by Rattawut Lapcharoensap
Published by Knopf Canada
204 pages, 2005
Reviewed by Cherie Thiessen
When it comes to cultures and their languages, the more you know the better. For 25 year old Lapcharoensap, having a foot in both Thailand and America has kick-started him on his literary career. Born in America but raised in Thailand and educated at universities in both countries, he now calls Michigan his home. Already heaped with literary prizes and published in eight countries, the young author is making the most of his dual heritage.
Reading in depth about a different place in the world, skillfully written in our own language, is like picking up a good travel magazine. We find ourselves transported to exotic places and we are given an opportunity to experience the lives and feelings of the people who live there. The author adeptly creates for us this sense of place as well as introducing us to characters who feel authentic.
In Farangs, the Thai word for foreigners, the young protagonist is disappointed in his love for a farang once again. Born of an American father and a Thai mother, he has clear memories of his father, who bought him a pet pig before promising to send for him and his mother and then disappearing for good into the U.S.A. Because of this mixed parentage he speaks good English, although his jaded mother doesn't like him to use it at home. Perhaps also because of this abandonment, he continually seeks out love in the expatriate community, in a catch-22 situation, being abandoned again and again.
Some North American travelers may cringe when they realize how they are seen by the inhabitants of this steamy, exotic country. "Pussy and elephants. That's all these people want," snorts the mother at one point.
Sightseeing describes an area that is so unbelievably lovely many readers will dream of planning a trip to that area where the Indian and the Pacific Oceans almost meet. A son is taking this excursion with his mother, who will soon go blind. Wanting to see some of her own country before it is too late, she has planned this getaway for the two of them, a trip the son reluctantly takes, immersed as he is in the subsequent death of his own dreams. As her sole family, how can he live an independent life and go to college now that his mother will need help?
My favorite story, "Don't Let Me Die in This Place," features Perry, a crotchety old American widower, who is brought to his only child's home in Thailand after suffering a paralyzing stroke. He surveys his son's Thai wife and his "mongrel" grandchildren with horror. With scarcely a language to communicate, the depressed and angry father must find a way to live in a country he finds intolerably hot, too crowded and too foreign.
Perry is a piranha of a victim. Nasty, insulting, self-pitying and critical, he would soon find himself homeless in most modern cultures. The Thais, obviously, honor their elders more staunchly, so grandfather continues to molder in his son's home; lonely, frightened and bristling.
Slowly, and after an accident with his grandson, he begins to feel the stirrings of something positive. He reaches out a tentative hand. If his little grandson can forgive, how can Perry not make an effort?
Writing that brings us an author self-confident enough to breathe life into his characters and then let them loose, is high on my list of favorites. That is one of the reasons I will watch for more from Lapcharoensap. He is not tempted to manipulate but merely absents himself to allow the characters to live their lives. He'd be a good parent too, I bet. | May 2005
Cherie Thiessen has been a scriptwriter, playwright, creative writing instructor and -- for the past 10 years -- a travel writer and book reviewer. She was the review columnist for Focus on Women Magazine for eight years and has also written numerous reviews for magazines including Monday Magazine, Pacific Yachting, Cottage Magazine, The Driftwood News, Linnear Reflections and Douglas College's Event Magazine.