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Indy Thai Literature Struggles to Find Its Voice

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Asia Life

Indy Thai Literature Struggles to Find Its Voice

Bangkok may be World Book Capital for 2013, but support for independent bookstores and publishers lags.

Since Bangkok was awarded World Book Capital this year, small bookstores and publishers have been collaborating to make Thailand more reader-friendly – namely, in the realm of independent, homegrown literature. One event aimed at refining the kingdom’s literary tastes took place last week when a number of independent bookstores gathered with the aim of attracting more Thai readers. Despite their efforts, and others like them, many independent bookshop owners still struggle to compete against big publishing companies for shelf space and profit.

“A lot of the big publishing houses support only the bestsellers. We don’t have much say of where we want to put our books,” Aticha Gabulon, executive editor of Gamme Magie Publishing, told The Diplomat. Most of Thailand’s 250 independent bookstores stock Thai classics, literature, political tomes, and translated works that aren’t deemed to make as much profit as romance novels. Some recently translated works include books by Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami and Czech writer Milan Kundera, as well as Aimee Bender’s The Girl in the Flammable Skirt.

Prabda Yoon, a Thai writer who won the Southeast Asian Writers Award (S.E.A. Write Award) in 2002, runs Typhoon Books and Book Moby added that although books that cater to niche readers are available, they quickly run out. It sometimes takes another three months for small publishing companies to redistribute books to large bookstores, as their relatively few employees often have to dole the books by themselves.

The result: slim pickings for Thai readers catered to by the big name bookstores in Thailand’s luxury department stores. In this state of affairs, Thai readers are often stuck with the familiar plot of the handsome aristocrat forced into an arranged marriage, who falls for a poor damsel in distress who needs money to help her dying dad. The popular Khun Chai Puttipat, is a whole series built on this plot device that is currently being made into a Thai dramatic movie. However attractive the book may be, it is not the type of substance most independent bookstores hold dear to their hearts.

Duangruethai Asanachatang, owner of Candide Books, isn’t so worried though. “I don’t feel threatened by large bookstores, since we have readers that like the type of books we have,” she told The Diplomat. She added that independent bookstores often hold seminars and gatherings so that readers can meet together to discuss and talk about topics and books of their choosing. Candide Books, which tends to draw a politically minded crowd, is moving to a new location. With the change of scenery, Duangruethai said that the books might also change to suit the tastes the customers.

Methi Assavinvipart, owner of Mali Mali coffee and book café, told The Diplomat that today bookstores do not live by book sales alone; revenue also comes through selling coffee to patrons. Many bookstores have jumped on this train, such as Book Moby, which also has its own Animal Farm Sandwich and Moby Dick Pie. Both bookstores also run their own websites, from which they deliver books directly to customers.

While independent bookstores continue to fight to bring literary diversity to Thai readers, Southeast Asian publishing houses and bookstores have not yet worked out how to create a regional reading hub. According to Prabda, although the S.E.A Write Award is given every year, most of its winners are honorary writers, but are not widely read. Further, there is not much push to translate Thai novels into different languages of the ASEAN region, although Prabda himself has written a collection of essays about Japan that was coveted by the Japanese people. A part of it had to do with his keen perspective of the culture there.

“I wrote about the unique bathing tradition in Japan with the big open space and different ways of bathing. In Thailand, bathing isn’t that special,” Yoon said. He has gathered quite a few Japanese fans because of his writing on this.

Although there are many promising Thai writers who might write more about Southeast Asia in the future, it might be some time until Thai books reach readers in other regions. Charan Homtienthong, president of The Publisher and Bookseller Association of Thailand, said that the government doesn’t place much importance on the intellectual culture of Thailand. He added that in the future the association might have to talk to book agencies about stepping up their efforts to promote Thai books, rather than depending solely on the association itself.

In the meantime, Southeast Asian and Thai readers will likely be limited to translations of Western books, at least until interest grows sufficiently to justify publishing more books about culture and lifestyle closer to home.