Posted on July 7, 2011
This spring, we went back to Isla Mujeres for our second time as a family and my third time overall. I left a copy of Currency at PocNa, the hostel where I stayed when I visited the island as a backpacker round about 1995. In the book, I pasted the same note that I have in the other copies I’ve sent out into the world:
As the author of this novel, it’s one of my great hopes for Currency that people will discover it while on the road. To that end, I’ve given some copies to traveler-types and asked them to leave the books, when they’re through, where other travelers can find them. If you’ve left or found Currency, I would love it if you’d leave a comment at https://zoezolbrod.com/the-traveling-book/. Happy travels!
I think there are about ten or twelve books that are floating around the globe right now, with most of them, fittingly, in Southeast Asia. I’ve received only one note from a stranger who has picked up a copy completely by chance, but the story that woman told, in the comments here, was worth way more than a box full of books; it put me on a bus from Cambodia to Bangkok and then on route to Nepal. O World! I miss you! And Piv and Robin, I miss you too. When the two of them come alive for other people, it helps ease the sting—or maybe it just makes it more exquisite, which is perhaps the better goal. If anyone reading this is about to go on a trip and wants a copy of Currency to read and leave behind for someone else, let me know, and I’ll send you a copy
I felt sort of like a spy in PocNa, wandering around looking for the lending library I knew they’d have, wondering at the way things change and they don’t, checking out the tanned faces bent over glowing netbooks in the shade of the main courtyard. (So many netbooks.) I inferred that a lot of hostelers were using the cushion of Isla and PocNa to recover from more strenuous travels, maybe staying on longer than they’d planned at a place with good wi-fi and a little night life. In 1995, still pretty fresh from the pristine beaches of Ko Chang, each of which could only be reached by boat, none of which featured accommodation other than thatched huts, Isla Mujeres felt urban to me, and almost unbearably commercial. I had never seen yachts and pleasure craft docked near a pier, and I had never had to pass by so many hulking hotels to get to a guesthouse.
But there were recognizable sorts at the hostel, and I quickly made the recognizable alliances, and with them I ended up smoking pot and traversing the more local side of the island for late-night conch and cheap snorkeling. Having found the bookshelf for freebies and slipped Currency among the offered titles—with the endless stream of wi-fi and the portable screens, how many fewer books do travelers read?—I headed back to the street, and I took great pleasure in standing in the entryway remembering the humiliation of having to be rescued from a communication problem at check-out by a know-it-all who’d annoyed me on these jaunts and who spoke Spanish. Mmmmmm nostalgia. I’m hooked on it. The then-and-now simultaneity is sometimes so physical it gives me vertigo, and I put my hand on the cement wall to steady myself. Meanwhile, Mark was waiting in the golf cart outside, dealing with the squabbling kids so I could have my moment. It was on the same island two years ago that he helped me come up for the name of this blog, The Next Youth Hostel. Get it? The journey, the journey. Still on it, in our way.
I haven’t been updating this blog much because my world keeps turning. Currency‘s been out over a year, so I’m not promoting it. I never intended the blog as a place to give personal updates, but to the extent that I did, now I use Facebook more than ever. And when I feel the call to write an essay, I write for The Nervous Breakdown because I love the community there, not to mention the eyeballs. I’ve posted essays about the my mom being on Facebook, the gang rape of the eleven-year-old girl, my reaction to the proposed opening of a breastaurant in my bucolic town, and my challenges with time.
I am quite time-challenged. I’m working on a new project—a memoirish type exploration that I’m vexed by and drawn toward—and every day I feel its hungry rumble for hours I don’t have. A fair number of those I need just to sit chin in hand and stare off into the past. What can I say? Pondering formative experiences is so attractive to me. This time the setting is closer to home. There’s a lot about sex and childhood and gender issues, those perennial favorites.
