Written by Kham Phaka
Translated by Tharita Intanam
Translation edited by Rachel V. Harrison
[คลิกที่นี่เพื่ออ่าน “พลับพลาแห่งเนื้อนานาง: ว่าด้วยอีโรติก” เป็นภาษาไทย]
The following book review takes apart notions of eroticism (read: not-obscenity) that are ahistorical, apolitical, and purely about a refined aesthetic. First published in October 2002 over three issues of the weekly news magazine Siam Rath Sapdah Wijan and later republished in the groundbreaking volume of slut-centric literary criticism Krathu Dok Thong, this piece discusses a collection of erotic short stories in translation. The title story of the collection พลับพลาแห่งเนื้อนานาง (Kāimārut Publishing, 2001) was translated from “House of Flesh,” itself a translation from Arabic of a story titled بيت من لحم by Egyptian author Yusuf Idris.
Kham Phaka is a pseudonym of Lakkana Punwichai, a writer and media personality who has sparked many debates with her provocative opinion pieces, televisual programs, and photoshoots, including one in 2011 where she went topless for the campaign for lese majeste victim Ampon ‘Ah Kong’ Tangnoppakul. The name Kham Phaka is an intralingual translation of dok thong, literally ‘golden flower,’ idiomatically ‘slut.’ Four of her book reviews have been translated into English by Rachel V. Harrison as “ ‘Comments from a Common Slut’: (Post)Feminist Perspectives in the Analysis of the Modern Thai Novel” (in Disturbing Conventions: Decentering Thai Literary Cultures, Rowman & Littlefield International, 2014); Harrison also published a review article of Krathu Dok Thong in the journal South East Asia Research in 2005, entitled “Cultures of criticism, constructions of femininity and the impossibilities of female desire.” This formed part of a special issue of the journal, addressing new directions in Thai Cultural Studies.
From the (un)common slut’s vantage point, the common reader gets to see right through many illusions of gender and sexuality in modern Thai society, especially those that work to constrain women’s self-determination and sexual exploration. Kham Phaka’s frequent tactic of calling attention to her own sluttiness, along with associated qualities like dumbness and commoner-ness, knocks out Thai-style false sophistication by showing how commonsensical her critical insights can be. You don’t need a noble pedigree, a degree, or the D to have good judgment. Neither do you have to be a “khon dee”(“good person,” scare quotes necessary). In fact, making arguments without relying on one’s D’s affords one a better view of the world. Thai jurists, take note!
House of Flesh: On Eroticism
I’m not sure whether it is too risky to write about erotic fiction because, to be honest, I don’t know much about it. Plus, my understanding of “eroticism” is so general, as I don’t know its literal meaning, its connection to Eros, from which the term derives, and how his characters or his kinky acts lie at the origins of the term. For me, “erotic” is not a word, but an image that signifies something related to sex and lust. In short, when I see the word, my brain automatically decodes that the context must be something sexually obscene. Well, to act more like a researcher, I then look it up in the English-Thai dictionary, the concise version written by Theinchai Eamworamate, which I normally use. It says, “erotic” as an adjective means: 1. (arousing) sexual love; (arousing) desire or lust; carnality, and 2. strongly affected by sexual desire. As a noun [sic], it means a lustful person; love poem, romantic poem.
I want to find out how erotic stories are different from what westerners call pornography. Theinchai Eamworamate’s dictionary describes how pornography is a depiction of carnality; literature of carnality; obscene or carnal paintings.
So, there is only a small distinction between erotic stories and pornography; one is not obscene, while the other is. But both are concerned with carnality.
But, how can we know whether something is obscene or not? In the introduction to erotic fiction in a collection of erotic stories titled House of Flesh by Chalibrai, a line is drawn as follows:
The features of erotic writing make significant demands on authors’ abilities and sense of literary creativity because they challenge the boundaries of morality, particularly works that vividly describe sex scenes. If they are delivered through metaphorical language, beautifully polished and delicate, they will be perceived as artistic and aesthetic. But if they are literally written, they will be read as obscene.
