A British-born novelist and journalist who has spent most of his life on the move, Lawrence Osborne now calls Thailand his home. His celebrated memoir, 2009’s Bangkok Days, paints a fascinating portrait of Bangkok and the motley cast of expatriates who live there.
To date, Osborne has published 11 books and is a regular contributor to the New York Times. His next novel, Hunters in the Dark, a tale set in the underbelly of Cambodian, will be published in May of this year. Here, the critically acclaimed author discusses expat life, Thai culture, Buddhism, Bangkok, books and more.
Citylife: You are said to be a bit of a nomad, and your books take place in locales all over the world, but Thailand is now your home. Why?
Lawrence Osborne: Chance really. I used to come to Bangkok a lot when I was working for the New York Times writing about medicine and psychiatry in Asia. I just sort of got used to it, picked up some Thai and found I had some friends from New York here. Over the years it became familiar. I finally moved here again (I’d been here in the 90s for a while) in 2012 after leaving New York. No one can live in New York now unless they have a trust fund!
Citylife: What made you leave England in the first place? What has kept you from going back? Do you think there is some kind of inherent difference between people who stay in their home countries and people who spend their lives abroad?
Lawrence Osborne: I left England when I was very young to live in France and never really went back, except for short periods here and there. Yes, people who have lived their adult lives outside a homeland are certainly a different breed – and I dare say there comes a point of no return. You find one day that you can’t go back.
Citylife: Bangkok Days is a rare, nuanced portrait of the lives of expats living in Bangkok. Did you have specific goals in mind when you started writing it, and if so how did they change through the telling?
Lawrence Osborne: I really had no plan at all writing Bangkok Days. I had a notion to do a more serious kind of nonfiction city book, but after 100 pages I realised I was bored and that what really interested me were the people I actually knew – or had known in the past. And it’s always a rare joy to write about a place you love, because it’s effortless. My model was Aragon’s Paris Peasant. A surrealist book, but a highly perceptive and shrewd one. I’m not sure if mine could be called shrewd!
Citylife: There are few fully developed female characters in the book, and two of the most developed female characters happen to be, interestingly, a prostitute and a nun. Was this intentional?
Lawrence Osborne: Not at all. I think it was just realism on my part – my own company was male at that time. Now, it’s quite different; I have many women friends here, so if I wrote it now it would be a different book altogether.
Citylife: There is quite a bit of ongoing animosity here in Thailand between different types of expats: old vs. young, NGO types vs. retired, men vs. women. Why do you think this is?
Lawrence Osborne: This is a big subject! People become intensely territorial when they live in societies not their own – and their disputes and animosities become attenuated. Personally, I don’t feel this way at all. As for men and women, I suspect it’s just a continuation of tensions from their home societies which for some of them are the very reasons they are here – that is, to escape them. Again, it’s not my situation at all but I can observe it. It also depends on your age and what you’ve achieved (or haven’t achieved) in your life before you arrive here.
Citylife: Now, much of the communication between expats (and people in general, really) is done online. Have you had any experience with online expat forums like ThaiVisa.com? What are your thoughts?
Lawrence Osborne: I do look at those forums from time to time, because they are so weird! Again, you see these unbelievable vendettas and mad ranting and raving. It’s baffling. I don’t quite understand it. If people are so angry and unhappy here why don’t they just go home? Again, for myself, I don’t seek out expat company – quite the contrary. I already have my friends all over the world and I don’t need to get on forums and shout at middle-aged men in Tommy Bahama shirts!
Citylife: In Bangkok Days, you write, “Westerners choose Bangkok as a place to live precisely because they can never understand it.” Do you still feel incapable of understanding Bangkok/Thailand after living there as long as you have? How does this affect your writing?
Lawrence Osborne: Yes, I do feel this. I was a journalist for a long time, and there is always the presumption with western journos that they understand societies that they are essentially tourists in; it’s an institutional arrogance which I’ve learned to undo in myself. If you don’t speak a language fluently, no, you don’t understand anything. Period. I thought I knew quite a lot about Southeast Asia before – I didn’t. Societies are not a compendium of causes, social problems, crimes, corruptions, “attitudes,” etc. etc. This is how the white middle class looks at the world, essentially in a missionary way. As a kind of reform project. Imagine if it was done to us by people who couldn’t speak a word of English! That would make a good satire.
Citylife: What are the biggest challenges of writing honestly and sometimes critically about a country that isn’t yours, one that you may not fully understand?
Lawrence Osborne: Having enough wary humility. I don’t, as a rule, write about Thailand these days because I realise much better how little I understand it. When it comes to fiction – I’m doing something now set in Bangkok – you have more leeway. As for journalists, I think it’s hard to do that. Both Andrew MacGregor Marshall and Andrew Drummond have found it impossible to stay here. But then, I repeat: we are not natives. We are just floating on the surface.
Citylife: One of my favourite lines of the book: “One always wants to know if a place has changed faster, or more slowly, than oneself. ‘Has it been faithful?’ one thinks.” How do you yourself answer this question when it comes to Thailand?
Lawrence Osborne: I think Thailand has changed faster than me! But it’s a curious place – because it also remains the same deep down. It has gotten a lot wealthier, even in the last five or six years. This has unforeseen implications.
Citylife: At one point, you describe Thailand as “a fatalistic country.” What do you mean by this?
