Translated from Thai by Mui Poopoksakul (Tilted Axis Press, 2020)
Arid Dreams is the latest offering from Tilted Axis Press, and part of a very strong 2020 catalogue for the publishing house: this collection of short stories offers a wide-reaching study of class and gender in Thailand and represents a key contribution to the intersectional feminism Tilted Axis Press embodies. Written with a carefully controlled rage and a deep well of compassion, these stories of solitude and stifled dreams are at once dark and witty, subverting narrative expectations and moving smoothly between the everyday and the magical. In the title story, a man becomes obsessed with a beautiful masseuse, unaware that she has to sell her body to survive, and his observations of her are simultaneously whimsical (“If I knew her any better, I’d ask her to run away with me”) and clinical (“When I really thought about it, she was one hardworking woman. She took care of the guesthouse in the morning, and in the afternoon she worked as a masseuse. When night fell, she sold her services. And on top of that, she had to look after her mother who was sick in the hospital”). Elsewhere, men fight for their own honour, which is conferred on them by the docile (or wayward) behaviour of their women, and the women do not always get to speak for themselves (one notable example is when a man reflects that “For the first time, it hit him how much faster women wither than men”, but does not modify his observation when he realises that he has been looking at a woman older than the one he thought she was). Nonetheless, their voicelessness – or their powerlessness when they do have a voice – is presented in such a way as to condemn it, and to offer space within these pages to give the women characters a voice even when they are silent.
Mui Poopoksakul has translated these lyrical short stories with great sensitivity and alertness to both the language and the context. I loved the interesting and unexpected collocations that proliferate in her translation: a little chick is “withering” in a cardboard box, and a potential chancer could be “whisking about” in the vicinity. Poopoksakul’s translations of the more poetic sections are gorgeous (“Ribbons of clouds glided over the moon, strand after strand”), and she does not shy away from leaving certain terms in the original Thai. She judges this perfectly so that a rough understanding is clear for those of us who have little or no knowledge of the language and culture (“During the monsoon season, our ears could pick up the sound of storm winds over a hundred rais away”). Poopoksakul also wisely refrains from adapting set phrases, with sentences such as “I just stared at him blankly, my mouth hanging open, feeling as heavy as a stone pestle” giving a subtle flavour of the original Thai and bringing a richness to the English-language version that works superbly.
Watch my video review to hear more about the variety of short stories, along with readings of some of my favourite sections (don’t forget: if you’re reading this review in your email, you’ll need to click through to the website to view the video, or watch it directly on Vimeo!)