Therefore, the key feature of erotic writings must include metaphorical language, with beautifully selected words, when authors depict images of characters’ sexual activity and desire as well as blissful orgasm. […] It can be said that erotic writings must show high aesthetic standards in illustrating, in terms of language and style, creative imagination rather than the literal nakedness of sex. (6-7)
Here, choice of “language” is used to measure whether erotic writings are utterly obscene or highly aestheticised. But the problem is that “language” has a dynamic. The conventions of erotic narratives in literature, such as “storms, crying frogs etc.,” may sound nonsensical and unsensual to young people today. It might be unerotic for them. Plus, no academic study of the genealogy of words has been conducted. So, we never know whether the words we consider “vulgar” today conveyed different meanings in the Ayutthaya or Early Rattanakosin era and what period defines certain qualities that we perceive as “beautiful,” “artistic,” or “creative.”
Other than temporally, shifts in meanings also occur regionally. Words considered vulgar in one region can be perceived as normal in another. For example, in Northern Thai, we refer to every kind of hair [other than hair on the scalp –trans.] as “moi.” [In Central Thai, moi means pubic hair. –trans.] For instance, we call a beard “moi khang” [moi of the chin], a mustache “moi pak” [moi of the mouth] and armpit hair as “moi jakkarae” [moi of the armpit]. The overgeneralization of beauty to discriminate and label works as erotic or otherwise, as mentioned above, is problematic.
Despite this long introduction, I have ended up proposing a clichéd argument that all works, whether erotica or pornography, are social inventions.
The meaning of eroticism, as claimed in the introduction to the House of Flesh short story collection by Chalibrai and applied to Thai literature, is actually a reinvention or reproduction of the Western definition of erotic literature. This is not strange or undignified because cultures have no authenticity or originality, as they borrow from each other, intersect with each other, and appropriate each other. This is especially the case with literature or so-called prose fiction, which is not an original Thai form, but a rather recent invention.
As prose fiction is a form borrowed from the West, we should learn more, instead of passively receiving it. Just because it is said to be beautiful or artistic does not mean we cannot question how such a claim was invented.
I once came across an interview with a female author on the topic of erotic writing. She said that she would not write erotica unless it had a beautiful container, like coffee in a beautiful cup. She thought the same coffee would taste different if we drank it from a tin cup rather than a sophisticatedly crafted porcelain one. I’m not that smart, so I didn’t quite get what she was trying to say. I guess she sees erotica in the same way as Chalibrai’s reinvention, which claims that “beauty” can purify the obscenity of sex.
Following this claim, a further question is why do we have to purify “sex” to make it something clean and beautiful. Western academics usually explain it with an assumption that the body is separate from and inferior to the mind. This dichotomy, presented in art and literature, was invented in the eighteenth century (in the Western world). With the separation of the two, sex resides with the body, and love with the superior mind.
Ideally, humans might desire to abandon worldly flesh and elevate their soul with pure love. But, in practice, it may be hard to deny that our undesirable, profane and dirty bodies are the source of ecstasy from consuming and touching. No body means no tool for pleasure.
Our feeling for our body is, therefore, based on a love-hate conflict. We hate it because it is ungodly, profane and full of wants; and yet we cannot live without it.
The definition of the erotic can be seen as a compromise between our ideal and our body. This invention of definition creates an illusion that erotic literature does not aim to serve and satisfy our bodily wants, but to elevate our aesthetic mind, like drinking coffee for spiritual pleasure rather than for caffeine consumption. A beautiful cup, therefore, is necessary for doing the work.
I’m really curious about how far we can run away from our profane bodies.
