Anchalee Vivathanachai: First Chommandard Book Prize Lifetime Achievement Award Winner
Anchalee Vivathanachai, or Anchan, as she is known to her Thai fans, has been writing since she was a child of just eight years old. She has produced a vast collection of as many as 20 books of short stories, dramas, poetry, essays and novels. After moving to the United States in the early 1980s, the first short story she wrote, “Mother”, was named the Best Short Story of the Year in 1984 by the Thai PEN Centre. In 1990, she was awarded the Southeast Asian Writer Award (SEA Write Award) for her collection of short stories, Jewel of Life. And recently, Anchalee was presented the “1st Chommandard Book Prize Lifetime Achievement Award” at the Bangkok International Rights Fair (BIRF), a hybrid onsite – online event, held in conjunction with the National Book Fair and Bangkok International Book Fair.
“I began writing when I was a primary school student, first for myself, but then for my classmates after I shared some stories with them. They were always asking to read more. The stories were like serials and they found them fun and entertaining. Then, as I entered secondary school and my grades began to slip, my father told me to stop and focus only on my studies.”
Through her efforts, Anchalee then won admittance to one of Bangkok’s premier high schools, Triam Udom Suksa School, and upon graduation next attended the Faculty of Arts, Chulalongkorn University where she majored in Thai and minored in English. While not writing during these years, Anchalee was an avid reader and, “it was during this time that I both broadened and fine-tuned my imagination.”
During her undergraduate studies, as Anchalee’s mother was a nurse, she and her husband, Anchalee’s father who was a businessman, moved to New York where they were in need of nurses and paid much better than in Thailand. Once Anchalee completed her Bachelor degree, she followed her family and has been living in the US ever since.
Anchalee began to work in the jewellery trade, but still found it difficult to acclimate. “I felt lonely and missed my boyfriend. New York was big and scary. I didn’t feel like I belonged and felt quite alienated. So, I turned once more to writing. It was here I could find solace as I became totally engrossed in the story I was writing.” And it was these feelings that became the themes for many of her stories.
In the memoir New York, New York, written in Thai, Anchalee shares her experiences and her emotions as she settled into this at first alien world. In Inscription, a collection of poetry, she beautifully, lyrically expresses her impressions of her life in the Big Apple.
When asked which genre she likes working in the most, Anchalee explained, “I love the challenge of crafting a short story. While it can comprise a variety of ideas, they must be fit together in a compact form. I think of it as a concentrated novel.”
Throughout Anchalee’s career, she has also focused on psychological drama and the relationship between a mother and her child. As she has matured, her writing has delved more into spirituality and the search for the inner self as can be seen in her more recent short stories published in Elite+ magazine such as “the Mask”, an interpretation of being cast into a hell, “A Rose is a Rose”, in which she questions love and the role of a man and a woman, “We Are the Living”, in which she again examines the concept of life after death, and most recently “When the Whistle Blows”, in which she provides an interpretation of the search for enlightenment, or nirvana. These four short stories as well as many others she has written over the past eight years can be accessed at the Elite+ website or through the magazine’s mobile application.
“I have been inspired by the writing of Ray Bradbury and his very imaginative short stories that blend a poetic style. He also looked at the dangers of technology and reminisces about childhood. Then, there is Toni Morrison. While I love her style, I also find her almost scary to read. There is such violence in her words, what I call ‘beautiful violence’. Another writer I admire is Kurt Vonnegut and his blending of different realities.”
It’s easy to see how these writers have influenced Anchalee, particularly now in two of her just published books by Praphasarn Publishing, both written in English, the novel The Sheltering Skies and novella Once Upon a Dream, that were launched at the Bangkok International Rights Fair (BIRF) where she was also presented with the 1st Commanard Book Prize Lifetime Achievement Award. Written under the name Anchalee Viva, a shortened version of her surname, one wonders if Viva was influenced by the large Latino populace living in her new home San Diego.
At this event, Assoc Prof Trisilipa Boonkhachorn, PhD, of the Faculty of Arts, Chulalongkorn University, a former president of Thai Pen and associate member of the Royal Academy, and Assoc Prof Suradech Chotiudompant, PhD, the dean of the Faculty of Arts, Chulalongkorn University, talked about what impressed them after reading these two books.
The Sheltering Skies was inspired by two short stories Anchalee penned 20 years ago, “The Last Breath” and “The Sky Belongs to Us”. It is set in the 25th century following a catastrophic world war leaving humanity on the brink of distinction. As oxygen is in short supply, the sovereign in the story has a plan to have people fight for clean air, but then he ends up confronting himself as he realises he is ‘a human in the making”.
This excerpt from the book provides a delicious taste of the novel The Sheltering Skies:
“If we couldn’t call ourselves ‘human’ I don’t know what we should be called now.”
“Human in the making,” Twenty-six murmurs with half a smile.
