Thai writer Chart Korbjitti is the epitome of serenity, with a warm smile and measured, lyrical manner of speaking.
You’d never guess the harsh social ordeals he subjects some of his characters to, such as a good-hearted man who is slowly driven to alcoholism by the mistaken harsh judgment of his fellow villagers,in The Judgment (1981), or a father who is driven to commit the unthinkable against those he loves out of financial desperation, in No Way Out (1980).
“One reader asked why I was so mean to the main character [in The Judgment], how could I do what I did to him? I said, see, if you think that is cruel, then don’t do it to anyone,” he says, adding many readers have told him that his words have taught them to rethink their own actions.
The Thai author was speaking at the 13th biennial Singapore Writers’ Festival 2009 last weekend, where he gave his fans an opportunity to discuss his work and joined fellow Southeast Asian literary greats in discussions on the future of Southeast Asian literature.
Born in 1954 into a merchant family in Samu Sakhon, a province near Bangkok, Chart is one of the most respected and successful living writers in Thailand, renowned for his innovative and fresh prose style and courage in depicting Thai society exactly the way he sees it.
He has won several awards, most notably the SEA Write Award twice in 1981 (The Judgment) and 1994 (Time), and in 2004 was named a National Artist in Literature by the Thai Offi ce of the National Culture Commission, for his exceptional contributions to the arts
Many of his works have been translated in up to nine languages, including English, Indonesian and Japanese, and he is the most-read Thai writer outside Thailand, a rare feat considering the dearth of Thai literature in translation. The Judgment, arguably his most popular novel, was adapted into a fi lm in 2004.
He first dreamed of becoming a writer when he was a 14-year-old schoolboy; he began writing short stories based on his own childhood experiences, in a notebook he carried everywhere, immediately fi nding a fan base: “Every morning when I came to school, friends would ask me to read those stories,” he says.
In 1969, when he was 15, he published his fi rst short story, “Nak Rian Nak Leng”, in a school publication at Wat Pathum Khong Kha School.
After graduation, although he knew he wanted to focus on writing, it did not seem he would be able support himself with the kind of writing he was interested in.
“To survive in this world, you have to write the way the market wants you to. For me this is a waste of time,” he says, referring to commercial writing for advertising and magazines.
“So I thought if I really had to work for money, I’d rather work in other areas, not the one I loved, so I began to sell leather bags in the market, which earned me a lot of money, and was not tiring work. At night, when I didn’t have to work on the leather bags, I still read and wrote.”
His talents did not remain unnoticed for long, and he was eventually able to support himself without compromising his ideals – or making leather bags.
In 1979, a short story he published in Lok Nangsue magazine won the prestigious Cho Karaket story award, and two years later, the enthusiastic response to The Judgment assured his rise to literary prominence.
Chart says his socialism was fi rst sparked in his late teens, after reading newspapers, and further ignited by youth uprisings, especially the Oct. 6, 1976, massacre in Bangkok, in which the military and police brutally cracked down on protesting university students, leading to 46 reported deaths.
This prompted him to openly criticize the situation through his writing.
“When I see that my government does something I don’t think is right, I will raise my voice against it,” he says.
These days, he feels that Thailand needs to become more selfsuffi cient, noting the country often suffers badly in times of global economic crisis because of its overreliance on tourism and imports.
“It’s time we built our own small houses, from our own materials, so we can live in them forever, until we have enough money to expand.”
However, he downplays his lifelong bold critique of Thai society and politics, saying it is simply a writer’s responsibility.
“Writers are just a part of society, we are not above anyone, we are just like bus drivers and janitors, and we have our own duties in society. Our duty is to write and express what we think.
He says that he has little to fear or lose, because he can use his art as his shield, unlike journalists, who are usually arrested for speaking out.
“Art can protect us. For example, if I want to criticize someone but I do it in an artistic way, that person might laugh at my criticism,” he says, adding he has even sent booklets to Thai prime ministers.
Beyond political commentary, Chart says he is fascinated by how people in society treat each other, which is evident in his careful, intense character studies that reveal universal truths about prejudice and hopelessness.
Chart admits that his combination of critical and commercial success is unusual in Thailand.
“There are two kinds of writers in Thailand. The fi rst are those who write for magazines, mostly women’s magazines, and they can survive quite well. They can even send their kids to study abroad.
“But the other kinds of writers are those who write seriously, about social issues and heavier matters, and the market for this is very small, so it’s harder to survive. Most of them can only survive for six or seven years, then they usually have to give up and do something else. It might take them up to fi ve years to sell 2,000 copies of their books, if they were lucky.”
He is especially qualifi ed to comment on the habits of the Thai reading public, as well as the international market, as he runs his own publishing house Samnakphim Hon (Howling Books), which publishes all his works.
“There is a problem with transmission of Thai authors outside their own country… plus, here, those who read these kinds *socio-political* of novels are rare… and in my country, not many people read, so how can we expect those few who read to read stories like mine?”
Despite these challenges, Chart remains invested in the future of Thai literature and feels it is best he continues to lead by example.
“What I can do is to keep improving my writing, so that young writers can look at my work and have hope for themselves.”
For the past three years, he has been working on a novel about a 50-year-old man who is refl ecting on his life, which he says will be a “little autobiographical”. He does not know yet when it will be completed, promising only that it would be done within “this life of mine”.
Chart observes that in life, there are usually two kinds of work; the first allows one to feed themselves and those they are responsible for, while the second supports one’s spiritual life. He counts himself as especially fortunate as in his case; the two kinds of work are the same.
“That’s what I call happiness in life. Of course, if I continued my leather handbag business, I’d have a lot more money – but I’m happy with the choice I’ve made.”
CHART KORBJITTI: SELECTED BIBLIOGRAPHY
Thang Chana (The Road to Victory; 1979)
Chon Trok (The Blind Road; 1980); published in English in 2003 as No Way Out
Khamphiphaksa (1981); published in English in 1995 as The Judgment
Rueang Thamada (An Ordinary Story; 1983)
Mit Pracham Tua (The Personal Knife; 1984)
Ma Nao Loi Nam (A Rotten Dog is Floating About; 1987)
Phan Ma Ba (1988); published in English in 2002 as Mad Dogs & Co.
Nakhon Mai Pen Rai (Don’t Bother City; 1989)
Wela (1993); published in English in 2000 as Time
Banthuek: Banthuek Rueang Rao Rai Sara Khong Chiwit (essays; 1996)
Raingan Thueng Phanathan Nayok Ratthamontri (Report to the Prime Minister; 1996)
Lom Long (Seduced; 2000)
Ple Yuan Tai Ton Nun (2003), collected articles from Si San magazine 1999-2003
Borikan Rap Nuat Na (2005)