A member of the well-known and well-respected Bunnag clan, Tew Bunnag shuns the spotlight and hiso parties in favor of the simple life. He writes and volunteers at the Human Development Foundation, which helps children affected with HIV in Klong Toey. His latest book is After the Wave, the proceeds from which will go to education projects for children in the South. We caught up with Tew before an appearance at the “The Author Speaks…”, a series of live readings organized by the British Council and the Oriental Hotel.

What was your childhood like?
My father was a diplomat, and he was posted in London when I was very young. So I left Thailand without really understanding why we were leaving. I found myself in a completely different culture, which I had to adapt to. In those days, there were much greater differences between East and West. I was brought up surrounded by books, as my mother was a well-known translator—she translated the novel Prissana to English.

What was your favorite book at the time?
I liked the Arabian Nights, and I still read it now. I still keep the old copy that I had when I was seven. The next English book I read was Lord of the Rings.

What did growing up in England give you?
I think when I learned how to deal with life in between the two worlds, it gave me a certain perspective on Thai society—a great appreciation of it, actually. I know ways of appreciating details and subtlety of Thai society, like none of my friends who are here can understand. That’s because I look at things from the outside and that gives a very nice perspective.

What are the messages you want to get across in your writing?
I don’t think I have a message to tell from my books so much as questions. Questioning for me is more important than trying to give out a message. I mean, I do have messages. I think we should be aware of where we’re going, rather than just going toward, let’s say, one big shopping mall.

And what are the questions?
This society now is very different from the society I grew up in; there are great mobility and great changes. I think that we still have a very long way to go until we get a decent and just society. I think at the moment it’s really important to patiently ask ourselves what quality of life do we want, what to keep and what can be discarded from the tradition, rather than just stay where it is and end up shopping.

What do you get from volunteering?
When you work as a caretaker, it’s not really about virtue or piety. Those kinds of reasons don’t really get you through. What you learn, really, is how courageous people are, how strong they are. In particularly when you work with people who are really sick, you get this sense of perspective of celebrating simple things in life like friendship or a cup of tea. I watch all the things and I realize how fragile life is. It’s a big lesson. It’s what is called direct dharma, direct teaching.

What is After the Wave about?
I want to tell how people survive the terrible things that happen to them. I saw such brave people—people who had nothing in the first stage and then that little they had was swept away. They have to start and build up again. I don’t think you can avoid sadness because people are still very sad down there. But it tends to be hopeful. What always attracts me is how humans can go through such terrible things like losing the ones we love.