My friend Lisa went to Thailand and all I got was the use of her great photos

Does anyone remember back in the 90s, when life was not nearly so photographed as it is now? When people might go whole weeks without snapping a picture, whole months even, and then once they did, they’d have to wait until the film was developed before knowing if anyone had blinked, or if everything was in shadow? Well, even by the standards of those times, I was a lazy, lousy photographer. I traveled from east coast to west coast and didn’t take a single picture. I have maybe a dozen from my travels in Europe, whole countries not represented. I have several rolls from my big trip to Southeast Asia, but not one photo that captures the experience I had there. Here is an example of a particularly bad shot of much-oogled guy on Ko Chan.

The next time I went to Thailand, I was with Mark, my photographer husband, so you’d think the situation would be different. But he’s not the sort of shutterbug who’s always shooting. Quite the opposite. I have to beg him to take snapshots of our cute kids. His thing is to capture a few enigmatic images and make them special by working them over in the darkroom and in his studio. The results are beautiful, but they’re not the kind of photos you pass around to friends to help them understand the details of a place.
Now, this might come as a shock to anyone born after 1980, but back in the day, my lack of personal photo documentation didn’t matter much. Writers weren’t expected to be producers of eye candy, for one thing. Hey, if I was photographing, I wouldn’t be present in the moment to make my writerly observations, right? Once home and writing my novel, my few roles of faded snapshots and a couple coffee-table books on Thailand provided enough visual fodder. For research, I leaned most heavily on my voluminous journals and on old fashioned books that contained only print in black and white.

But oh, how things have changed since. Now I find myself in this here internet age, and in a culture so visually oriented that even wordsmiths are supposed to be able to tell stories with images and sell books with trailers. The pressure to augment a blog, even a wordy blog like mine, with images is one of the things that scared me away for so long.

Luckily, our friend Lisa Meehan Williams went to Thailand last year, and not only is she a photographer of vision and skill, she is generous. She’s allowed me the use of the hundreds of gorgeous shots she took. Mark combined two to make the cover for CURRENCY, and more have illustrated my posts here. More still will appear in the book trailer that is hopefully forthcoming, lulling YouTube readers by the score that words might actually be worth reading. [Update: it’s here! I love it! Book trailers, a brilliant idea.] I’ve gotten so much pleasure—sometimes the hurting kind, full of nostalgia and a little exquisite regret—out of studying her images, noticing what’s still the same about the places we visited many years apart, appreciating the lushness, the information conveyed, the intelligence. These photos make me wish . . .

I thought I’d share a few here.

Whoops! That last isn’t a picture of Thailand! As are many of the photos that document our family life, it was taken by Tillio. He’s almost nine now, but he’s been taking pictures since he was three or four. Like Lilli, he probably wasn’t even two when he started asking for the digital camera, wanting to see himself in the display but mostly wanting to point and shoot at everything around him. It’s second nature to him. What does it mean for the way he’ll experience life? I’m still a print person, big on ideas, suspicious that  images masquerade, that they shortchange thought or direct encounters. I worry those those born with cameras implanted in their eyes and ears and fingers might be missing out on something. But I guess they’re also lucky.

In Which I Consider Thai Prophylactics

So I last wrote about my first day traveling truly alone in Thailand, in which I was tricked into lodging at the wrong guesthouse, hit up for money by an odd teenager, and hounded by tuk-tuk drivers as I attempted to tour the ruins by foot, only to end up by late afternoon drinking with the same tuk-tuk drivers at the undesired guesthouse. If there is anyone reading this who wants the whole story, you’ll have to start here.

Also, if there is anyone reading this who doesn’t already know, I have a novel coming out in May, CURRENCY, that has at its heart a relationship between an American woman backpacker and a handsome Thai guy who hustles tourists. These characters, especially the Thai man, have been part of my life for what seems like forever, but looking back, I think my donnée was found on the day I’m describing (if I may apply that Jamesian term to my semi-pop thriller without the master turning too vigorously in his grave) and that’s probably why now, with publication looming, I keep fingering that day again and again.

