Thursday, January 10, 2008

Shelf Life: Southeast Asian Authors

Last night I finally finished two books that had been on my bedside table for a couple of weeks. I've been reading them alternately and since I realized I have a huge book backlog I decided to get over them immediately.

It just happened that both books are by Southeast Asian writers, one from the Philippines and the other from Thailand. This went well with my plan to read more of the region's authors and writings.

Sightseeing is Thai-American Rattawut Lapchroensap's collection of short stories, mostly coming-of-age experiences.

There's a prevalence of alienation among the characters as they straddle between family and society, Westernization and tradition, together with how they grapple with the allure of materialism and their budding sexuality.

The use of very simple language suited well the innocence of the characters. At times the stories are a tad too melodramatic though.

A strong point of the book, however, is its strong sense of place, whether it be in the beaches of Phuket, or the seedy bars of Bangkok, or the congested slums. I was quite pleased to have a sense of familiarity with the lives of the characters and their setting, they could've been set in the Philippines and it would not make any difference.

There is actually a Filipino connection in the book. In the final story (a novella I think), Cockfighter, the cocks of the character's father were defeated by supposedly Filipino purebreds.

When looking at a the collection of English-language novels about Thailand, one would often see Western-authored pieces that deal with all the cliches of the country - sex tourism, local bar girls marrying foreigners, and the experiences of tourists languishing in hellish Thai prisons. There are dozens of them lining up the shelves, I swear it sickens me.

Reading Sightseeing is a good departure from all these hackneyed (and maybe exoticized) accounts.

I finally finished The Gangster of Love by Filipina author Jessica Hagedorn, which I found in a book sale in Bangkok several months back. (I read Dogeaters when I was in college and I'm still dying to read Dream Jungle.)

Anyhoot, The Gangster of Love is a good-old depiction of the immigrant experience, in particular that of Rocky, the main character, as she traverses the landscape of teenage angst, the messy life of being a vocalist of a band, and her screwball of a family.

It has quite a disjointed writing style: perspectives and tones change constantly. Even the structure is unconventional and I finished the novel still not figuring out what the main story is.

It's definitely not a unique approach, but embellished with such inventive language and said from the view of a Filipino immigrant, I find it quite refreshing.

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