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The Visionary Journey Of Narisa Chakrabongse And River Books

The Visionary Journey Of Narisa Chakrabongse And River Books

In Thailand’s publishing landscape, Narisa Chakrabongse stands as a luminary figure, wielding a wealth of knowledge and experience that spans continents and decades. As the founder and CEO of River Books, her journey is anchored in academia, with a Bachelor’s degree in Art History from The Courtauld Institute, London University, and a Master’s degree in Southeast Asian Area Studies from the School of Oriental and African Studies, London University.

With this academic foundation, Ms Narisa has seamlessly translated her passion for art and cultural studies into a prolific career in publishing. Over the past three decades, she has left an indelible mark on the literary landscapes of both England and Thailand. As we embark on a closer exploration of Narisa Chakrabongse’s multifaceted career, we unravel a narrative woven with expertise, cultural insight and a steadfast commitment to the world of literature and art.

Born into a diverse lineage that comprises Russian and Thai roots, Ms Narisa’s early years were marked by a cross-cultural upbringing. Her formative years unfolded against the backdrop of both Thailand and England, where she navigated the intricacies of two distinct worlds, seamlessly switching between languages—Thai and English. This dual immersion not only shaped her linguistic dexterity, but also laid the foundation for a cosmopolitan perspective that would later define her endeavours.

Life took an unexpected turn with the untimely loss of her parents when she was quite young. At the tender age of seven, she bid farewell to her father, followed by the poignant departure of her mother at fifteen. These early challenges, rather than breaking her spirit, fuelled a determination to forge her path with unwavering strength.

As fate would have it, love beckoned, leading her down the aisle and into a toy museum business. As the marriage did not work out, Ms Narisa returned to her roots in Thailand, where her entrepreneurial spirit took root. She sowed the seeds of River Books, a publishing house that would become a lighthouse for cultural exchange, art appreciation and literary enrichment.

Ms Narisa’s involvement in the world of books started when she co-authored and published a book on antique toys. This venture not only showcased her versatility, but also offered a glimpse into her innate ability to blend her passion for history and art with the written form. However, it was upon her return to Thailand that the true genesis of River Books unfolded. Faced with the unfamiliarity of her own native language and driven by an earnest desire to bridge the gap between her English upbringing and Thai heritage, Ms Narisa began a quest for knowledge. Fuelling her curiosity, she ventured into the rich tapestry of Thai culture, history and art, and it was this transformative journey that became the catalyst for the birth of River Books.

“I think Thailand was not always presented in a flattering way. I mean, it’s been presented as a country with a lot of good food as well as portrayed as a kind of “sex haven” with beaches. But I knew  the country is much more than this; it has a rich culture, going back centuries, and I wanted to portray this side of Thailand and show the country in a different light,” she explained. 

Narisa Chakrabongse’s commitment to preserving Thailand’s history goes beyond familial ties; it’s a legacy she actively continues. Her father, a distinguished historian, left an indelible mark on the scholarly exploration of Thailand’s past. Inspired by his profound contributions, Ms Narisa decided on a monumental project, a legacy of her audacity and devotion—the Oxford English Thai Dictionary.

The ambitious endeavour, initiated a few years into the inception of River Books, reflected Ms Narisa’s unwavering determination to bridge linguistic gaps and facilitate a deeper understanding of Thai culture. Undeterred by the enormity of the task, she approached Oxford University Press, expressing her aspiration to craft an English-Thai dictionary that would encapsulate the essence of the two languages.

While seemingly naive in hindsight, the creation of this dictionary became a Herculean task, demanding exhaustive research, linguistic finesse and an unyielding commitment to accuracy. As the project unfolded, Ms Narisa found herself navigating uncharted waters, immersing herself not only in language, but also expanding the scope of River Books to encompass a broader spectrum of publishing.

When asked about her proudest endeavour in her illustrious publishing career, her eyes light up with reminiscence. “I did a book about Cambodia,” she shares, “a collaboration with a photographer friend, Michael Freeman. The book’s success was not just measured in its initial printing; it endured through reprints and the resonance of its storytelling.”

