Contemporary Politics and Sexuality: Depicting Desire
Fukutomi: Your latest novel Rang Khong Prathana [Silhouette Of Desire] released in 2017 marked a departure from the location of Kaeng Khoi. The story mainly depicts how a young artist living in Bangkok in 2016 experiences the turmoil of three coup d'états, and starts sexual relationships that seemingly coincide with those events. Was this an intentional juxtaposition?
Uthis: With regard to Kaeng Khoi, I said to myself, "That's enough" [laughs]. In Juti [Rebirth], I created new legends, history, and facts. But I felt the need to put the topic to rest, and move in the direction of a new story or a new land. That ended up being Bangkok, a more familiar space that is part of modern history. Until that time, I had mostly discussed history that was in the distant past. It was time to move closer to the present. This was achieved in the form of modern history, and especially political history, with Bangkok taking center stage. We have shared this history and this era. In my previous work, I tried to understand the history of my ancestors, so, in my latest novel, I attempted to face and understand my own history.
Fukutomi: Did you feel that you had not faced your own history thus far? Even though your own experiences were at the center of your writings?
Uthis: In this novel, the focus was on a history that was much more familiar to me. Whatever you say about modern-day Thailand, it will only be naïve and filled with a sense of weakness. We have not been liberated yet from the modern era, so it is not a part of distant history. In 2006, we had a coup d'état; in 2010, there was an incident that led to the loss of many lives; and in 2014, there was another coup d'état. This is very recent history that is still being felt, history with an outcome that is still playing out, the history of an opposition that is lurking under the guise of absolute cleansing.
This is different from Lak Alai [The Mourning Of A Scribe]. That novel was based on historical materials, such as the Royal Chronicles compiled by a private secretary of the royal family. In the days in which the upper class and the King were the record keepers of history, defeated parties could not have a voice. The concept in Rang Khong Prathana [Silhouette Of Desire] is the same. The defeated party is always erased or discarded, while the victor, the modern-day ruler, gets to write history. However, this time around, the history was familiar and of an age that we have shared. Accordingly, we can become a small voice of opposition against the larger voice that rules the country. The man in the street who is forced to experience loss and suffering also has a history. My novel aimed to represent those voices, and provide a record of the less conspicuous lives that have been cast off the stage of history by the parties in power and are therefore denied a record.
Fukutomi: You have directly experienced various political events on the personal level. Was it your intention to capture these experiences in the form of a novel?
Uthis: The novel developed out of an idea I have had for a long time. In my previous work, I looked at the dynamics of people ruling other people. The depiction of my father was an example of this. Whereas I initially discussed the father as an individual, that concept developed and eventually changed to ruling powers that restrict the lives of citizens. So, the conceptual framework is the same.
However, the novel discusses events that happened in our era. Rather than reading chronicles compiled by kings or ruling parties, I can look at this period from many angles: I can use newspapers, social media, TV, or what I hear from friends. I can outline and incorporate conditions and events, and look at them from various angles. All elements are things we have actually witnessed with our own eyes, so it is much closer to us. Since these events happened in our era, they had a major impact on us, and we can therefore empathize with what happened.
Fukutomi: In Rang Khong Prathana [Silhouette Of Desire], you write extensively about sexual topics such as sexual interactions between the protagonist and other characteristics, as well as the history of pornographic videos of the like. You describe in detail the human body, physical activity, and postures. However, based on what you have explained thus far, it sounds as if the theme of sexuality is secondary. Am I right?
Uthis: Romantic love and relationships between people are part of everyone's emotional foundation. Therefore, we cannot deny sexuality which is born out of an expression of love for, or infatuation with, the another person. It is a form of physical activity that expresses love or fulfilment. This physical activity shows us the external form and the internal aspects of the body. The physical activity, postures, and reactions that are part of sexual activity transmit certain kinds of conventional, traditional, or even cultural nuances. Political societies and sexual activity both have existed for a long time throughout history. Today, however, sexuality is frowned upon as something that is vulgar or unclean. However, there was a time in which the female genitals were considered a symbol of fertility and the male genitals a source of goodness, with sexual activities thus being viewed as sacred. Moving into the modern period, they have become regarded as dirty and subject to prohibition and censorship.
At the same time, regulations and conventions that govern social citizens in many cases adopt conduct or attitudes that threaten and coerce people. I believe this is no different from physical conduct during sexual activity, and I simply juxtaposed those two images. I tried to show that there is no difference in these types of conduct, and that there is mutual overlap.
In the first chapter of Juti [Rebirth], I describe the birth of the world: the earth shook, lava spewed out of the volcano, and water arising from fractures in the ground poured out, creating an ocean. And the surface of the ocean billowed. Of course, I am depicting geological phenomena, but the language is sexually suggestive. I am using language that seems to suggest the world is merging in that moment. The same applies to Rang Khong Prathana [Silhouette Of Desire]. I use sexual nuances and language that is suggestive of sexual activity to depict modern politics and history.
