The Big Interview: Sunisa Manning

Sunisa Manning’s first published book, ‘A Good True Thai,’ was recently reviewed by the Thai Enquirer [Read here]. The book, six years in the making, has arrived at a moment of incredible political upheaval in Thailand, where the meaning of ‘true Thainess’ is once again under question.

Here, she speaks with the Thai Enquirer about the significance of the 1973 – 76 protests, intimacy and alienation from Thainess, and writing away from the Western gaze. She is currently based in Berkeley, California, where she teaches literature.

The interview has been edited for concision and clarity.

What brought you from Thailand to Berkeley?

I was born and raised in Bangkok, and I left to go to college at Brown. My dad is an American – I’d spent time in the states but I’d never lived there. Actually, after college, I moved back to Bangkok and worked for the Mae Fah Luang foundation, so I did rural development. It really changed my understanding of the country because my grandparents live in Bangkok and my whole family lives in Bangkok. 

When I was at Doi Thung, they had us go on field trips for two weeks at a time, up in Chiang Rai or Nan, just different project sites. I’d be hanging out with farmers and the people who work at Mae Fah Luang, some of whom are titled nobility, and it was just so different than my Bangkok life which was just, international school and then Thai-Chinese who live in Bangkok. That gave me a lot of ideas for the novel, not that I knew it then.

The novel is a very intimate look at Thai life – not trying to show or explain Thailand to someone else but takes Thailand as it is and creates a story around it. How did you feel about writing all these characters from different social backgrounds given your own social background?

That’s one of the reasons it took me so long to write this book – it took me six years. The way I wrote about Thailand, and I did it deliberately, was not to show it to foreigners. If the outside of the circle is what foreigners see, I really wanted to write for the inside of the circle – I wanted to write a book that took place entirely within a Thai consciousness that isn’t mediated by this white, usually foreign gaze.

The novel is set between ’73 and ’76, and the story is really the student democracy movement in that time period, and I didn’t confine it to one point of view. I trained as a journalist, but the reason why I write novels is that I think fiction has the potential to be much more true than non-fiction in some cases, when it gets into the complexity of emotional and spiritual truth.  

For me, the more I researched the period, the more I saw that there were entirely different narratives of what was happening then between ’73 and ’76. So if I only confined it to one character’s point of view or one class, we would be missing some of the complexity of that. I think in the tension between Lek and Det and Chang’s relationships, you can see the tension between what was happening in the student movement and how these divergent storylines – the one that the Thai public started to claim actually ended the student movement.

And a reader wouldn’t have gotten that perspective if I just had Lek and Chang. I got a lot of comments on the manuscript asking me to remove Det, American readers found him quite unsympathetic because he’s nobility. Americans like to think of themselves as very egalitarian, and they didn’t like the idea of having a Rockefeller or a Kennedy as the hero of the story, which he is.

This is a really fraught and personal period for a lot of Thai people. What inspired you to choose this particular period?

When I began writing this, not a lot of people were talking about it.

I got to talk to Thongchai Winichakul briefly, and he mentioned he was bringing out a history book/memoir of his experiences as a student leader. I did use a lot of his papers, but even he noted then that it was this topic that was like this black mark on Thai consciousness, and until we addressed it, we couldn’t really get past it. That’s how I felt too – why would a luk krueng not born in the 70s feel that way, I don’t know. But my mom talked about these events quite a bit – she was at Chula and my uncle was at Thammasat, and there was something about it, the way they talked about it, that just made me ache. I felt that heat, like – there’s something there.

You could say the 70s student movement doesn’t intersect with my life personally, but it always felt like it did, because I don’t think Thailand is a place of great opportunity for people who are born regular folks, which my family is. The more I saw of Thailand the more I saw of that to be true, so it really was an exploration of the moment where we could’ve taken a different turn, and my family – my cousins, my uncles – could have had a really different future vista, and that closed on them.

How do you reflect on this huge resurgence in interest in ’73 and ’76? Where do you see these vistas potentially reopening with the current student protests?

Part of what the students are doing is that they’re looking at the future and saying, I want access to more.