However, as time unfurled, Ms Narisa found herself drawn to a different narrative—the narrative of popular culture. The shift in focus came when her friend, Philip Cornwel Smith, who proposed the idea of a book entitled Things Thai. This was more than an exploration of artifacts; it was a quest to unravel the essence of “Thainess” itself. Beyond the veneer of beautiful dancing girls and intricate temples, it delved into the minutiae of daily life that encapsulate the soul of a culture.

This curiosity took an intriguing turn, focusing on the small, everyday objects that speak volumes about a people, from the delicate, fleeting nature of tiny napkins to the rituals observed at a bustling restaurant, the book captured the essence of “Thainess” in its most unassuming moments.

The result was a resounding success. “Things Thai” became more than a publication; it became a cultural exploration that struck a chord with readers. Its success surpassed expectations, resonating not only with those curious about Thai culture, but also with a broader audience eager to understand the intricate layers that define a nation.

As Ms Narisa flips through the pages of her extensive collection, her eyes light up with a mix of pride and poignant memories. The evolution of River Books takes a captivating turn as she showcases volumes that delve into the vibrant tapestry of Thai popular culture. From comics that weave intricate tales to picture books that serve as visual chronicles, these publications mirror the collective sentiments and preferences of the Thai people.

“Thai people love ghost stories,” she notes with a smile. “These stories unfold narratives of individuals navigating the transition from rural landscapes to the bustling urban centres, providing a reflection of societal changes across different periods.”

 Ms Narisa’s exploration of Southeast Asian cultures extends beyond Thailand. River Books, under Narisa’s curation, has embarked on an extensive exploration of Burma, producing a notable series of eleven or twelve books. The cultural richness of Cambodia has also found its place in the publishing house's repertoire, with one particularly popular book, entitled Ancient Angkor.

Yet, the journey hasn’t been without its challenges. As Ms Narisa recounts, the success of Ancient Angkor came with an unexpected twist—a tale of piracy that echoed across borders. “There were pirated copies,  meticulously crafted books were reproduced with exceptional precision, leading to a proliferation of unauthorized copies sold at a fraction of the original price. The consequences were severe. I probably lost a million dollars from that,” she admits candidly. 

 “I would now like to talk a little more on the work we have done, like, the book I did with Cornwel Smith, Very Thai, which was an important book for me because it deals with popular culture. I also think the archaeology books we have published have been enormously important as well. However, they didn’t sell that well, but we published them because they are important, recording something that’s disappearing. So, our interest in books is not merely selling, but beyond that. We are helping to preserve and record disappearing culture.” 

When asked about how she can be promoting and distributing her books across the globe, she answered, “We focus on social media activation to promote our books. Facebook is very effective as well as X (formerly Twitter), Instagram and other platforms. We also made sure our books are available at Asia Books and Kinokuniya where people look for references about Southeast Asia. We also have a small book store here in Bangkok. 

“It’s now very challenging running a publishing house. If you want to earn a lot of money, I would not suggest publishing. It’s very hard work, but the rewards are I am always doing something new, meeting fantastic people and producing something that will last a long time.”

Ms Narisa then revealed that fuelled by a desire to illuminate the life of her grandfather, a significant figure during the reign of King Rama VI, she has embarked on a literary journey that intertwines her grandfather's extensive travels, a captivating odyssey encompassing Bangkok, Pittsburgh and London, traversed by boats and trains, based on his personal journals. This forthcoming publication promises to be a captivating blend of personal history, cultural exploration and the timeless allure of travel.

“I think it’s my duty to the family to record everything…” She continued with a smile.

When confronted with inquiries about her royal lineage and its impact on her publishing endeavours, Ms Narisa emphatically asserts, “I wouldn't say that I exploit any relationship. I take on projects based on their merits. I’ve been very fortunate, which I never forget.” 

The essence of her approach lies in an objective evaluation of each project, devoid of any reliance on familial connections. Ms Narisa remains dedicated to a principled and merit-based approach in her professional undertakings. This perspective underscores her commitment to maintaining the ethical foundations of River Books, ensuring that each project stands on its own merits and contributes meaningfully to cultural exploration and literary enrichment.