Tuesday, 2 February 2021

A Good True Thai

Sunisa Manning’s debut novel, A Good True Thai, is set during one of Thailand’s brief spells of democratic rule, a period bookended by the massacres of 14th October 1973 and 6th October 1976. The book’s title is a reframing of the traditional notion of ‘Thainess’, the insistence that ‘good’ Thais (khon dee) value nation, religion, and monarchy above all else, while progressives are regarded as unpatriotic.

The novel’s three central characters (friends Det and Chang, and their mutual love interest, Lek) are university students caught up in the intense political atmosphere of the period. For example, Lek reacts to the infamous Dao Siam (ดาวสยาม) newspaper’s headline accusing Thammasat students of lèse-majesté: “It must be a mistake! Lek brandishes the page at her brother... No wonder the city roils. They think the students have staged a hanging of the Crown Prince.”

A Good True Thai was published in October 2020, when a new generation of students were demonstrating against the military and the monarchy: as it was in the 1970s, ‘Thainess’ is currently being challenged and redefined. Although it was written before the recent protests, the book is therefore extremely timely.

A Good True Thai has superficial similarities with other novels set during periods of political instability. Uthis Haemamool’s ร่างของปรารถนา (‘shadow of desire’), for example, takes place against a backdrop of the 1991, 2006, and 2014 coups. At the other end of the ideological spectrum, Win Lyovarin’s Democracy, Shaken and Stirred (ประชาธิปไตยบนเส้นขนาน) traces sixty years of Thailand’s modern political history.

The book has more in common with films such as Anocha Suwichakornpong’s By the Time It Gets Dark (ดาวคะนอง) and Pasit Promnampol’s พีเจ้น (‘pigeon’). Both Manning’s book and Anocha’s film are self-referential, featuring protagonists who are also writing a book and making a film, respectively. Pasit’s short film, like Manning’s novel, dramatises a student’s decision to join the Communist insurgency.

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