Borderless Book Club: ‘Arid Dreams’

This week’s Borderless Book Club saw a wonderful discussion on Arid Dreams, published by Tilted Axis Press, written by Duanwad Pimwana and translated by Mui Poopoksakul.

Arid Dreams is a powerful collection of feminist short stories. The collection came to be published in the UK as Tilted Axis read the US version and loved it, deciding there and then to buy the rights and publish in the UK. This selection of feminist stories are unique in that the majority are written from the point of view of a male character, and showcase the shocking, but unfortunately truthful realities of toxic masculinities. For example, we read of a man whose desire for a woman diminishes when she is no longer ‘forbidden’, and of an inmate on death row whose final wish is for a prostitute to be told that he actually does have a penis, as, knowing he will die, he only cares about his pride remaining intact. In one of the few stories narrated by a female character, we read of a woman reflecting on what her life would be like if her controlling husband were to die as a result of his life-threatening accident. A powerful politician, she lives in his shadow and follows his rules. Later on in the collection, we read a tale from a young boy who reflects on the passionate jealousy and scary possessiveness that one of his colleagues has towards his wife, and of a doctor who is not qualified, but has grown to love the power and glory he holds due to his ‘title’. The collection ends with a poignant story about a political figure, who, close to winning presidency, lost out to a candidate much poorer than him. This dejected politician is now on the search for the second volume to the book he bought from a market stall as a child, however, when he succeeds in finding the second volume, he is left feeling disappointed. He had hoped to set out on this search, and fail, almost as a way of proving that the world was somehow against him.

The book club began with a chat with Mui, the translator. Mui is a former lawyer but retrained as a literary translator. When she began grad school, she realised she didn’t read enough Thai women, however, she kept hearing the name Duanwad and knew she had to read her. Upon finally reading Duanwad’s works, Mui loved her writing and reached out to her to ask if she could translate her. Mui revealed that despite being known for her novel Changsamran, Duanwad has written more short stories than anything else, Arid Dreams being a compilation of stories from four of her separate collections. To put together Arid Dreams Mui marked out stories from each collection that stood out to her and discussed her reasons with Duanwad. In Duanwad’s works, class is a very big issue, and this comes through strongly in Arid Dreams, with her earlier stories focusing on class, and her later writing focusing more on the human psyche – perhaps this is where gender issues become more of a focus. Mui told the group that she feels a lot of pressure as not a great deal of Thai literature is being translated and she worries that her translations will become an all-encompassing representation of Thailand, however, she does not want this to become the case. First and foremost she wants the stories to be read as stories about people, with place coming into play later. Mui has translated two of Duanwad’s books (including Arid Dreams) and hopes to translate more.

In the final part of the evening, we split off into groups to discuss some specific points on the book. To begin, we talked about the reasons and implications behind using mostly male narrators. Personally, I think that this is a collection of brutally honest stories that are a brave and unusual attempt to show the reality of some men’s ways of thinking, of some men’s constructions of what they think women should be. Most, if not all of the stories explore the very grim realities of toxic and fragile masculinity. It could be said that Duanwad holds a mirror up to these types of people, forcing them to look at how their actions and words really appear. I think it is a very unique and extremely interesting take on feminist story-telling. We also discussed whether masculinity and femininity played out differently in class in these stories. In my opinion, there weren’t any grand differences, and the collection highlighted the fact that sexism and toxic masculinity does not discriminate. Although these issues may play out in different ways, they are apparent across all classes. We ended the discussion with some speculation on what the chickens that appear in two of the stories, and of course on the front cover, may symbolise. One idea that I liked was that the chickens were representative of vulnerability.

This week’s discussion was brilliant and it was great to hear everyone’s takes on these brilliantly shocking stories. I am looking forward to meeting again in two weeks time to discuss Holiday Heart published by Charco Press, written by Margarita García Robayo and translated by Charlotte Coombe.

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