If the use of aesthetic beauty to separate erotic fiction from pornography is a compromise between bodily wants and purity of mind, I propose, living behind the bar of beauty is also problematic because “beauty” is subjective. If Thai folk songs — such as lam tat, prop kai, mor lam, and the Northern Thai so kep nok — are read through the lens of the definition, stated in the introduction of Chalibrai’s short story collection House of Flesh, they will be considered obscene simply because they all contain words like “p*ssy” and “d*ck.”
The existence of vulgar language (in the eyes of the middle class) in folk songs is explained by its ritualistic function, which is perhaps true, but not entirely. For instance, the Northern so kep nok songs are sung mainly for entertainment, and at the same time for preaching. These so-called “vulgar” words are actually the everyday language of local folk. They may not be polite, but are not actually rude.
By overlooking eroticism in folk literature, which is unfit for Western standards, Thai society can never establish its own theory or definition of erotic narratives. What we have done is to simply return to sex scenes in elite classical literature. This is why Thai authors are unable to write “steamy” sex scenes because they are stuck with the Western definition of eroticism, invented and developed to serve Western ideology, or with the Royal version of eroticism, serving the royal desire as seen in their classical literature.
My aim here is not to persuade readers to stop reading and learning erotic stories written in non-Thai cultures, but to argue that we should not adopt a single view of the meaning of eroticism. Eroticism should be liberated from beauty because, without presenting sophisticated ideas, erotic stories written with beautiful words are simply meaningless.
Coffee containers are as important as the quality of coffee and our unrefined love of coffee. But unfortunately, erotic narratives today are obsessed only with containers that romanticize coffee or make coffee way more romantic than it actually is.
The House of Flesh short story collection features 14 erotic stories from different cultures, translated into Thai for Thai readers. But unfortunately, there is no detailed reference of their original titles, nationalities, languages, and years of publication. It made me think that all of them might actually have been written by Chalibrai herself or himself. But in the introduction, I came across a hint (quite indirect) that they are translated from other languages. The introduction says that “House of Flesh” itself is translated from a classic, Middle Eastern short story written around the early twentieth century (page 11). The introduction further reveals, somewhat unsystematically and disorderedly, that some stories, such as “Storm” (พายุ), “House of Flesh,” and “Sweet Cane” (อ้อยหวาน) were written in the nineteenth century (page 9). Readers can detect that, while it says on page 9 that “House of Flesh” is written in the nineteenth century, they will later find that the story is said to have been written around the early twentieth century on page 11. This chaos of references leaves the reader in total confusion and doubt about the book’s credibility.
The chaos this book creates also appears in another part of the introduction, as Chalibrai writes:
Furthermore, if possible, erotic fiction should provide readers with social, cultural and emotional insights or values, in terms of Psycho Pathia Sexulis [sic], philosophy of sex, etc., because, without insightful ideas, it is just an entertainment that serves our sexual pleasure. It is considered ‘cheap,’ useless! (Chalibrai, page 8, emphasis in original)
Meanwhile, the quote appearing on the back cover notes:
The heart of “erotic” fiction is to talk about “love and sexuality” with understanding, through concise, sharp, and unified metaphorical language. It requires high aesthetic ability to persuade readers as well as to provide them with insightful and useful social, cultural and emotional ideas, in terms of sexual psychology, philosophy of sex, etc. more than entertainment or sexual pleasure. Without insightful ideas, it is considered cheap, useless.” (Kobkul Ingkutanont, back cover)
The above passage is said to be cited from Chalibrai, while the below from Kobkul. The above is from the introduction, while the latter is the quotation from the back cover, which shares similar statements. This is so confusing as it is unclear whether Chalibrai and Kobkul are the same person. If so, I wonder why they did not choose only one name or one personage (because the two passages state exactly the same thing). If Chalibrai wanted to “cite” Kobkul’s statement, why wouldn’t the translator simply make the citation? And, why is the reference of Kobkul’s work withheld, when the translator chooses to actually refer to Kobkul?
This is really sloppy.