But enough with the first-time-novelist psychologizing. On with the story: I sat drinking at the table with the drivers and with Noi, the teenager. The men switched between Thai and a game but halting English, and they were funny and nice. I was smiling and laughing some, letting them help with with my few Thai phrases, but my eyes kept darting, looking for wandering hands or secret signals or for a subtext to their joshing courtesy. I noticed that the veryvery handsome man held a white envelop that he occasionally tapped softly on the table. The other men started teasing him about it, and he ended up handing it over to Noi to read aloud, because, someone explained to me, although the drivers could all speak English, they couldn’t read it. The letter was from a girl. I recently recovered the journal I kept during this time, and here’s what I wrote in it:

Noi is reading aloud a letter the young and cute tuk tuk driver has received from some English girl gone far away who “can see your laughing eyes, your lips, your smile” when she closes her eyes. He made her trip “a special one” and wherever she is now is not as good as Thailand because when people are nice to you “they are nice to you because they want something—money.”

Everyone at the table cooed. Everyone but me, for whom the irony was too rich. Although, come to think of it, I guess the people I had encountered in Ayutthaya were actually being nicer to me now that they weren‘t trying to get my money. Or were they just being more subtle?

Whatever the case, it seemed to mean something to the cutie to have received this letter. He was visibly warmed. He smiled down at his hands, his expression sweet. And a few beats later he smiled at me again, and cast his laughing eyes back in the waters. We sat there for awhile longer. It became evening. I started to relax a little, and/or the beer started to kick in. According to my journal, “young and cute flirted well and outrageously.”

Also according to my journal, in the same paragraph: Doesn’t a Thai guy know he has the specter of AIDs against him? Didn’t the other English-speaking girl know this?

Well, that last was written by a newbie. It would soon become very apparent to me that the specter of AIDs did not seem to handicap the cute Thai boys one bit. And if it scared some English-speaking women away from them, well, otherwise the stampede would have been dangerous. Thai prophylactics were readily available, cheap, and of decent quality. And I would get my chance to use plenty.

But not with that first, adorable tuk-tuk driver, who eventually had to go. Good-bye! Good-bye! I will always remember that letter the English girl wrote to you! Even though I will get to know other Thai men much better, I will always remember your smile!

But my evening was just getting started. I went to take a shower, and Noi showed up in my room to finger my belongings, to ask the price of this and that. She asked again for money, lowering the amount this time, to 100 baht. Her spoken English was so poor, especially on the topic of borrowing, that we had to write notes to each other to make sure we were understood. Finally, exhausted, I gave in.

When we went back to the courtyard, the ranks of the drivers had thinned. Aside from the boss, there was just one guy left, a chain-smoker who wore aviator glasses. Through Noi, and after professions of shyness, the boss said that he would like to drink more beers with me. “I’ll pay for my beers,” he said. “I made a lot of money today.” I was half-drunk already, and confused, and scared again. “I just want to eat!” I cried. “Yes, of course. We’ll eat! We’ll eat!” he said.

Clearly, by any rules of safe conduct, I should not have gone. But my gut instinct was that they were good guys, and that an understanding of the dynamic that I’d witnessed that day, that I’d walked smack bang into and that was making me dizzy, could be gained by going. And so I made sure Noi was part of the invitation, that this strange half-scammer adolescent boy-crazy tom-boy would be there to act as guardian of my modesty. And then I gave her a stern look—you’re my modesty chaperon, get it? Do NOT side with the men. And do NOT ask me for money again. And then we all left to go.

But the deal almost all fell apart again when I learned we wouldn’t be walking, that we’d be riding in the dreaded tuk tuk. Not only had the tuk tuk has become the emblem of the transactional nature of our relationship, the hard give and take, but I knew that if I was driven somewhere, it’d be harder to extricate myself should anything go awry. Seeing my hesitation, everyone—Noi, the boss, the driver— cried out in alarm: “It’s free! It’s free!” Their faces all crumpled with concern that was I was going to turn crazy again. Feeling foolish both for going along and for being so paranoid, I climbed in. And I tried desperately to watch for landmarks as we rode, so I could find my way back if I had to. It’s hard to trust anyone when you know nothing.

