Prabda Yoon is a household name in Thailand. He has written over twenty books, translated works of Western Literature from English into Thai, designed hundreds of book covers, and written and directed feature films. His work was first brought to my attention while I was working as a bookseller in Cardiff, UK. I was following the output of a small independent publisher, Tilted Axis Press, who were bringing diverse and transgressive work from East Asia into English for the first time. In 2017 they published Yoon’s The Sad Part Was translated by Mui Poopoksakul. It was the first translation of Thai literature in English to be published in the UK. It struck me mostly because of its use of language and genre. It is exactly that kind of playful and surreal work that has always appealed to me as both a writer and a reader, and is also a testament to the skill of a good translation — that managed to capture wordplay, pun, and style across language.
His second collection in English, Moving Parts, was published by Tilted Axis Press this year. I now work as a bookseller in Foyles Bookshop in Bristol, where we hosted Prabda and Mui in September for the launch of the book. We later caught up over Skype, while Prabda was travelling in mainland Europe.
Prabda Yoon: It was so nice seeing you in Bristol. Thanks for your support
Callum McAllister: It was nice meeting you. I’m glad it was a success and thanks for coming! How is Berlin?
PY: It’s like summer now. Quite nice. The events went well.
CM: Yes I’ve heard it’s a lot hotter than over here at the moment. As I remember when we met at the event with Foyles in Bristol it was unseasonably rainy.
I always wonder, when I see writers on a stint of travelling like you are now, about the tension between writing as a solitary activity and publishing and publicity as definitionally public acts. Do you feel that tension at all? And do you see writing as a primarily solitary act, or do you treat it as such?
PY: Yes, I also feel that writing is an intensely solitary act, and I do need to block myself off from the world around me when I work on a novel or any piece of writing that requires deep digging in search of rare gems. But thinking is often just as important for writing , and I don’t need the same sort of solitude to think. On the contrary, travelling somehow allows me to think more adventurously. I get quite a lot of thinking done while travelling.
CM: Thinking is a form of productive work, though it’s harder to quantify and justify. With writing, there is a word count, or even, you can say you have spent a certain amount of time writing. With thinking it’s hard to even say when it gets done. Do you keep a notebook at all while travelling ? And do you try and make space for this kind of work when you’re not spending time away from home?
PY: I don’t keep a regular journal but I do often jot down ideas or copy sentences that strike me as interesting or usable for future reference. Ideas for novels also often spring out of nowhere while I’m on the road. When I’m home ideas tend to come more from my daily reads, which is less exciting because it’s kind of predictable to be inspired by works of other writers or artists. It feels more fresh to suddenly come up with a story while riding an overnight train, for example.
CM: And maybe more authentic? Or at least, it sometimes feels that way to me. If I take an idea from something I read, it’s very consciously done and, because I know its origin, it can feel derivative—even though all writing and creativity has these roots.
I was wondering where the ideas behind Moving Parts originated from. To me it seems thematically concerned with bodies. I guess I have two questions: why did you choose this focus? And did you plan to link these stories before you started writing? Or was it more that in writing, you betrayed ideas surrounding bodies that might’ve been latent in your thoughts—that now, the thematic thread that binds this collection together is obvious in retrospect.
PY: It’s difficult to answer this question with precision because the idea for Moving Parts came to me so long ago, but most likely it was inspired by my interest around that time in models of human body organs, the kinds made for medical and scientific studies. But I also see body parts as mysterious because we actually aren’t fully aware of what they’re doing most of the time. In many ways, our body is like a foreign landscape to us, which is strange as well as alarming. It was this feeling towards the body that I used as a starting point for the collection.
CM: Did that sense of foreignness inspire the surrealist and science-fictional elements in the collection? As a collection it’s focused on the body although not on— for lack of a better word—the “real” quirks and abnormalities of our bodies.
PY: I think my use of surrealism and speculative elements is meant to be subtle, as if the weirdness is actually quite normal for the characters involved. I don’t like to over emphasize it. In that sense, the weirdness in my stories is meant to mirror the weirdness in everyday life that we consider normal just because it’s been accepted and experienced repeatedly, but when we take the time to reflect on it we realize it’s far from logical or reasonable
CM: It’s been a long time since these stories came out in Thailand. I listened to a talk by Olga Togarczuk’s whose novel Flights won the Man Booker International this year — another book that focuses thematically on bodies and anatomy. It took almost a decade to be translated into English after its first publication in Polish. She spoke about that feeling of disconnect, and said she struggled to remember a lot of what inspired the book even as the English-speaking world was only now experiencing it for the first time. Do you feel a disconnection to the work now being published in English by Tilted Axis Press, given that’s it’s been well over a decade since you first wrote and published these stories? Do you feel as though they’re a good representation of your work to English readers?
PY: Yes, I do feel a disconnection. But in my case it’s mainly a disconnection with style. I no longer write in that way. These early stories were playful and fearless in challenge to the Thai language. I had fun with that kind of attitude but it didn’t last. I became exhausted with it. Now my style is leaner and cleaner. But they’re certainly an authentic representation of my interest at the time.
CM: Where do you place your work in terms of the larger writing tradition?
PY: I always thought that my literary work would end up being obscure, something that a future indie press might somehow dig up and reprint as an example of weird Thai literature. I felt a kind of connection with Daniil Kharms when I discovered his work, so I thought my work would also end up in a similar way. Or someone like Paul Scheerbath. I’m well aware that my kind of writing doesn’t have a mainstream appeal. That was also why it was such a surprise to win the SEA Write award. I think of myself as a modernist who wouldn’t be granted membership for the modernist club because I’d be considered not serious enough.