What’s more, the translator withholds from readers the references for each translated short story as nobody knows where Chalibrai took them from. Perhaps the translator stumbled upon a heap of papyrus beside the tomb of some Egyptian pharaoh when she was on a pilgrimage to a pyramid. This heap containing 14 short stories might be the blessed gift of the pharaoh’s himself, revealed only to Chalibrai, not to any others.
The section of the text that is intended to present the history of erotic literature to the nineteenth century also contains not a single reference. I realize that this book is not a piece of academic writing with the need for detailed footnotes, but it should at least provide a bibliography for readers so they can follow up on the references. Readers need to know which sources Chalibrai is drawing on, editing, or copying from, because this is not the work of the translator herself but rather the sharing of a compilation of writings produced by others. It is therefore of concern that the references have been somewhat carelessly withheld.
This collection of short stories becomes less valuable because the author fails to provide a historical context for the erotic. No reason is provided for bringing together these particular 14 short stories and what shapes their particular identity. For instance, at first, readers might assume that they have been collected together because they are all erotic stories from the Middle East; but when we are confronted with the short story entitled “Magical Cockroach” (แมลงสาบวิเศษ) we have to think again because it is set in New York. We are unsure whether the stories are ordered chronologically because the editor and the translator fail to tell us when they were published, and so there is no evidence for a chronological approach.
The introduction states that “this collection aims to exemplify a variety of erotic stories” (page 12). But, Chalibrai seems to have blurred the distinction between “variety” and “mess.” Varieties are good for readers when they are drawn from specific contexts. But what is the context of this particular variety? Religion? Belief? Race? Geography? Period of time?
Since Chalibrai provides no basic information about these stories — no reference to the original or English titles, authors, dates of publication, information about when and where they were written — this so-called variety is useless and sounds like an excuse for “sloppiness.”
Among the 14 short stories in the House of Flesh collection, I want to talk about two in particular: “The World That Has Never Been Known” (โลกที่ไม่เคยรู้) and “Magical Cockroach,” because I find their presentations of bestiality of interest.
Unfortunately, the translator does not provide any detail about the authors of these two stories or whether they were female or male. Our interpretation and understanding of the two stories is limited to the fact that they deal with female human beings who dream of having sex with non-humans. In “Magical Cockroach,” the sexual object in the protagonist’s imagination is a cockroach; while, in “The World That Has Never Been Known,” it is a demi-god snake.
For Thai readers, both stories are “exotic and fascinating” in multiple respects. Firstly, they are exotic due to their portrayals of eroticism among people of different cultures. “The World That Has Never Been Known” refers to Egypt, while “Magical Cockroach” is set in New York. Secondly, their exoticism derives from their depictions of bestiality. As a result, further exoticism derives from the fact that this is not about sex between women and men or men and men or women and women, but sex between humans and supernatural beings. For example, one passage in “The World That Has Never Been Known” describes it in the following way:
There are many mysteries in life, formless powers in the universe, in other worlds beyond our own, interrelations between hidden things and rays that link animals together. (120)
“The World That Has Never Been Known” tells the story of a married woman whose husband is a high-ranking and respected government officer. They have a child together, but after they rent a new house, she experiences blissful desire with a snake, describing her feelings of arousal and burning desire as follows:
What I want is to lie down. I can’t help asking myself if it’s possible to fall in love. But how could I love a snake? Or is she a goddess among other gods? I am daydreaming about how wonderful she is. What could be the secret of her beauty? I always wonder whether I fell for her colorful skin or the impressive power of her gaze or the attractiveness of the way she moves, filling me with an exciting sense of danger that grasps my whole heart. (p. 112)
And so, the woman tries to explain her unconventional love by comparing herself to Cleopatra:
But I could not help wondering how we will unite as one. How can I extinguish my desire? How is it possible for a woman and a snake to bodily unite? Will she love me as much as I love her? This thought constantly obsesses me. Like Cleopatra. She is a love legend. Does she have sexual intercourse with a snake after ceasing to bed men? Is she bored with the adventures of love with men? Does she therefore cease to be instinctually aroused, unless through the excitement derived from fear? (p. 113)
The most interesting moment comes when the woman expresses her boredom towards for the adventures of love with men, as it lays down a challenge to modern social order at its very core. Is it possible that women would shun sex with men? Women’s boredom towards conventional, hygienic heterosexual sex is often diagnosed as physical deterioration, stress and so forth, yet no one ever explains that the cause could simply be their boredom towards “men.”