Posted on June 26, 2010
(I posted this missive last week on The Nervous Breakdown last week, so if you read it there, skip this. If you haven’t heard of The Nervous Breakdown and you like to read short nonfiction on screen, you should totally check out the site. )
Getting ready for my recent trip to L.A., I told anyone who would listen that I’d never, ever been there. But when I walked out of LAX to catch the FlyAway to Union Station—boom! I caught myself in a lie. The low overhang that made me want to duck as I stepped out of the doors, the slice of blue sky just beyond, the scraggly palm trees against the white parking garage—I’d seen it before, on another June day fifteen years ago. The exact same tableau had been my first glimpse of the U.S. after returning from more than half a year in Southeast Asia.
Last month, I published a novel set mostly in Thailand. It’s about a Thai man and an American woman who get involved with an exotic animal smuggling ring. When people have asked the inevitable questions about how much of Currency is autobiographical—because, of course, everything’s more interesting if it’s autobiographical—I’ve been yakking about how sleeping with Thai guys probably inspired me to write from the first-person point of view of a Thai man. I’m trying to get over my fear that I’m boring people by talking about or reading from my book, but I’m not always successful, and that’s sort of sexy, right? Not the semi-failure, but the hooking up with a few too many foreign men? So I throw it out there to liven things up. And besides, it’s true. Sometimes I precede or follow the comment by making a lame joke about how I never smuggled anything—as far as I know, ha ha.
Until last week, I’d forgotten that I do have an autobiographical connection to Currency’s smuggling plot, a Los Angeles connection. That’s where I landed on my return from Bangkok, and, although I was continuing on to San Francisco, that’s where I went through Immigration and Customs and officially entered America. I’d recently been to Vietnam and Laos, among other destinations, and I was actually looking forward to this border crossing, to officers who spoke an English I knew I’d understand, to the certainty I wouldn’t be squeezed for a bribe, to belonging. When the immigration officer asked me questions about the length of my trip and how I’d managed to stay away for so long, he sounded friendly.
But maybe he tagged me in some way, tapped his loafer to a button on the floor, splattered invisible ink on my back, because while I waited for my stuffed, bedraggled, beloved backpack to roll off the luggage belt, I was approached by other men who asked me the same questions: How did I afford to travel so long without working? Where all had I been? The interest no longer seemed friendly, and I was wearied but not surprised when I was pulled aside at Customs. The search was thorough. Unzipped, my bag emitted the stink of tropical rot. It embarrassed me to watch gloved hands finger my crumbled clothes and dirty underwear, to see my souvenirs splayed out on the table, drained of meaning under the harsh fluorescents—the bunched-up jewelry, the crude carvings, the yak bone I had picked up on a trail in Nepal. But my heart didn’t start seriously pounding until the officer turned over the bone again and again and then walked away with it. He conferred with another uniformed guy. Then maybe another. One of them came over to ask me what the bone was. There was the crackling of a walkie talkie. The bone was taken out of my sight. It reappeared. To tell you the truth, I don’t remember the order in which these things occurred. But I remember being informed that the wildlife expert was on his way. I remember them telling me to repack my bag while we waited for him, the awful feeling of stuffing my messed and cheapened life back inside, under watch. “How did you know so much about smuggling?” people have asked me. “Research,” I’ve answered. And: “I got the animal smuggling idea from an article in a 1997 The New York Times Magazine.” And (in a snotty tone that implies Duh, I’m a fiction writer): “I just made up what it might be like to get caught carrying contraband into another country.” Why did I not recall until revisiting the airport where it happened that I myself was waylaid while carrying a piece of mammal?
It’s not accurate to say the incident slipped my mind. It must have been in there somewhere, hiding in the shadows, because I can recall it vividly now. I can recall the frog enclosures on the blue shirt I was wearing, the heavy string of Kali beads around my neck. (Jesus, how stupid I was to dress like such a clichéd hippy when coming back from what was at that time still a capital of drug production.) My backpacking trip was one of the most influential periods of my life, but I’ve become sort of sheepish about trotting out travel experiences that happened in the previous decade—or, ouch, are the 90s now considered to be two decades ago? And I’ve been laboring over Currency’s manuscript for so many years that my character’s experience had became more legitimate to me than my own, even though I still have the yak bone displayed at the top of a bookshelf in my dining room.