They took me to a lovely restaurant on the Lopburi river, and we sat overlooking the water, fairy lights twinkling around the patio as straw-roofed, pointy-tipped boats glided by.  I registered the charming atmosphere, but I was also making constant calculations. I couldn’t read the menu, which was written in Thai, but I could see the prices, and they were far higher than I would pay for my bowl of rice or noodles from the guesthouse or market vendor.  A fool and his money are soon parted. I wrote in my journal. If I had just paid the god damn 250 baht for the goddamn tour like obviously a girl alone was expected to do, I wouldn’t be stuck here with two semi-leering Thai men and an 18-year-old tour guide and pickpocket-to-be, about to pay way too much for an awkward dinner. I worried about blowing my budget on an expensive meal for four, about the implications if the boss were to pick up the tab. I worried about what he would order. Not only was I exquisitely cost-conscious—to make my trip last, I was trying to spend only about $12 a day—but I was a vegetarian. I tried to make this clear, but “vegetarian” was not then a common descriptor in Thailand. I didn’t really succeed.

The boss was the only one of the three who could speak English fluidly, and he and I had a good conversation, the earlier teasing and repartee gone. He was a businessman, he explained. And he explained his feeling about tourists. He wants them be happy. He wants them to spend money. He wants them to come back, but he’ll believe it when he sees it. We talked about American politics, and he was informed, a fan of Clinton. “He’s a smart guy!” I asked him if he would like to go the States. He said he’s practical. He’s realistic. He does pretty well in Thailand, but he can’t take the money he makes here there. It’s way too expensive. He could only go there if he had a job there, and how is that going to happen?

“It’s not fair,” I objected. It was a stereotypical white-girl, knee-jerk response, but I felt it sincerely. And so I picked up the big cardboard box that doesn’t really fit in a backpack, but that has to be carried to beach and village and temple ruin nonetheless, the acknowledgment of the structural inequity that allows some to go traipsing while others won’t eat that day if they can’t persuade a tourist to crack open her moneybelt.

“I think so,” he smiled, enigmatic. Was he saying that he, too, thinks it’s unfair? He was gracious. “For you, Thailand very good, very much cheaper, I think so.”

Everyone cleared his or her plate but me—even allowing myself seafood, there were too many bits in the rice and soup that I was suspicious of.  The boss kindly offered coffee or fruit because he knew Europeans liked that, but I declined.

When the bill came, I reached for my wallet, but the boss would not accept any money. “In Sukhothai, in Chiang Mia, you spend a lot of money. Not tonight.” He is eloquent, and I sort of believe his intention, even while trying to tell myself that nothing is free, especially from a self-described capitalist of the tourist trade who knows Thailand is cheap to us and America is impossible to him. My cynicism was exhausting me.  Or were my attempts at open-mindedness exhausting me? Anyway, I did not push my money on him. Outside, he asked me if I want to go play snooker with him. No, I said, without hesitation. I was grateful that the situation was finally so unambiguous. I thanked him, and he drove off. The driver delivered me and Noi back to the guest house, safe and sound.

The night did not end there. There were more shenanigans from Noi—she really was a crazy girl—and I barely slept, what with her continually knocking and my head exploding from new impressions and my waking nightmares about being raped or about stabbing someone in the belly in order to prevent a rape from happening. I clutched my army knife all night long.

But of such intensity memories are made. I didn’t know it yet, but I had found my themes.

And I am grateful to anyone who has cared to read about it.

Hey, Baby, Let’s Go for a Ride

So, the risks I took, women take, when traveling alone. In my previous post, I described shacking up with two strange men on my first night in Bangkok. A day or so later, I got in touch with my friend Jillana, who was living there, and I crashed at her apartment and let her show me around. That made the transition to the foreign culture enormously easier, but I had to come out from under her wing eventually, and in preparation I read again and again the list of tips for solo women travelers that appeared in the guide books: Choose accommodations where other women are staying; do not stay in brothels; inspect walls for peepholes; make sure make sure doors lock from the inside; avoid being alone with men; stick to well-traveled, well-lighted areas. When I finally set out by myself for Ayutthaya, an old capital of Thailand that was a well-worn stop on the beaten path of every conceivable tourist type, I was suitably terrified. How could I remember everything? Who would have thought to look for peepholes? That first day on the trail alone was one of the longest, most intense days of my life. (The internet has made prepping for solo traveling a little less intimidating. These tips from Journeywoman for women traveling solo seem useful and realistic.)

