Saturday, May 17, 2008

What’s in a name?


WILL you buy an English-language fiction book written by a Thai named Trirat Petchsingh?

Trirat, the author of Thai Mangoes (a collection of 19 stories set in contemporary Thailand), does not think so.

“Imagine a farang (Thai for westerner) in a bookstore in Thailand who sees a book that's got a Thai name on it, he probably will not want to spend 400 baht (RM40) on a local writer as Thais have not written an internationally renowned English-language novel,” explains the 58-year-old author.

Trirat is seriously thinking of using a pseudonym for his second book because he believes a western-sounding name has tremendous impact on selling a book. “Maybe Clive Van Petsing as it has an European sound to it and it is related to my name,” says the diplomat’s son who was called Clive when he grew up at the age of six in England.

Thailand, notes Trirat, is not the place for English-language writers to flourish, as there are only a handful of English book readers and publishers.

“The number of English-language writers you can actually talk to is zilch. You’re by yourself. This is the big handicap in writing in English (in Thailand),” laments the author who teaches English in a private secondary school in Bangkok, adding that in his country English is subsidiary to the national language.

Thai Mangoes, which was published last year, is the culmination of his conversation with Pira Canning Sudham, a Thai author, in the early 1980s.

“This was a guy whose English was not as good as mine – as he learnt it later than me – but he had authored tons of books written in English. And I thought if he can do it, so could I,” recalls Trirat who studied civil engineering in Sydney.

Inspired, the budding writer, who at that time was a sub-editor with The Nation, purchased a book on how to write short stories.

And he began sending short stories to a writing competition organised by Asia Magazine, the now-defunct weekend magazine.

In 2000, Trirat submitted a manuscript of his best 12 stories to two Thai-based book publishers.

“The response was dead silence,” recalls the former journalist who also worked with Bangkok Post and Reuters news agency.

Six years later, S. Tsow, a Thai-based farang writer, told him about Bangkok Books, which is an European-managed publishing company based in Bangkok.

The publisher, after reading his manuscript, requested that Trirat provide more stories. And at short notice he managed to write seven stories.

Bangkok Books published 2,000 copies of Thai Mangoes. And so far his 395 baht (RM39.50) book sold 300 copies (on the average one book a day).

On why there was a market for Thai Mangoes despite his contention that his name could not sell books, Trirat said: “a reviewer for the Phuket Gazette told me that people were buying my books because there were not many English books written by a Thai.”

The publication of his fiction boosted Trirat’s confidence to write the great English-language Thai novel.

In the last five years he has researched the novel, reading books such as English Intercourse with Siam in the 17th Century, Ayutthaya: Venice of the East and Make a Scene: Crafting a Powerful Story One Scene at a Time.

You’ve got it right. Trirat is in the midst of writing a historical novel set in 17th century Ayutthaya during the reign of King Narai that saw Siam opening up to European powers.

The novel, which he hopes to complete in a year’s time, is tentatively titled The Sunlit Palace and it deals with the European elements in 17th century Siam. “For the book to be marketable abroad, it must not only be based on Siamese elements,” he explained.

The main character, Constance Phaulkon, who is King Narai’s chief minister, is a Greek.

“He has to be a farang because one day – I’m only joking – when it becomes a Hollywood movie, the producers will not want an Asian playing the lead role,” he said.

A young Siamese nobleman, Luang Petch, who is Trirat’s alter ego, is a counter to Phaulkon’s European perspective.

Well, will you buy a historical novel with a Siamese character named Luang Petch?

(Published in The Star on May 17, 2008)


BangkokDan said...

Most interesting article.

Khun Trirat had his "outing" at the FCCT's recent expat writers event.

It was suggested that the book title's not too tempting - and maybe a change of name of the author would do: Or wouldn't you buy a book called "Fruit of Temptation" written by Jeffrey Noble?