Sunisa Manning’s debut novel, A Good True Thai, is a richly researched and vividly rendered historical epic that takes place during the 1970s student protest movement in Thailand. Det, the protagonist, a member of the nobility, becomes radicalized and joins the protests against the authoritarian state. He falls in love with Lek, a commoner, who builds a political movement inspired by the work of Chit Phumisak, an intellectual who was assassinated in the ‘60s. The novel is refreshing—challenging the gaze of Western imperialism and embracing the sharp complexities of Thailand. “They think we are a quiet kingdom,” Det says to himself and laughs. The book arrives at a time when today’s uprisings in Bangkok echo those of the past. Though Thailand’s current political strife greatly differs from that of the book, Manning challenges us to look straight into the many faces of tyranny. Writing from California, away from her home in Bangkok, the Thai American author crafts this story with caution but without censoring her literary imagination. She urgently calls into question what it means to be “a good true Thai.”
I met Manning in 2016 at the Hedgebrook artists residency, a rare and special occasion for a Cambodian poet to cross paths with a Thai writer. During our time together, we would often pick blackberries in the woods. After our nightly group dinners, we’d carry our flashlights to walk the dirt path back to our cottages. We bonded as Southeast Asian women, struggling to write the historical narratives of our people, stories that existed outside of the foreigner’s romantic holidays in our respective countries. Our conversations revolved around the kinds of women we wanted to write about as well as the kinds of women writers we wanted to become. We kept in touch over the years until I moved to the Bay Area, where we both frequented The Ruby in San Francisco, another arts and letters-focused workspace. In September, the wildfires forced us to stay inside, which meant we conducted our interview over Zoom, not while picking figs from her backyard as we had hoped.
Manning was born and raised in Bangkok to Thai and American parents. A Good True Thai was a finalist for the Epigram Books Fiction Prize for Southeast Asian writers. Her work has appeared in Prairie Schooner, Mekong Review, The Rumpus, and elsewhere.
—Monica Sok for Guernica
Guernica: You open the book with a funeral. Det’s mother, the granddaughter of a king, is given the funeral of a commoner. Your sentences embody the heat of grief, “The flames lick the box, the heat licks their skin…” In that moment, a negotiation takes place, a kind of letting go. Earthly ties are cut. Why did you choose to begin A Good True Thai here?
Sunisa Manning: This book germinated when I attended my great-grandfather’s funeral. He passed when I was in my early twenties, and I accompanied my grandmother up the stairs to the cremator. Only children of the deceased are allowed up there, but my grandmother couldn’t make it up the stairs alone. Thailand’s a tropical country and the body had been sitting out in the heat for days as we prayed over it. It felt very As I Lay Dying. The monk tugged open the top of the coffin so that we could witness how life had left the body, and cut those ties to my great-grandfather. Witnessing this is meant to be a blessing. The whole thing was really upsetting to me, of course, but I also felt glad to be there with my grandmother, to hold her hand. I’m her namesake. The moment was so big. I knew I had to put it somewhere, so I gave it to my book.
Guernica: Your characters are often experiencing psychological tension—rising and falling in various ways, especially Det. To me, this relates to both class and spirituality, what is earthly and what is godly. Your characters present themselves in distinct ways because of this. What inspired a character like Det?
Manning: Thai society is so class-based in everything we do. In Thai, when you speak to someone you immediately reveal where you’re placing yourself and the other person. So I could be elevating myself and pushing you down. I could be elevating you and pushing myself down. Thai is a language that forces you to rank constantly. Rising, falling.
Because Det’s wealthy and is a member of the nobility, he seems to have everything, so I decided we had to begin the book with his greatest loss, which is the loss of his mother. I also based Det on Pierre Bezukhov, from War and Peace. He’s sensitive the same way, a bumbling anti-hero until you see him grow into his moral authority. Then you love the character’s sensitivities.
I grew up Theravada Buddhist. In the way that I experienced it, the religion is used to uphold class. I think it’s a misinterpretation, but karma is used to justify a person’s position. Karma is cyclical, so as things are rising, it means they must fall. It’s funny to me that Buddhism in Thailand is being used to try to lock people in place because it’s actually a religion about movement and non-attachment to those states.
Guernica: When Lek says, “And there was a line of orange dots between the protestors and the tanks. The monks stood between them, so the tanks couldn’t shoot,” I got goosebumps.
Manning: Yeah, the role of the Sangha is variable. In ‘73 monks did stand between protestors and tanks, and the tanks wouldn’t fire. But in ‘76 there was a real monk, Kittiwhuto, who urged people to violence on the radio. The things he says in my novel are word-for-word transcriptions of what he said at the time. For me as an artist, I didn’t see any need to change his words, which frames very clearly what was happening to convince Thai citizens that the student movement had become reckless and dangerous. It was part of what “othered” the students enough that citizens could kill the children of their neighbors.