Fukutomi: Are the two images that you are comparing in this novel both an expression of primitive human desires? Is that why you can superimpose them even in parts that are not related to physical activity or gesture?
Uthis: In the sense that they determine rules and regulations, the ruling or controlling parties hold desires vis-à-vis the people they rule. They use a carrot-and-stick approach. They project an illusory image of themselves that needs to be accepted, loved, adored, and worshipped. Thereafter, they approach the public, start a relationship or connection with them, and this is where sexual desire is born. This dynamic is the same whether it occurs between two individuals in a relationship or between the government controlling a nation as part of its control.
When you are making romantic advances to someone, you must show yourself at your best and promote yourself so the other party becomes interested in you. Politicians in an election must present policies that will attract the attention of the people. They need people to fall in love with their policies and get people to vote for them, so they can win an election.
In other words, the same driving power, which is the emotion of desiring and seeking a connection, is operating in both cases. And this results in sexual activity. In this context, sexual activity can refer to an actual exchange between two naked bodies, but also exposing oneself politically as well as policy or propaganda-wise, and trying to curry favor or stimulating each other to generate mutual (sexual) desire. A relationship is formed because both parties benefit. This is my personal view on the issue. In this sense, the book turned the question around by asking, "Why is this considered obscene?" Is it not the case where the traditional, cultural, and conventional ideas used to manage and control people by parties in power end up imposing violence on those people? Because we use expressions such as "beautiful traditions" or "peace and order provided by the state," but does that make it any less obscene? Is it not the case that those expressions indicate a desire to have a relationship with the people? This is effectively no different from "engaging in sexual activity" with the citizens.
My novel therefore conveys the idea that the beautiful statements, ideals, and conventions used by the government or parties in power are tools to deceive people by giving out sweets to them only to subsequently violate their rights. This is a reality we must confront with sincerity, and I wanted to show that our rights are violated in this way. We need to know that we have the power and right to negotiate and refuse such treatment, or take action against the ruling power. Under the current circumstances, the ruling power can violate our rights in all kinds of situations, and this is the reality. The desires of governments are extremely obscene, but this obscenity is kept quiet.
Fukutomi: Rang Khong Prathana [Silhouette Of Desire] has spawned several derivative projects. First, there was the painting exhibition which is said to feature the paintings created by your protagonist, Koashing—although, you are obviously the painter. There is also special font that appears to be inserted throughout the text. You designed a new type of font that resembles the human body. Finally, you are also working on a dramatization project in collaboration with Japanese playwright Toshiki Okada.
I attended your talk with Mr. Okada, "The Nation State and Art—Reflecting on Thailand," held at the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art, Kanazawa. The dramatization project came up in the discussion, and one of the subsequent comments from the audience suggested that the issues you talked about mostly deal with Thailand, meaning that they are incredibly confined, while Mr. Okada seemed to talk about another different layer. What you are trying to depict in your novel is perhaps the idea of the nation state in Thailand, its geographical body, the desires of the ruling party in the country, or the desires of the Thai people. However, what Mr. Okada is perhaps aiming for is to deconstruct the space between nations. I would like to ask where you see yourself heading once you have finished portraying the desires you originally had in mind. In other words, is the book simply meant to convey to readers the events that are occurring in the confined space that is modern-day Thailand?
Uthis: The book is perceived as a dangerous novel due to its inclusion of extremely strong violence as well as political and sexual elements. However, what should not be forgotten is that key issues that are present in all my work are the problems of artistic expression by artists and the question of how to express and transmit what is in my mind using a creative approach. You will recall I mentioned my graduation production earlier, and there is a connection here. The questions I faced at that time have lingered inside me.
For example, in Juti [Rebirth], I use five different storytelling voices, and I tried to deepen my understanding of various literary genres and methodologies, such as elements from chronicles, romantic literature, detective stories, and metafiction. These elements helped me develop my skills and understanding, and confront a new space or more expanded creative terrain.
The same is true for Rang Khong Prathana [Silhouette Of Desire]. This novel turns a dream into reality. At the time of my graduation production, this was not yet possible. The question of how and how far I could extend the artistic realm was always in the back of my mind. This is why Rang Khong Prathana [Silhouette Of Desire] became a work in which an individual artist runs into problems during the course of his artistic activities. In fact, the political story is perhaps nothing more than a secondary narrative. The main narrative is the story of the individual, his experiences and love life, how these things change, which developments occur, and how losses and suffering end up producing changes in the form of his artistic expression.
In this sense, the novel is neither dangerous nor radically political in nature. It asks questions about the scope of art through the artist and his story, and expands this scope. In Rang Khong Prathana [Silhouette Of Desire], I was able to write additional content that I was not able to at the age of twenty-four or twenty-five.
