Wednesday, April 16, 2014

"Culture Shock Bangkok": Dan Waites on the Bangkok Noir movement writers and artists


Dan Waites' thoughts on the Bangkok Noir movement from "Culture Shock! Bangkok"....

"Much has been written about the Thai capital.  The large 'Thailand Interest' sections of the city's bookstores are proof of that.  Unfortunately exaggerated memoirs about stints in Thai prisons, tracts about the joys of sleeping with bargirls and horror stories about being ruined by Thai wives are not for everyone.

In terms of fiction, or at least serious fiction, Bangkok remains curiously undocumented, given its size and importance.  It has, of course, provided a lot of inspiration for a lot of crime fiction.  Some of the authors, like John Burdett and Christopher Moore, have produced well-crafted crime novels that demonstrate a level of insight into Thai society few other outsiders have reached.  Others haven't fared so well.

The city's crime writers have formed a scene of sorts, the so-called 'Bangkok Noir' which crystallized in 2011 in the form of the book 'Bangkok Noir', a collection of 12 short stories by Thai and Western writers edited by Moore himself.  Chris Coles, a painter specializing in Expressionist portraits of the denizens of the city's libidinous nightlife, is also involved, and has published a book of his work, 'Navigsting the Bangkok Noir'.

Bangkok Noir is unusual as a scene in that appears to have been driven by the artists themselves, rather than critics and journalists.  Local author and critic Tim Footman says he 'doesn't blame the writers for that at all'.  Bangkok lacks the kind of critical apparatus that exists in many parts of the world that might identify such a scene form the outside. 'I can understand why they're doing it.  No one else was going to do it for them,' he says.

Outside the crime fiction genre, relatively relatively little fiction of note has surfaced about Bangkok in the English language.  Why?  Is there something about the city and its inhabitants that defies the foreign writer?  At least part of the reason must lie with the difficulties foreigners have in penetrating and understanding Thai society itself.  As novelist Lawrence Osbourne says, 'Obviously, foreigners are not going to be writing delicate comedies of manners about Thais, because they don't really move easily in such a hermetic culture."

Perhaps the city's wilder side hypnotises foreign writers - the lights of this city are so bright that that's all they see.  Footman tells of writing a novel set during the 2010 Red protests.  Not setting out to write about the city's seedier elements, he eventually vcame to a plotting cul-de-sac.  'Suddenly, and I have no idea how ]it happened, there was a hooker in there.'  He later abandoned the book.

Naturally, more has been said about the city by Thais themselves, but few foreigners get good enough at Thai to be able to access it.  There's also the reality that Thailand doesn't have a particularly literary culture.  It's a shame: many visitors to the country would appreciate access to the kind of insight into ways of life and thinking that only fiction can really provide."

Link to Dan Waiters "Culture Shock Bangkok! A Survival Guide to Customs and Etiquette": http://goo.gl/MMTb7Z

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