The wildlife inspectors ended up letting me keep it. By the time I was cleared, I needed a smoke, and I headed outside. I noted the contrast of the gloomy overhang and the sky’s robin’s egg blue, the outline of the palms’ ragged edges against the garage’s grimy cement. Southern California, I thought. Check. Then I stubbed my cigarette, went back inside, and got on my flight to San Francisco, where I stayed with my friend Brenna and her girlfriend Paula. I used their apartment as a halfway house, a place to acclimatize before I fully reentered American life.
Brenna has long since moved to L.A., and I stayed with her again on this recent visit. We’ve known each other since we were kids. We’ve hardly talked these last ten years. As she drove me around town to readings and parks and Venice Beach—I leaned on her for that one—her truck’s radio was often tuned to a station that played “Ladies Night” and “Celebration” on heavy rotation, songs we had danced to as preteens. We looked at each other across the wide bench seat and laughed. We grooved. We sang along, and she corrected me on some of my lyrics; apparently I’ve been wrong about them for thirty years. (It’s not “Celebrate your life,” it’s “Celebrate good times,” which I hope I can forget by the next time I hear it because I think my version is bigger-hearted.) One night, we all three went out, the same San Francisco trio, Brenna and Paula—just friends, now, best friends—and me, to a bar in Culver City, and Brenna and I danced in the back to the deejay’s nowest of now mix. We told Paula about how we had met on the dance floor at family night at our small town’s disco, and how we had fallen in love. We are still in love. Never-mind about the last ten years.
The phrase “the accordion of time” pops into my head a lot lately. I picture the long stretch of years—of course some things will be forgotten; there’s so much!—and then the squeeze that brings them together until they all exist at once, until everything seems as if it’s happening now. The sensation is accentuated by publishing a book that I’ve worked on through so many stages of my life and that’s inspired by an earlier stage yet; by a book tour that’s reconnecting me with people I spent formative years with before drifting away from. Lately, it’s common for me to recount a night on a 1980s dance floor as if it were yesterday, but to forget what happened last weekend. I’m an old lady in that way. But, also, I’m still a girl. Some enthusiasms are as fresh now as they were then. I keep having the feeling that I’ve been here before, and that it’s exactly the same, I’m exactly the same. But also, that it was nothing like this. Coming home, I’ve returned to a place I’ve never quite been: tropical flora, brilliant sunshine, dirty but still bright, white walls.
Posted on June 21, 2010
Well, Currency‘s been officially out for a little over six weeks now. I’ve read from it maybe a dozen times in a half-dozen different towns. I’ve gotten some reviews and done some interviews. I’ve been absolutely drunk on the kindness and enthusiasm of friends and acquaintances, and, despite attempts to keep my focus on my many book-related blessings, I’ve also succumbed to moments of despondency over the rest of the world’s utter indifference. (I know, I know, I shouldn’t be comparing myself to anyone. I shouldn’t be checking the Amazon ranking. But, um, I can tell you Currency is at #559,688 as I type. Anyone want to boost my number? From what I can discern, a single purchase vaults it above 100,00 for a day or so.)
Anyway, I thought I’d round up a list of links to some of the press I’ve received, so I have it all in one place.
Gina and I were in the fantastic courtyard of Austin’s boho chic Hotel San Jose when she looked up from her iPhone to tell me that all-round indie-lit star Jonathon Messenger wanted to interview me for TimeOut Chicago, and with the way the sun was hitting the garden’s huge yucca plants, or whatever they were, this probably constitutes my most glamorous author moment yet. I thought the interview turned out well. Here’s a link to it.
