The Father Figures in Uthis' Novels
Fukutomi: Many of your full-length novels feature the relationship between a boy or young man, who is the protagonist, and his father. Many observers suggest the father figure in your books reflects your own father. Why did you write about your own father?
Uthis: One event that had a major impact on me at the time was the death of my father. This happened when I was a junior in university. My father and I did not have a good relationship: when I decided to study art, I was nearly ousted from the family.
I was ambitious and wanted to achieve my own goals and attain success. I imagined feeling a sense of pride when I would come home and show him my achievements. Even though I ran away from the family, I wanted to confront him with my success; I wanted to show him that I could make a living from art. But I had not yet managed to produce a single artwork, or earn a decent living. My father passed away while I had yet to achieve anything. Since that experience, I felt very strongly that I would never achieve success because the person I wanted to demonstrate this to the most had left this earth.
This explains why the father character plays an important role in many of my stories. He, the father, is a presence that looks on from far way, or visits with the intent of controlling or dominating [the son]. The character of my father has become a motif. That is what happened.
Fukutomi: But no matter how much you write about your father, he will not be able to read your works.
Uthis: Well, through this process, I deepened the understanding of myself and purged my feelings. I direct questions at myself and answer them myself.
Fukutomi: Your short novels seem to revolve more around the themes of life in the city, everyday experiences, relationships between young men and women, love, and loneliness.
Uthis: My father started to surface as an influence once I started writing longer works: he is present in nearly all my longer novels. He plays a vital role in Lap Lae, Kaeng Khoi [The Brotherhood of Kaeng Khoi] (2009), and the father figure dies in Lak Alai [The Mourning Of A Scribe] (2012). However, there was still much left to explore, so the story further pursues this topic. The husband character in Juti [Rebirth] (2015), reflects my father to a large extent.
As I developed this theme, the presence of the father started to transcend the simply single individual. It morphed into themes such as the concept of fatherhood in society, rules, and discipline, and how these become a form of oppression for people. The personal experience I had of my father reflected or symbolized convention, tradition, practices, and traditional morals experienced in a different space of the country I lived in. This change originated from the perspective of a male-dominated society. By pointing a finger at their wives or children, husbands and fathers could order them around. The father as an individual changed into images that were more of a symbolic nature.
Fukutomi: Did you experience strong oppression from your father?
Uthis: Yes, that was the case [laughs]. My father had a sharp tongue. I often witnessed him cursing at my mother or other women. He would curse at my mother in front of his children, and attempt to turn her into the laughing stock of the family. He also made various decisions for the children, and forced my mother to execute these. He would order her around saying things like, "Make sure this child learns that" or "See to it that this child does that work." When he was unsatisfied with anything, he would immediately punish us. He always had a whip next to him. If the whip was not available, he would use his arms or legs. He must have had a problem controlling his anger. And the family, his wife and children, would be at the receiving end of this.
One day, I must have upset him for some reason, and I fled outside of the house. But my father's anger had reached a boiling point, and he chased me. As I looked back while hearing him shout "Wait!" a rock came flying at me. That is what gave me this scar on my face. The rock struck me with a blunt force, and I lost consciousness on the spot, crumbling to my feet with a bleeding face. My mother broke down in tears, but my father walked away with an air of indifference.
He was incapable of controlling his emotions, and I suffered a lot of abuse at his hands. Whatever I did would not be to his liking. Then I would be punished. He would tie me to a tree by the road, and leave me there exposed to the sun, rain, and wind for an entire day. He would go to work and say, "Stay here until I get back." I used to think, "You tied me up, so how could I leave?"
I guess this amounted to child abuse. That is a term that would be used in modern society but back then, fathers were considered "owners" who could dictate the lives of other people. They could do anything to anyone and get away with it. In their role as a guardian, they were regarded as being above transgressions. That gives you a glimpse of what was generally accepted by society during that period. Although fathers carried out transgressions, they were considered to be above those rules and therefore not held accountable. This is an idea that has prevailed in Thailand for a long time, and I experienced it at a personal level. The father stands above transgressions, and does not make errors. As a result, he is able to commit transgressions by punishing others. So, in this context, you can see how I started to compare fatherhood with statehood at the conceptual level.
Kaeng Khoi Epic: Memories, History, and New Legends
Fukutomi: In 2009, you won both the Seven Award and the Southeast Asian Writers Award for Lap Lae, Kaeng Khoi [The Brotherhood of Kaeng Khoi], and that seems to have been the start of your success.*3
*3 The Seven Award is a book award issued by the CP Group, the massive business conglomerate that operates the 7-Eleven convenience store network in Thailand. The award is offered in different categories. The Southeast Asian Writers Award is the leading pure literature award in Thailand that is presented annually.
Uthis: I wrote two full-length novels prior to receiving the award: Gemini's Dance (2004) and Mirror/Mirror (2006). I entered the world of Thai literature at a time when individual emotion and stories were the key topics being explored. Before that, literature was referred to as "literature for the sake of life," and mainly dealt with social phenomena and events. However, these trends did not emerge overnight.
Films were the strongest influence for storytelling in the art media, and works by filmmakers such as Wong Kar-wai and Tsai Ming-liang had a major impact on the art of the time. In terms of literature, the short novels of Haruki Murakami had been translated and started to become available in Thailand. These influences led me to explore the themes of lonely young people in the cities and individuals who are trapped in the emptiness of society.
However, my works do not contain a strong desire for recognition [laughs]. My characters do not sink into self-pity or drift away with the emptiness of society. My strength was to express the innermost feelings of my characters. That is often raised as a unique characteristic of my work: how I describe the character's psychological states of mind by their stream of consciousness, or how I depict the innermost feelings of the characters as a floor plan or blueprint of a single room, for instance. That is because I describe everything using tangible images. To continue using the room analogy, I put a shelf here, a fridge there, and a copier in yet another location.
