Bright is an ode to both individual resilience and the power of community.
Americans don’t read books in translation; only 3% of all books published in the United States are translated works. Within this miniscule amount, an overwhelming majority are translated from Western European languages, with French, German and Spanish leading the pack. This, of course, leads to a skewed literary market and a rather closed-off world. If reading is to open us to the lives of others, what are we losing when we don’t read books in translation? Fortunately, translators of underrepresented languages are hard at work. Mui Poopoksakul is among the rising stars of literary translation, almost singlehandedly bringing Thai literature to English-reading audiences, first with the short stories of Prabda Yoon, and now the fiction of Duanwad Pimwana. Having won the 2003 Southeast Asian Writers Award, Bright is Pimwana’s best-known work, and it displays the qualities which she is known for: incisive social observation and a sympathetic focus on the lives of working-class Thais.
Set in a cluster of tenement houses, Bright’s premise is simple: Kampol Changsamran, a five-year-old boy, is abandoned by his parents after they decide to break up. At first, the neighborhood doesn’t quite know what to do. Was it an accident? Will they come back? And what should be done with the child until then? The abandonment creates a wave of curiosity as neighbors try to figure out what happened.
Meanwhile, they compete to see who can take care of Kampol better: “Nobody had ever thought of acting generously before. The wave of pity had created an intense wind that stirred a number of people.” Some offer him food, often stealing him away as a neighbor is preparing his meal, while others give him a place to sleep. The situation is at first comedic, but as they come to understand the permanence of the situation and that Kampol “had become everybody’s burden,” the neighborhood’s residents begin to worry. After all, they are working class and have limited resources. The addition of a child in need makes it seem “like every wallet in the neighborhood was thin.” What follows is a story of a community balancing their working class limits while also trying to take care of one of their own.
Pimwana expertly juggles a cast of characters that inhabit a poor, forgotten neighborhood, located ironically next to “an arrogantly large property with vacation bungalows.” The vignette structure of the novel allows Pimwana to give readers quick glimpses of the eccentrics that bring this community vividly to life. There’s Mon, a quick-thinking seamstress who still struggles to keep her family afloat. There’s Tia, whom the kids love but the adults look at with disgust for his lecherous ways (he dies while having sex). Bankerd is the mortician who moves into Kampol’s abandoned home. Perhaps the character who makes the strongest impression is the kind-hearted Chinese grocer, Chong. He is the most sympathetic to Kampol’s plight, feeding him regularly, checking in on his emotional state through his turmoil and teaching him about life and even poetry. Chong quickly becomes the closest person Kampol has to a father figure.
For sure, Pimwana pulls at heartstrings. Her characters continually run into the challenges of poverty—the lack of shelter and money, the abundance of hunger—and for Kampol, these struggles are doubled. In one chapter, Kampol attends a funeral, but even there he needs money for food. In another, he goes to a rice giveaway at the local shrine and sees the parents who abandoned him. He waits patiently for them but they never return and Chong carries the boy back to his home.
Yet Pimwana is never oversentimental and her prose is never overworked. Somehow, Bright is both light and melancholy—the sadness of life is filtered through a child’s eyes—and Poopoksakul translates this well. Through this translation, Poopoksakul guides readers through long, complicated metaphors and contextualizes Thai culture—its strong Buddhist influences, local festivities, Likay theater. The translation lands perfectly and reads fluidly, showcasing Pimwana’s voice, which recalls the whimsical prose of Banana Yoshimoto or Hiromi Kawakami but more grounded in reality and more attuned to the sociological lives of people.
As much as this is a novel of a community, Bright is also the story of Kampol’s coming of age. Though each chapter is contained like a short story, we come to see Kampol’s evolution from a child who’s abandoned to one who still has hope to one who is continually disappointed and lashes out to one who will, despite all his loneliness, survive. “He had felt lonesome before, many times in fact. But in those moments, even if he didn’t have anyone in the world, he had his familiar neighborhood, with its familiar crevices and corners he knew so well, which provided comfort.” Eventually, Kampol learns the meaning of hunger and as the neighborhood took care of him, he learns to take care of those around him.
Bright is an ode to both individual resilience and the power of community. Though it’s a quiet and short novel, its message might prove necessary in an increasingly polarized and closed-off America. If only Americans would read more books in translation.