Elvis impersonator, skin whitening, sex tourism—the big English-language book about Thailand this year is a collection that spans decades and takes dark turns.
Mai Nardone’s debut short story collection ‘Welcome Me to the Kingdom’ has garnered international plaudits for its gritty, relatable portrayal of characters grappling with change as they orbit each other in new worlds. Briefly a former copy editor at BK, Mai Nardone—whose work has featured in Granta, McSweeney’s, Ploughshares, and others—uses stark, unapologetic realism to craft a Thailand many will recognize but few understand. BK learns more.
It's your debut collection, so it'd be interesting to hear why this was your focus. Can you tell us how “Welcome Me to the Kingdom” came about?
In college I was an economics major in undergrad, and I wanted to write fiction but I just sort of never made it over to that department. So when I started out writing the story collection, one of the things I'd been studying a lot in my courses was the ‘97 financial crisis. So I thought it'd be really cool to write from an economic experience a story collection about characters revolving around the ‘97 financial crisis, especially because of how that kind of impacted my family. … I was something like eight years old so I didn't really understand the context but was hearing about it afterwards for years and then getting the economic context when I was in college. Then I was finally reading these short story collections. There's one called “Other Rooms, Other Wonders” by Daniyal Mueenuddin, a Pakistani American writer and he bases a short story collection around the decline of the feudal land owning class in Pakistan. And I was like, that's a really cool structure. It started there and then spiraled out of control and became everything else.
The book definitely takes some dark turns and has a lot of tough realities. Would you say that was intentional in your writing or does that come about naturally?
I think it's probably the subject matter too. There are instances where the characters are winning, but just because it is talking about the middle class and the lower class, it felt disingenuous sometimes to write rosy stories about the movement of the agrarian class coming into the city in the 1980s. The ‘97 financial crisis then devastated the capital owning class, the middle class. It set back a lot of those families. So when I was looking at a lot of these stories, it was just hard to write a happy ending.
It’s quite a broad spectrum of characters, but you've got a lot of very modern, relatable personalities—laborers and an Elvis impersonator. What would you say is the larger story with these intersecting characters?
At the time I was writing this, starting from around maybe 2011, some of the stories were written when I was still trying to figure out how to write. Some were later when I had already sold the collection and I was trying to fill some spaces in the timeline. When I was writing this in the beginning, there was really only one Thailand short story collection written in English published in the West, and that was “Sightseeing” [by Rattawut Lapcharoensap] and that was set in the late eighties and nineties. … [In “Welcome Me to the Kingdom”] there’s some—not necessarily pop culture—but more like the skin whitening and a little bit with technology that comes into Thai society. And I write other stories that are about sex tourism, or just sex work in general. Looking at the way Thailand comes up in popular culture, whether it's film or TV, or other books, and it's a lot of, you know, that's the world. I remember seeing one of the Bridget Jones Diaries movies in the theater years and years ago, and there's a moment where she’s in a Thai prison and surrounded by Thai sex workers and they're singing or something like that. It was very surreal. I think it was supposed to be funny. Nobody in the movie theater was laughing. Even a movie like “The Beach” where it's kind of like these foreigners coming to Thailand and it's just a place of opportunity, and it's exotic but the exotic is perilous. So it’s taking some of those images of Thailand and trying to write them from within to give more facets.
Not a lot of English language books about Thailand see this level of critical success. What's your impression of the international feedback you've gotten so far? Any big surprises?
Not really…I have what in the industry is a two-book deal, which is common for short story writers where you sell a short story collection with the intention that you then write the same publishing house a novel because nobody wants to read short stories. And I think that's consistent with publishing this book and my publishers have been great both in the US and the UK. I don't think they're expecting big financial rewards from a short story collection, and I don't feel any pressure on that front. It’s a form that's sort of associated with fine arts programs that teach writing—the writers’ writers. Kind of Lorrie Moore and those who write books that are admired by writers, but not necessarily widely read.
Well on that topic it seems like a pretty successful debut, so what’s next? Any teasers on your next project?
On lightheartedness, I'm writing—it’s sort of BK Magazine territory—but I'm writing about the super rich, and the strange universe that is that world. I remember back when I was there, BK did this really fascinating…story about drug use in Thailand and I think it got the editor at the time in some hot water, but it was talking to middle class and upper class Thais and doing these anonymous surveys about people are using drugs, what kind of drugs, how they are getting them. And it was this little interesting window into the middle and upper class and how they're living in a way that isn't really captured. I'll watch how popular Thai soap operas are and it doesn't feel like they're necessarily getting behind the curtain of this world in some respects. So it’s a look at that, and I hope it can be more lighthearted. So it's gonna make fun of the super rich.
You can learn more about Mai Nardone's work here.