It’s rare to read a story and know it’s for people like me. Even rarer for such stories to push at gendered bodies and relationships in truly interesting ways. Stories unconcerned with the white, straight gaze. Stories which knowledgeably play with shared mythology.
She is paya-nak, she is monarch among serpent-kind, and once she allowed me to see her true form, and that broke my heart to pieces. Her jeweled tongue flicked out to catch every one. She is a girl’s dream, she is a queen, and snakes great and small make obeisance to her.
Oh, if only my baby was a snake, egg-hatched, compelled to prostrate before her might.
I lower my face to her scales. Sometimes below the waist she is snake; sometimes she is woman. Now she is coils upon coils, black, all the shades that are black, and she wraps her serpent-part around me until we are one, fastened at the waist like a conjugal vow. “My husband will return. One day.”
“I will give him to one of my sisters, to eat or drown as she pleases.”
“Mak is not a bad man.”
“He lies between us as drought lies between mortals and survival. He hangs over the knot of our want as a blade hangs over a thread.”
You can imagine how I felt, years ago, when I read Paya-Nak, a lesbian re-telling of Nang Nak, a much-beloved Thai folktale. These are thoughts which have simmered in my head since then.
To begin: while fiction writing can benefit from the intimate and personal, I’m now uninterested in reading and wary of writing pieces which are too autobiographical. I say this, but part of my 2015 Lackington’s piece, She Shines Like A Moon, draws on an encounter several years ago as a SOAS undergrad. The quote, from a renowned expert in Thai film studies, is close to verbatim:
You sit and are lectured on a self Othered through others’ eyes. Except for one Thai man, the lecturer cites theorists and academics like her, white and Western.
She says, “There are no feminists in Thailand—Thai women don’t really identify as feminists. It’s just not done. People talk about Southeast Asian women having power and ownership, but…” she shrugs.
Still, I came away from that lecture better informed about my own culture’s mythology (the shame!). Most Thai people know about Nang Nak, the ghost-wife with long, lime-reaching arms. It’s conventionally framed as a tragic story of wifely devotion. At the lecture, Nang Nak was refocused through the lenses of Creed’s monstrous feminine and Kristeva’s abjection: bodies made horrific in specifically gendered ways (leaking, bleeding, swollen orifices), the monstrous liminality, and the potential corpse in us all. (While there’s value in such readings, I must firmly part with hinging it all on physical sexual difference in a highly transmisogynistic manner.)
It was observed how, in adaptations of Nang Nak (countless films: comedy, horror, romance, everything inbetween, also a very good opera), it’s male authority which solves the ghost-wife. Even if Nak’s narrative is tenderly written, the exorcist and/or abbot’s reassertion of order is always a fitting end, her mischief ultimately contained by his holy power. An absolutely valid point, one which I’ll return to later. But, taken with the above quote from the same lecturer, it read as a generalisation about oppressive Asian gendering, implying that such things never happen in the West, nope, that progress is foreign to our kind as these monsters are foreign to a (presumed) non-Thai audience.
I left the lecture with a blank curling caterpillar working at my core, which I dismissed. (The lecturer is a friend-of-a-close-family-friend, oft spoken about by my own parents with respect.) Years later that I named that wriggling thing, the epistemological injustice present at the very outset. Not exactly in the theorists used–they can be re-applied, as academia goes–but in the very nature of the encounter. Thai-ness became the abjected Other by farang, like the feminine by film makers.
It’s taken years to put down my thoughts because I still feel both trepidation and defiance writing something like this, for some reason, although this is simply a reader (Thai) discussing a writer (Thai).
With Paya-Nak, it is familiar and new and interesting all at once; I am affirmed and I learn from it. This is what happens when the author is utterly fluent. It’s a re-telling in the best sense, with aspects of the original tale teased, flipped, made thoroughly lesbian.
To fully appreciate this necessarily forked (oh yes) reading, you need to be familiar with the source material and culture. For instance, Scale-Bright, also by Sriduangkaew, is one of my favourite books, but I cannot appreciate it in quite the same way as someone familiar with Hong Kong, Chinese mythology, and the Chinese languages used.
In the temple there are icons of her kind, gilt and paint on wood and bronze, none doing her justice for she beggars life. When I can, I would circle the walls early before dawn. But it is a way barred, it is a way despising. Everything I am is unholy, dead with a child in my belly, dead with desire that lingers, dead, dead.
I wish to give food, I wish to make prayers. I wish to kneel before a saffron-robed luangpor and beg him for succor.
In Thai Buddhist art, icons and murals show Mucalinda sheltering the Buddha. Nak flank temple steps or face skywards as roof finials. In this story, nak do not serve or decorate any man or institution.
Sriduangkaew successfully depicts the narrow path of a woman in centuries-past Siam without robbing her of power she rightfully holds in fact and narrative. Nak wants to start housekeeping in perfect scaly bliss with a paya-nak, but obligation and karma turn her into a ghost when she dies in childbed, complete with a child-that-is-not.
