With Her Diamond Teeth on The Dark

Girls are always being taken, it seems. Within a temple’s sanctuary, you peer at the murals, painted women stolen by painted men, each face serene as praphodhisat. Safe at home, you sit with jostling family, the storyteller filling your ears with tales of heroes and brides.

You know what brides look like, of course: sculpted in beauty, skin smooth and lambent, hair long as a river and lustrous as silk. I’ve looked at women, wondering if they might be my bride—an impossibility, and in any case I’m ill-suited to marriage.

 

Once I spent an afternoon reflecting upon this. Lamentations on the irregularities of my face prompted Taphaothong to offer sisterly encouragement: “You’d better die and be reborn.” Her touch was soft, her voice was tart. My little sister always knew just the thing to say. She was lovely as a crow, sharp-eyed, dark, cackling.

My latest piece is up on The Dark. I was in the mood for a re-telling, and I’d never written horror or antagonistic siblings before, so I thought I’d give it a try.

Klong Sa Bua. Chalawan and Kraithong.
Chalawan and Kraithong. Taken by me, 2011

A look through Fascinating Folktales of Thailand by Thanapol Lamduan Chadchaidee brought back a memory of the Klong Sa Bua market, where you can watch a performance of Kraithong in the water while eating wonderful snacks. Kraithong is an obvious candidate for horror—there’s at least one horror film already—but it is, perhaps, a less clear choice for a queer re-telling. It’s a straightforward tale about a hero wrestling monsters and being rewarded with marriage. I guess, if I were of a certain mindset, one way to do a queer re-telling would involve a woman punching a crocodile in the face to win her bride. But that’s still not enough substance for short fiction, imho (in my horse’s opinion), and I wanted to push harder to find said substance.

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Abjection, Snake Women, and the (many) Gaze(s)

Naga at Buddhaisawan chapel (late C18th), Bangkok
Detail of mural at Buddhaisawan chapel, 2013. (Taken by me.)

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.

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‘How We Are Marked’ in Interfictions + 10 Things

Young rice grains.

1 Thing About Bones

  1. It isn’t as straightforward as you think to tell the gender of skeletons, ancient or contemporary. Wide hips do not always equal woman, then or now. We have no idea how Ban Chiang people thought of gender, really, and if we look at bones through a binarist, essentialist lense, we will see (and tell) a simplistic story.

9 Things About Thailand

Organic rice paddy in Northeast Thailand. Photo by Sompop Butarad.
Organic rice paddy in Northeast Thailand. Photo by Sompop Butarad.
  1. This grew out of a longer piece of, er, short fiction I began working on last year, set in the area and approximate historical era now known as Ban Chiang in Northeast Thailand.
  2. This was a Thailand before Tai people, Brahmanism or Buddhism. The inhabitants were likely Mon-speaking peoples, an ethnic group who were the earliest to settle in Southeast Asia. I read basically all of the available literature on the University of Pennsylvania website in an attempt to get enough information for a short fiction setting, but I still didn’t feel confident. (Maybe one day…)
  3. Ancient Ban Chiang people are argued to have practised residential burial. That is, the bones of their ancestors were buried within their homes. As life went on, people would shift the locations of their homes, and would set up house above someone else’s ancestors, like musical chairs but with dirt layers and corpses. I’ve heard the modern inhabitants of the Ban Chiang site would be spooked when they occasionally unearthed human bones by their houses.

    Northeast Thailand
    chicken chicken chicken (photo by Sompop Butarad)
  4. Pretty much all the items mentioned in the poem were actually found at the ancient site. You begin to see how this civilisation thrived–the haematite used for some of the famed Ban Chiang pottery wasn’t found locally, nor were certain metals they used in their tools and jewellery, so they likely traded for it.
  5. I’ve never been to Ban Chiang specifically, but I’d very much like to. I’ve been to various parts of the Khorat countryside, since that’s where all my mother’s family come from, and it’s a beautiful place. Maybe you think, since it’s remote, inhabitants of the countryside are isolated and low-technology. That’s really not the case. Not to downplay relative economic hardship, but in some rural areas people definitely have TV, electric rice cookers, and 4G internet for their smartphones, and would probably be confused if you expressed wonderment at this. (And if that’s what rural life is like, imagine what it’s like in the heart of Thailand’s many bustling cities.)IMG_0421
  6. (Let’s be clear for a second that access to certain electronics doesn’t mean access to all other tangible/intangible privileges and absolutely everyone deserves clean water, healthcare, education, and not to be occupied by foreign forces, ok? Ok. Good.)
  7. It’s wrong and boring to write a static Thailand, charmingly backwards and worthy of tourism and feel-good charity without any regard for the people who live there each day, a Thailand there to be stared at or rescued. I wanted to write about small everyday moments similar to what I briefly live when I get the chance to visit. Let’s be real: I’m a Westerner, my passport, life experience, privilege, and ignorance say so. I’m also Thai, a gift from my parents, which I want to honour.
  8. I’m tired of depictions of LGBTQ Thai people as punchlines or villains, their gender and sexual identities described through a reductive Western lense. Please. Here’s a hint: if you describe a gender identity in the same way as Alan Partridge, you’re doing it wrong.
  9. There is, as with any other country in the world, a strain of conservative thinking which leads some people to think queerness is a “sin,” and certainly there’s a level of structural oppression. But sometimes people live as their true selves despite emotional and material difficulties;  being blessed with loving families helps. That should be the norm. It isn’t, but I still wanted to write a series of short, bright, queer moments. If you think ‘Uhhh how the f do you know that Ban Chiang is full of queer families’—I don’t. But I’ve written what I know and what I imagine, and it just seems so silly and obvious to say it, but myself, my friends, and my parents’ friend are queer, and it’s not that big a deal in our social circle.  And is it any less believable than ghosts chatting to you? Hmm? Ok.

Read the latest Interfictions Online (Issue 5, June 2015) here!