The Island and the City: Thoughts on Chamlong Fangchonjit

Often we forget how so many political spheres have nothing to do with what newspapers replay and the words that emerge from the mouths of television anchormen and women; that people are divided in other ways. I had a scarf given to me a few months back, and it’s beautiful, and behind it is someone with good taste in color and material. But as I figure out where to put it in my apartment, it reminds me of a story about fabric by Chamlong Fangchonjit called “The Squirrel’s Tail Weave” (ผ้าทอลายหางกระรอก). The story was first published in 1980 in the Thai literary journal Book World, and published in a collection of short stories The Squirrel’s Tail Weave in 1988. I met the author, accidentally, two years ago at a restaurant called Hemlock on Phra Athid Road in Bangkok, Thailand. He is one of the primary links between the social realist aesthetic of Thailand in the 1970s and contemporary literature driven by more postmodern themes of the present. His place beside two subsequent generations of writers from the same southern provincial town of Nakhorn Si Thammarat, at Hemlock on that evening of January 2008, attests to his continuing influence in Thai literary circles.

I told Chamlong that what struck me about the story lay at the very center where the two primary characters end their lovers rendezvous with one (Jarun) asking the other (Kanda) if she would like to go to the movies the following day. Kanda says she has no time. Kanda has no “leisure” time because it has been exchanged for the economic demands of labor in the emerging provincial/village/factory/island economy of weaving, which hinges around the price of thread in Bangkok and is mediated by a Chinese merchant. On this island, as in many single-export islands from political economy textbooks, leisure time has been exchanged for the fast pulse of capital time which the author demonstrates through Jarun’s rushed marriage proposal to Kanda, a narrative event that follows the rushed rhythm of the loom in the story’s first epigraph (The epigraph is actually written by Thailand’s award-winning poet, who I currently find overly conservative, Nawarat Phongpaiboon). And all this takes place not simply in an increasingly internationalized economy, but in an economy where terms are dictated from the already globalized capital city of Bangkok. Susan Conway (1992) emphasizes that traditional weaving is threatened by Western fashions, but in this story the Queen has turned the island’s weaving industry into a cultural heritage site based around commodity production and export. Upon my first reading, I feel that Chamlong has over-emphasized the Marxist “base”, that economic relations rule cultural or “super-structural” relations. But on second reading, I see the problem as geopolitical where a distance between two spaces becomes an issue of power and geographic inequality. The problem is emphasized by the Nakhon Group, a group of Nakhorn Si Thammarat writers who utilize an increasingly political vocabulary to contest Bangkok’s literary center. From the November 1992 issue of The Writer they seem to bring the industry of literature in line with all other provincial industries: “To use a revolutionary vocabulary, we seek to liberate new writers from the circumstances of the publishing industry in Bangkok. Otherwise new writers, from the outskirts, will cease to be born.(26)” Further into the interview the collective stated “[t]he system of writing in a country lagging behind, like ours, is similar to the system of governance of state establishing its power from the center to penetrate the provinces. (26)” The point is that writing, superstructural industry from a reductionist Marxist standpoint, is at once economic, aesthetic, and cultural—i.e. an issue of visibility and recognition.

The narrative time is post-War Thailand, a period of cold and quickening modernity for the Western novel (e.g., Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer or Salinger’s Franny & Zooey—emerging the same year, or Hemingway’s post-war novel The Sun Also Rises that literary critic Irving Howe says our generation can no longer understand), but for Thailand a deployment of industry into the provinces—Country Hotel (Pestonji 1957) shows this provincial expansion. [Note: In that film we see bandits and saloons in the provinces and love is something made in its hotels.] The comparison demonstrates an interesting antagonism in that this sort of American literature looks at the decline of upward mobility based on boredom, while the Thai short story demonstrates the increasing tension between the city and its satellites through rhythmic shifts (from individual to geopolitical issues, metaphysical issues regarding “self-awareness” to issues embedded in the cartographic landscape). After the war, family looms had been replaced by factories in order to lower the price of thread by buying in bulk, which mandated high production levels and anticipated profit margins. According to cultural tradition Jarun needs to sow a wedding weave to validate his marriage proposal to Kanda, but, in the end, cannot afford to pay the middle man. Love conforms to capitalism, movie time is displaced by labor time. Jarun seeing a movie with Kanda is about developing the intimacy of their relationship. But instead the city becomes more intimate in its domination of the provincial island body. Like the movies, which Chamlong has noted as a childhood passion, the narrative cuts across the alternate speed of island landscapes where flocks of birds and ducks underpin a slow motion collectivity starkly contrasted with the difficult partnership of Kanda and Jarun. The city makes incisions upon the island body, cutting between two characters.

I feel like geopolitics may separate Kanda and Jarun or that the story places their relationship at a dead end. From a reader’s point of view, I want to see Jarun and Kanda together; that beyond the island’s “political economy” (conventionally understood) two characters might find means to move beyond it. On the other hand, the story may be about something else entirely, about an image of a place swallowed by a larger urban enterprise and made into an outpost of production that even the Monarchy (the symbolic center of the nation) has facilitated in some way. Smaller relationships, the micropolitical ones that exist between two people, are exhausted by a more expansive distribution of roles. Maybe, like the scarf given to me, some things might be remembered and bestowed rather than exported, sold, consumed, and forgotten.

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