“I write … because I write.” If it sounds like a conundrum – a treatise borrowed from medieval philosophy
– Khunying Chamnongsri excuses herself. “I have been writing for so long.” How long is that? “Early teens … I am not sure. But when I was very small my grandmother used to read old Thai classics to me. At bedtime the characters would come alive in my head taking on new shapes and dimensions, doing things that didn’t happen in the stories. Would that be a kind of ‘writing’?”
The pensive Khunying Chamnongsri, her heart-shaped face poised delicately on a swan-like neck, with large liquid-black eyes, catches the conversation to her and carefully moulds her answers. Words are building bricks, more precious than gold and she is very careful about the images they convey.
“Loneliness? Yes, I know about it. Loneliness and relationship are different sides of the same coin. I realized this long ago in the house on the klong where we all grew up, my two older brothers, myself and my younger sister.
My father loved my mother very deeply. She died when I was two and a half. They were first cousins; she a Wanglee, he a Lamsam, and they built this house in Thonburi together before I was born. It had a large orchard with irrigation ditches. As children we swam in the klong, jumped over the ditches and climbed trees. There were books everywhere and we could read what we liked.
“When my father remarried, he went to live in Bangkok with our stepmother with whom we had warm relationship. My father always came home to ‘the house on the klong’ every weekend. We were brought up by my father’s sister who loved us but wasn’t exactly ‘motherly’.
“When I was 12, my father sent me to England. I was eventually settled in Fritham House, a little school for girls, run by Sir Timothy and Lady Eden. He was the headmaster, an artist, who taught us history and art. His magnificent thick, grey, no-nonsense moustache enchanted me during history classes. I am fascinated with history to this day! Lady Eden looked after our other ‘interests’; riding bareback and pouring tea.
The school was in the heart of the New Forest, a historical and rural area with tiny hamlets, and where traffic law still gives horses the ‘right of way’. It wasn’t one of the big well-known English ‘public’ schools. There were only about eighty students who found my name unpronounceable, so Lady Eden scrutinized and renamed me ‘Jasmine’.”
At the age of 15, young ‘Jasmine’ wrote her first short story called “The Moth”, published three years later in Samagi Sara.
“It told of a man who suffered an excruciating pain of anxiety and anticipation in his nightly wait for the transient presence of a moth! For him the moth, with her black eyes and winged gyration, represented beauty and joy that was exquisite yet elusive. The heart of the story was the man’s choice; to bear torment for the sake of joy, or to put an end to both.”
And the choice? “He killed the moth. A strange story by a fifteen-year-old, I know. I now find it rather embarrassing, lathered with gothic romanticism!”
Sir Timothy urged her to try for Cambridge, but her father who was in bad health, asked her to abandon the ambition. Why not take a secretarial course instead so that she could help in the family business when she returned.
“I didn’t last a year, didn’t even get a diploma. But there was a silver lining, though. I was in London – and there were theatres, galleries, place for all kinds of music. It was hard to make pocket money stretch to cover these things, but I managed – making my own dresses, knitting my own sweaters and all that sort of thing. Life was fun.
“Back in Bangkok, I worked at Loxley (Bangkok), doing shipping papers in the then Shipping Department. I hope my former colleagues have forgiven the disasters that originated from my desk!”
Then, at a boat party the shipping clerk met an American who, following “an utterly mad conversation” challenged her to write an article for the Bangkok World. She found out later that he was Darrell Berrigan, editor of the morning paper, The Bangkok World.
“I sent him a story about Hua Hin, made up of scattered memories. He published it and offered me a position. My father said ‘no’. I argued. We finally came to an agreement. I would work half-a-day at Loxley for a trial period of three months and then ‘we would see’, he said. Luckily Berry (as Berrigan was known to his staff) agreed, too.
“I loved the job – writing, reporting, even doing the lay-out. By the end the three months, I already had bylines on quite an number of articles and columns, and an offer of an ‘editorship’.”
These proofs of competence convinced her father, and at the age of 18 she became the only Thai woman working on the editorial board of an English daily.
“Actually my father was quite proud of me. He did to be a condition, though. I had to be chaperoned on evening assignments! It was really rather comical, but my colleagues who were all men took it in their stride.”
Life took another turn at the age of 21. The young journalist became engaged to Dr.Uthai Rutnin, the eye surgeon who operated on her father. It was a ‘love match’ and she resigned from her job soon after the engagement.