The minute I got off the train, it became clear that the tips for solo women travelers could not be followed to the letter: Tuk-tuk drivers swarmed me, and they were all men, and I was going to have to be alone with one of them if I were to get to the guest house that Jillana had recommended to me. Part of the recommendation was to be firm with the driver about being taken to the old BJ Guesthouse and not the new BJ Guesthouse, which was known to be of lesser quality, and although I tried, I was pretty sure I had been deposited at the undesirable location. Jillana had told me this might happen, and that if so, I was to march back to the tuk-tuk driver and demand to be taken to the alternative, but this kind of assertiveness was beyond me. It was all I could manage to ask to see the room before I rented it, but with the proprietress standing at the threshold and insisting she could get the best rate for me on a tuk-tuk and guide to the ruins, my inspection was cursory, and it did not include the shared showers— peephole-potential central, according to the guidebooks. And so I started off feeling inadequate to the wiles of the locals and to the dictates of the safe solo-traveler advice, and I valiantly vowed to do better next time without having a clue about how that would be possible.

Photo by Lisa Meehan Williams

I had taken a seat in the near-empty guesthouse courtyard and was studying a map of the Ayutthaya’s famed ruins when a teenaged girl introduced herself. “My name is Noi,” she almost whispered, and her eyes were questioning but intent. She looked Asian but not typically Thai, with hair almost as short as mine and black-rimmed round glasses, and her story, told in halting English, was unclear. Perhaps she was a Thai student being educated in Japan, here on holiday? In any case, she was staying at the guesthouse in some capacity, and she shyly asked me if I wanted to do something with her that afternoon. What could I say? No? And anyway, maybe it would be some comfort to have a companion, even if it was a rather strange one. I told her I was planning to walk to the ruins. The guidebooks had said most of them could be visited by bicycle (when I had inquired about rentals, the proprietress told there were none available that day and once again urged on a tuk-tuk) and so I figured a fair number of them could be reached by foot, as well.

Noi requested that I wait for her while she went to the bank. When she came back, she said the bank was closed because it was a holiday, and she asked me if I would loan her money, naming a sum higher than my daily budget. I furrowed my brow and tried to ask questions in the place of offering money. What did she need it for? What did she owe the guesthouse? I felt a combination of motherly concern and suspicion; clearly she was trying to bilk the farang, and my intended companion, instead of providing some level of safety, was someone of whom to be wary. But she also seemed so young and confused. I didn’t give her cash, but I didn’t refuse her company when she said she still wanted to go with me, and we set off walking down the road under the flat, hot sun.

Within minutes, a tuk-tuk buzzed up from behind us and the driver called out, asking if he could be my guide. I rebuffed him, but another one approached, then another, then another. To extend their solicitation, the drivers slowed their exhaust-belching carts to our pace as we strode along; they offered prices, asked what price would I pay, insisted that I would never be able to see the ruins on my own. They just generally resisted taking no for an answer. But I refused and refused and refused again, my determination to go it alone only increasing the longer and hotter and more annoying the walk got. The guidebook said most of the ruins were available by bike! At least some of them must be available by foot! I would not be tricked again! The men sometimes tossed a few Thai phrases at Noi, who would whisper-answer back and shrug her shoulders, looking helpless and perplexed. Finally, we entered the national park and saw some ruins, and my mind was blown by the Indiana-Jonesish visages before me, the giant Buddha heads and stuppas, sites I had no cultural connection to and very little context for and whose exoticism was sharpened by how hard-won it had been to see them independently. But Noi was unimpressed. While I tried to open my soul to the object of the day’s considerable efforts (this is why I was here, right? right? Face to face with it, I was supposed to feel something profound.) she wanted to talk about boys, about the Japanese boy who had disappointed her, about a cute boy staying at BJ Guesthouse, about another boy who had used the word penetration—what did that word mean? At the end of the afternoon, I was exhausted.

Photo by Lisa Meehan Williams

Imagine my dismay when I returned to the guesthouse and saw every tout who had solicited me sitting in the courtyard having their happy-hour beers. There were at least a dozen guys there. The new BJ Guesthouse was the tuk-tuk driver headquarters! No wonder I’d been funneled there in the first place. No wonder they hadn’t wanted to rent me a bike. And no, I couldn’t slip to my room unnoticed. The men immediately called out to me: “The girl who want to go by walking!” They smiled and laughed, held open their palms and stepped their fingers across them to show my insistence at walking. They spoke to Noi in Thai, and she spoke back, and I looked at her, looked at them, didn’t know if anyone was on my side. There were maybe two other farangs in the courtyard, a couple, let’s say, who sat knee to knee at a small table with postcards spread between them. I wanted to catch their eye, but they took no notice of me or of the tuk-tuk drivers. Nor would I or the tuk-tuk drivers have felt free to approach them. For better and for worse, when you travel as a couple, you’re traveling in a turtle shell; when you travel alone, your whole self is out there in the world.

