Passing Through Porous Boundaries: Mai Nardone on Navigating Thai and American Culture
In Conversation with Mitzi Rapkin on the First Draft Podcast
First Draft: A Dialogue of Writing is a weekly show featuring in-depth interviews with fiction, nonfiction, essay writers, and poets, highlighting the voices of writers as they discuss their work, their craft, and the literary arts. Hosted by Mitzi Rapkin, First Draft celebrates creative writing and the individuals who are dedicated to bringing their carefully chosen words to print as well as the impact writers have on the world we live in.
In this episode, Mitzi talks to Mai Nardone about his new story collection, Welcome Me to the Kingdom.
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From the episode:
Mitzi Rapkin: I’m curious about your experience of putting together this collection Welcome Me to the Kingdom, where the stories all take place in Bangkok. I’m curious with this dual mindset that you might have between these two cultures since you’re half American, if writing about Thailand was different from your lived experience, and if when you went to write about it, it brought you a lens that you don’t necessarily have in your daily life.
Mai Nardone: I love that question. I mean, one of the things as a half-Thai, I sort of get to toggle between passing and not passing. And I think this works for language as well. Like when I don’t feel like for whatever reason it’s advantageous to speak Thai, then I’ll speak English. Usually, if I’m showing up to somewhere and I’m not dressed appropriately, English is sort of like an immediate ticket into a place that otherwise would have been closed off for class reasons.
And I think with fiction is kind of the same where, especially writing as I am in English for an English language audience, it’s this advantageous space where I get to be a little bit outside of the culture, which is kind of how the culture treats us. There are stories about this in the book—in Thai, the literal translation of what they call us are half-kids and a lot of celebrity culture in Thailand is around half-white half-Thai people including the beauty pageants, which are huge out in Southeast Asia. And so, I think that it’s this porous boundary, and I get to cross back and forth. And that is really useful for the fiction.
And so, I feel like, in some ways, people give me a pass if I’m entering a space that I’m not familiar with. There’s a good example in the collection. There’s a story about chicken fighting and cockfighting and betting and kind of the whole world around that. And as part of that, my girlfriend is a journalist, but she doesn’t speak Thai, and so I acted as her fixer.
And we went up to this farm that is similar to the farm described in the book and I was out of my depth, in terms of jargon and even just a lot of the language around sports, which has a very jargony feel and so because I was switching between being fluent in Thai and fluent in English as I was translating, I feel like they were okay explaining to me a lot of things. I feel like when I’m writing for an English language audience, that’s what I’m doing all the time. I am very conscious of like, okay, this is something that’s going to need a little more cushion of explanation.
Mai Nardone is a Thai and American writer whose fiction has appeared in American Short Fiction, Granta, McSweeney’s, Ploughshares, and elsewhere. He lives in Bangkok. His collection is called Welcome Me to the Kingdom.