Bright (Two Lines Press, 2019) by Duanwad Pimwana, translated by Mui Poopoksakul, is the offbeat coming-of-age story of five-year-old Kampol, who finds himself alone when his family leaves their Thai village without him. The following excerpt, titled “Hiding Place,” is one of thirty-six short chapters that are “equal parts melancholic and exuberant,” following Kampol as he becomes adopted by the community, and navigates the encounters and escapdes that transform him. Bright is also known as the first novel by a Thai woman to be published in English internationally.
One more term and Kampol would have finished first grade, but he never went back to school after he was abandoned. Penporn, the mentally disabled girl, had been sent to school, but one month in, her teacher notified her family that attending was doing her no good, and on top of it she was a burden on her teacher and classmates. So that was the end of Penporn’s foray into formal education. Jua, or as his teachers called him, Thongchai, sometimes went to school, sometimes didn’t. With his bad leg and the long walk to school, he didn’t like making the trip. Another outcast was Noi, who didn’t go to school simply because he didn’t want to learn. This sorry crew made up Kampol’s weekday friends.
On weekends, Mrs. Tongjan’s neighborhood was like a playground. When the kids gathered for hide and seek, they always came to exactly fifteen. As they started the game, they made such a cacophony—some of the adults couldn’t stand it. But when these grown-ups came out to give them a piece of their mind, they would find the pandemonium had died down. The group would have inevitably dissolved, with the kids having run off to take cover and hide. There would be one lone child standing in the middle of the lot with his or her eyes covered. The adults would just sigh and head back inside their homes.
The kids never gave it much thought: they scattered and hid anywhere that provided cover, be it behind a pickup truck or a door, in a bush or water barrel, up in a tree, or around the back of the rowhouses. It never took long for them all to be discovered, but often the person who was “it” got tagged before all the hiders were found and just had to be “it” again.
One time, a few adults were in a silly mood and asked to play with the kids. Then they felt obliged to show the children that they could come up with the best, most unexpected hiding places. The kids—definitely wanting to hide in the best, most unexpected places—put their faith in the grown-ups. That being the case, a whole bunch of them chased after the adults. They ventured farther than ever before. The parade of hiders even ran past Mrs. Tongjan’s house. They came to an abandoned field cluttered with giant reeds. The dried thickets reached higher than their heads. The whole crew of them charged in, shoving the reeds out of the way and crouching down to hide.
The reeds were silent, giving away nothing of the dozen or so children and adults taking refuge among them. But after about ten seconds, a little voice let out a yelp, then the kid responsible for it bolted out.
“Ah! There’s a hornet nest in here!” someone squealed.
There was a big rush to get up. The grown-up who’d masterminded the spot hightailed it out of there before anybody, but still wasn’t fast enough. He took one in the left temple. The children screamed in the chaos.
Kampol had one hiding place that no one else knew about. He’d once gone off to hide behind the houses. The unit he and his family had lived in was still vacant, even then. Kampol had seen that the back door wasn’t all the way shut. He knew immediately that it wasn’t locked from the inside, because it always stuck and you had to really slam it into the frame to get the bolt to slide. Mrs. Tongjan must have shown the unit to a potential tenant and opened the back door. But when she went to lock up, she hadn’t known the trick and left it a bit open. Kampol knew that door well. He had slipped his little hand underneath it, gripping the bottom edge and yanking on it repeatedly. Before long, the door had swung open. He snuck in and jammed it closed, but not too tight, just enough to get it to stick in the jamb.
Kampol hid in the empty room, or what was still, to him, his home. Once, it had been so full of stuff that there was no space to walk: bed; wardrobe; shoe rack; table with baby bottles and his little brother’s things; bedclothes with a red, pink, and green floral pattern; a navy blue and red plaid blanket on the bed; the cushioned mat where his brother used to sleep. Jon crying, struggling with his hands and feet; his mother pacing back and forth, her sarong secured over her chest; his father shaving in front of the mirror.
Kampol, lulled by his memories, dozed off. In his sleep, he kept dreaming. It felt as though he had traveled back in time, and he had been reunited with his whole family again.
When he awoke, his stomach hurt, and he walked groggily into the bathroom out of habit. As he was wobbling toward the toilet, he heard an angry voice:
“Boy, did you sneak into the water tank again? You’re going to get hit until you learn your lesson!”
Kampol jumped, his eyes wide. He looked around. The cement water tank was almost all the way full. He had submerged himself in there so many times and hung out, only his head above the water. He hadn’t been dreaming. He’d heard his mother scolding him. His father and Jon must be here, too. He dashed out of the bathroom…but the unit was hushed and empty.
Kampol threw the door shut behind him, leaving it as he’d found it. He stepped out into the real world.
“Boy, where the heck did you hide?” Oan asked when they ran into each other. “People quit playing ages ago.”
Kampol chuckled but refused to say. He had found the best hiding place: you’d have to travel back in time to discover it. He skipped away joyfully. But then his melancholy caught up to him and his steps grew slow and measured—he didn’t know where to go.
Duanwad Pimwana is a major voice in contemporary Thai literature. She won Southeast Asia’s most prestigious literary prize—the S.E.A. Write Award——in 2003 for her novel Bright, and she is also the recipient of awards from PEN International Thailand and others. Acclaimed for her subtle fusing magic realism with Thai urban culture, she has written nine books, and her work has appeared in Words Without Borders and Asymptote.
Mui Poopoksakul is a lawyer turned translator with a special interest in contemporary Thai literature. She is the translator of Prabda Yoon’s The Sad Part Was (2017) and Moving Parts (2018), both from Tilted Axis Press. She is also the translator of the short story collection Duanwad Pimwana’s Arid Dreams, from Two Lines Press (2019) and Feminist Press. A native of Bangkok who spent two decades in the U.S., she now lives in Berlin, Germany.
Video art by Jin Kim for Project Plume