Arkansas Literary Festival: Pitchaya Sudbanthad
A Globe-traveling Novelist Explores Home in Bangkok Wakes to Rain
Pitchaya Sudbanthad’s debut novel is a multi-layered meditation on place and the idea of home, based on the shifting faces of the city of Bangkok over many decades. Bangkok Wakes To Rain is peopled with many characters and interweaves plotlines across decades, including the 19th century, the 1970s, and even an imagined future in which most of the city is underwater as a result of climate change.
Sudbanthad’s elegant and absorbing prose conjures the city vividly, and the sensory delights of immersion in Bangkok are undoubtedly one of the novel’s pleasures. But the real story that drives the novel is a deep longing for a home, and how time, geography and memory play strange games with one’s sense of home and belonging.
Seeking roots in an ever-shifting landscape
An interest in the idea of home and roots seems natural for Sudbanthad given that he spent his youth traveling between three continents.
“My father is an internationally trained architect, and my family moved around the world for his projects,” Sudbanthad said. In addition to living in Bangkok and Saudi Arabia, he also spent time in the southern United States in Florida and North Carolina. “When the weather got hot and humid,” he said of his life in the southern states, “if I closed my eyes, I could be reminded of Bangkok, complete with the buzzing of mosquitoes.”
Sudbanthad’s experience of not having a single culture and place to call home reflects the world of the twenty-first century for many people. As the author ably demonstrates with his lyrical portrait of Bangkok, the places we call home are often so drastically changed by technological progress and the loss of cultural memory that lifelong residents can struggle with the same sense of dislocation as wanderers.
Spirits linger even as technology advances
The resonance of Sudbanthad’s novel stems from the persistence of the old alongside the new, the “ghosts” that appear both in traditional Thai beliefs about spirits and as ghostly remnants of the past in the city. The Sino-Colonial house at the center of the novel ends up surviving only as the façade of the base of a condominium building. Then there are the ghosts of the dead, deceased characters who remain present in the novel’s nonlinear time and in the minds of the living, even as they are forgotten by history. Thematically, these ghosts pull together the narrative in many symbolic ways, and the subtlety and depth of the layering is another masterful touch especially impressive for this debut novelist.
Sudbanthad’s cool style, third person omniscient, is nonetheless emotionally compelling in addition to beautifully styled. His choice of the more objective tone of this point-of-view came from the story’s needs. “I have written close POVs elsewhere,” he said, “but with so many characters and arcs in my novel, I think a closer voice would have resulted in lots of cacophonous noise. For me, it’s up to what’s best for the work at hand.”
A talent for dimensional female characters
Refreshingly, Sudbanthad’s numerous female characters are three-dimensional and well-drawn. It is perhaps the ultimate compliment that an unknowing reader given this novel without a name attached might not be able to guess the gender of the author. In a novel of this scope, this talent for developing character across gender lines is crucial to the story’s success.
Pitchaya Sudbanthad appears to have a long and fruitful career ahead of him, with unusual demonstrated talent and an impressive debut that has been compared to the work of David Mitchell. Yet there isn’t much biographical information online: his official biographies are sparing in their details. When asked about any other subjects of study that he has pursued besides writing, he referred to interests as wide as his travels.
For me, a book is necessarily outside of a writer, just beyond grasp.
“My writing is perhaps a narrative manifestation of my myriad curiosities,” he said. “I formally studied environmental sciences and policy, as well as economics, and I also briefly worked with and studied biological sciences and studio art.”
Though he will give out a few facts about his past and his current life, Sudbanthad also believes in preserving some silence in a writer’s biography because of the freedom that silence allows to readers when they encounter a book.
“I don’t want my personal story to obstruct any reader’s view of my book,” he said. “For me, a book is necessarily outside of a writer, just beyond grasp. Yet we keep on trying by way of writing, and then we must let readers have their turn.”
Pitchaya Sudbanthad has received fellowships in fiction writing from the New York Foundation for the Arts and the MacDowell Colony, and currently splits time between Bangkok and Brooklyn. His debut novel is Bangkok Wakes to Rain, published by Riverhead Books in February 2019. Sudbanthad bends the rules of the traditional novel as he creates and continually re-shapes with daring imagination the story of one house—and the many characters who pass through it—in Thailand’s capital city. Bangkok Wakes to Rain is a boldly inventive first novel that masterfully blends history, fable, and the futuristic to bring into striking relief a place at once steeped in age-old customs and constantly on the front lines of political, environmental, and cultural change. Sudbanthad will appear at the Arkansas Literary Festival on Saturday, April 27. For a schedule, see here.