Thai Authors

Sunken city where skyscrapers collapse daily

Pitchaya Sudbanthad spent about five years writing Bangkok Wakes To Rain.
Pitchaya Sudbanthad spent about five years writing Bangkok Wakes To Rain.PHOTO: CHRISTINE LEE

Two Bangkok-born novelists, one a newcomer writing in English, the other an award-winner with new translations of her work, present different facets of the Thai capital to the world

Thai-American writer Pitchaya Sudbanthad remembers major floods in Bangkok from his childhood in the 1980s. As recently as 2011, he was helping to fill up sandbags at his parents' house in case floodwaters reached it.

"People in Bangkok have an intimate relationship with rain," says the 42-year-old.

In his debut novel, Bangkok Wakes To Rain, the city moves through time, from the 19th century to a post-diluvian future where skyscrapers collapse daily into the waters of the sunken city.

This dire scenario, he believes, is a possibility within a few decades. "We keep getting scientifically surprised by the progress of climate change. I hope that my depiction will be entirely inaccurate and fail to be a prophecy, but there is this lingering result of the things that we do to this world and have made very few plans to change."

The freelance copywriter has lived in the United States for more than 20 years, but returns to Bangkok yearly to see his family. While many writers start a story with a voice, he begins with a place.

"The book came of my own experience going back and forth between Bangkok and elsewhere," he says over Skype from his Brooklyn home. "I return as a native to this place I was born, but I am also a visitor."

The book weaves together numerous stories centred around an old Siamese house which over time gives way to a condominium.

I wanted to show a city different from what is seen in popular Western depictions of Bangkok - brothels, opium dens and the underworld.

THAI-AMERICAN WRITER PITCHAYA SUDBANTHAD

The many characters who move through its pages include a homesick missionary in the 1850s, a dissolute jazz pianist and student activists in the 1970s.

"I began picking up stories I had heard about Bangkok, recalling things I heard as a child," says Pitchaya, who is single and the only son of an architect and housewife.

For instance, he recalled how when he was eight or nine years old, he was giving a massage to his grandmother when she started recounting how she had pleaded with his aunt and uncle, who were then students, not to go out for the October 1976 protests.

They obeyed her and so were spared the fates of many in the Thammasat University massacre, in which the military, police and paramilitary forces attacked student protesters, hanging them from trees, setting them on fire and beating many to death. At least 46 died, although the unofficial death toll is said to be more than 100.

In the book, a mother forbids her daughter from joining the protests, but she slips out of the house to do so anyway.

Pitchaya spent about five years writing the book. He collects and restores fountain pens as a hobby and would assign different pens to different characters and storylines as he wrote.

"I wanted to show a city different from what is seen in popular Western depictions of Bangkok - brothels, opium dens and the underworld," he says. "This orientalist gaze covers up the city I know, where people are just trying to make their lives, going to school, going to work, listening to music, trying to find out who they are."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 05, 2019, with the headline 'Sunken city where skyscrapers collapse daily'. Print Edition | Subscribe