translated from the Thai by Mui Poopoksakul
Publisher: Two Lines Press
reviewed by Bronwyn Mauldin
Bright opens with a slow-motion heartbreak. A father tells his five year-old son, Kampol, to wait here, I’ll be back in a bit, then drives away with his baby brother. You, the reader, know he isn’t coming back. His mother left a few days ago after a nasty fight. Kampol sees his father drive away, then paces back and forth for hours, watching the curve in the road for his return.
The neighbors, residents of a small Thai village, do what they can. Over the course of the novel, Kampol’s basic needs and more are met by an assortment of people with varying degrees of caring and, at times, resentment. He has food, shelter, clothes, toys, and friendship. The village shopkeeper, Hia Chong, makes sure he learns to read. Uncle Dang occasionally asks him to give him a massage by walking up and down on his back. This turns out to simply be an excuse to give Kampol a few baht to spend. Uncle Dum, Aunt Tongbai, Old Jai, Mon, and others take turns stretching their meals to feed him, giving him a corner in their homes to sleep.
The title of this book, Bright, is a translation of Kampol’s family name, Changsamran. The word can also mean “joy,” which might appear as a contradiction of the hardships of this boy’s life. However, as Pimwana has said, “when the readers finish the story, they’ll likely find that the name is not ironic at all, for sadness in a story can be mixed with happiness.”
Pimwana is well known in Thailand for her short story collections. While Bright is a novel, it reads more as a collection of interconnected stories. This book was originally published in 2003, earning for Pimwana Southeast Asia’s most prestigious literary prize, the S.E.A. Write Award. It has only now been published in English by Two Lines Press. In fact, they say this is the first novel by a female Thai writer ever to be published in English.
Pimwana shows, never tells, with her prose. We see Kampol laugh and we see him cry, but we are seldom inside his five year-old mind, or the mind of any other character. This puts the reader at some distance them. We learn the motives of one character from their actions and from what other characters say about them.
This distance does not dull the heartache we feel for Kampol as he goes about his ordinary days, or when he goes off on adventures like seeing a likay troupe perform, taking a bus to the beach by himself, or sneaking into a wedding with friends to try to cadge a free meal. For example, one day, Kampol announces to his friend Oan that not having parents isn’t all bad, telling him,
“I have more freedom than other people, that’s why. I don’t have to keep asking my mama for money. I can buy all the snacks I want, I can play wherever I want; I don’t have to ask permission from anybody.”
These stories give a view into the lives of the people who make up a Thai village, and a universal but very particular boy’s life.
Bronwyn Mauldin writes fiction and poetry and is creator of The Democracy Series zine collection. Her newest short story appears in the 2019 Gold Man Review. More at bronwynmauldin.com.