So there I was. Alone. Out in the world. Maybe 8 feet away from a table full of men drinking beer. Alone anywhere, I would certainly try to avoid a group of drinking men. Especially when the men can speak to each other in a language I don’t understand. Especially when they’ve already colluded against me. But they seemed so genuinely good-natured, both in their volleying between each other and in their comments to me. I cracked a smile. I replied to a question. I sank into a chair and replied to another. One by one, the drivers handed rolls of baht to a more thick-set man in a much whiter shirt who was buying the beer. “I pay my boss!” one guy explained cheerfully. There was a palpable sense that they were off the clock, that their work of trying to sell me services was over, as was my work of resisting, and that now—of course! finally!— we could all sit back and relax together. After hours of keeping my defenses up high as they could go—standing on tiptoe to do it, then hauling in iron scaffolding—they started to slip. And I can’t remember exactly how it happened, how many gently teasing comments the guys tossed my way, how many invitations were issued before I took them up on it, but Noi and I eventually joined the men at their table. I even accepted a glass from them, and l let it be filled with beer from one of the big Singha bottles they were sharing. And I started to differentiate, to pick out the guys who were cute, to pick out the cutest one, to see that he was actually turn-the-knife handsome— burnished skin over high cheekbones, thick lock of hair slipping over one of his bright eyes, brilliant white smile—and that he was smiling especially warmly at me. But, recalling again guidebook warnings, I was still wary enough to make sure that others were sipping the beer poured from the same bottle that mine was. I had willingly joined a group— I maybe flirting with one of its members—consisting of people who I believed might possibly drug my drink.

I see that this post is getting long, and I’ve still not gotten to the meat of it. I’ve tried to write about this day before, but the details are so many, and they all seem so important, even as I doubt they’re interesting for anyone but me.

But for me, they are endlessly interesting. They retain a pull as deep as the memories of childhood. Within a week or so after the events I’m describing, I had gotten my traveler’s schtick down. I’d already learned some tricks and shortcuts and gotten hip to the attitudes copped by fellow-travelers, and I’d gleaned that it’d be considered uncool to admit to being as freaked as I was in a place as well-tromped as Ayutthaya—in a garden-variety destination like Thailand, no less, an “easy” country people stopped over in to recover from more arduous destinations—Cambodia, Pakistan. But, far now from the traveler’s snobbery found in the common areas of word-of-mouth guesthouses, willing to risk accusations of traveling the world only in order to navel-gaze, I can recognize that those first days of traveling alone in Asia cracked open my self in a way that seldom happens in adulthood. They changed me, I think. They formed something in me. Or at least they helped me recognize—slowly, part of a process still unfolding—things about myself that otherwise would have remained unknown. And those things have more to do with tuk-tuk drivers than with sites tuk-tuk drivers can take tourists to. Anyway, I haven’t even gotten to the dinner of that first night, yet. Sometime. Sometime. Time. Maybe soon.

Lucky? And/or smart? Solo Women and Safety

So I’ve been thinking about the “white chicks shouldn’t” theme for awhile, now, and about how, consciously or unconsciously, most women have a strategy for dealing with the threat of sexual violence. I’m at a stage in my life where I rarely traverse the nighttime streets alone, but I do walk home from work on dark winter evenings, and sometimes the adrenaline surge I get from hearing the approach of heavy footsteps or from seeing a hulking silhouette on a lonely corner makes me almost nostalgic. In my 20s, when I roamed often alone through cities and countries, this edgy wariness was a frequent companion. My strategy was that I would not circumscribe my movements too much, that I would not always take the safest course of action, but that I wouldn’t be blindly stupid, either. I would remain vigilant; when necessary, I would trade off attractiveness for protectiveness; and I would sharpen my spidey sense of male character like a blade. Calculated risk. Cautious optimism. Bravery. Bravery that some might call stupid.