And remember when I was so happy when The Chicago Reader ran a good review? Well, I just about cried for joy when I read this one in NewPages, a site that celebrates all things independent in literature. “What follows is a tour de force portrayal by a serious author of the realities of modern-day smuggling and those involved in these activities. Currency not only succeeds in its scope and in-depth research, but also in in its fluid, energetic, and intriguing prose.” I think I’ve discovered my next tattoo. (You have to scroll down to find Currency, but along the way there are lots of intriguing reviews along the way.)
I was also very excited by this review on A Traveler’s Library, because I’ve admired that site for awhile as one of the few that combines a literary aesthetic with a focus on travel. Writer Vera Marie Badertscher says, “I would call it a good summer/beach read, but don’t want to diminish it. I also predict that it will be standard fare in every backpacker hostel in Southeast Asia before very long.” Ah, that is one of my fondest wishes! This enthusiastic review by Danielle E. Alvarez on GoBackpacking, a site for independent travelers, would seem to head the book in the right direction.
But, man, it’s mostly looking to be a hard slog. I wanted to give away some copies of Currency to readers about to embark on trips, with the request that they would in turn leave the book where another traveler would find it. When Jeannie Mark from the well-designed, well-written travel blog Nomadic Chick contacted me about doing an interview, I thought her site would be a great place to launch the traveling book idea. She loved it, and we designed a contest. Jeannie did a great job with the interview (which is here) and the promotion for it, but we received fewer entries than I had prizes to give away. (Here’s what she had to say about that.) So, if it’s that hard to give-away a novel to an audience that it’s pretty much written for… sigh. (By the way, I’m still trying to get this idea off the ground. If you’re going on a trip soon and want a free copy of Currency to read and then leave somewhere, click here.)
Still, even if it’s an uphill climb, the internet makes networking with traveler-types easier than it would have been ten years ago. Emily Gerson at the site Maiden Voyage Travel just did a nice interview with me. I talked about publishing with small presses on travel writer Alexis Grant’s super-useful and professional writing blog. And I identified another site that hits my target audiences, The Lost Girls, which is run by three women who quit their NYC media jobs to travel and blog around the world. (Their book by the same title came out around when Currency did. It’s at #3,382 on Amazon. Not that I’m counting. Not that I’ve noticed they have a list of national reviews on their Amazon page that’s as long as my arm.) I was grateful to see Currency‘s pretty cover and a good review on their homepage last week, right here. The reviewer is the only one so far who didn’t love Piv’s voice, but she was nice about it.
Well, actually, I just reread it to post it here, and it’s not terrible. And, you know, I used to be the first to say that if reviewers give everything a sunny two thumbs up, then what’s the point. But I think I’ve changed my mind. It’s so hard to complete a full-length work. It’s so hard to get it published. To find an audience. And then you’re going to dismiss it in a couple of sentences? It might be preferable to say nothing.
On the other hand, today I learned that a review of Currency that was supposed to run in a national print publication got pulled. I can’t help but wonder if it got pulled because the reviewer couldn’t be entirely positive. Better no national press at all than that?
Whatever. Better this—a book in hand, people reading it—than nothing, of that I’m sure. The good reviews I received before the not-good one did help inure me, and I was fairly well steeled for the indifference of the majority: I knew a book by a first-time author from a small press wouldn’t be met with trumpets. I knew having a platform was important, and that I didn’t have much of one beyond my supportive friends (whose numbers, thanks in part to the book, are growing). It’s been a journey, a real journey, in the best sense of word. No matter how much you read about a place, it’s different when you visit it. No matter how much you prepare, you’ll be swept along on some currents you can’t control. I always feel lucky when I get to go on a trip. And if you liked the book and spread the word, that would make me happy, too.
Posted on May 8, 2010
Now that CURRENCY has been published, a number of people are asking me tactful versions of the question How come this took so long? and Why with a small press? In this excerpt from an interview with Leah Tallen, Other Voices editor Gina Frangello explains better than I ever could. You can see the full interview at Knee-Jerk, and if you read it you’ll see that patience reaps rewards, and that I just might win the prize for having the world’s most passionate and talented editor. Gina has a new short story collection out this spring, SLUT LULLABIES, and we’re going to be promoting our books together in Chicago, New York, LA, Iowa City, Portland, Tacoma, Seattle, and elsewhere. Shameless self-promotion time. Come to see us! Become a Facebook fan! Buy a book!
