by Geraldine Brennan
Some things about the job of a children's author are the same the world over. Jane Vejjajiva knows this better than most, as a former publisher of a magazine for children; she is now a copyright agent and translator, and has translated successful children's novels into Thai, including Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire by J K Rowling and Kate DiCamillo's novels, The Tale of Desperaux and The Magician's Elephant.
"In Thailand as in England, we have to compete to get readers' attention from the first paragraph," she says. "It's the same everywhere: children like to play computer games and have a lot of schoolwork. The world is spinning fast. It's easy to think that everything you might think of writing has already been written or will not be exciting enough, especially if you are already working with books as I was when I started writing."
Jane knew that she was taking a bold step in putting her translation work on hold to write a novel for children. Very few Thai authors write fiction for children. Sixty per cent of Thai children's books are imported and the domestic market is dominated by picture-book editions of traditional folk and Buddhist tales, textbooks and reference. Jane's first novel, The Happiness of Kati (Kwamsuk Khong Kati), has a gentle, subtle appeal and she did not expect its commercial success. Although the central character is a nine-year-old girl, it is popular with teenagers and adults, and is on the way to contemporary classic status in its home country.
Since publication in 2003 it has sold 300,000 copies in Thailand, 100 times the usual sales expected for a children's novel and won a SEA (South East Asia) Writes award. It has been translated into 23 languages, including English. It is published in the UK by Allen and Unwin. A film for which Jane wrote the screenplay and worked with a first-time director Genwaii Thongdeenok was released last year in Thailand.
It's a story of a family in crisis (it is gradually revealed that Kati has been living with her grandparents since the age of three because mother is dying of motor neurone disease) but also a loving her evocation of traditional Thai life through tastes, sounds and smells. Kati's grandparents are intellectuals who have retired to a traditional Thai house ringed by canals in the ancient city of Ayutthaya in central Thailand. Jane chose the setting after working with a children's foundation based in Ayutthaya province. "I loved the atmosphere of the Chao Phraya River and wanted to write about it." Kati's daily life revolves around her grandfather's boat trips and her grandmother's cooking sessions for the monks.
The chapter headings, intended to spark the reader's curiosity, reveal another dimension to the story and at first provide the only reference to the source of Kati's sadness ("In the house there were no photos of Mother"; "Kati wanted to see Mother carrying the shopping home from the market"). Jane explains that she wanted to reveal the story little by little and also celebrate the Thai language. "I used a child narrator so that I could use simple language, not necessarily childish. Pure Thai language is becoming harder to find, more English words are creeping in, and I wanted to preserve it. I also wanted to leave the reader space to imagine and to feel."
Although Kati is a contemporary child, the book also celebrates traditional Thai values through the grandmother figure. "There is a lot in the book about Thai culture and values which I did not really realise when I wrote it but as it has been translated people have asked me about it," says Jane.
One key tradition is that the core of suffering in the family is left unexpressed ("that is the Thai way") and that the adults do not talk openly to Kati about her mother's condition. Jane says: "The adults think they are doing the best for her by not talking about it and sending her to live with her grandparents, but the reader sees that she is suffering because she misses her mother and it is not explained."
Kati could easily be unhappy in these circumstances, but is sustained by the love of her grandparents, her best friend Tong, a boy who is studying at the nearby Buddhist temple, the support of the family friends who are caring for her mother by the seaside and, eventually, the option of opening a new chapter in her life.
The book's structure is clear and deliberate, like the writing. It is divided into three parts, each with nine chapters, in the three strongly realised places that Kati calls home: her grandparents' home in Ayutthaya, the seaside resort where her mother is being nursed and her mother's city apartment. Nine and three, Jane reveals, are both significant numbers in Thai culture. Above all, she says, "I want my readers to finish my book and not lose interest. There must be something mysterious, something to lure the reader on. I want it to be a page-turner."
After spending three months writing the first draft, she recalls, "I put it in a drawer for many months. I'd worked in publishing for so long but when I was in the position of the writer I didn't know if it was good enough and I was very shy." She asked Alexander McCall Smith, whom she represents in Thailand, for advice at the end of a working lunch. "He said, 'Just find someone you can trust, ask them to read it and see what they say.' So I asked my aunt who is a lecturer and who I knew would be a good critic, and another close friend. When my aunt called she said, 'Why haven't you written before?' So gradually I became more confident to put it out there. I sent it to a publisher where I know the quality of editing is very good."
Jane resisted having an image of a real girl on the book jacket, because she wanted Kati to live in the readers' imagination. But later she had to choose the young actress that played Kati in the film, from several hundred who auditioned (11-year-old Passorn "Ploy" Khongmeesuk).
Talking to the Bangkok Post last year before the film's release, she spoke about the difficulties of making what was by then a beloved book in Thailand come alive on screen. "People have expectations; they have their own mental images of scenes in the book. We have to imagine them the way other people imagine them, but we will have to surprise them too. From the start I knew that the way to do it was to make the film simple, touching and beautiful."
"There are many things I hadn't thought about when I was writing the book that I had to think when I was doing the screenplay. Like a climax: a movie needs to have one, doesn't it? I also prepared the detailed background of each character for the actors to study, even though it wasn't in the book at all. I think when you make a movie, everything becomes clear and bright. It's as if I'm telling the story again in a room full of light, and I have to make every detail richer."
Jane was born Jane Ngarmpun, sister of the current prime minister of Thailand, Abhisit Ngarmpun, in 1963 in London. She spent her first three years there, while her father finished medical school at Guy's Hospital. She spent another year in London when she was 13, having treatment for cerebral palsy. That meant spending Monday to Friday in hospital and weekends with her uncle who was the first secretary at the Thai Embassy.
"I liked it: it was a bit like being at boarding school. It was my first chance to be independent, although my mother was sometimes in the hospital with me during the day. I had grown up with a lot of helpers around the house and I needed to learn to look after myself."
She also had to rediscover English, which had been her first language as a child. "I had forgotten it when I was back in Thailand and in a Thai school. By the time I was 13 I could still understand English but I had to learn to communicate properly. I was too shy."
She read her way through a shelf of English children's classics in the hospital ward: Black Beauty, Ballet Shoes, and Tom's Midnight Garden. She always wanted to be a writer but after building a career in translation she found it difficult to do both at once. "I enjoy writing and translating but with writing I let myself follow my heart and let my imagination take over."
Jane now hopes that the sequel to The Happiness of Kati, Chasing the Moon, will be published in the UK. The final book in the trilogy will focus on Tong's story. Both contain an element of mystery: "I like to make the reader work hard and wait, it's more interesting," Jane says.
Outside In World (2010)
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