The novelist Daen-aran Saengthong *4 wrote the preface to Gemini's Dance , and I cannot deny that this attracted attention to my work. An image of me was formed as a literary rebel who did not favor close relationships. Reviewers looked at the novel as a story of suffering, or one of explicit sexual depictions, or wondered why it was able to move people to such an extent. Such elements were told from the inside of the characters. Many readers and critics came to see this as a fresh voice. I also received a positive response for Mirror/Mirror .
*4 An author who left the society to live in the mountains, and maintains little communication with other authors. His full-length novel The White Shadow (1993) attracted attention when it was translated into French and several other languages. In 2014, he won the Southeast Asian Writers Award for his work Venom and Other Stories
However, the peak of my success came with my third full-length novel Lap Lae, Kaeng Khoi [The Brotherhood of Kaeng Khoi]. This novel explored the themes of identity, ego, sexuality, the relationship between fathers and their children, and oppression in the family. The story takes place in the Kaeng Khoi district, *5 which was created into a new world within Thai literature. The novel won two major literary awards, namely, the Seven Book Awards and the Southeast Asian Writers Award. Once your work gets an award, ordinary people start to read it and, for many readers, the location of Kaeng Khoi became a new literary space. While some readers may regard the district as fictional, others head to Kaeng Khoi after reading the story, making a pilgrimage to the sites that appear in the book. You can even hear people asking questions such as, "Where is that big tree?" or "Where is the cement factory?"
*5 A district located in the central Saraburi Province of Thailand, which is Uthis' birthplace.
Fukutomi: You used Kaeng Khoi as the setting for three books, starting with Lap Lae, Kaeng Khoi [The Brotherhood of Kaeng Khoi], and subsequently Lak Alai [The Mourning Of A Scribe] in 2012, and Juti [Rebirth] 2015. As a result, these works are being referred to as the "Kaeng Khoi Epic" or the "Kaeng Khoi Trilogy." Lap Lae, Kaeng Khoi [The Brotherhood of Kaeng Khoi] described the memories of a family that lives in the district. Lak Alai [The Mourning Of A Scribe] represents an intersection between the relationships among people in the district and the history of the place. Juti [Rebirth] starts off with a legend about the creation of the world, and depicts the life and soul of the people in the district in a mystical and dynamic manner. Did you intentionally set out to write a series of books with Kaeng Khoi as the main setting?
Uthis: It was not my original intention. When I started thinking of writing about Kaeng Khoi, I only had Lap Lae, Kaeng Khoi [The Brotherhood of Kaeng Khoi] in mind. However, the next theme I addressed in Lak Alai [The Mourning Of A Scribe] was that of the father character, the fatherhood of the land, and history of the land. I also referenced historical materials such as the Royal Chronicles.
Two brothers return to their hometown to attend their father's funeral and end up meeting again. This story draws parallels with the opposition between Rama I and his younger brother, the Crown Prince, as documented in the Royal Chronicles of the early Rattanakosin period (1782–1932). It looks at the question of how this opposition affected King Taksin, who was sitting on the throne before Rama succeeded him. At the time, Burma had invaded Thailand and Ayutthaya had been destroyed. King Taksin was assembling an army and preparing a counterattack. Rama (who would later become King Rama I) and his younger brother Surasinghanat, respectively considered the right and left hands of King Taksin, joined the Thai attack, but a confrontation occurred between the two brothers. In the novel, this historical fact is compared with the confrontation of the characters that occurs at their father's funeral.
I used Kaeng Khoi as the location without any particular intention, and this gave rise to the geography of the space of Kaeng Khoi. When I wrote the novel, I was earning a living as a book editor and proofreader. The materials I was proofreading at the time were all related to history. One of the scenes I came across in the Royal Chronicles of Ayutthaya compiled many centuries ago was about Saraburi Province and the stone footprint of the Buddha *6 found in that location. As I was involved in the editing of this book, I got insights into the roots of my own birthplace, and I began to imagine the Kaeng Khoi district as a single country through the lives of the people residing there. This also led me to write Juti [Rebirth], although I initially had no intention to write a trilogy about Kaeng Khoi. Lap Lae, Kaeng Khoi [The Brotherhood of Kaeng Khoi] describes the memories of the land, and Lak Alai [The Mourning Of A Scribe] deals with the history of the place. Juti [Rebirth] creates a new history. You could also say that I created a new legend. Based on the modern facts and an underlying comprehension, I created an alternative history or past.
*6 A stone footprint of the Buddha is said to have been discovered during the Ayutthaya Period (fourteenth to eighteenth century). Many kings undertook pilgrimages to the location. Today, a temple has been established on the premises.
In Juti [Rebirth], there is a scene where I describe how various regions in the Saraburi Province originated. These scenes were entirely my own creation [laughs]. I used historical facts as a basis, but selectively picked such facts and then blended in my own elements. If you ask the residents of Kaeng Khoi whether the legend is true, they will tell you it is not real. I wanted to create a story that transcends regular stories. In other words, a story that no longer behaves like a story. However, this is not where the creative aspect came into play. Rather, the aim was to create a story that unpretentiously mimics history, chronicles, and facts. That was the challenge for Juti [Rebirth]. Since it was well-received, I assume I succeeded in this attempt to a certain extent.
My novels are quite lengthy, and they only discuss a specific land. Other than the location of Kaeng Khoi, there are no continuous elements in my novels. The more I write, the more I explore and the deeper I go into the topics of land, locations, and their histories; as if going down the crater of a meteorite. This is why these novels have become referred to as an epic or trilogy.