“Human in the making! That hits the bullseye. That’s exactly what we are now!” the old man is nodding excitedly. “Sill such a long journey…As long as we are capable of transcending a boundary that’s binding us and all animals together in living on fundamental instincts, we could never tell the difference between them and us. All dooms happen because we have only reached half-way of what we believe we are.”
The story is written in two parts with the first focusing on the 26th Man who is fighting to survive and ascend to a higher level, which symbolises enlightenment, or nirvana. In this world, life is quite stark; there is really no colour; men wear black and women wear white. In the second part, the major is the main character, where he and the populace live within a dome where colours are prevalent and perceived through the senses. I myself was reminded of the film “Elysium”, written, produced and directed by Neill Blomkamp, in which an elite society live in a space station above the earth where people are suffering and dying following a near apocalyptic war.
Assoc Prof Trisilipa said, “The novel deals with two themes within a futuristic context in which the world is suffering from an environmental crisis and there are battles within the strata of society, both very contemporary issues.”
Assoc Prof Suradech explained, “I have long been a fan of Anchan’s writing. It’s actually a treat to finally meet her after so many years of reading her work. What has long impressed me about her stories is her mastery of the plot. Like many of her books, I was mesmerised by the well-crafted plot. It was hard to put the book down. I was drawn in and wanted to see what would happen next and how the story would unfold. I could see the influence of Ray Bradbury. I thought she did an impressive job presenting the battle between classes and gender equality, issues very much at the forefront of our lives today I was also reminded by Darwin’s theories of evolution and survival of the fittest.”
While The Sheltering Skies is written by a Thai, it doesn’t obviously present the story in a Thai social setting while another futuristic novel, The Windup Girl, written by an American, Paolo Bacigalupi, takes place in Thailand during the reign of Rama XIV, it also deals with an environmental issue, global warming, and biotechnology, but is presented within a very in-depth reflection of Thai political and cultural contexts.
The novella, Once Upon a Dream, was also inspired by a Thai short story Anchalee wrote a number of years ago. It examines the importance of imagination as well as the relationship between a boy and his mother. The main character, Rain Penarai, is a 10-year-old boy being treated by a psychiatrist for schizophrenia after a biking accident and being physically abused by his new step-father. But there is the question is his retreat into an alternative world formed by hallucinations caused by hard hits to his head, or is he suffering from a mental illness, or is he just a normal boy who has a great imagination who likes to escape into his mind when he is bored or wants to feel safe?
With the following excerpt from Once Upon a Dream”, you can clearly see the dilemma the psychiatrist is facing”
“Doctor, I know you never have an idea that…I’m right now in the middle of my sleep, the boy swallowed. “Please believe me. But I am.”
“You’re in your sleep now, you assure me. Umm…But I’m sure that I am awake, a hundred percent sure,” now with a stress of puzzle in his voice. “How come two persons – one is sleeping and another awake – are able to engage in conversation so normally to each other? Does it make any sense? Like one plus one always equals t wo as a bare fact. It will remain that way for eternity. If that outcoming number was not two, the law of logic would turn upside down and collapse.”
“Yeaj, you think you’re awake now,” the boy kept shaking his head firmly. The defiance from such a timid boy was baffling the doctor, “It seems right but it’s still wrong. Because in fact you’re only awake inside my dream.”
As Assoc Prof Trisilipa put it, “Once Upon a Dream is a sad story. It has a simple plot, but sophisticated theme, the relationship between a mother and her son and then with an abusive step-father. Anchan has been dealing with the relationships between parents and their children for years. As a mother bringing up a son in a foreign country, she seems to have developed a very close bond with her child. She always seems to be able to offer new insights, and then there is the concept of imagination. Anchan, herself, is quite imaginative, and this is why her stories are so alluring.
Assoc Prof Suradech said, “I was surprised by the plot, which deals with both psychology and domestic violence. What is the reality? Is the boy escaping into his dreams or vice versa? Is he leaving his classroom desk or arriving back from an alternative realm? The boy’s capacity for love is astounding with all he has gone through.
“I do believe we all need imagination to escape from our own darkness. As Anchalee demonstrates hope can only come when we can imagine.”
Anchalee has now been writing in English for eight years now. Her last Thai published work was a column in Lips, a monthly lifestyle magazine, and now for the past eight years, since Elite+ magazine began publishing, Anchalee has been providing a short story for each issue. Meanwhile, she continues to write profusely, since retiring a few years ago, daily whenever she has the time. She is currently working on another novel in addition to her short story for the next issue of Elite+.
“I couldn’t live or even want to carry on if I couldn’t write. Even with my loving husband and son and the friends I’ve made in San Diego after moving from New York, I still at times feel lonely. Like Rain Penarai, I can escape these feelings when I write. I enter an alternative universe that I am not always sure where it will take me. I have always been interested in psychology and now, as I get older, think more about the meaning of life. Through my writing I am able to search for, examine and then share my revelations. So that both I and my readers are presented with new perspectives of life and the worlds we live in.”