Doing the Write Thing: Sunisa Manning
Born to Thai and American parents, Sunisa Manning spent most of her childhood in Bangkok before her move to California, USA. Graduating from Brown University, she has had her works published in Prairie Schooner, Mekong Review and The Rumpus, as well as other literary sites. She has also been honoured with residencies at Hedgebrook and Hambidge and was awarded fellowships at San Jose State and the San Francisco Writer's Grotto.
Her debut novel, A Good True Thai, was selected as a finalist at the 2020 Epigram Books Fiction Prize. A tale of three friends caught up in the political upheaval in Thailand during the 1970s, the story has been lauded by some as "a narrative that speaks so profoundly to the condition of Thailand" (Jess Row, award-winning author of Your Face in Mine) and "authentic and engaging" (Prabda Yoon, filmmaker and award-winning author of The Sad Part Was).
Enjoy a sneak peek into the creation of A Good True Thai, as author Sunisa shares her experiences and what she hopes readers can take away from it.
What’s A Good True Thai about?
The novel is a historic epic set in Thailand. In 1973, students and citizens joined together to overthrow a dictator, ushering in a period of political and artistic openness. Det is the main character: he’s the great-grandson of the king through his mother, and her death sends him looking for belonging and meaning. He meets two friends—Chang, a smart boy from the Klong Toey Slums, and Lek, a Chinese immigrant with radical ideals. Longing for glory, Det journeys into his friends’ political circles. The book is really one long argument about democracy and dictatorship. The students radicalise and they try to move the country closer to democracy. It’s a debate we’re still having today.
What inspired your story?
Growing up, I heard about the democracy movement of the 1970s. My mum and uncle were at the universities where the students were radicalised, but neither of them did. One day, I asked my mum why she didn’t join the movement and she said she was too poor. She knew she needed to be able to get a job after graduation and she couldn’t jeopardise that. This got me thinking: Could I write a story, almost alternate reality, where a character similar to my mom made a different choice? That character became Lek, whose parents, like my grandparents, immigrated from China. Like my mother, Lek went on scholarships to middle school, high school and college, allowing her to experience a Bangkok very different from the one her parents are allowed to access.
What were some of the challenges in writing the story?
The biggest challenge was getting through my own emotional block to be able to do it. The 1970s democracy movement is a sensitive subject, even today. As someone who grew up in Thailand where the Internet is censored, it wasn’t until I lived in the US that I could access sources like PhD dissertations that are lodged at Cornell University. That allowed me to understand what really happened. On an emotional level, living in the West gave me the distance to read, process and turn what I was finding into a story.
What was the biggest lesson learnt by writing this story?
To keep it simple, which I didn’t, the book is three point-of-view characters and required historic research, some of which is banned. Next time, I want to write a contemporary, linear and simple novel.
How alike is the protagonist to yourself?
On the surface, they are not like me, but of course, when you go deeper, they all have parts of me. Det is a character with such privilege. Like him, I often think about why, and how, to share those gains and what it would mean to make space for others to have more opportunity.
Who and what are your favourite books and authors?
My favourite book is War and Peace. I stole the love triangle between Det, Lek and Chang from Tolstoy and a lot of the characters’ dynamics. Det is idealistic and sensitive, like Pierre Bezukhof, Chang is dashing, smart but too inflexible, the way Prince Andrei is, and Lek, is like lovely Natasha, captivating and the charismatic one.
Once the book is published, what are your expectations for the novel?
Thailand’s a country that is spectated upon, too many foreigners come along, excited to explain Thai women, Thai beauty and Thai beaches. We don’t have enough that’s available or translated, that’s from a local perspective by someone who’s actually Thai. I hope people come into the Kingdom pick up and enjoy this book. It is entirely uncircumscribed by the foreign gaze. A Good True Thai is about a democracy movement, about politics and protest and radicalisation. Nothing to do with vacation and hospitable people.
2020 turns out to be a year where people everywhere are deciding to stand up for their rights. We're seeing this in Hong Kong, in the Movement for Black Lives in the US, and in Thailand, where people are protesting for democracy and freedom of expression. I hope the book is a guide and an encouragement as people go through their own political awakening because I wrote it to chronicle mine.
Get A Good True Thai here.