I’m thrilled with the huge resurgence in interest in ’73 and ’76 – kind of for different reasons – I find it very hopeful. I think the students know that they have to be playing a little more long-term and a little more savvy. My novel’s a lot about idealism – is purely ideological pursuit necessarily better? I think you can see that tension between Chang and Det.

But a novel isn’t a history book, what I really wanted to communicate was the feeling of being swept up with that, the feeling of radicalization, particularly why someone of great opportunity would radicalize, because I think if any movement is to be successful we need people of more privilege to also join the ranks, and that’s why Det is important.

Did you feel particularly identify with any of the characters?

The characters – they’re all just aspects of myself and things I wanted to happen. I think there’s a lot of gendered stuff in Thailand that’s very interesting, and I knew I wanted Lek in there to be really outspoken, to be an iconoclastic female figure with the ‘idea’ of the Thai woman (whatever that means), and when she meets Dao she sees quite how silly that idea is.

I based a lot of the three off the novel War and Peace – Pierre is very sensitive, and I gave that sensitivity to Det, although Det’s not as sympathetic since he begins very wealthy whereas Pierre gains his wealth. Chang is based off Andre – really angry and dashing. Natasha is in the middle, dancing. So, I stole that from Tolstoy.

What was the book’s intended audience? Did you feel the need to explain yourself to this intended audience?

My intended audience was Southeast Asians. Strangely, in a way, it is probably a book built for foreigners in that it is written in English.

My experience of being luk krueng, instead of being both you’re usually counted as neither – usually in the US, particularly by white people, they look at me and see me as Asian whereas in Thailand, they see me as white.

I’m both, and making peace with that is just like, whether they want to accept it or not, there are lots of luk krueng, and luk krueng are only half white. In fact, I think that living in the states when I wrote this novel gave me a psychic distance that I needed to write the novel and think through my own understanding of the time period without being in the country.

You made some artistic choices to remove or keep certain events from 1973 – 76. How did you feel making those artistic choices?

Most of the big changes I note at the back of the book. If protestors really want to learn what really happened at different turns, they probably are already accessing that.

This is the work of fiction, and I wanted to give you the feeling of being swept up, more than anything. Thai people are really good at reading symbols, we have to be, necessarily, for political safety. But people who aren’t Thai – regional allies – might be reading this novel, and might miss things that Thai people would get, and since it’s in English I wanted to make it a little more explicit.

That’s one reason, a big change was I had the King and Queen in ’73 give food to the protestors. They did hide in the palace grounds, but the King and Queen did not come out – but the feeling at the end of ’73 was that the King sided with the protestors, and I wanted the readers to understand that really concretely

And what is fiction but making history narrative, so I needed to enact that in a gesture that someone who’s not Thai would understand.

What’s the process of writing been like, having so recently had a child and teaching?

I have a very supportive partner who deserves a lot of gratitude for this. When I first had my son, I would be holding him at the desk, nursing, and I would sort of pop the baby over my head and my husband would take him and I would just keep going.

It was hard, I got a couple of fellowships and writing residencies which gave me great dedicated time to work on the book. In the end, writing comes first for me, and we just have to make it happen.

How do we better nurture Thai artists for the future?

We need grants for artists, teaching positions where you teach one class so you can make art.

Thai culture is very playful and subversive, because of our political danger, and there’s a lot of surrealists, magical elements to Thai writers’ works – they are so funny and darkly humorous when they are using these bigger and bigger metaphors to talk about what’s going on. I don’t think that’s really understood from the Western gaze, and depending on who the reporter or reader is, they’re really undercutting that.

Anything else you would add?

I interviewed former activists, and over and over again my experience was that people were so excited to talk about their time in the jungle or their time in university, and they couldn’t believe it, because they were like, you think anyone wants to read this story? Who cares?

I just really wanted to thank them, and I hope they feel seen. Because what Thailand did at that time, just as what we’re doing right now, is really big even if it felt like people didn’t notice. I just wanted to honor that. I was thrilled to write about it and try to take some of their experiences as honestly as possible and make it into this epic story. Because I want them to feel seen.

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