Guernica: I always saw Thailand as a place of refuge because my family fled there from Cambodia in 1979. But three years prior, in Bangkok, a massacre took place. What was it like to research this moment in Thai history?
Manning: I wasn’t alive in the 70s, so I drew on a lot of my mother’s experiences at college and a little bit from my uncle’s, but because they didn’t radicalize, I had to go figure out what it was like for the students who did. When I interviewed Thai journalists, they were stunned that I was putting the massacre of October 6, 1976, in the book. It’s still unresolved. It’s a point of great pain because so many people killed each other. I found people who survived the massacre. I found some former activists who talked to me. A lot of Thai history is censored but I was outside of Thailand, so I could access things and read them from my home in Berkeley, California.
Guernica: How do you feel about the publication of your novel in the midst of student uprisings in Bangkok today? Especially knowing that the massacre in 1976, as you said, is unresolved?
Manning: I’m nervous and excited. The book took me five or six years to write depending on how you count it, but it is landing at a time where the events of the book are being echoed very strongly. Students are protesting now. They’re looking back on the democracy movement of the ‘70s with a special interest in learning from the mistakes and building on that lineage.
Publication also makes me nervous because there are a lot of restrictions on what we can say and write and do in Thailand. I’m a Thai citizen; I hope to go back home.
That said, as a US citizen living in America, if I didn’t point to the things I couldn’t say if I still lived in Thailand, then I would be doing a disservice to the position of privilege that I occupy. This thinking came from a conversation I had with Thai writers who talked about not writing about the monarchy, and how that’s the hole in the middle of every text they make. How the monarch is like 90 percent of the country—which isn’t because the monarchy actually does take up 90 percent of our consciousness, it’s that there is a lot of power tied up in the monarchy. When you can’t address that in any way because you could go to jail, you’re censoring yourself. This is not a role that artists are comfortable inhabiting. Artists who live in Thailand make that call for themselves for a variety of very good reasons, but I don’t live there. I felt like I had a moral obligation to be as honest as I could be from here, in America.
Guernica: What was it like for you to write about the controversial topic of lèse-majesté?
Manning: It felt incredibly transgressive the whole time. It’s hard to convey what that feels like. I pass very well in America, but I was born and raised in Bangkok. My consciousness was formed within a mythology that I can only compare to a religion. Questioning it—I’m not even going to say stepping out of it—but just questioning it brings up a state of alarm and grief and fear in the body. The word for that is apostate. You have to decide if you’re willing to consider apostasy. Right now, a lot of young people in Thailand seem to be going down this path in a way that I would have found difficult from within the Kingdom. For me, I had to go away and read and think about it.
It also felt transgressive to depict nobility because I’m super not of that class. I happened to work with nobility for a couple years and got to see their life. They generously allowed me to experience an echelon of Thai society that my Chinese-Thai immigrant family never gets to see.
Guernica: What work did you do with the nobility?
Manning: Well, Thailand’s current king is the tenth monarch in the dynasty. Before him, the ninth King initiated projects for rural development. He passed recently. I worked for one of the royal foundations. We used some of the resources of the Crown to plant crops, buy livestock, set up water systems—stuff that was outside my comfort zone as a city kid. I remember jumping out of the van and looking at a paddy, and the field director said, “If you don’t know that’s rice, don’t tell me that.”
Guernica: You mentioned Lek, a character I loved. She is a fierce, intelligent woman with an active role in this political movement.
Manning: Lek is the closest to my background. She’s Chinese-Thai, and my grandparents immigrated from China to Thailand. My mom went to great schools, all on scholarship, just as Lek does. Lek is a subversive character. On the surface, although she’s a commoner, she’s playing the part of a Thai woman who thinks she can ascend class. Some people would call her manipulative, but is it manipulative to be in a position of lesser power and work for more? Lek is using what she’s got. That’s strength. The patriarchal gaze cuts out that agency.
The most interesting moments for Lek happen when she encounters Dao, because Dao is not trying to be beautiful. She’s not trying to please people. She’s extremely direct. The two women mirror each other.
Guernica: Dao is another woman who shapes the political movement alongside Lek. I might even say that their love lives are mirrored. I chuckled while reading about Dao’s man. You write, “He hides behind being angry and manly, his current incarnation.” There are lots of people like that in the world! To think about every person in their current incarnation! Which characters’ incarnation did you personally identify with the most?
Manning: Whoa, they’re all my babies, but Dao is really special. Here’s a peasant woman from a remote village, very poor. She would not come out high on your list of characters with power, and yet to me, she’s the most free of the characters. She’s free to be herself. She’s liberated from a lot of the gender constraints that Lek feels. Dao’s voice, though it doesn’t come in until later, is the voice that can guide the reader once we learn to trust her.
