed Det’s mother to die, to destabilize him, and send him towards belonging with his peers. And if there was any way his peers were radicals, he does radicalize. That’s kind of how I got to the three of them. 

TW: How did you keep these different points of view separate in your head?

SM: I had index cards, and my husband, bless his heart, made me a magnetized chalkboard so I could move the index cards around, and then I would sort of scribble between them. Keeping the timeline straight was a really big deal. I write in Scrivener, and I had a historic timeline that I had pulled from the books that I read. And then I had years that Det and Chang were doing things even when they didn’t quite make it into the book, or there’s sections that went away. I had a timeline of all the characters, so their birth dates, at least birth years. And when their parents are born because also Det’s father is a big character and then Chang’s mother. Their relative ages; how do they track against history…It was a production. 

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TW: What’s the benefit to working analog versus working digitally?

SM: I generally think analog slows you down, which is a good thing. I came into my first novel with a lot of ambition, and [I thought] ‘Well, it’s not going to take me years.’ And it absolutely took me almost six years to make this book. 

The writing for me is less about being in my head but actually more about being in my body. And I started towards the end of the process to write new sections by hand, and everything came out first in ink, and then I revised into digital. And that was helpful to keep my characters apart, too. There are things that I could just sort of work out when it was my hand moving and being in my body. 

 

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Yi Shun Lai is the author of Pin Ups, a memoir. She teaches in the MFA program at Bay Path university and is a founding editor of Undomesticated Magazine. Visit at undomesticatedmag.com.

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