CM: How do you feel that your work, and Thai writing at large, has changed since these stories were first published?
PY: My style has changed considerably over the years. I was a bit extreme with the puns and wordplays in these early stories. Now I write much cleaner, and I have more self-restraint with wordplay. I also tend to write longer. And lately my stories tend to have socio-political dimensions to them. Literary Thai writing in general seems to be moving towards that direction as well, probably because of the political crisis we’ve found ourselves in for the past decade.
CM: Where does a piece begin for you? In Foyles, you mentioned how some ideas feel like novel ideas rather than short story ideas. Are there certain ideas or concepts that feel more natural to express in different forms, and if so, do you have a generally preferred form?
PY: Ideas come to me in many different ways. For example, the other night I was presenting the Italian translation of The Sad Part Was in Pordenone, and as I was looking at the audience I suddenly thought how interesting it would be if I saw someone who looked exactly like me sitting there with a very nonchalant expression, and that the story would be about how I would not understand why he couldn’t see that we were doppelgängers. This sort of idea can pop into my head at any time, but often it’s forgotten soon afterwards. So a piece of work usually begins when an idea feels solid enough, or interesting enough for me to explore. Because rough ideas come to me quite regularly, it’s easier to transform them into short stories, but after having written so many short pieces over the years I’ve become less intrigued by them and I now prefer the challenge of longer works.
CM: In both The Sad Part Was and Moving Parts, you insert yourself as either a character or as “the author” into your own work, and from what you’ve said about your most recent novel in Thai, Basement Moon, you appear as a character in that work, too. This kind of metafictional twist has always really appealed to me—in the works of writers such as Kurt Vonnegut and in recent autofiction—though I can never figure out why. I was wondering what you feel is the draw of those kind of metafictional moments?
PY: I’m drawn to the exposure of the author, or perhaps we could say “creator”, to apply it to all kinds of creative works. While it’s really amazing that the art of make-believe is so powerful, I think the realization that it’s make-believe is equally powerful. It’s enlightening to know that there is a person behind the Wizard of Oz. On the other hand, I enjoy playing with the mind of the reader. I think the question “Is it true?” is indispensable for the human mind.
CM: As both a literary translator, a publisher, and a writer whose work has been translated, do you think you have a unique perspective on the process of translation? English-language writers are unlikely to ever read their own work in translation, even though it is more likely to be translated, because we typically aren’t multilingual, and so we end up harbouring misconceptions regarding translation.
PY: I don’t know if my perspective is unique but I think having translated a bit helps me to understand the difficulties of literary translation and it makes me very much aware, when I’m reading a translation, that there are more layers to the text than what’s presented. Translators are usually underrated or under-appreciated, but any good literary translation is also the creative work of the translator. I’ve always been curious about Dostoevsky in Russian, for example, because I’ve read repeatedly that people who read Russian think he’s a terrible writer. We would never know from the translations. Some authors are more successful in some languages than others. I suspect that it has a lot to do with the translation.
CM: The Sad Part Was was the first translation of Thai literature into English to be published in the UK. Going forward, do you think we’ll be seeing more Thai work in English?
PY: The good news is that we will see more Thai literature translated into English by Mui Poopoksakul for sure. In 2019, two books by the Thai author Duanwad Pimwana will be published in the US, both translated by her. That’s really exciting. But I really don’t know if the interest in Thai literature will increase in other languages and cultures. It’s a complicated issue. I think one of the reasons Thai literature has been of so little interest globally has to do with the history of modern Thai literature itself, specifically the fact that it has always been heavily influenced by Western Literature and never produced any qualities that could be said to be unique. In the past, when the West was seeking oriental exoticism, Thai literature probably wasn’t able to compete with works from China, Japan, India, or Indonesia, because “culture” in Thailand was simply not as rich and there was very little literature available. When the world confronted global wars, Thailand didn’t produce any significant literature depicting the experiences from them either. Maybe globalization was needed in order to generate more interest in Thai culture, for better or for worse. As far as I know, the country that’s been translating Thai literature more or less consistently since the second World War is Japan. But I think the reason is also complicated there. It’s definitely not because the Japanese public has been loving Thai literature.
CM: You’ve translated some particularly iconic examples of American and British literature into Thai yourself, such as Lolita, The Catcher in the Rye and A Clockwork Orange. What drew you to these works? I’d imagine Nabokov and Burgess would be particularly challenging.
PY: I did not choose to translate any of these works personally. The publisher, Lighthouse Publishing, approached me to do it. I had doubts every time they asked me to translate each of these works. Of course I think these books should be available for Thai readers, but I doubted whether I would be the right person to translate them. I’m actually more drawn towards obscure or little known works. The only books I decided to translate myself were Dogwalker by Arthur Bradford and R.U.R. by Karel Čapek. But I’m grateful to have been able to translate these iconic works nonetheless.
CM: In art, film or literature, is there anything that you’re really excited about right now? What makes you (if anything) optimistic about the future?
PY: I see that there’s a lot of people making exciting works in all of these fields, but for some reason there’s also a feeling that even exciting works are not exciting in eye-opening, jaw-dropping ways anymore. This could be an age-related sentiment, certainly, but I do wish there was something more groundbreaking to be excited about out there. I try to follow new music, and a lot of the new stuff is pretty good. But it seems to be easier to be “good” now somehow. Some people have told me that the video game world is where all the exciting narrative innovations are at, but I haven’t played games seriously in over 30 years, it would take some time to familiarize myself. It may already be too late for me. What makes me optimistic about the future is, as always, its unpredictability. So I’m not really all that disappointed with anything. I look forward to being surprised and impressed by something that may be just around the corner.