SOMTOW'S SEA WRITE AWARDS KEYNOTE SPEECH
Reinventing oneself as a Southeast Asian writer
October 15, 2006
May it please Your Royal Highnesses,
Ladies and Gentlemen:
I must begin this speech by confessing myself a total failure. When I was contacted by the awards committee, only a few days ago, I thought it would not be too difficult to perform the task of impersonating one of the most well-known Nobel prize winning authors in the world.
But, though I pulled my Yoruba dictionary off the shelf (don't laugh - I have two of them) and stood in front of a mirror for hours trying to replicate the cadence and body language of a great Nigerian playwright, I think you may have already noticed, if you look at the name on the back of your invitation card and if you look very closely at my face, that I am not he.
Look again! Not even close.
I studied our guest of honour's prose with great care, read his interviews, and tried to imagine what such a world-class intellect, such a passionate advocate for human rights as he would have to say to you, the men and women who have been honored as Southeast Asia's most creative minds.
As I thought about it, however, my unease and my insecurity was gradually replaced by another, all too human feeling - indignation. I thought to myself:
What gives this person, flying in from the world beyond, who has never experienced what we have experienced, who has never known what it is like to be a Southeast Asian, the right to tell me that I am not free? Why is it that all these pundits, so far away, who have never so much as breathed our Southeast Asian air, or felt our burning sun against their faces, always presume to know so much about what we think, feel, are?
So I must begin by informing our absent guest of honor tonight that I am proud to stand here, in front of my prince, my peers, and my compatriots, to tell the world that right here, in this place and time, I have never felt more free. I have finally come home, and it feels great.
I want to say tonight that we who have collectively dreamt into being our vision of Southeast Asia, are not here to have the world teach us who we are. The world has changed. We are here to teach them. But to do this, we must first dare to know ourselves.
This daring is at the very heart of what we do. And it's the very heart of what I want to talk about this evening.
So please don't be disappointed. I won't be offering you any pearls of wisdom from the Olympian viewpoint of a Nobel prize winner. Instead, I will be speaking as one of you. I think it's about time someone did that.
1953. I was six months old. I left Thailand. I'm afraid I had little choice in the matter. In my childhood I drifted from culture to culture, country to country. I was a perpetual stranger. Being an outsider was the greatest gift I ever received as a novelist and as a composer, because it enabled me to see things in people's lives that they had often hidden from themselves. It is because of this gift of peregrination, bestowed on me by my parents, that I acquired a reputation for being able to write novels from the perspective of people utterly different from myself - women, Native Americans, vampires, aliens, even, in one case, whales.
Today, more that half a century later, I have returned home. I've seen the world as an American, and I've seen it as a Southeast Asian. I would like to share with you a few episodes from this journey. I think it is a journey which all of us take, on one level or another, when we say to the world, I am an artist, and I am a Southeast Asian. Perhaps some of you did not have to travel the globe for fifty years to reach the precarious ledge I now stand on, halfway up the hill with the ultimate goal still glimmering in the distance. But it is our journey and no one else's.
What is an artist — and what is a Southeast Asian — and where do these two areas intersect? This is a perplexing question and in my life it was first asked when at the age of 11 I wrote a certain poem which was published in the Bangkok Post.
It was a rather silly poem, really. It was about the wind, and about a rather alienated child - myself, no doubt - who felt more kinship with the wind than with the human beings around him. The author was a self-important young brat. Some of the words were awkwardly chosen. Indeed, my only recollection of the poem for years was that in it, I had managed to sneak in the word quasitangible.
Now, by one of those monumentally novelistic coincidences that statistically cannot happen, the well known actress Shirley MacLaine was in Bangkok and happened to read the Post that day.
The fractured cadences of youth spoke to her in a different voice - maybe one of those stilted pseudo-oriental voices that you might hear in a western movie — perhaps like James Mason in Lost Horizon. And the line "I am not a man" written because I was a child, spoke to her, perhaps, in feminist terms. It seems that my poem changed her life, though in a very real sense it was a completely different poem that only happened to have all the same words as my own.