“Magical Cockroach” depicts a steamy sex scene between the human protagonist and a cockroach.
The cockroach was still there. Its head was pushing forward, moving backward, thrusting back and forth vehemently. Its antennae were swaying quickly. I was diving into bliss. How long had I been lying still? […] I screamed again but not with fear. It was a cry from ecstasy, permeating my whole body, caused by its intention and action. The cry was one of sexual liberation, so deep and dark as I had never felt before. My eyes were closing as I lay there, tired and sweating. (p. 126)
Similarly, one sex scene between the human protagonist and the snake in “The World That Has Never Been Known” is portrayed as follows.
I began to feel drugged by sweet, musical whispers, gently cold and soft. My body shuddered as the coldness turned to hurt to dread. I could feel “her,” while “she” was crawling under the blanket, and “her” two, tiny, pearl-like fangs started to caress my body until they reached between my legs. Suddenly, the gold forked tongue penetrated into the deep and started to taste and exude – tasting my poisonous lust and exuding a sweet elixir of bliss until my whole body was infused with pleasure and shuddered orgasmically. (p. 115)
In “Magical Cockroach,” the story reveals that the cockroach is male, while the snake in “The World That Has Never Been Known” is female. The boredom of sex with the “male” occurs specifically only with men and excludes the males of other species. With male or female non-humans, sex is, therefore, completely free from the phallus. Although the cockroach in “Magical Cockroach” is male, it does not have a phallus, like humans. The organ it uses to give the woman bliss is its whole “head” and “trunk,” including its long antennae. And in “The World That Has Never Been Known” the snake uses both her fangs and her forked tongue for penetration.
The two women’s discoveries of a new “world” in these two short stories can be perceived as a declaration of independence from the world that justifies heterosexual love and sex, restricted to penises and pussies as vehicles on the journey to orgasmic bliss.
Finally, I could move, filled with the sense that I was on the brink of a new world, reaching a new destination, or as one might say, opening new door to love. I threw myself on the bed in a dreamlike state, ignoring how time had passed, although I heard my my husband and children arrive at midnight. I gradually grew conscious again that I was human, exhausted and terrified by the snake, its existence and what species it was. (p. 110-111)
The significance of the contributions made by these two stories does not lie in their linguistic aesthetics or their delicate portrayals of sex, but rather in the sharp questions they pose and the challenges they make in relation to sexual issues. Whether we agree with those issues or not, the two stories challenge our familiar perceptions of sex, questioning what we normally perceive as “common sense” or “natural,” in the same way that we believe heterosexual sex and sex between humans to be “natural” and right.
More importantly, these important issues are not raised without subtlety, but are instead opened up for readers to explore further in their imaginations so that they can endlessly debate them in the future.
The two short stories close with the disappointment of the two protagonists. In “The World That Has Never Been Known,” the snake is killed by the protagonist’s husband, after which she has to move out of the house. And in “Magical Cockroach,” the cockroach is bitten to death by a gecko that the protagonist keeps for killing annoying bugs.
While going against the tide of “common sense” in the eyes of the whole world might be a difficult course to take, neither of the protagonists ever lose hope. In “The World That Has Never Been Known,” the protagonist expresses her optimism that,
Maybe one day, my love will call me… (p. 121).
And in “Magical Cockroach,” the protagonist determinedly asserts,
I will find him (p. 130).