The years that followed were crowded with housewifely duties, work at her husband’s clinic (now a full-fledged eye hospital, no longer a small family business), birth of her four children – Sanpatna, Vradda, Anoma, Jitrjaree, and the bringing up of her husband’s nephew, Jatuporn whom she describes as “my eldest son”.
“There wasn’t time to read or write. I did write poems on scraps of paper, just for myself. Writing things that came into my head me happy, sometimes it gave me answers to questions I didn’t ask. I didn’t keep them, almost all of them were a pen or a pencil and paper at hand, not if there weren’t.”
“Of writing, it is the act itself that is precious to me, not the product. I was happy when I wrote without thinking that it was going to be published. Somehow the happiness isn’t so complete anymore because of a lurking consciousness of a readership. I suppose it is a process that I shall have to go through before I can get back the unadulterated pleasure in writing.”
Ten years ago, she decided to go to Ramkhamhaeng and take the degree in humanities she had always wanted. It was four fascinating years of extra work and she graduated with a ‘1st class hornors’ degree. And then the writing began again; poems in which she could pour out her feelings and ideas, prose pieces that were not quite what they seemed.
There was teaching to do (“My ‘in-law’ Mattani Rutnin started me on that by inviting me as special lecturer at Thammasart”); film scripts to write, video productions to direct, books and paper to translate, and even a weekly radio programme, “Voices and Ways of Thai Literature” on Radio Thailand External Service which she gave up because it took too much of her time.
“Writing should be my main occupation, but there are so many challenges from other creative fields,” she sighed. “Being a practicing Buddhist I try to train my mind to stay with the present. What really matters is the present; every minute, every split second of the present, because it is the total reality. ‘Difficult’ is an understatement!”
“What makes life so good to me now, is people,” she avows, a smile dancing across her features. “Most have something special inside to offer, to be discovered. I suppose that’s why I enjoy teaching and working with people.”
In September, she will be teaching part of a course in western literature at Kasetsart University. The concert for the Lighthouse Project of Life Foundation of the Mentally Retarded was another labour of love. Last year she pioneered a private research project on creativity. “You know, our education system here in Thailand is so competitive. In competing children learn from the teacher, from books, The creative instinct, the imagination, are neglected. And so sensitivity how can there he compassion My colleagues have been wonderful but we lacked method in evaluation. We will try again when we find support in that area. Next year, I hope.”
Khunying Chamnongsri says that during the last academic year she and her colleagues had been meeting once a week with 16 students at Suan Kularb exploring the many different ways of awaking them to their own sensitivity, creativity and imagination. “If you teach art or music from the historical or technical point-of-view, you bring out the intellect. To bring out sensitivity and imagination you have to immerse them and let them find their own expression,” she says, eagerly caught up in a subject that has been preoccupying her so much.
But the good news, the special news, is that Khunying Chamnongsri, at the insistence of publisher Surasinghsamruan Shimbhanao of Pleasant Media, has allowed her poems to be collected and printed in a slim volume entitled “On the White Empty Page”. The 50-or-so poems and prose pieces reveal the exquisite sense and sensibility of this author, who challenges images with the deft brushwork of the watercolorist; more intent on suggesting meanings and emotions than painting in bold colours. Author and critic Chetana Nagavajara contributes a fine introduction, coining the phrase “aesthetics of reticence” to describe Chamnongsri’s poetry and prose as a vibrant example of the Thai way of life.” She is true to herself and to her people,” he says, adding; “That our bard can sing so well with a borrowed tongue must remain a marvel.”
For every woman, who has groped questioned and reflected. Khunying Chamnongsri’s marvelous little book can be both a guide and a solace. “On the White Empty Page” is available in most bookstores or it can be ordered directly from the publisher; Pleasant Media, 656/53 Prachathipok Road, Bangkok 10600.
“Being a mere woman,
I can only ask you, a woman-to-be,
to softly sense and tenderly touch
life’s multi-textured realities
with a woman’s heart,
try to feel and understand.
Forever try to understand.”
from: A Woman to Her Daughter
“Shall we two watch a rainbow
Vaporous shadows over changeful
We can sit close together
looking through different eyes
thinking different thoughts.
Will you sit with me a while
cradled in the vastness of the sky
lulled by motion of the ancient sea?
from: I can Only Stand By.
From : The Exquisite “Sense and Sensibility” of KHUNYING CHAMNONGSRI RUTNIN
By Joyce Rainat in LIVING IN THAILAND, August 1988.