Years later, when I was in late adolesence, I discovered that this poem had been reprinted as the epigraph to Shirley MacLaine's autobiography and New Age manifesto, Don't Fall Off the Mountain.
I had written a rather silly and childish sort of poem. But to someone from a completely different perspective, it had become a jewel of ancient oriental wisdom. Its ingenuous phrases, stripped of their context, had become the intellectual equivalent of a fortune cookie.
When I was eleven years old, I couldn't even speak a word of Thai. But now, from the other side of the world, someone had heard my voice - only I couldn't recognize the voice she had heard. By accident, I had become one of the mysteries of the east.
Out of this bizarre case of mistaken identity was born a kind of career.
My feelings were ambiguous to say the least. A seventeen year old is bound to be embarrassed to see something he dashed off at eleven on the front page of a best seller. It was a writer friend of my parents' the mystery writer Patricia Moyes, who said to me, "Don't get mad. Get money."
I found an agent and pretty soon a check for five hundred dollars, minus ten percent, popped into my mailbox. I learned very young that words can pay the bills.
It is still the most per word I have ever been paid, so in a sense my career has been on a downward spiral ever since.
I tell this story to illustrate a very important truth about what we do. The western world has some curious ideas about who we are. And they're a lot louder than we are, so some of us can perhaps be forgiven when we start believing that we are who they say we are.
I know this for a fact because, I confess, I have been guilty of it too.
In my twenties, with my shiny British classical education still clinging to my swelled head, I returned to Thailand for the first time since childhood. Of course, I had grand ambitions. I knew that I was going to breeze into the kingdom of smiles and change the arts forever.
I lasted eighteen months.
On the other hand, those eighteen months were wild enough for a lifetime. I and my fellow artists upturned many carts. We had simultaneously come up with this idea that we could throw together all the sonorities of western and Southeast Asian music and produce exciting new sounds, new avenues of creation.
Everybody hated us. In retrospect, it was pretty thrilling. I recalled stories of Stravinsky having to flee out of the bathroom window after the premiere of The Rite of Spring, and I tried to tell myself to calm down.
I think that perhaps the turning point for me came when my friends and I, in 1978, organized a huge Asian composers' conference in Bangkok. We wanted to break down all the walls that separated east from west. As the opening act of the conference, a concert was to take place at the National Theatre, with the premiere of a startling new work for Thai and western instruments, composed by yours truly.
A few hours before the concert, the piano mysteriously disappeared from the theater. I was having a tantrum at the podium when an official of the Fine Arts Department appeared. He told me that it had been scientifically determined that this modern music would destroy the strings of the piano, and that it had therefore been removed from the theatre for its own protection.
Western cavalry came to the rescue in the form of the piano belonging to the director of the German Cultural Institute. The concert got rave reviews in the international press. But the hall was virtually empty. My cultural revolution was a flop.
I was crushed. I had opened the doors and seen for a few tantalizing moments what could happen when cultures met, collided, cross-fertilized each other. Then the doors had all slammed in my face.
In that dark moment - I was only twenty-five years old at the time - I came to the conclusion that it was not possible to be both an Artist and a Southeast Asian.
I stopped talking to my friends. I was hurt and I hurt many others. I ran away to America. After a long and painful musical block, I returned to writing stories as a sort of therapy, and when the books and stories began to sell, and the money started to come, I became convinced I would never come back.
There was nothing Southeast Asian about any of the novels and short stories I published in the 1980s. Indeed, if you go to the Library of Congress in Washington and look up how my books are classified, you will see simply fiction, comma, American.
If there was anything I feared about my American career, it was the idea that I would somehow be branded as an "ethnic" writer. I knew that such writers inhabited a ghetto, or perhaps a gilded cage, that they could be admired, but that they were somehow not part of the real universe. Indeed, my publishers told me that if I made my name less ethnic, they'd make me a star.
I believed them. I found it curiously funny to read the odd fan letter written from the assumption that, with "ow" at the end of my name, I must be a Russian. One fan had theorized a complete Marxist interpretation of my work, simply because of the O and the W.
But, after ten years in which I had already had many books out and a reasonable fan base, my carefully constructed, racially invisible persona began to disintegrate.
