UBON RATCHATHANI – Two literary events in Ubon Ratchathani last week opened space for academics, students, and writers from Isaan and other regions to publicly discuss the intersection of literature, gender, and politics in times of severely restricted freedom of expression.
Celebrating a budding genre of Thai literature in response to the political turmoil of the past ten years, the events promoted the voices of Thailand’s literary political dissidents.
A blend of established authors and promising newcomers spoke to a crowd of 300 students, writers, and academics gathered in an Ubon Ratchathani University auditorium about politics in fiction and literature as activism on 10 March.
The event was tied to the launch of a new book titled “Good Children of a Country Without a Future,” featuring 13 original short stories by authors from every region of the country and one rare Isaan Lao translation of a work by acclaimed Mexican novelist Juan Rulfo.
The collection of short stories comes as the seventh edition of a book series called “Chaikha Rueang San” [Short Stories Under the Eaves], which is the brainchild of “Like Write Light to Live,” a literary group of Isaan writers and academics.
It is part of a growing literary genre inspired by the country’s cycle of political crises, like last year’s winner of the South East Asian Writers (SEA Write) Award “A Blind Earthworm in a Labyrinth” by Bangkok author Veeraporn Nitiprapha, who was also one of the speakers at the event.
“We in Isaan have been witnessing the magnitude of the plight of people here for years, especially after the fatal crackdown on Red Shirt protesters in 2010. Addressing this plight through literary works is one way of responding to injustice in society,” said Saowanee T. Alexander, one of the event organizers.
The panel discussions provided a rare opportunity for a public debate about new forms of literary writing as political activism and the state of literature in Thailand today.
“A new generation of writers from outside the central region of the country doesn’t want to write in standard Thai anymore, but in their local dialects,” said Chusak Pattrakulvanit, a literature professor at Thammasat University.
Commenting on this emerging trend of regional languages in literature, Nitipong Samrankhong—a contributor to the new volume from the northern region—pointed out the shared cultural space of the North and Isaan, which serves as a link for their literary traditions.
Peera Songkünnatham, a writer and translator from Sisaket, is taking the rise of vernacular languages in literature in Thailand a step further. In a recent op-ed for The Isaan Record, Peera advocates for the revitalization of Isaan Lao through translations of international literary classics.
“It wasn’t difficult to transfer the story from rural Mexico to Isaan, because the settings feel quite similar,” said Peera about the translation of Rulfo’s short story “Paso del Norte.”
Chief editor of Read Magazine Ida Aroonwong praised this new movement, but she also pointed out that writings in Isaan Lao or Northern Kham Muang pose a challenge to Central Thai readers who are often not used to a diversity of languages in Thai literature.
Over the past years, Ms. Ida’s Read magazine and the publishing house of the same name have emerged as the powerhouse of cultural criticism in Thailand and provide a regular venue for writing that goes against the grain of the literary mainstream.
Despite the military regime’s ban on political debates and its interference with academic freedom, the event went ahead without interruption from the army, although a military truck patrolled the area and stopped in front of the venue, according to organizers.
Some attendees from the North, who were summoned by the military after the coup, had to ask for permission to travel to the event.
In the evening, a related literary event drew about 30 people to the garden of the Philadelphia book shop. The venue is part of a small network of politically engaged book shops across the country that offer a place to writers to gather and sell their work.
The military junta has been closely monitoring events organized by many of these book shops like Chiang Mai’s Book Re:Public which was raided by armed soldiers after the coup, according to a Prachatai report.
In front of an engaged audience of Isaan writers, Dr. Chaiyan Rajchagool of the university’s political science faculty led a lively discussion with Ms. Ida, Ms. Veeraporn and Chiang Mai writer Pornphan “Pia” Wunna, touching upon political issues, the lack of a culture of reading, and the role of female writers in the country’s literary scene.
“It’s remarkable that I am sitting here with three female writers in front of an audience full of male authors,” noted Dr. Chaiyan jokingly.
Literary writing used to be a marker of education and a symbol of maleness in Thailand explained Ms. Ida, but this has changed. Today Thai literature is represented by all genders, she said.
“Thai women writers have come a long way and there isn’t anything particularly cute or sweet about their works today. Indeed their styles might not even differ that much from male writers,” said Ms. Ida, adding that she rejects the label “female literature.”
A key theme apparent in both events was the question of the purpose of literature. What can literature as activism provide to people who must endure life under military dictatorship, asked one audience member.
“Literature can be a tool of social struggle that has the power of giving people back their human dignity,” Ms. Ida replied.