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.
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.
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
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.
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…)
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.
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.
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.)
(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.)
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.
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.
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.
My newest, shortest piece is the first one to be published. ‘A Mermaid in The Mermaid’ is on Stone Telling. You should look through their archives, be appropriately delighted, add your support to their patreon, and buy Here, We Cross: a collection of queer and genderfluid poetry from Stone Telling 1-7 edited by Rose Lemberg (Amazon US / UK).
About my poem: it’s set in Rye, a small town in East Sussex, England, a seaside town abandoned by the sea centuries ago. My partner’s maternal family grew up there. I visited it myself a couple of years ago, it’s one of my favourite places in the world. You can read more about my trip here. There’s an actual Mermaid Inn on Mermaid street there, so it was an obvious choice for the Joke Issue.
The moment I visit somewhere like Rye, places which are so charmingly cobblestoned with history and where much of the diverse people I encountered were tourists like me, I get thinking.
Rye is the perfect place to set a piece of historical fantasy fiction, a genre replete with images of cravats, silver teapots, billowing skirts, and sprightly pink nipples. It doesn’t have to be that way–indeed, it shouldn’t, as a narrow history ignores material evidence and constructs a narrative which harms people today, erasing their heritage. Certain readers can apparently believe in magic, fantastic beasts, and improbable economic systems, but if you suggest that brown or queer or neurodiverse characters may exist in the front and centre of your work—why, you’re taking it too far, you’re making everyone uncomfortable with your Forced Diversity, it’s simply not believable, sellable, readable. Well… ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
And just because something is A Joke doesn’t mean it can’t also be a little thoughtful. We who are marginalised are often the butt of jokes. Jokes shouldn’t have to be cruel to work; nothing bores me more than “satire” which is so clearly the end product of the same old chewed up and thoroughly digested petty bigotries, pushed out and then finger-painted in the usual patterns–only you’re supposed to admire it simply because the author says it’s satire. Please. Your jokes are bad and you should feel bad.
Er, this is not to say that a light-hearted short poem fights the good fight against hegemony. I just wanted to write a fun little poem about lesbian mermaids, and it never occurred to me to make the mermaids blonde and straight. That’s all. There may be poems which are powerful and life-changing in as many lines, but it is not mine.
The shortest thing I’ve written is also the one I have done the most teeth-gnashing over. I’ve tried to forgive myself for that: unless you make it a regular exercise, rhyming well is tricky.
Since the preferred length was just 25 lines, I thought I’d have a good go at it. The estimable Nicki Minaj only took a week to write her glorious verse in ‘Monster,’ which is essentially the only reason you should listen to that song. I worked on my piece sporadically throughout January.
It occurred to me as I was wrestling with the verse that I actually have no idea how to rhyme properly, or how to write a basic poem. There must be rules somewhere, obviously. Instead of looking them up, I hammered away at a rhyme dictionary, switched tabs to stare angrily at ‘The Walrus and the Carpenter,’ and swore a lot.
I showed my partner what I’d written and asked what would make it better.
‘Um,’ he said, ‘scansion?’
I had to re-write the whole thing, letting go of certain images I wanted to use because I just couldn’t find a single bally rhyme which would work. You know how it goes better than me, I expect.
Somehow, through all the fiddling, a poem happened. My partner talked more enthusiastically about this second version, paying particular attention to its legs feet. I nodded. There were indeed some of those in the poem, even though it is mainly about a mermaid and a piece of the sea. I tweaked it a bit more and then off it went, all within the hour before the deadline passed in my timezone.
Is it unsightly and not terribly interesting to know that a lot of effort went into a short poem? Maybe to some. I get that. But this will serve as a reminder to myself, and perhaps another writer out there, that this is just fine. And it got me published in a zine I’ve read and enjoyed for years. So, know that.