Emma Larkin on her new novel, Comrade Aeon’s Field Guide to Bangkok
Emma Larkin is a writer and journalist living in Thailand. The author of two critically acclaimed non-fiction works, Finding George Orwell in Burma and Everything is Broken, Larkin, who writes under a pseudonym, paints a powerful picture of Burma’s turbulent political landscape. Set in her childhood stomping ground of Bangkok, Thailand, Comrade Aeon’s Field Guide to Bangkok is Larkin’s first novel, focusing on the ‘silent politics’ that simmer beneath the surface in the Thai capital.
Comrade Aeon’s Field Guide to Bangkok is your fiction debut after writing two nonfiction works – how was your experience moving from non-fiction to fiction? Were there any challenges?
I would say, first of all, it was incredibly liberating to not be bound by the responsibility of somebody else’s story, which I felt a lot with non-fiction because I worked particularly in places where, you know, with Burma being a military dictatorship, where it was a heavy responsibility, to take someone else’s story. So, first of all, I would say a huge liberation, but then, it was much, much harder than I thought it would be!
I think we all have ideas of what writing a novel would be but it’s much, much harder than anyone thinks, I think. It’s hard to hold the whole world, to have the world of the book in your head – it’s like having spinning plates, and if you let one plate drop you sort of have to rebuild that part of the world. It took me a long, long time until I got a handle of how to do that, I think.
We’re introduced to a wide range of characters from differing socioeconomic backgrounds, one of whom is an expat named Ida. As an expat to Thailand yourself, did your own experience play into Ida’s characterisation at all?
It doesn’t actually – it seems kind of obvious, doesn’t it, that it would. But my experience was very different in that I was born in the Philippines and my parents moved to Thailand when I was less than one year’s old. So, I kind of feel Thai! I don’t look it, but I feel it. I don’t feel like an expatriate in the sense of somebody who’s chosen to live abroad, but I know lots of expatriates and I know that feeling of un-belonging and that’s kind of what I was looking for with Ida.
Looming over the plot & the characters are the events of Black May in 1992 – why did you choose to focus on this aspect of Thai history in particular?
1992 has a lot of unanswered questions. It’s a really interesting chapter of Thai history because it still hasn’t been resolved. People vanished and were never found – literally. From the capital city! It’s unbelievable that the questions have never been answered, so for me it’s quite emblematic of Thai history as a whole in terms of the many mysteries that are littered throughout.
Censorship and authoritarianism are major themes in both Comrade Aeon’s Field Guide but also in your first two books about Burma’s dictatorship. Did your approach to writing change when focusing on Thailand’s difficult history, as it’s now your home?
Yeah, there’s something quite interesting about that. I though that when I started the Thailand book, I thought I understood censorship really well because I’d written two books on Burma, which are military dictatorships, but then censorship was affecting me quite directly because I lived here. I suddenly realised that I didn’t understand it at all until I had had the experience myself of what it’s like; of having to curtail yourself or not say the things you want to say. That was quite an interesting process, sort of a learning curve. I really did think I knew what censorship was, you know, because I’d spent ten years effectively studying it, but until I was directly affected, I didn’t know it at all.
We’ve obviously had a difficult time due to the pandemic, but your novel was released in May last year. Did the pandemic have any effect on the conception of Comrade Aeon’s Field Guide to Bangkok? Further, did it impact your writing and reading habits more general?
The novel not at all because it was luckily at proofreading stage, so if anything, it kept me in my chair! In terms of since then, we’ve been very lucky, actually, because we’ve moved out of Bangkok and we live in the countryside now so I hardly notice it, to be honest. I can live quite easily and not be too affected. Obviously, there are all those things you want to do, normal life; you can’t go to the movies, you can’t go to this or that. Other than that, life has carried on as normal and I feel that it keeps me in one place which makes me much more focused. I used to travel a lot more, as we all did, but being in one place keeps me more focused and directed in what I’m doing.
I feel the same, and I feel it’s made me appreciate where I live and what I’ve got around me.
Yeah, interesting, isn’t it? It’s quite a positive outcome that I certainly didn’t expect. Everyone’s been so grumpy about it, understandably so.
What are you working on at the moment?
I’m working on another novel, so I’m completely sold on the fiction thing. Non-fiction out the window! I love it; I love the process of creating a fictional world. I used to be obsessed with non-fiction, and I still am in terms of my reading habits, but I thought it was the only way to tell the truth and it’s not at all. You can tell the truth through stories that are made up, which seems like an oxymoron somehow, doesn’t it? But it works. So, I’m writing another novel now, set in Burma. Burma’s changed a lot since my first two books – it was a military dictatorship, then it was a semi-democracy and now it’s a military dictatorship again. The story of Burma is very cyclical, and very sad, actually.
Emma Larkin lives in Thailand. Comrade Aeon’s Field Guide to Bangkok is her debut fiction novel. It has been described as ‘a captivating tour de force’ by Alaa Al Aswany and ‘an affecting and suspenseful portrait of contemporary Bangkok’ by Literary Review. Comrade Aeon’s Field Guide to Bangkok is out in paperback on May 5th. Pre-order your copy now at Granta.com.
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