A Sami family, Lapland, c.1900. They saw their homeland as the centre of the world. Photo: Galerie Bilderwelt
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John Burnside: The tyranny of the world’s “centre”

For generations, people on the periphery have watched their ways of life – often informed by deep wisdom and ancient traditions – being sacrificed for “resources” for those in central nations. 

Recently I took part in a conference that brought together writers, economists, business strategists and politicians to discuss the future of European culture in a changing world. It wasn’t the usual kind of event for me, so I took the prompt for my panel debate – “Where is the middle of the map?” – as a provocation, a fun talking point rather than a serious concern; but in this, it seems, I was mistaken.

Having pointed out that Europe had been “at the centre” for a very long time, the opening speaker seemed troubled by the notion that the centre might have shifted away, first to North America, and now, with the growth of Asian economies, somewhat towards the east. Another speaker said it was possible to decide where “the middle” was by studying the surface of the earth from space, to see where the greatest concentrations of artificial light were to be found. Everyone seemed encouraged by the fact that Europe was still one of the “brightest” – that is, most light-polluted – areas of the planet.

By this time, I was lost. I am not accustomed to thinking of culture in terms of its competitiveness or possible superiority (one panellist felt that European capitalism was more humane than the American version, and asked that “we” should strive to hold the centre for that reason). In fact, I am accustomed to assuming that this argument is moribund – and as the discussion continued I kept thinking of the Sámi atlas that the activist and artist Hans Ragnar Mathisen gave me many years ago. This is a set of maps that re-envisions the world from a Sámi perspective, the centre at one point being the North Pole, with the Sámi homeland illumined by polar ice while other territories, such as the US and central Europe, drop away towards the periphery, into darkness.

Surely by now, with a wealth of post-colonial studies behind us, we could all see that to create a centre is also to create a periphery; and, as power is established, that periphery is inevitably reclassified as “resource” (human labour, minerals, natural gas, dammed rivers, endless agri-industrial monocultures), a harvest to be reaped in order to keep those at the centre well lit and cosy in their superior culture.

We know that, in order to dine on beef and chicken as frequently as it does, the centre destroys vast areas of forest and prairie to grow fodder for its livestock. We know that somewhere else, poor farmers are denied water so that luxury golf resorts can be well irrigated. We know that fish stocks have been exhausted all over the world, that precious rivers have been dammed to provide cheap electricity to major cities. No wonder the centre’s concerns seem so callow; the only philosophy it seems to have espoused is “out of sight, out of mind”.

For generations, people on the periphery have watched as their ways of life – often informed by deep wisdom and ancient traditions – have been sacrificed for these “resources”, or to create spaces for weary centre-dwellers to escape into well-managed pockets of “nature”. These peripheral folk do not speak of “the centre”; they speak, often in an elegiac key, of home. Sitting on that panel in the centre of Europe, I remembered a definition that Kathleen Dean Moore offers in her powerful collection of essays Holdfast. Home, she says, is:

salmon and yellow cedar, the River, the Inlet, and a little town where wooden houses stand on stilts above great schools of fish . . . A place where bears roll boulders on the beach, sucking up crabs and sculpin. Where gardens grow in milk crates stacked above the tide – daffodils and garlic, and rhubarb for pies. A place where women’s voices call to children across the docks, and salt wind carries the laughter of men. A place where people can make a living, but not a fortune. A place where enough is great riches.

This article first appeared in the 18 June 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Islam tears itself apart

Photo: Prime Images
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The Sad Part Was: this story collection puts the real Bangkok on display

Thai author Prabda Yoon descends into the voices and minds of a small cast of characters.

In Bangkok’s budding literary scene, Prabda Yoon sits at the centre. Born in 1973, he’s the scion of a well-known family (his father Suthichai Sae-Yoon is the co-founder of the Nation newspaper) and is known in Thailand as not only an enfant terrible of letters but as an illustrator, screen-writer and director (his first film, Motel Mist, was shown at European festivals in 2016).