Fukutomi: Is this the reason that the novel was not merely a literary work, but also extended into the field of painting and theater?
Uthis: After completing Juti [Rebirth] and prior to moving on to my latest novel, I felt a desire to paint again. I wanted to paint and write at the same time, and rather than limiting myself to illustrations, I wondered how to fuse the two. That is when I came up with the idea of holding a painting exhibition in the name of the protagonist. Additionally, by designing the font myself and slipping it into the text, I created the possibility for readers to think, "Why are these phrases using a different font." You can hide meaning in a novel. This was within the scope of my abilities. I can paint and I can write, and the font design effort falls under painting. Of course, I had the fonts refined by a designer.
But all these activities extended the boundaries of art, and ultimately deepened my knowledge. I was unable to realize a grand art concept in my graduation production. Because this had now become within my reach, I did what was possible based on my current ideas.
In the modern age, the boundaries of various art disciplines have become ambiguous, and art is now more interconnected. However, such trends are being lumped under the term "art," but nothing is clear. This is why I set out in such a direction.
When I met Mr. Toshiki Okada, I told him about what I was working on. Mr. Okada said he was interested in dramatizing my project. That proposal matched the idea I had carried from my days as a college student until today. I would not be able to produce a theater piece on my own, so I was very happy when the offer came and was delighted about starting a collaboration, about being able to see this novel develop into a new form.
Fukutomi: In other words, does this mean that you do not attach much significance to the fact that you will be collaborating with a Japanese author while the original work deals more with the unique nature of Thailand?
Uthis: In response to the point that the novel is overly confined to Thailand as a location, and the meaning of working with a Japanese author in that context, I would say that that is merely a small detail or element. The main part of my novel deals with art, which is a universal language. Using this as the context, the novel tells the story of human emotion arising from direct encounters with certain events. This is another universal theme. The events in question are, of course, depicted in a specific space or land, but if you set out to create a work in which the emotional problems, artistic problems, and the characters appearing in the novel transcend this limitation, it becomes extremely universal in nature. This applies to any artist, does it not?
I could return the question by asking why we, or Japanese people, can read The Picture of Dorian Gray [by Oscar Wilde] and understand its concepts? You can read Russian literature and link that to a story about an emperor assassination. When you read American literature set in a world modeled after Mississippi, why do we understand it? The same applies to my novel. I use Thailand as my stage, and it is distinguished by unique conditions, situations, and history. In just twenty years, the country experienced three military coup d'états. However, such conditions can also be witnessed in other parts of the world. Examples include regulations that seek to prohibit or restrict certain conduct, calls aimed at realizing internal harmony within a country, or nationalistic policies that close off a country and ignore events in surrounding areas. Thailand was certainly not the first country to experience such conditions. These problems have existed in various regions throughout history. In this sense, I am not concerned about whether foreigners will be able to understand the novel. I think we can refer to the theme as "collective history" formed and learned from cases in various regions around the world.This is exactly why the collaboration with Mr. Okada will be very exciting. Our visions are aligned: we both look at the world through the lens of art. That is why we are attracted to each other's work. The appeal Mr. Okada sees in working with me has nothing to do with the political problems in Thailand, but is based on the idea of sharing the problem of independently exploring creative art forms as a single artist. This is why we have good chemistry. We will collaborate to push our art forms into a different space, and I believe this is what we both share and understand.
On June 23, 2017 at the precog office (Tokyo)
Silhouette of desire (tentative): A Collaboration Project between Uthis Haemamool and Toshiki Okada
Uthis Haemamool's latest novel, Silhouette of desire , will be brought onto stage by playwright and director Toshiki Okada, co-produced by the Japan Foundation Asia Center and precog. Co., Ltd. The novel portrays the life and sexual escapades of an artist in Thailand from the early 1990's until the present in 2017. As artists, both Uthis's and Toshiki's lives are strongly reflected in this collaboration and stage adaptation, which in turns mirrors the present moment(s) in Japan and Thailand. The stage production will premiere in the summer of 2018 in Bangkok, followed by tours.
A special website
Pratthana - A Portrait of Possession
Interviewer: Sho Fukutomi
Born in 1986, Tokyo. Specially-Appointed Lecturer at Global Initiative Center, Kagoshima University, Thai literary researcher, and Thai-Japanese translator. His book Notes for Thai Contemporary Literature (Fukyo-sha) is about to be published. He is translating Tun Bon Tiang Un [Wake Up New] by Prabda Yoon, appeared serially in Genron. He co-authored 72 Chapters to Learn About Thailand (Akashi Shoten, 2014), Apichatpong Weerasethakul: The Artist of Light and Memory (Film Art, 2016), and so on.
Photo (Interview): Naoki Takehisa