In this spirit, when I had the chance to take an indefinite solo backpacking trip in the 1990s, I went. But instead of going to Central America, as I was most inclined, I choose to go to Southeast Asia because I heard it was a much safer place for women to travel, and I wore short hair and baggy men’s clothing in an attempt to, if not pass as a boy, at least distance myself from unwanted male attention. (The bad haircut and ill-fitting clothing might also have distanced me from any chance of looking like a respectable person, but that was an issue of which I was blissfully unaware.)

As soon as I embarked for Thailand, the heightened calculations of risk and reward began. Waiting in Hong Kong for a connecting flight to Bangkok, I was approached by a man who asked me if I was headed to Khao San Road, and did I want to share a cab. He had identified another backpacker on board, too, another man, who was game to split the fare as well. We chatted a few moments before boarding, and then I had the last leg of the journey to decide: Did I split a midnight cab with two strange guys? Or, looked at another way, with two North Americans who looked comfortably hippyish in a mature, REI sort of way? Or did I get in a cab alone and get dropped off alone as well, at 1:00 AM in a strange country with nowhere determined to lay my head? (Yes, I know. I could have and probably should have arranged accommodation for at least that first night, but that’s not what I did. I was determined by budget and inclination to be a ragtag backpacker all the way.)

Not only did I end up splitting the cab with the men, I ended up sharing a room with them after we had trolled the Khao San area and found guest house after guest house filled up. When finally presented with an available quarter that was fitted with one double and one single bed, I turned to them both and said “I will share this room but I am NOT sharing a bed.” The older man congratulated me on my forthrightness and sort of paternalisticly—it was as if he’d been worried about me before—told me that I should always be as clear as that. He and the other guy bunked together in the double bed.

But still, despite their apparent deep decency, I slept that night, or half-slept, in the sweltering room with my sleep sack pulled tight around my neck.

But still, they weren’t the last strange men towards whom I had no sexual intentions with whom I shared a room on my trip.

But that’s not the story I started off meaning to tell. Khao San is sort of a half-way house to traveling, and in sizing up western white guys, I was on familiar territory. The harder calculations were yet to come, the ones I’ve been pondering on since, the ones that have been a major impetus for my writing. I’m going to post about them soon. Soon, soon, soon.

In the meantime, I wonder what the response to my travel-strategy and room-sharing would be if I were posting on a blog that large numbers of people actually read. I was not sexually assaulted in any of my wanderings, despite a bunch of “high-risk” behavior. Was I lucky? Yes, although I bristle at the way the term implies that the avoidance of sexual assault is akin to winning a prize. And how much of my “luck” do I attribute to my vibe—to my androgynous dress and my straightforward attitude—and to my ability to quickly asses character? And if I attribute my luck to those sources, if I claim some power and ability to keep myself safe while out alone in the world, am I suggesting that victims can be blamed? Does one thing necessarily imply the other? Am I being arrogant? I almost hate to type that, because of the way it evokes images of schadenfreude and comeuppance.

In mulling these things, I’ve recalled the brouhaha that occurred in 2008 regarding Lizz Winstead’s interview with Moe Tkacik and Tracie Egan, two women who were at the time editors at Jezebel and identify as feminists. They were drunk, and they said a lot of politically incorrect things, especially about rape. At one point, Tracie said that she hasn’t been raped because she’s smart. She and Moe (who talked about having been raped) were taken to task by the audience and by Lizz Winstead and all over the blogosphere, and for good reason, but the drunken, tone-deaf conversation is also pretty honest, on some level. I suspect Moe and Tracie are saying things many people think, or half think, or have done, before the knowing-better clicks on and shuts them, or us, up about it.

Now, when I sometimes quicken my pace nervously on my way home from work, and when walking home from the train at 9 or 10 PM makes me feel sort of wild and free but also like stalked prey, I’m amazed at how far out on a limb I regularly went on my own. Lucky? Or smart? Probably some combination. I hate to think stupid.

