In his debut novel, Bangkok Wakes to Rain, Pitchaya Sudbanthad threads together woven stories set in his birthplace to piece together a reveal a history reaching back in time to the near future.
Though the author was born in Thailand, he was raised in Saudi Arabia as well as America, all of which influenced his writing. His desire to write about Bangkok stems from his yearly visits there where he has an intimate understanding of the city but still feels like a visitor every time.
The novel’s many narratives include an American doctor nearly a century ago, a Thai photographer in the 1970s living in Los Angeles, and a Thai restauranter living working in Japan. These characters, and more, all reveal the beautifully rich interworkings of the city’s politics, neighborhoods, and relationships.
I spoke with the author about crafting his debut novel, how place influenced his work, and Thailand’s cultural exports.
Since this is your debut, can you give a little background to introduce yourself to readers?
I was born in Bangkok. My dad is an architect so my family moved where his projects were. So, we were in Saudi Arabia for a while before coming to Bangkok for a little bit before moving to the U.S.
I’ve been going back and forth from where ever I was living to Bangkok ever since I was a child.
What was your relationship to literature growing up in all of these places?
A lot of my moving happened when I was so little that I wasn’t exposed to literature. As for storytelling, I was cognizant of American cartoons and Japanese anime and manga. When I arrived in Saudi Arabia, I consumed whatever made its way through the censors.
I was exposed not only Western literature but also a variety of authors early on. It gave me a sense of literature outside of the European and American canon.
As someone who has moved around a lot, how does place influence your writing?
Place has always been important. Maybe it is because I traveled around from place-to-place, I realized how much it plays a role in people’s lives. It especially plays a role for me imaginatively.
Place often comes first for me with writing. I often compare it to me setting up a stage and the characters enter and exit. Some writers start with voice, and sometimes that happens for me as well, but place has always been a primary ignition point for how I start narratives.
With Bangkok, it is a place I was born in, but I don’t live there all of the time. Even though it’s home, it’s also not. Growing up and to this day, I would go back every year. All of a sudden I am back to a place where I am a visitor in a sense. I have returned to a place where I have a familiar intimacy but I am also removed because I had been away.
Bangkok is a very assertive place. When you arrive, it’s a 24-hour traffic jam. People are always moving. It’s a contrast to the old temples and traditions, but the two worlds coexist somehow.
When did you start writing?
I’ve always been something of a storyteller. Mostly to myself. I grew up as an only child and because we moved around a lot, I had to entertain myself. I would write comics for myself, make radio shows for myself, and I played with the notion of storytelling very early on.
When I was older, I focused on visual arts and wanted to be a painter. I felt I could write more readily though. I write anywhere I can: on the subway or at lunch. I was making progress with it and eventually focused on it.
In your novel, you really do capture that Bangkok is a stage for your characters. The structure follows a variety of characters. Was that always intended because Bangkok, the setting, was central?
I thought I was going to write a straight-forward, linear novel. But when you write about place, you start to understand how others may write about place. I looked at how a foreigner arriving in the 1850s. To them, Bangkok was a certain city. For Thais, Bangkok is a certain city. Once I appreciated the multitude of experiences, I felt one story was insufficient to write.
I was tempted to write from all of these perspectives and they all could have been separate books. I wanted a larger view. That’s where my curiosity went. You know: what happened and what could happen.
How did you narrow down your focus to the characters we do meet in the book?
I was a collector of facts and stories through research and stories I heard from my family. The activist in the 1970s came from me hearing about the October massacres when I was a kid around nine or ten years old. That stayed with me until I wrote about it now.
I went to a jazz club at some point and picked up the magazine they handed out and read about a musician who, after rock-n-roll picked up, came to Asia. My imagination grew from that. I would pull at a thread and stories would begin to appear. For instance, a Thai woman who has a restaurant in Yokohama and a sister in Bangkok. The sister works at a condo building that was owned by a certain family. Then I could follow that family. I followed the threads.
Did you read a lot of Thai writers?
A little bit. My parents wanted me to learn both English and Thai, so I read in Thai. I first began just reading old magazines that I was passed down from my parents. When I go back to Bangkok every year, I would go to bookstores and pick up books.
Is there a strong tradition of literature in Thailand?
There has always been a literary culture in Thailand. It may not be as prevalent as it is here in America, but there has been a tradition. It’s something that began just like in British culture where the aristocrats who have the means to write are the writers. I would say that has changed only in the past two decades where you have writers from different backgrounds. A lot of it is not translated because Thailand is so focused on exporting goods and not culture.
What is the cultural aspect of life the country is most proud of?
The food. That is the one cultural export that Thailand has officially focused on.
I did notice there is a lot of food in your book.
Food is pretty much an elemental Thai thing. We have this tasty food and we just can’t keep it to ourself. We export rice and curry.
What else did you want this book to explore when you started writing it?
My imagination of the city that I am both familiar and distant from explored that tension. It led me to look in a more expansive view from its past to a not so distant future.
Do you see yourself continuing to write about Bangkok?
I’ve been playing around with different explorations for my next book. It’s going in all directions. I don’t know what specifically it would be.
When you’re trying to find an idea, do you write everything you can to see what works or do you try to focus something and then let it expand?
It’s a little bit of everything. I basically collect different ideas and let them spin forward. It’s like juggling. I put some things in the air and some fall. I put more in the air. Eventually, the hope is that only one thing is meaningful that you want to drop all of the others to focus on that one thing. I’m still in search of that for my next book.