September 8, 2010

Rattawut Lapcharoensap Reading

What I’m Reading Today: Started Stephen Elliott’s The Adderall Diaries. Fascinating memoir. Books about drug use are often written in this sort of dreamy style, where the effect of the drug overshadows text conventions. Stephen’s is written in a matter-of-fact, almost newspaper style. He’ll toss something off, mention something that happened to him, and the disconnect between the tone and the horrific thing he’s talking about just shocks me. I’m curious to see if he “goes there,” i.e., more fully confronts the emotions involved.

Rattawut Lapcharoensap, or A (sp?) as he is called, is our university’s visiting writer this semester. He writes short stories and has won a bunch of prestigious awards. He was born in Chicago but raised in Bangkok. I went to his great reading last night.

In person, he’s tall and slender and gangly and gives the impression of being a young university student. Though he’s spent a lot of time in Thailand, he does not have a trace of an accent. As he told us, he and his lovely wife June are 10 days away from being parents.

Brad Watson gave a great introduction, talking about all the accolades he has received and welcoming him. Brad mentioned that Rattawut was in Granta’s Best of Young American Novelists 2 (which is why I was reading it), and though he’s thankful for the honor he mentioned that he doesn’t really consider himself American first and he isn’t really a novelist but a short story writer. It would be a fascinating novel, if he wrote one.

He read a new story called, I believe, “In the 90s.” The phrase “in the 90s” was a refrain that haunted the story. Sometimes it reflected the optimism of that time, sometimes the harsh realities, when they hit. The story was about a young man in Thailand and his growing up. It’s the prosperous 90s. He has a brother who he is close to who is gay and his mother dies of cancer over the course of the story. There are compelling scenes that so masterfully underscore the theme in subtle ways, down to the very details. For example, an uncle leaves to work in Saudi Arabia doing construction, and when the uncle and the boy’s mother hug, they hold each other like it’s the end of the world. And for them it is: they realize they will never see each other again. This resonates with the feeling in the story that something is coming to an end, that something that was wonderful is going away.

There’s another great scene where the two young boys get their mother to ride on a roller coaster, and the mother is scared to death but does it for her sons. She has a line, I forget, but something like “I’m fucking dying here” and this mother never curses. It’s a premonition of what’s to come in the story. This sounds dark, and it is, but there are also some very funny scenes, like when the brother at the airport? rail station? announces he is gay before he goes north to help workers protest. The main character says, “Well, I hope you can accept me for who I am, because I have to confess that I’m heterosexual.”

Then, it ends with the protest coming closer and closer to the city, and finally the protagonist is reuinited with his brother. I was so afraid it was going to be a shocker ~ protestors would be shot or something ~ but it wasn’t. It was a celebration. Kudos for the wonderful uplifting but not trite ending.

Afterwards, at the reception, I got to talk to some great friends and got to chat with Rattawut’s wife June. She’s an artist from NYC. She and I and two other women from the university had a great talk about the OBGYNs in town and about kids. And I also got a chance to chat with Rattawut.

A lovely, lovely reading. Looking forward to reading more from this great writer. Check him out.

Questions of the Day: Do you attend readings? Do you think they’re worthwhile?

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