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Pitchaya Sudbanthad On 'Bangkok Wakes To Rain'


"Bangkok Wakes To Rain" is a novel that begins with short stories that wrap itself around a city that bristles with glimpses of different people inside that city - a woman whose name we don't know trudges through today's modern streets, an American doctor at the last century and protests of the 1970s that divide that city but bring a generation and two young people closer together.

"Bangkok Wakes To Rain" is the debut novel from Pitchaya Sudbanthad, who divides his time between Bangkok and Brooklyn. Thank you so much for being with us.

PITCHAYA SUDBANTHAD: It's my pleasure to be here.

SIMON: You put a house at the center of this novel that gets surrounded by an actual skyscraper.

SUDBANTHAD: Yes. It's something that I connect to, the simultaneous coexistence of both the ancient and magical and the new and technological. In Bangkok, where one sees sky trains and people on high-speed Internet - and at the same time, you see people making offerings to spirit houses on their land. Or you walk the streets, and see saffron-robe monks waiting for alms-givers to give them food in the morning.

SIMON: I'm haunted, which is not a word I try and use casually - but haunted by - I wrote it down - a signature line in this novel. Quote, "the forgotten return again and again as new names and faces. And, again, this city makes new ghosts." Are the ghosts a sign of life and liveliness?

SUDBANTHAD: In some ways, a ghost is an unseen that's always present in a city that has so much that is tied to ancient history and also modernity. You know, for example, my family - when I go to visit them every year, we would make offerings to spirits who live on the land. Everything is still alive. Everything persists and stays within our own memory and lives and also a greater life of this bustling, colorful metropolis.

SIMON: The story begins to center on a woman named Nee. She meets Siripohng, another young student during the student demonstrations of the 1970s, a frightening time in so many ways. In any event, he sees Nee across a crowded protest meeting. She's come in from the rain. Take us back to that time, if you could.

SUDBANTHAD: Yeah. It's a very interesting time. I mean, I myself wasn't present for that. But when I was about 8 or 9 years old, I was giving my grandmother a massage in October. And she must have brought up the October massacres and how she had pleaded my aunt and uncle not to attend. There were protests. And they complied, which was fortunate for them because of the violence that ensued. And for me, that was something that stayed with me. And it's something that gestated and finally germinated into this thread that I wanted to explore in my novel.

SIMON: Do Nee and Siripohng see hope in one another and then in the times?

SUDBANTHAD: I think they do. I think, like all young Thai people, they want something better for their country. And Thailand is a place of mass inequality where you see high-rises sprouting next to slum communities. You see luxury cars riding past scooters with a family of four all on it. So it's something that you can't help but write about.

SIMON: There are an awful lot of lingering descriptions of food in this book, aren't there?

SUDBANTHAD: There are. You really cannot write about Bangkok or Thailand without writing about food. It's elemental to being Thai, I feel.

SIMON: And what do you draw from that when you try and write a novel that reveals some of the intricacy and delight and majesty of Thailand to people?

SUDBANTHAD: You know, I didn't have any preset plan to reveal anything. I was just basically following threads based on things I see when I visit Bangkok every year and go see my family. And I always think about me arriving at the airport. And on the car ride to home, I would just be confronted again by the city and the 24-hour traffic jams and the food stalls that's open at night And the smell of smoke. And there's a certain kind of alienation that I feel as a native who's returning. But then I get home, and my mother has a bowl of rice soup with fish and garlic waiting for me. And then I feel like I'm back. And this is sort of the duality that I negotiate here in New York and there in Bangkok.

SIMON: Another image that really struck me toward the end of the book - Nee takes fish before the fishmonger can - let me put this nicely - make them ready for sale. And she releases the fish into the river and wonder if they might lead her to someone. Maybe it's just Valentine's week. But that's the most achingly romantic thing I've read in a long while.

SUDBANTHAD: Yeah. It's the things we do to try to reach the people and places who are gone in a way. And I think this novel is about people who are uprooted from places, from themselves and from their history and their rituals that we perform so that, for a moment, we can become closer to those things.

SIMON: Pitchaya Sudbanthad - his novel "Bangkok Wakes To Rain" - thank you so much for being with us.

SUDBANTHAD: It's my pleasure to be here.

(SOUNDBITE OF NK-67'S "LAST SUNRISE IN THE WASTELAND") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.