OV is getting ready to release a new book this month, right? Can you talk a little about Zoe Zolbrod and her first book Currency?
This novel has been a long time in coming, and I’ve been acquainted with it since the late 1990s. I fell in love with it in a writing group when I was still in grad school. I thought Zoe was going to make a million dollars and become a rock star with Currency, that’s how much I loved it and the other people in our writing group loved it. But the publishing world being what it is, that’s not what happened . . .
I think a lot of editors in New York were spooked by the fact that half the novel is narrated by a Thai man, Piv, whose English is not perfect and has a heavy Thai flavor. I mean, it’s a big chance to take, I admit. Publishers might think, What if this isn’t authentic? What if it offends someone? What if some reviewer says they don’t buy it and suddenly that is the party line? Editors at the big houses have shareholders to answer to and they’re not big on risk. They don’t live by their guts anymore. But I felt like I knew Piv in a way that transcended politically correct rules like that. He was one of the best characters I’d ever read in contemporary fiction. That’s not to downplay Robin, his American lover, who is an extremely strong and complicated character herself. But I felt like Piv was someone I had never met before on the page. When Zoe’s novel started getting rejected and agents started walking away, I was stunned.
At that time, I ran a magazine, not a press. Then later, when I launched the press, we published books of short fiction exclusively. Only a little over a year ago did Stacy and I decide to launch the Morgan Street International Novel Series, and we kept getting all these submissions . . . but I couldn’t get Piv out of my head. I hadn’t even seen Zoe in a couple of years, and Stacy had never read the novel, so I was terrified of getting Zoe’s hopes up and not coming through—I knew she’d been through enough with this project. But I had to ask her for the manuscript so Stacy could read it. I think I was as nervous as she was, waiting. Luckily Stacy fell as deeply in love with this work as I had, and that was that.
How does Currency represent OV’s mission statement?
The Morgan Street International Novel Series grew out of an anthology we did in 2007, that Stacy edited, A Stranger Among Us: Stories of Cross Cultural Collision and Connection. That book featured thirty writers from all over the world, some published for the first time in English and others already major writers like Josip Novakovich, Nathan Englander, Etgar Keret. In that book, we made an explicit point of defining “culture” through relationships—in other words, while Nepalese culture may be very interesting to an outsider, it is not exotic or even always thought of as “culture” per se, by people in an insular community within Nepal, if that makes sense. A lot of books have explored this-or-that culture, which is important, but we wanted to explore culture as a more shifting, active thing, defined by people interacting and realizing their differences, in both positive and negative ways, and grappling that to figure out who they are. Zoe’s novel fits in with that way of exploring culture perfectly.
At the magazine, we’d always had an interest in international fiction, but through the anthology project we really realized we wanted to keep going with it—that we didn’t feel like the dominant publishing industry was offering enough fiction set outside the United States, only a few heavily promoted titles a year that became “the” Indian novel or “the” Afghani novel, etc. We wanted to provide more options, even if in a limited way given the size of our list.
Posted on March 4, 2010
With CURRENCY‘s release date only about two months away, I feel like I’m at the tail end of a veeeeeeeeeeeery long pregnancy, and labor has just begun. The final proof has been completed. Events are being set up. Preorder is available. A Facebook page has been created. (Please become a fan.) And thanks to Max Wentzel, The Eternals, and Lisa Meehan Williams, there’s even a book trailer posted on YouTube. It’s really going to happen!
