Split Lip REVIEWS
"Bright" by Duanwad Pimwana, translated by Miu Poopoksakul
by Lauren Dostal
A new translation is always worth celebrating, but that is especially so with Bright by Duanwad Pimwana (translated by Mui Poopoksakul). According to the publisher, Bright is the first novel by a Thai woman to be translated into English.
Bright tells the story of Kampol Changsamran, a five-year-old boy who is unceremoniously abandoned by his parents to the charity of his tenement neighborhood. Shunted from house to house and experiencing true hunger for the first time, Kampol faces his new life with a youthful vigor that defies his dire situation. The story’s lighthearted voice braces against the hard truths of Kampol’s circumstances to create a devastatingly beautiful reading experience.
Kampol is a born explorer and uses his independence to stretch the bounds of his life. Told as a series of flash vignettes, Bright leaps from Kampol’s creative moneymaking enterprises to free rice day at the temple to dueling flea markets to the arrival of a Likay theater troupe. In one memorable story, the neighborhood grocer Chong tells Kampol a fable about a man who has not eaten for three days. The starving man becomes so deranged that he murders then robs a passing stranger, stealing only enough money to buy a single boiled egg. The story affects Kampol profoundly and, though destitute himself, he begins to study his
neighbors’ faces. “When he really looked closely at each one,” the narrator tells us, “he realized that almost everybody looked rather hungry. But he wanted to find the person who was starving the most.” Finally he locates a man who fits the story’s description. He brings him to Chong’s grocery and asks politely for Chong to feed him before he hurts anyone. We may be tempted to call Kampol’s kindness naïve. Certainly a single meal can never solve the systematic injustice and poverty that have engulfed his neighborhood. But Pimwana purposefully builds Kampol’s survival one kindness at a time. He is offered a meal then a bed then a meal then a shirt. One neighbor pays him to massage his back. Another pays him to fetch people when they get phone calls at the neighborhood’s single phone. Sometimes, Pimwana seems to tell us, the small kindnesses are all that stands between us and desolation. And sometimes, that is enough.
Like a boat floating amid a ruinous flood, Kampol drifts through the remains of his old life, always expecting the waters to ebb. He watches the street corners, searches the faces of the carnival crowd, hopes and believes with every bone in his young body that one day his parents will return. But the neighborhood surges forward, carrying Kampol along, and little by little, he grows into his new place in the world. At last he declares that he is his own mother and father.
Winner of the S.E.A. Write Award, Southeast Asia’s most prestigious literary award, Bright balances, to magnificent effect, the heaviness of poverty and abandonment with the lightness of a child’s perspective. The novel offers a layered, crisp portrait of working-class Thailand through a deeply empathetic narrator. Bright is a wonderful introduction to a masterful contemporary Thai voice. For those readers who want more, Feminist Press has simultaneously published a short story collection by Pimwana, Arid Dreams, also translated by Poopoksakul.
Lauren Dostal (@ell_emm_dee) is science fiction writer living in Tampa, FL. She reads fiction for Outlook Springs, and her recent work can be found online in Hotel, Entropy, and Always Crashing. In Fall 2018, she was selected for AWP’s Writer to Writer mentorship program for fiction.
Translated by Mui Poopoksakul