Fiction, Memory, and Reclamation: An Interview with Emma Larkin

What does it mean for us to excavate, understand, and retell the past? At what point do narratives become fiction, and how do we retell history? What does it mean for us to take on that role of a storyteller? 

Emma Larkin (pseudonym), award-winning author of several non-fiction books on Burma, tackles these issues in the process of making her fictional debut, “Comrade Aeon’s Field Guide to Bangkok.”

Divulging on her writing, her career, and what it means to articulate a city as vast and immeasurable – and with as complicated a past – as Bangkok, Larkin explores different modes of memory and how we write history.

Writing non-fiction has been Larkin’s strong suit: her memoir, “Finding George Orwell in Burma,” has won numerous awards.

“Comrade Aeon” is a decisive step not only from Myanmar to Thailand, but also from non-fiction into fiction. Despite such a change, however, Larkin confidently strides into the new chapter of her career.

“It’s liberating,” she says, “shifting from non-fiction to fiction.”

In the process of writing non-fiction, there’s great responsibility in telling that story given the deeply sensitive political context of places like Myanmar: “someone’s given you their safety,” says Larkin. “Their safety is in your hands once they tell you their story. It can be quite constraining to the creative process.” 

Fiction, however, allows for exploring all sorts of topics with the aide of allegory and allusion, letting subtext fill in the gaps where something more explicit is too dangerous. “If you were writing a non-fiction book about Thailand, it would be very hard to tell a complete story,” she explains.  

“It’s always struck me that in places … where you have controlled access to certain aspects of the news, fiction plays an important role in all of our lives,” Larkin continues, “there’s rumours, there’s belief systems built around the lack of access to the truth, there’s all sorts of fictions that interplay in our day-to-day life and the way we perceive governments, each other, and history.”

“Comrade Aeon” becomes a vehicle not just to tie together the different realities of Bangkok, but also to explore “the cycles of history” that Thailand is prone to. Though she chose to write about Black May, what Larkin is really interested in is how Thailand is haunted by “a recurring cycle of unfinished, incomplete stories.”

“It’s quite spooky how there are so many unresolved issues in Thai history,” she elaborates. “Things happen that never get resolved and they just trail along across decades like ghosts.”

Will we ever address our past? Can we? The answer remains perpetually unclear in the seemingly endless regimes of military dictatorships and media censorship that the country is constantly under. But if there ever were a time that we lay our roots bare, Larkin envisions it to be very similar to what unfolded in Myanmar in 2012, after elections are held for the first time since 1990. 

She describes an outburst of expression, an unrestrained stream of excavating the past. “All this stuff that had been submerged and censored and hidden and forbidden was suddenly unearthed,” she says, “it was like this Renaissance era of writers and filmmakers and documentary makers, and all these people reclaiming these stories and it was so exciting.”

Extending her work to audio or visual form isn’t in the cards – yet – but Larkin has found that right now, she finds fiction a particularly potent mode of expression and exploration. “Each particular topic or story has its medium,” she begins. “If you’re driven by the impetus to tell a story, it will become apparent how you should tell it. Whether it should be written, or radio, or documentary, I’m driven by the source, rather than what I want to do.”

What drives Larkin’s interest in Thai history and Thai people is aptly summarized by Hilary Mantel’s observation that “beneath every history, another history.” A quote once pinned by her desk now pushes Larkin to keep exploring the people and the past of the metropolis she calls home.

“There’s never just one story, there’s never just one history. You lift up the carpet and there’s always something underneath.” For Larkin, any future projects she takes on are likely to center around Thailand and Myanmar, for which “there’s so much to write about that I could keep going for a very long time.”

Knowledge is power – and articulating that knowledge, that wealth of power that is recognizing and knowing one’s past, that’s power too. No matter how it’s expressed, telling the stories others refuse to, or can’t, tell are ones that will empower us the most.

This upsurge of English-language fiction – originally written in English and translated – about Thailand broadens access to knowledge about the country and its history. “I think it’s a really exciting time for fiction,” says Larkin. 

“It’s a moment of reclaiming the narrative and breaking the story open.”

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