Lawrence Osborne: The same could be said of a lot of countries – our western obsession with redemption, action, change, uplift and “moral progress” is not shared by most other cultures, and for good reasons. They are Christian, though now disguised as secular liberalism. The philosopher John Gray is very good on this. I dare say most westerners are entirely unaware how un-universal their own psychology is and how preposterous and irritating it can be to others! Thais are usually too good mannered to say this to our faces.
Citylife: I get the impression that you held back quite a bit in describing the seedier aspects of Bangkok’s nightlife. Why did you make this choice? Are there any stories you left out that you can share now?
Lawrence Osborne: I guess because I am so tired of the Soi Nana-bargirl-underworld genre, which dominates so much writing about Bangkok. I can happily leave that to others, thanks. I actually didn’t leave out any stories that I might otherwise have related; in fact, I think that dimension is a relatively small part of the city, though obviously it obsesses some.
Citylife: There is a lot of talk about being alone in the book. At one point you say, “No one ever truly appreciates how much Robinson Crusoe enjoyed his solitude.” The book ends with a question, “Is that a lonely man?” Do you have an answer? What role does loneliness play in your career as a writer?
Lawrence Osborne: I think loneliness is a critical element of every writer’s life, isn’t it? We spend almost all our lives alone, facing the empty page. And it may be that the attraction of writing is itself an attraction towards solitude. It’s possible. If you were frantically social, in other words, you’d have a damn hard time doing this for a living!
Citylife: There is much discussion of Buddhism in your book, and another point when you say you always keep Hindu scripture, the Bhaghavad Gita, by your side. How has your view of religion changed since living in Thailand?
Lawrence Osborne: I am secular myself, but I would say that I enjoy the proximity to these two religions. I go to the Himalayas every year to learn more about Tibetan Buddhism if I can. I find it fascinating. I have noticed, too, having lived all over the world, that Buddhist societies are markedly less dangerous and thuggish than any others. Of course, you can say that Thailand has a higher murder rate than Switzerland, but everything is relative to developmental level. Japan is the safest country on earth. Ditto Hong Kong. There must be a reason for that, and I think Buddhism is probably part of it. There is, in any case, none of the neurotic aggression of the monotheisms!
Citylife: I found this statement quite fascinating: “Buddhists, ironically, might turn out to be the ideal consumers, if their admirable detachment could be combined with very fat wallets.” This seems particularly apt in explaining the recent explosion of consumerism in Thailand. Can you expand on this connection a bit?
Lawrence Osborne: This is me being an amateur anthropologist. But look at the surging wealth of East Asia. It’s a remarkable phenomenon. I was in Cairo recently, a place I used to go a lot as a kid, and the decay and entropy and the new poverty and violence are shocking. Bangkok is astonishing by comparison, let alone the other megacities of Asia. Why is this? It’s not an easy thing to fathom. It’s certainly a different relationship with money and enterprise and service and many other more obscure things. I think we tend to call this “materialism” but in fact it’s just the ancient human love of wealth and glitter and comfort – we are always moralising against it (Christians as always!) without considering its paradoxically humanising effects. It’s facile to talk about its hypocrisy or about the class conflicts and poverty underneath it – because those things were always there, and would be there if there were no Paragon malls at all.
Citylife: You write in the book: “Perhaps it’s the habit we have of thinking that much of the world is a reproduction of ourselves, of America, when it is obviously nothing of the sort. The West is no longer ascendant.” Economists seem to agree. How do you expect the world and Thailand to change in the coming years, during this so-called “Century of Asia” and with ASEAN just around the corner?
Lawrence Osborne: The effect in Thailand has been an inevitable pivot towards China. The United States, I suppose, has come late to this realisation, obsessed as she is with the Middle East. All in all, I have the feeling that westerners are not taken quite as seriously as they were before. The white men stumbling around Bangkok look like homeless refugees in cargo shorts and flip-flops, while the Koreans swan about in Gucci suits and get all the respect. It’s quite amusing. The decline in our image is very real. They have come to realise that we are the largest debtor nations in history and our arrogance is no longer backed up with hard cash.
Citylife: At one point, the character Felix asks you if you thought your talent was being “nourished” in Bangkok. Now that you’ve had quite a bit of international recognition, has your answer to this question changed? Do you feel that Bangkok is a good place to “nourish” your writing career?
Lawrence Osborne: It might be a little early to say, but so far it seems to be. I came here partially to have more free time to devote to novel-writing instead of torturing myself in order to pay ludicrous New York rent. That has certainly paid off in terms of output. There’s no real literary life in Bangkok, but then again it’s a wonderful place to work and there is no doubt that there is material here that has not yet been mined. I was in the literary scene in New York for 20 years so I’ve paid my dues there. Now, it’s nice to be far off and unable to go to those parties!
Citylife: Thailand is notorious for its low levels of reading, with some statistics claiming that the average Thai person reads only five books a year. Why do you think this is? Do you think there’s any hope in changing it?
Lawrence Osborne: I dare say it’s true of most countries outside of Europe and Japan, frankly. The only way it can change is if Thai publishers start translating more seriously and getting stuff into bookstores. I am sure there is a curiosity for it. But these things begin in the education system – and there’s the problem in Thailand.
Citylife: Near the end of the book the character McGinnis says, “You can’t understand this city without understanding kathoeys.” But he has no idea what the explanation is. Do you?
Lawrence Osborne: They are a mystery wrapped around an enigma wrapped around a miniskirt.