Nak’s body, shaped by abject motherhood, is protected and desired by her lover rather than being the fearful Other. Under the paya-nak’s gaze, Nak’s cold, dry, empty self is clean; she emphasises the similarity of their bodies, delighting in Nak’s ability to extend her limbs like the length of a snake. Radical (lesbian monster) sameness? Yes please.
The original legend plays a little with similar-sounding words–มาก hides from his ghost-wife นาก behind a หนาด tree. In Paya-Nak, Nak and nak are rendered homographs in English; in Thai they’re homophones, tenderly acknowledged by the paya-nak writing นาค and นาก. It’s a lovely touch, the kind which anybody with a basic appreciation of the language can pick up on.
Seeking support, Nak looks to different sites of spirituality: the supernatural creature that is the paya-nak, who offers hope but is limited in her ability to immediately help; the luangpor, whose authority Nak still longs for in death; a shaman, who exists outside conventional religion and proper conduct and whose very liminality makes her the closest figure to Nak. It’s in the mor-phee’s house that Nak eventually solves the child-that-is-not.
To be received like a living woman. To have a phakhaoma passed over so I may be rid of the worst of the wet. My condition dulls all feelings, but at that moment I miss my mother and aunts with a wrenching desperation. Tears have crusted to salt behind my eyes, but the urge is not gone with their drying. I give wai to the shaman, who is Mor-phee Pim.
(Never thought I’d read English-language fiction and find a character with part of my given name. How farang take that for granted!)
One of the most touching parts of the story is Nak grieving the living women of her birth family. That’s the original home she longs for, not the one by marriage. She must conduct her dead self as a wife, but she can’t truly access much of the living world and is therefore cut off from the comforting routine and community of domestic life.
Her farewell visit affords us another glimpse at a woman who’s unconventional and quite content: Nak’s older sister is very single, muscular, and uninterested in marriage, preferring to work a trade and offer to take care of niblings.
I imagine that under each house a woman has buried wicker boxes, just as I have, and each would be as full as mine—not of steamed sticky rice, as they do in the north, but full of secrets. This idea soothes, for if all wives do the same, then who can blame me?
Sometimes just for comfort I would sit here, by my window, and reach below to pat where I dug and whispered my desires into the soil.
The original legend has Nak preparing nam phrik for her family. This picture of domesticity is disturbed by her long ghostly arms reaching for a fallen lime; Mak finally realises his wife is dead and flees. The drama (and perhaps comedy) comes from a ghost trying to behave like the perfect wife and mother. In being found out and rejected for her ghostliness, she goes on a rampage because–women, right? Ghost women, am I right?!
This happens adaptation after adaptation, the gaze firmly heteronormative and gendered. It’s very welcome that Sriduangkaew cleaves from, rather than to, this narrative. Instead of nam phrik gone awry, we’re reminded that Siamese women could own things, protect things which are hers and only hers. Nak’s resentment is clear from the very beginning: it’s conventional marriage and childbearing which is the real horror, it’s a man who is the other parasite taking time and effort from a woman.
In this story, Nak’s ghostliness is sad not because she’s been framed as a supernatural failure of womanhood or because the re-united family is interrupted by death, but because it’s an unjust punishment that has doomed her, in death, to continue the emotional and domestic labour required of women without the support of her community. It’s bound her to an un-baby and a man she never wanted–a man who’s written as gentle and decent, yet still expects his (dead) wife to put his feelings first, un-asked.
“You’re dead, Nak. Ghosts should be with ghosts, the living with the living.”
This, then, comes as a relief. The forked narrative is clear: the men think Nak wants to claim Mak, so they’re cleansing a haunted house of its ghosts, putting right the wondrous naughty she did, re-asserting order through holiness they understand. She’s a fearful thing to be subdued.
For Nak, this rejection is utterly freeing; it furthers her purpose. She never wanted the husband and child and she’s made her farewells to her first family. Her only concern is escaping the flames.
One reason the original tale is so potent (and why adaptations are numerous) is because the seal on Nang Nak’s powers is unreliable. There’s always one fool who releases her from the rice pot (again, a vessel associated with domesticity which now contains sinister feminine power) or something like that. Her spirit isn’t truly at rest; there’s always the potential for her to wreak havoc while attempting to claim her husband. A true departure into the afterlife happens only in some versions of this tale.
In Paya-Nak, it’s still within this framework of samsara that part of a solution exists for Nak. With the help of her lover, she can have new life as a snake woman. After ridding herself of an organ assigned at birth with a value she found burdensome, the child-that-is-not is gone, and Nak can go to her snake wife. No tragic lesbians here, only a new life, a new love, and a new family. Sriduangkaew chooses a fitting send-off for a woman who has suffered in both life and death. It is wonderfully complete. The story can end here.