Here’s the jacket copy:
Piv and Robin are not such an unlikely match. Piv, a small-time hustler in Thailand, and Robin, a twenty-something back-packer from the United States, have always dreamed big dreams. What begins as a traveler’s affair in Sukhothai quickly intensifies, and the young lovers envision an idyllic future together, traveling the world. Their plans are thwarted in Bangkok, however, when Robin runs out of money, her credit is denied, and she may have to leave Asia and Piv behind. Desperate, Piv turns to Abu, a charismatic businessman acquaintance, for help. Thus begins Piv and Robin’s foray into exotic animal smuggling. Soon they find themselves amid an international crime ring that may have even darker underworld ties stretching from Kenya to Russia. Under the scrutiny of the traffickers who employ them, with investigators hot on their trail, and idealistic dreams unraveling fast, Piv and Robin must face the consequences of their individual struggles for identity, as well as the cost of their mutual desires.
“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
Posted on February 8, 2010
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.
Posted on December 28, 2009
I’ve not gotten much pleasure from seeing things I’ve written, whether for love or money, published. I know that I’m supposed to feel gratified and excited, so I’ve been known to pretend, both to myself and for any collaborators or colleagues who might be around when the box comes in from the printer or the contributor copies are picked up from wherever. But holding the book or magazine or newspaper in my hand has sometimes left me feeling almost bored and hollowed, and other times made me slightly queasy. The paper stock has not often been what I would have liked; the spaces between the section breaks have not been big enough. The sentences look weird set with the narrower margin or in the unfamiliar font, and inevitably some awkward phrase or six will catch my eye. Before I sent each manuscript on its way there was likely a point when I read what I had labored over and finally felt a pleasing zing zing zing from the rhythms of the words and ideas, and that’s when I would have called it done. But somehow the song of things I’ve written has mostly disappeared for me in the time between its leaving my screen and appearing somewhere else. And anyway, I’d be on to something else.
I had such a different reaction when I received the galleys for CURRENCY. They arrived at my editor’s house the day before Christmas Eve, so traffic was terrible and my to-do list was long, and it was snowing and cold and dark by 4:00 PM. If my husband hadn’t offered to put the kids in the car and pick me up after work and drive me down to Gina’s, I’m not sure I would have summoned enough real or manufactured excitement to make the effort. (I hate driving, so it doesn’t take much to make me beg off it.) But riding back home in the passenger seat and paging through the book in the street glow, I felt a joy that was like a deep physical relief. My son wanted to see the sole copy I’d been given, and I was proud to have it to show him, but I quickly asked for it back. Clasped in my lap, it felt like the golden ball of light referred to by yoga teachers leading visualizations, a glow originating from the object in my hands, rising up my spine, filling my svadhisthana chakra, my heart chakra, my mind’s eye–you know, all those spiritual locales that one might catch a glimpse of in a great yoga class but that in the cruel light of day can seem to be rainbow-hued fantasias. It’s true that I haven’t read the whole book, and that I have already found an error, but so far nothing I’ve glanced at has made me want to throw up. It’s made me happy and proud.
I’ve called this manuscript done so many times, and I’ve been wrong so many times, but now, thanks to Stacy Bierlein and Gina Frangello‘s thoughtful editing and to Allison Parker‘s careful copyedit, I know that it’s the best that it can be. Thanks to Lisa Meehan Williams’s photographs and Melissa Lucar and Steven Seighman‘s design and OV Books‘ and Dzanc Books‘ exacting aesthetic and respect for literature, it is a beautiful thing. The paper quality is amazing. The space between the section breaks is just right. And thanks to Kathy Kosmeja and Gina, who not only braved the dark and cold and snow on Christmas Eve’s eve, but also the post office, potential reviewers all over the country might as I type have a copy of CURRENCY if not in their hands, then on their desks. That other people are making such an effort for a novel I wrote makes me want to cry tears of ecstatic gratitude, as anyone who has sent out scores of manuscripts and written scads of fruitless cover letters and made innumerable schleps to the post office on their own behalf can probably understand. OK, I’m gushing. I should stop now. But this is not obligatory excitement. This is the real thing. It’s the best Christmas present ever, for sure.