21 Jan / Sightseeing by Rattawut Lapcharoensap + Author Interview
The good news first: Rattawut Lapcharoensap’s family in Thailand is all fine; the tsunami thankfully did not harm them. The other good news: His collection of short stories, Sightseeing, which debuts this week, is absolutely superb.
Born in Chicago, raised in Bangkok, and currently living in Norwich, England on a fellowship at the University of East Anglia, the 25-year-old Lapcharoensap (called “A” by everyone except “unfriendly bureaucratic institutions,” he says) vividly captures a slice of life for each of his memorable characters. From a young hapa boy (who keeps a pet pig named Clint Eastwood!) who believes he’s in love with a summer tourist, to an old American codger transplanted to Thailand to live out his final years with his son and Thai daughter-in-law, to a young girl on the brink of adulthood who witnesses her father’s humiliating downfall through gambling, Lapcharoensap’s characters leave a lingering memory even as his words come to an end.
AsianWeek: Where did the inspiration for Sightseeing come from? I understand that these stories are not at all autobiographical …
Rattawut Lapcharoensap: Many of the stories were partly born out of a certain frustration with depictions of Thais and Thailand in contemporary English-language literature. The Thailand I often encountered seemed a far cry from the Thailand I thought I knew, the Thailand I loved.
Whether or not my stories are ‘autobiographical’ depends upon what is meant by the term. If ‘autobiography’ means an account of a life’s events, then this is not an autobiographical book. The events of my life have not been transposed onto the page. Nevertheless, I don’t think there’s such a thing as a piece of writing uninformed by an author’s life experiences. You can’t write about people unless you’ve known a few. My characters often come to me by way of their voices – a line of dialogue, snippet of conversation, the way they may or may not say something.
AW: How has your family reacted to your book?
RL: My family’s reaction to the book has been one of pride and a certain measure of relief, I think. I was unemployed in the winter of 2004 and had decided to finish my book on the small bit of money that I had set aside over the years. There was quite a bit of skepticism about my decision at the time, not only from my family but also, of course, from myself; watching my bank account dwindle that winter made me feel pretty foolish, particularly when the writing wasn’t going as planned. Needless to say, when the book was accepted for publication in April, there was joy, but there was also, I think, an enormous amount of relief. I felt – and continue to feel – inordinately lucky: [that] I should be able to make my living doing something I love.
AW: How different is it being Thai in English versus Thai in the United States?
RL: Being Thai anywhere outside of Thailand is a bit of a strange thing. Aside from the community’s recent visibility via fancy restaurants, Thais have been fairly invisible in the literature on Asian immigration to Europe and America. (I remember a time before the restaurant boom when people would often mistake Thailand for Taiwan.)
That said, being Thai in the U.S. is vastly different from being Thai in England. The British, I’ve discovered, have a far more specific relationship to Thais and Thailand. I would put good money on the proposition that every single person in Britain has either been to Thailand or knows somebody who has. For many young people of a certain social class here, going to Thailand seems a rite of passage. What this means, personally, is that people ask me far less about food when I meet them (which happens at a rather alarming rate in the U.S.) and far more about other things (equally innocuous, equally alarming). There’s a more substantive sense here of Thailand as a place.
AW: Where is “home” for you?
RL: It’s hard to talk about this without resorting to clichés, getting melodramatic or speaking with a forked New Age tongue. I suppose that my own experience has taught me that “home” is hardly a stable concept; it often encompasses not only the emotional and the physical but also the material realm. In that sense, then, I have a rather clear, idealized sense of what a home should be, and I think that it is one that many of my characters share: a place where you can eat and sleep comfortably, without worrying about your material survival, surrounded by those you love who love you in return. Many of us spend our lives, I suppose, trying to get there. Many of us, unfortunately, never do.
Author interview: “Clint Eastwood, Summer Love, and Cockfighting,” AsianWeek, January 21, 2005