His reputation rests mainly on a collection of short stories published in 2000 entitled in Thai Kwam Na Ja Pen, roughly translated as Probability, and it is from this early collection that most of the stories now collected in The Sad Part Was are derived. Translated with cool elegance by Mui Poopoksakul, they are among the first modern Thai stories to be published in the UK.

As Poopoksakul points out in her afterword, she and Yoon are the products of similar backgrounds and epochs: upper-middle class children of Bangkok who came to consciousness in the late Eighties and Nineties. Often foreign-educated, fluent in English and conversant in global pop culture and media – Yoon did a stint at Parsons in New York after prep school at the Cambridge School of Weston – this new generation of Thai writers and artists were born into a society changing so fast that they had to virtually invent a new language to transcribe it.

In The Sad Part Was, the result is stories that one could glibly label as “post-modern” but which, in reality, perfectly match the qualities of the megacity where they are set. Bangkok is infamously mired in lurid contradiction, but it’s also a city of subtle and distorted moods that journalism and film have hitherto mostly failed to capture. The whimsical and playful surfaces of these stories have to be read against the high-octane anxieties and surreal dislocations of what was, until recently, one of the fastest-growing cities in the world.

Yoon uses the short form of the ten-page story to descend into the voices and minds of a small cast of characters: a schoolgirl and a beautiful female teacher who form a platonic lesbian infatuation while riding a daily bus in “Miss Space”; a couple making love during a thunderstorm whose activities are interrupted by the dismantling of two giant letters, which fall onto their roof in “Something in the Air”; a young man who meets a mysterious older man in Lumpini Park called Ei Ploang, who forces him to consider the intertwined nature of good and evil. In “Snow for Mother”, a mother waits for her little boy to grow up so that she can take him to Alaska to experience the real snow, which he never knew as a little boy in the tropics.

In “The Sharp Sleeper”, a man named Natee obsesses over losing his shirt buttons and is led into a strange reverie on the nature of dreams and the competing qualities of red and yellow pyjama shirts (Thailand’s political culture is riven by two parties popularly known as Red and Yellow Shirts). The commentary slips into effortless sarcasm:

Natee has proudly worn the red pyjama shirt several times since then, and his dream personality hasn’t altered at all. On the contrary, the shirt has encouraged him to become a man of conviction in his waking life. As to what those convictions were supposed to be, Natee wasn’t quite sure. But it was safe to say that a night shirt so principled wouldn’t drop a button so easily.

Since these stories were written, Bangkok’s political schizophrenia has lost its former air of apathy and innocence, but Yoon’s tone is quietly prescient about the eruption of violent irrationality a few years later. It’s a reminder how precious the subtlety of fiction is when set against the shrill certitudes of activism and reportage.

My favorite story here is “Something in the Air”. Its dialogues are written with hilariously archaic, bureaucratic formality, while delving into the disorientation of sexual and romantic hopes in the present century. After the couple’s love-making is interrupted, the young man suggests insolently to the woman that they resume in the open air, exposed to the furious elements. She agrees. They then notice that a dead body is lying on the roof nearby, crushed by the giant letters.

While waiting for the police to arrive, the woman sits quietly and describes her future, a happily married future in which her current lover will play no part whatsoever. He listens in melancholy astonishment until the couple are called to give their testimonies about the dead man. The officers then suspect that the couple themselves have done something scandalous – and so, stung by shame, the woman considers breaking off the relationship and setting in motion her own prophesy.

The Sad Part Was is unique in the contemporary literature of Bangkok – it doesn’t feature bar girls, white men, gangsters or scenes redolent of The Hangover Part II. Instead it reveals, sotto voce, the Thai voices that are swept up in their own city’s wild confusion and energy, and it does so obliquely, by a technique of partial revelation always susceptible to tenderness.

Lawrence Osborne is a British novelist living in Bangkok. His next book, “Beautiful Animals”, will be published by Hogarth in August

The Sad Part Was
Prabda Yoon
Tilted Axis Press, 192pp, £8.99

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder