The October release of Sunisa Manning’s historical fiction novel, “A Good True Thai,” has turned out to be exceptionally timely, as Thailand is in the midst of months-long demonstrations for democratic change.
“A Good True Thai” takes place between 1973 and 1976, amid a pro-democracy movement that seems to mirror the current protests. Much like today, the idealistic students in Manning’s novel speak out against a military dictatorship and dream of social and economic equality. But the real-life movement’s demands go even further, calling for a new constitution and limited powers for the king.
“The two movements are related in that they seek access to opportunity for everyone,” says Manning, who is Thai American and lives in California. “There is a pro-democracy element to that, and also a curtailment of the monarch’s power, which until this year I wouldn’t have been able to say so bluntly. The difference is that the modern movement is more inclusive and less hierarchical.”
“A Good True Thai” begins with a funeral in Bangkok, as a young man named Det buries his mother in a Buddhist ceremony. On his mother’s side, Det is the great-grandson of the venerated King Chulalongkorn, but as his father was born a commoner, he will lose all his royal privileges now that his mother has passed.
At a military training school for officers, Det becomes friends with Chang, a gifted boy from the slums. Together they move on to college, where Det falls in love with Lek, a radical Chinese immigrant facing ethnic discrimination. Born into different classes yet all passionate about democracy in the country, the three join a communist resistance movement that leads them into the Thai jungle. As the police crush the protests in the infamous Thammasat Massacre, Det and Chang vie for the daredevil Lek’s heart.
The novel’s title refers to the changing notions of what makes a “real” citizen of Thailand, an identity and definition that is currently being renegotiated and can have life-or-death implications for protesters.
“It is the central conflict of the novel, and what is happening today,” says Manning. “Thailand has educated its population to believe that the nation is made of Sangha — the Buddhist community — and the monarchy. The movements, then and now, dispute the rigid, imagined idea of Thailand, which is handed down from above. It is a dangerous thing to do, because if you are deemed non-Thai for this questioning, you can more easily be killed.”
Manning shines with her Thai American sensibilities and unerring use of detail. Her prose is plain and without surprises, but the deft plotting and nuanced characterizations keep the protagonists from becoming mouthpieces. For readers interested in South East Asian history, “A Good True Thai” is a great primer to the background to the current unrest, raising universal questions about the nature of democracy and what makes a person a citizen of a country.
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