An Introduction To Thai Literature

Photo of Kelly Iverson
7 February 2017

Thai literature is not to be overlooked. In addition to many famous Thai authors and writers, Bangkok was even named the UNESCO World Book Capital in 2013. The capital of Thailand was recognized for the quality of its programs to promote books and reading. From famous Thai novelists to up and coming writers, Thailand has a wide variety of literature that’s worth reading. Here’s Culture Trip’s introduction to Thai literature.

Prabda Yoon

Prabda Yoon does it all. From writing to graphic designing to translating and more, there is seemingly nothing that this Bangkokian can’t do. Yoon was educated on the east coast in the U.S. and remained there until 2002. When he was 29 years old, he moved back to Thailand and was almost immediately awarded the S.E.A. Write Award for his collection of short stories titled The Sad Part Was, now published by Tilted Axis Press in Mui Poopoksakul‘s English translation. As a renowned translator he’s worked on some of the most famous pieces of literature ever written including include Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov and A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess. Yoon is definitely worth checking out.

Sunthorn Phu

Sunthorn Phu is a Thai poet who lived during the 19th century. He’s often referred to as Thailand’s Shakespeare, and is certainly the Kingdom’s most well-known poet. Many of his works have been commemorated in literary landmarks found all over Thailand, including on the island of Ko Samet. There’s also an entire monument dedicated to him in Sunthorn Phu Memorial Park, Rayong, with a statue of Phu surrounded by other sculptures that replicate characters from his work. This park is also home to a large celebration held each year to celebrate the author’s birthday.

The Footprint of the Lord Buddha | © Courtesy of Will Will/Flickr

Seni Saowaphong

Seni Saowaphong was once the ambassador to Burma. One of Saowaphong’s most famous works, Pisat (Ghosts), published in 1957, is one of the most famous books of Thai contemporary literature. It’s notable because it confronts the idea that those who are Buddhist, as most of the Thai population are, must surrender to karma. Saowaphong challenges this idea and essentially encourages those who are Buddhist to instead embrace opportunity and shape their own future. Many of his works challenged what was considered normal in Thai society, and he was thus thought of as a pioneer. His works also played a major role in the art for life movement in the mid-1970s.

S. P. Somtow

S.P. Somtow is both inspirational and successful. In his TED Talk given in Chiang Mai titled “Riding the Lightning”, he discusses big ideas, and how people should deal with them.

“Lightning strikes us all the time, but we don’t want to seize that bolt of lightning and do something about it,” Somtow said. “And what I want to talk to you today about is how to decide what to do when lightning strikes, how to react, whether you should run away in terror or whether you should grasp it and simply let it burn you up and do something.”

We can only assume that Somtow followed this exact same advice when pursuing his many dreams. Somtow has dabbled in various different career paths. In addition to being one of Thailand’s most well-known writers, he also composed music beginning in the 1970s. After composing, he wrote science fiction but later experimented with a variety of genres, including horror and fantasy after moving to the United States. The International Herald Tribune even referred to Somtow as the most well-known expatriate Thai in the world. Some of his most popular books include Jasmine Nights, his Chronicles of the High Inquest series, Moon Dance, The Stone Buddha’s Tears, Other Edens, Darker Angels, and The Shattered Horse. Pick up any to be enlightened by this fantastic author.

The Shattered Horse | © Courtesy of CHRIS DRUMM/Flickr

Emmanuelle Arsan

Emmanuelle Arsan was born in Bangkok in 1932 with the name Marayat Rollet-Andriane, but Emmanuelle Arsan was her pen name. The pen name she used is the same as the main fictional character in her popular book Emmanuelle. The book is about a wife heading to Bangkok to meet her husband. Along the way, she engages in a journey of her own sexuality. It was hugely successful and has been made into a movie and a graphic novel. The book was published in 1959 in France, where she was living with her husband, Louis-Jacques Rollet-Andriane. He was a French diplomat at UNESCO and modern theories say that he acted as a co-author of sorts to the famous novel – or wrote it completely on his own, depending on your beliefs of the theories.

Tercer libro que leo este ultimo mes #emmanuellearsan #emmanuelle#libro#librosrecomendados #libros

A photo posted by tita allan poe (@titaallanpoe) on

Jirat Prasertsup

Jirat Prasertsup, a Chiang Mai-based writer, found his inspiration in music as opposed to other successful authors in his novel Pipittapan Sieng (Museum Of Sound). Some of the bands this up and coming writer listened to while writing this popular title included Western favorites such as Muddy Waters, The Naked & Famous, and Arcade Fire. The book was even shortlisted for the South East Asian Write Award. Prasertsup has not always written books though. Before this publication, he was working on the editorial staff for a magazine in northern Thailand, as well as working as a columnist and translator.