Kind Words for CURRENCY

“From skins to skin to golden Buddhas, CURRENCY is a moving and lucid look at how beauty can fall prey to our very love of it.”
Alex Shakar, author of The Savage Girl

“From the first page to the last, Zoe Zolbrod’s CURRENCY had me hooked. I loved the boldness of voice, the visceral and intoxicating landscape, the engrossing and masterfully woven story. CURRENCY is a thrilling and unforgettable debut, and Zolbrod is a brilliant new voice that is sure to be with us for many years to come.”
Laura van den Berg, author of What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us

Currency is an absorbing story of love and betrayal in Southeast Asia, a thriller of trafficking bodies–both human and beast–across international lines, and a perceptive foray into the dark powers beyond our control. It is a story that asks questions about home and happiness, while deftly taking us into a society’s underworld where ethics are eclipsed by desperation, lust, and greed.
Shilpa Agarwal, author of Haunting Bombay

“CURRENCY explores everything that’s filthy, sexy and dangerous about money. An American woman travels to Thailand and falls in love with a local man — all very romantic until the cash runs out and the pair of lovers decide to begin smuggling. Zoe Zolborod’s fascinating characters hop borders, break laws, and try their best to communicate across cultural gaps. In this thrilling book, Zolbrod shows us how money talks.”
Pagan Kennedy, author of Confessions of a Memory Eater and The Dangerous Joy of Doctor Sex and Other True Stories

“CURRENCY is an impressive debut, a spellbinding novel of international intrigue and a heartbreaking love story between a naive young American woman and a sweetly ambitious Thai man. Zoe Zolbrod writes with authority about little known parts of Thailand in prose so beautiful I found myself conflicted between savoring every word and rushing to see what would happen next.”
Ladette Randolph, author of A Sandhills Ballad
Editor-in-chief, Ploughshares

“CURRENCY is a dance and duel, a literary thriller with a serpentine twist. With extraordinary imagination, Zolbrod evokes both partners of a star-crossed couple: Piv, a small-time Thai hustler, and, Robin, a questing American backpacker. Based in the seedy rooms of Bangkok’s Star Hotel, the action in Currency ranges from the tranquil mountains of Pai to the traveler haven of Khao San Road, from the heart of Singapore to the scrubby outskirts of the Philippines’ Cebu City. Along the way, the reader confronts walls of every sort — international and cross-cultural barriers, and obstacles to trust, and, ultimately, love.”
Josh Neufeld, author of A.D.: New Orleans After the Deluge

Acknowledging

I just sent the copyedited manuscript of CURRENCY to Gina, my editor. The next time I see the novel, it will be in galleys, manuscript no more.

It’s been twelve years since I workshopped the experiment in voice that became the first chapter of the novel. I was 28 years old then, and I smoked cigarettes blithely in the apartment where Mark and I had just moved in together. Up to that point, I’d written only a handful or two of short stories, each page wrung out of me slowly, and writing a novel seemed an impossible thing. But Piv’s voice was a wind at my back, and the few years it took me to complete the first “finished” version were great ones; they’ll probably go down as some of the best in my life. The story unfolded inexorably in my mind, and I had the time and attention to give to writing. Then came kids, mortgages, money worries and increasingly demanding day-jobs; rejections and not-quite-rejections and agents who sent me back through the pages. I revised in the cracks of time I could find. And received more rejections. And then, after I’d abandoned all hope, eventual acceptance. (Thanks, OV Books!) And now here I am, writing acknowledgments.

Writing acknowledgments is making me nervous. I fear I’m not always gracious in thanking people, being myself sometimes off-put by gratitude that seems too gushingly produced to be sincere but also knowing, first-hand and through observation, how much a heartfelt thanks or the lack of one can mean. I’m feeling twin urges to be brutally honest and very thorough. To make sure I don’t leave out any key players, I’ve tried narrating to myself the story of my writing this novel, and what I’ve found is that the most important people and turning points happened before the characters even materialized for me, long ago as that was. There’s one person in particular I’ve realized I need to thank—Tuk, a Thai man—whose last name I don’t remember. It’s been driving me crazy. I know I had it somewhere! So the other night I unearthed the plastic bin in the basement where I’ve been storing all the books I used to research the novel and the journals I kept when I was backpacking.

journals

I meant to be efficient, because like many people at my stage of life, I always have more things to do than hours to them in, and I was already stealing time. But as soon as I opened the box, the smell of old smoke discombobulated me. The burnt musk has been synonymous with my memories of youth ever since 1995, when a bad apartment fire singed all my possessions it didn’t destroy. Like a genie going back into a bottle—whoosh—I was back in the past, and nevermind the sleep that I really needed to get that night. When I came upstairs hours later, my fingertips were black with soot from paging through the journals. It became almost beside that point that I found names and addresses of people I had completely forgotten, but not Tuk’s.