Pira Sudham is undoubtedly one of the most famous authors Thailand has produced. If readers abroad know only one Thai writer, that writer is quite likely to be Pira Sudham. His international appeal is facilitated by the fact that he writes in English (so English readers will be getting him in the original, rather than via a translator), and also that he was nominated for a Nobel Prize.
Sudham’s varied life is one that would itself make great fiction or biography. This writer was from a small village in the poor, agricultural area of Esarn. Curiously, it was here, rather than during his later education, that he became introduced to and fascinated by English literature. During his mid-teens, he went to Bangkok to go to school, and later won a scholarship to study English literature in a New Zealand University. Sudham has also spent long periods of time living in different countries, such as Hong Kong and the United States. Currently, he divides his time between Bangkok and his home village, though sources mention homes maintained in other countries, as well.
This author began to make his name in the 1980’s, when he published his short story collection Siamese Drama, which is also titled Tales of Thailand in some editions. He followed this in 1987 with People of Esarn, a collection of stories and essays dealing with rural life.
The following year, his first novel, Monsoon Country, came out. This novel is considered to be one of the most autobiographical of Sudham’s works. The protagonist of the story, Prem Surin, has the same initials and background as the author. Like the author, he travels to the capital for education, and has a rather globetrotting lifestyle. This novel is notable for its lucid yet profound style, and its subtle rendering of the negotiations between Western and Thai value systems. In 2002, Sudham published a novel called The Force of Karma. It is a sequel to Monsoon Country, and follows that story into the new millennium.
It is to be noted that, while Sudham concerns himself mainly with stories about Thailand, his view is far from insular. Besides being located partially abroad, his works also often include foreign characters. This shows his understanding of the degree to which foreign influence is active in Thailand, despite the fact that the country did not undergo the colonial experiences of its neighbors.
Speaking of foreign influence, however, what does it mean that Sudham writes in English? Why does he not write in Thai? Whom is he writing for? It has to be said that the poor farmers Sudham often writes about are not likely to be able to understand the language he writes in.
The answer is that Sudham writes for educated urban elite, including educators. We may surmise that this reflects the sad realization that the very people who most need a “voice” in Thailand are so marginalized that, no matter how aware they already are of the social situation, they cannot really do anything about it. It is the elites who must be communicated with, because they have the necessary power and influence to effect change. Sudham, therefore, aims primarily at these people.
Pira Sudham’s works serve as a response, corrective, and interrogation for the various texts written about Thailand by foreigners. Novels, short stories, travel books, and movies “about” Thailand by outsiders tend to infantilize or fetishize the Thai way of life, to the point that “Thailand” becomes hardly more than a brand name for the “exotic.” However, lest Sudham’s works themselves become irreparably commoditized, it makes sense not to just think of him as the representative Thai author, but as one of several lights in a dynamic national literature that deserves more global attention.