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Pattaya Daily News

Hilton
15 May 2007 :: 13:05:29 pm 21285

People of Esarn

Pira Sudham (born 1942, Thai พีระ สุธรรม) is a writer from the Isan region of Thailand. He was born to a family of poor farmers in Na Pho, Buriram Province. At the age of fourteen he was sent to Bangkok to study, where he lived as a dek wat (a boy who lives in a temple and assists monks). He later went on to study at Chulalongkorn University, Auckland University and then Victoria University of Wellington.?
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His works include:
Siamese Drama or Tales of Thailand (1983)
People of Esarn (1987) 
Monsoon Country (1988) 
The Force of Karma (2002)

As well as drawing on his own life, these works deal with the characters and circumstances of his fellow villagers.

Pira Sudham has written three books:

Siamese Drama, People of Esarn, and Monsoon Country, and was nominated for the 1990 Nobel prize for literature. While this nomination may not have established him as a ‘great writer’, it did highlight his importance as a writer who believes literature can enhance understanding between different cultures and effect social change. He speaks on behalf of the people of Esarn, one of Thailand’s most economically and politically disadvantaged regions. Recent editions of his three works carry an introduction in which the author argues the link between his writing and his people:

Our lives are subject to the mercy of nature: floods, drought, disease, and scarcity. With endurance, we accept our fate as something we cannot go against. I know the good- heartedness, the hospitality and illiteracy of our people as well as the selfishness and corruption. I know the arrogance of shopkeepers, the middlemen, and the ignorance of the peas- ants. What I saw and learned in childhood touched me deeply.

Sudham also declares that he wants ‘to find a place in literature for the poor of Thailand so that they will not live unnoticed and die in vain’.

In fulfilling this commitment (and all his writing is dominated by the ‘great plain’ of Esarn, even when its external action occurs in Europe), Sudham remains honest about the positive and negative aspects of Esarn life. Even as he celebrates the religious rituals and life-cycles which imbue village life with coherence and calm, he exposes the corruption of local officials, the lure of the cities and of prostitution, the shame many displaced Esarn feel about their ‘Lao’ looks and speech, the ambiguities of change (especially of westernisation), and the revolutionary dream which lingers after the October Massacres of 1973, 1976 and May 18, 1992. While he can confidently and unselfconsciously, appeal to the natural and religious symbolism which is still an integral aspect of Thai rural life, Sudham depicts his people with the objective detachment of a social realist. He also draws obviously on autobiographical material, particularly in creating characters and narrators who are positioned within a process of transition. There is a village boy who, because of his parents’ sacrifice, leaves home for the sake of education, spends time in a Bangkok monastery, wins a scholarship to study in England, and eventually renounces the surface pleasures of European culture to return home and attempt a difficult reintegration. Back home, he belongs uneasily, yet dedicates himself to helping his people. Oddly, however, this Thai writer who has, in his life as in his work, returned to his village roots, writes his books in English.

Pira Sudham’s work is dominated by the symbol of Esarn, the ‘great plateau’ of North eastern Thailand, a very poor farming region which, year after year, depends on a good rainy season. This place confines its people within its own ambivalence. Esarn is a place of happy, innocent children, but also of petty, brutal officials. It is a place of patience, but also passivity, of people attuned to the cycles of nature, but also resigned to be neither happy nor unhappy.

This ambivalence prevents Esarn from becoming a sentimental or conservative symbol, just as the narrative positioning quite often ensures that Esarn is not seen as a simple home, but as a place of change in which characters and narrators are trying to fashion some wisdom from their balance of grief and gain.

Any chance that Esarn might function as a nostalgic symbol is swiftly dispelled by Rains, the first story in Siamese Drama. It is a story in which Dan, a six-year-old boy attempting to interpret and appease the land’s thirst for sacrifice, kills himself, hoping thereby to summon rain and secure happiness for his family and friends. Even as he (it seems accidentally) brings about his death, Dan discovers that the land is ‘merciless’ and loses his innocent worldview: There seemed to be so much of the cynicism in life, the universal suffering, sorrow, cruelty, the primeval bitterness and the futility of all things. Dan dies without receiving any sign that his sacrifice has been redemptive. There is, in fact, a prevailing sense that his sacrifice has more to do with blind necessity than with freedom, emerging from the helplessness and ignorance which characterise the Esam experience.

Quite a great deal of narrative sympathy is devoted to the figure of the ageing parent whose children have disappeared into the city. One example of this is A farmer and his wife. Not only are the farmer and his wife left with the work, but also with the feeling that their wisdom is dying with them. Observing how religious and social customs are deteriorating, even in rural Thailand, the wife recalls how the traditions of land and religion, once supported her life:

Our lives then seemed to have a kind of code, which bound us together, and we could go by these codes which parents and grandparents handed down to us.

Even so, her life is made coherent; as much by resignation as by ritual: she invokes the water buffalo to symbolise her acceptance of necessity and accepts that she is ‘neither happy nor unhappy’. Her husband invests the land with peace, which he also discovers in Buddhism. Yet, for all its resignation, this narrative is also a separated one: wife and farmer confide to the reader what they do not communicate to each other, how much each wants the return of their children. This narrative structure exposes the loneliness and helplessness hidden by the polite face which they show during most of their story.

Sudham’s work is sensitive to the ambiguity of its polite-faced narratives, knowing that there is a pragmatic version of innocence which cultivates the appearance of calm, even ignorance, as a way of avoiding harsher realities. In A Thai Woman in Germany, a bar-girl, who married a farang customer and moved to Hamburg, tries to convince herself that she is content: she is no longer treated with contempt, she has a chance ‘to become a human being’ and, more pragmatically, she realises that ‘a future in Germany could not be worse’ than her previous life. Gradually, however, she reveals how she was taken from her village and forced into prostitution, and how she resents the complacency and corruption, which allowed this to happen.

Pira Sudham has not written any work in Thai. Writing in English, he aims not only to give the English reader insights into Thai life, but also to give significance to the lives of the poor in rural Thailand. so that ‘they do not come into this world to merely exist, suffer and die in vain’.

 


Noel Rowe
Dr. Noel Rowe teaches Literature at the University of Sydney, Australia. In 1991, he was on exchange at Silpakorn University, Thailand.

Reporter : PDN staff   Photo : Internet   Category : Stories

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