Guernica: Dao is a character that Det and Lek meet in the jungle of Lap Lae Nakhon, a place that strips everyone of academicising their political beliefs. Have you ever been to Lap Lae Nakhon?
Manning: Well, it’s a made-up place. It means hidden village. But I did go to a real place, Phu Hin Rong Kla.
Guernica: Oh my goodness, Lap Lae Nakhon felt like a real place!
Manning: I didn’t want to just go to any jungle. I wanted to find a place where the communists had actually been. I wanted to know what their sleeping cots looked like. A novelist’s details are usually not in history books. Phu Hin Rong Kla is one of the places the communists had an encampment, so I planned a trip by myself, much to my family’s surprise. They were scandalized because young Thai women don’t travel alone. I ended up having a friend of my aunt’s accompany me at the last minute. It was great because she’s very outdoorsy.
The imaginary Lap Lae Nakhon is based on my experience there. I was able to interview a forest ranger who was conscripted into the army, but had almost joined the communists. I don’t want to romanticize the jungle, but it did shift the student movement. The jungle or the forest is a mythic Shakespearean place where anything can happen once you enter. The identities that society gives you are so locked in. I had to get to the jungle for all my characters to shake it out.
Guernica: It’s September and I read those jungle scenes within the context of our current reality: a pandemic compounded by wildfires in Northern California. I felt like I was actually with your characters in this imaginary place…but one that I saw as real.
Chit Phumisak is a real person and you used his real name. What is your own personal relationship to his work?
Manning: Chit Phumisak was a radical intellectual. I didn’t hear about him growing up. It was only when I came across his name in books that I followed the trail, so I wanted to leave a trail in my book for other people to follow, although I do think now that most educated Thais have heard of him. I didn’t change his name because Chit was too good to make up. He was radicalized, I believe, by translating the Communist Manifesto on the dime of the CIA so that they could plant it on Thai radicals and round them up. He’s one of those minds that Thailand couldn’t make room for at the time, which is a pity because he had really big ideas. When you’re from a small country, you can’t afford to lose anyone of such ability. Maybe that’s true even from a big country like the US.
Manning: He was assassinated in the jungle. Sometimes on social media you’ll come across accounts with his image as the profile photo. He’s become a symbol for the dissident.
Guernica: Your novel’s epigraphs are quotes by Chit Phumisak and King Chulalongkorn. The king says: “Democracy in Thailand must be different than democracy in the West, because Thais eat rice, not wheat.” Phumisak says: “The Thai people of today are fully awake. They have been able to identify clearly the enemies who plunder them and skin them alive and suck the very marrow from their bones.”
So how are the uprisings in Thailand similar to the uprisings in the US against police brutality? Are these global movements connected?
Manning: I think some Americans today are waking up to the fact that they are going to have to fight to keep the freedoms they have, and fight to extend those freedoms to all people who live here.
For a long time, Thai people have known that the state is not a benevolent one. It doesn’t grant you much; to get opportunities, you have to make that happen. There’s a sense, I think, in Thailand right now, chiefly among young people, of responsibility for their fate, which is exciting to me because they’re looking around and saying, I don’t like the world that you have set up for me to inherit. I don’t like the political situation. I don’t like the lack of opportunity because it’s so concentrated in the elite class. This is something that Thailand’s doing that the US is starting to do and could do more. They’re very similar critiques, though the consequences in Thailand are steeper, because it’s not a democratic state and there is no free press. People are jailed and disappeared.
Guernica: In the novel, the war in Vietnam is raging. It’s clear that Thailand is watching from a distance. The country exists outside of Western imperialism, whereas its neighbors struggle against foreign powers. In history class, I rarely heard about the secret wars in Cambodia and Laos. But I definitely never heard about Thailand during this time period.
Manning: I think the big difference with the neighboring countries is that Thailand wasn’t colonized. It’s something Thai people have always been proud of. We had a wily king who was able to play British, French, and Dutch colonial powers off each other. Flexibility can be subversive. Being able to flow is prized in Thailand. See, I think about boxing. In the West you would be punching each other straight every time, while in Muay Thai, fighting can look like a dance. Avoid the blows! There’s no honor in taking them.
Guernica: Maybe writing is also like dancing to avoid the blows. What was your process like while writing this book? What was going on in your life?
Manning: In that time I became a teacher and then I became a mother. Each identity took time to get used to. I wrote many versions of this book before I landed on this one, and I was trying to integrate some of the craft elements that I learned in my MFA with the specificities of writing as a person of color from elsewhere. I asked questions like: How much do I translate? How much to explain? What do I norm? What do I center?
Actually, I wrote a lot of the book in the basement of my house. I like writing in places where I don’t feel spectated upon. For me, what’s really important is having a room with a door that locks, so that when I leave it’s not available for viewing. When I’m making an art piece, and novels take a really long time, they’re not open to scrutiny yet. They’re still coming.