I began thinking of Thailand, you see. About the little things mostly. Like the idea that you could spend the night in a cemetery and receive a winning lottery number in a dream. Or about those hilarious live movie dubbers who used to improvise the dialogue in Thai movie theaters. I started to do the odd story about these things and suddenly a whole new group of critics began to take me seriously. I was beginning to fit the preconceived idea of what a Southeast Asian artist is supposed to be. That's when the award nominations started and my work started appearing in Asian Lit. courses at American universities.
Here then, was the irony: nobody in Thailand knew that I even existed, but in the west, I had become the mouthpiece of the culture which, in my own mind, had rejected me.
I think that the story that best illustrates this is the time a Thai motion picture company asked me to write the screenplay for a film about Thailand's most notorious serial killer. They had this idea of a breakthrough picture that could capture the imaginations of western audiences. So I said, I'll put a take on this story that will totally knock their socks off. They read the treatment, gave me the go ahead, and when I handed in the script, they resoundingly rejected it. Why? It felt too foreign, they said. It wasn't really Thai. I said, "But you asked for a version that would appeal in the west." They said, "It doesn't feel authentic."
I recast the script as a novella and it was published in the United States, where it won the World Fantasy Award - which, for those of you unfamiliar with the world of fantastic literature, is about as high as you can get. Why did it win? "It feels so authentic," the judges said.
And so it was that though I left Thailand sizzling with the certainty of youth, I entered middle age in a tepid confusion. Ten thousand miles from Southeast Asia, I was beginning to transform into a Southeast Asian artist, only I had no clue what species of animal that really was.
In America I had a very close friend named Judy. She and I raised a child together. He was not my biological son, but I was the only father he truly knew. When Judy died and left a note asking me to take care of her child, I began a new journey into a darkness I never knew existed in America. On the day of Judy's funeral, the boy's relatives, who came from a place far outside the tolerant and artistic circles in which I had always moved, began a series of astonishing legal proceedings in order to protect this innocent child from the Yellow Peril.
It was an epic battle that lasted for years and depleted all my financial resources. I am proud to say that we did win this battle, and the courts did in fact finally honour the wishes of the mother and child. But on the way I came face to face with an ugly and virulent prejudice that I had only read about or seen on television. I will never forget reading, in the first legal document that was served to me, these words: "The defendant is from Thailand, and we are afraid of him".
It was then that I learned a very important truth. Twenty years of sitting in Starbucks is not going to turn you into a white person.
I should have guessed it when only my stories about Southeast Asia ever got nominated for awards. The message was clear: we'll praise you. We'll buy your books. But stay at the back of the bus. Don't try to be more than a cute, safe, ethnic, token oriental.
After twenty years, I finally understood this strange uneasy thing that had been gnawing at the periphery of my consciousness. I was homesick. And so it was that, one day in 2001, driving down the freeway from San Francisco to Los Angeles, at a moment in which I seemed to be reaching a new pinnacle in my career, I suddenly realized that I had to walk away from it all — the movie deals in the making, the nice house, the money. The urge to take this leap was like a thunderbolt from on high. The next morning I took a plane back to Thailand, and within days I had entered a monastery. Twenty-five years too late, I was taking the step that every Thai youth takes across the threshold of manhood.
So, if you will just bear with me for a few more minutes, I want to tell you something about the journey home, and about some lessons I have been able to draw from it all.
The first thing I learned is that I was wrong to have believed that the big artistic revolution of the 1970s had been a failure. My friends and I had been laughed at for trying to find new combinations of Thai and western sounds, but now, twenty years later, the seed we planted was everywhere — in film scores, in television commercials. It was so much part of popular culture that people had forgotten what a struggle it had been to put it there.
This is the first lesson I want to share. Do what is right. Don't worry about changing the world, because you already have changed it. The changes will become evident, but in their own time, not in yours. History has its own rhythm.
During the time that I was a Buddhist monk, I had an abbot who made us meditate almost every waking hour of the day. Turning myself inward, I began to see and hear things. There was a night that I woke up to a brilliant blast of music. The music was like a blinding light. It was a huge chord that seemed to contain every note in the chromatic scale at the same time — and yet the effect was one of a profound, an absolute harmony. It was so overwhelming that that I thought everyone in the monastery must be running out to see what it was, but as it slowly faded I realized that it had been a kind of aural vision.
