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.
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.
My starting point was the Thai wikipedia article on the tale—sounds comically basic but, let’s be honest, some people fail even at this. Longer descriptions, but not much deeper, except for the interesting fact that Chalawan may have been based on an actual crocodile which terrorised Phichit. All folk tales read with distant simplicity, but since Kraithong had an actual time and place attached to it (the reign of Rama II in Ayutthaya), I looked into longer examples of literature from that period and its accompanying scholarship to see if I could ground the story in something bigger.
Now, here’s something embarrassing: I discovered that I’d somehow gone 26 years as a Thai person without knowing about Khun Chang Khun Phaen (KCKP). The scholarship about its poetic language, construction throughout the reigns, and use of magic was absolutely fascinating.
I got a better understanding of historical attitudes to women (not great, guys, but not worse than the rest of the world, let’s be real) and the looks and skills desirable in a wife. Phim gets more of a voice in the story than Taphaothong and Taphaokaew in Kraithong, who are not shown as having much decision in all the kidnapping, wooing, rescue, and marriage. That’s so boring. It doesn’t have to be that way.
Phim is written as spirited, unafraid to point out shoddy behaviour and state what she desires–and ends up dead. Ultimately, despite numerous attempts to assert her needs, her life is defined by men. Her looks hold power but it’s not enough to save her. The various authors could not conceive of any other fate for a female character–a shortcoming shared the world over and in every century, it seems.
Still, I noted with interest how female characters appraised men (they want to eat them up!) and the types of imagery used–I’d been wondering why ‘phim’ (the name, verb, and noun) meant ‘beautiful’ when applied to a person, and confirmed that it was meant to convey smooth, defined, idealised features, like that of relief mouldings. I wanted to capture the spirit of such language, but between the gaze of women-loving-women. (My birth name contains ‘Pim’ and it’s funny because my face is, uh, flat. But I don’t feel falsely singled out: loads of people’s names also contain ‘Pim’, irrespective of their actual looks.)
KCKP is stuffed with magic. Dudes can’t even breathe for all the mantras going on. I could see more clearly the ritual which structures the story and character of Kraithong, and it gave me a better idea of how to translate the use of magic in my own work.
And here we approach something I struggled with as I wrote. But first, let me tell you something: did you know that English people used to wall up dead cats in their houses for good luck? I saw it at Moyse’s Hall Museum, Bury St Edmunds. Things like this abound in England. Touch wood. Don’t walk under ladders. Tell it to the bees. Horse shoes for luck. Stir-up Sunday. But you wouldn’t go on about the superstitious British, or even specifically English people. You’d think: oh, this is just a thing, you know?
As I was researching and writing, I was aware of the fact that some readers from far outside the culture might see these rituals and think: lol, Thai people are so primitive and superstitious. It’s clearly set in the past, yes, but there is a tendency to broadly view contemporary Asian cultures as either backwards or in stasis, so some people are not great at separating the time periods. For me, it’s about showing the different facets of ritual: comfort, restriction, obsession, rhythm. We do retain some customs, but it takes a different meaning in our modern life, and tracing it back to when it was a vital ritual gave depth to my own belief. Well, it’s not belief, really… do I full-throatedly believe in khwan or karmic weight? Eh. Well, it’s just a thing, you know?