Such a chord cannot logically exist, and yet for those fleeting moments, I am sure that I heard it. From this I learned that the place where I was born stands close to the source of magic. I learned that I come from a country where impossible things happen, a land that bridges the territories of reality and dream.
In my new opera, Ayodhya, which some of you I hope will see next month, you will hear this sound - as close as I can reproduce it - when at the end the heavens open up and Sita and Rama ascend into the sky. It's a magical opera in which gods walk the earth and animals are the soldiers of the dharma. In squeezing our entire national epic, the Ramayana, into a single evening in a brand new medium, I'm of course paying a special tribute our beloved king. It is also my personal gift to Thailand of everything that I have experienced in my fifty year journey - the anguish and the terror, the torment and the exaltation, and, finally, the joy of homecoming.
But is it Thai? We go back to the question that has haunted me for my entire creative life.
Tonight, with pride, I will answer the question: Of course it's Thai. A Thai wrote it. Nobody other than a Thai could have written it. And only in Thailand could this Thai have found the artistic freedom to create this work.
And this brings me to the last lesson I would like to share with you, my fellow artists.
When you ask yourself the question, "Who am I?" never allow others to set limits on who you are, or who you can be. I want to tell you that if you want to write about our myths, our folktales, or sociologies, that is of course wonderful. These things belong to us. But don't let anyone tell you that you can't draw from Shakespeare or Euripides. The world's rich past belongs to all of us. You will not magically turn into a western writer by taking their most cherished artifacts and revealing new truths about them. You are always going to be a Southeast Asian artist. It is your right to define what that means — not the right of some academic in the American Midwest.
You are everything that has gone into you, everything that you have read, lived, and dreamed. Don't deny yourself any of your inheritance just because someone else claims it too.
If you are lucky, it won't take you fifty years to learn this.
As Southeast Asians, we stand at the very epicenter of a new cultural tempest that is sweeping the world. People who live here don't even know it yet. There's still this underlying nervous feeling that west knows best. But it doesn't. And the west knows it, and the west is waiting to hear what we have to say.
Yes, in the west you can see outrageous opera productions with nude prima donnas, or watch filmsbrimming with shocking images, but the audience has been asleep for years. Yet here in Southeast Asia, new works of art can still enrage, inflame, fill ordinary people with passion, truly make them think. That is why it is so exciting to be home at last. That is why, despite the struggles, the fighting, the lack of funds, there is so much creativity going on. In Southeast Asia, anything can happen. And you are the ones to make it happen.
It is not easy, what any of you are doing. To be creative is often to fight against the tide. As artists, you have all experienced backstabbing, the difficulty of raising funds for your projects, the frustration of explaining a vision that is ahead of its time. Yet, I can tell you from my own experience that you will prevail.
To all of you who are receiving your SEA Write Awards tonight, I want to say this. Never, never, never lose heart. Your destiny is to look unflinchingly into the hearts of men, and to tell the world the truth that you find there. If it's dark, know that it's okay to be afraid — if you were at war, in a huge army, there would be many people fighting and dying beside you. But when you create a work of art, you are completely alone. Be afraid, if you must. But conquer that fear because you know that you are the only the person who can say the thing that must be said.
In conclusion, I would like to quote to you the words of our absent guest of honour. "The truth, to me, is freedom." I do not think there is anyone in this room who would disagree with that.
Yet may we not go further and ask: What is truth? Are there not as many answers as there are artists? May we not be allowed to differ in the way we choose to apprehend the ultimate?
Let us then, my fellow artists, in love, together, celebrate these many answers. For the truth is a jigsaw puzzle with a billion pieces. Most of us are lucky just to find one. Yet all of us seem to know that there is a way the pieces fit together. We don't know how they fit, but we just know they do. And we will never stop searching for the next piece.
In the end, that is why we are here.
Your Royal Highnesses, Your Serene Highness, Excellencies, my fellow Journeyers, thank you for hearing me out.