Trasvin Jittidecharak, whose mother was the founder of Suriwong Book Center, Chiang Mai’s first and largest bookshop, is the publisher and owner of Silkworm Press, a long-established and reputable publishing house founded and based right here in Chiang Mai. Silkworm has published over 500 books over the past thirty years. She is also the founder of the Mekong Press Foundation funded by the Rockefeller Foundation which publishes selected titles featuring cross-border themes, supports local writers and regional translation works. She is the second woman in over a hundred years to sit on the International Publishers Association’s Freedom to Publish Committee, and remains an active member. She has spent her life working towards the promotion of reading and literacy and is a regular speaker and judge for many literary events around the world. Citylife sat down to talk to Trasvin this month about the world of books and their place in today’s digital age.
Citylife: I would ask how you got into the book business, but I think I can hazard a guess considering your family background!
Trasvin: Yes, my siblings and I grew up in the bookshop. Mum had started it in 1955 when dad was the manager of Suriwong Cinema. We were in the basement of the cinema. In 1963 we moved to opposite Tha Pae Gate where Imm Hotel sits today, and were the first shop in Chiang Mai with air-conditioning, becoming a real destination for its time! Doctors, lecturers, students, researchers, they would come and watch a movie and then visit the ice cream parlour next door, stopping by to browse our books. It was a real social hub. Being there all the time, I read a lot. It was thrilling as there were English language coloured comic books — very posh! It was natural for me to return to the family business one day, and in 1979 I did, as did My two sisters.
Citylife: Who were your customers in those days?
Trasvin: In the 1980s, and before the advent of TAT, there was an Amazing Thailand promotion. This suddenly brought in a lot of backpackers and Joe Cummings’s Lonely Planet was a huge seller. He told me once that they sold 40,000 copies in the first few years alone. That was also a time when Chiang Mai saw many researchers and academic types arrive. Anthropologists came to study our hill tribes, botanists to study our flora, historians, scientists, Phd. candidates…they were everywhere. All these people were great readers and wanted to buy English language books. Everyone, it seemed, wanted to either write a book or read a book about Thailand as we were just so exotic to the western world then. Books were about the same price as they are now, 4-500 baht, so it was a real investment. We even used to have people meeting us at the train station when our books arrived from Bangkok to get a sneak peek at the latest arrivals.
Citylife: What about Thai people, there has been talk for years that as a nation we are not readers.
Trasvin: I think that is nonsense. Of course we sold many academic books to students at the various universities and colleges, but also novels. There has been a rumour for ages about how Thai people only read eight sentences per year. I have no idea who came up with this and how they did so, but I don’t believe it at all. It caused great consternation and scapegoating by the government and media. Sure, Thais don’t read too many books, but we do read. Ku Sang Ku Som magazine is still the most popular magazine in the country, read by millions every ten days, and it has really good quality articles. Mainly read by the poor, its content is superior to the high society glossies, many of which have now gone bankrupt as they only appealed to advertisers, lacking in editorial integrity. So no great loss. The same year the eight sentence report came out. Another report revealed that Thais had a literacy rate of 99.5%. How do you reconcile those two statistics? So I have always contended that Thais read a lot more than we are given credit for. In the US literacy is determined by whether or not you can read a cornflakes box. I do wonder what yardstick they used here.
Citylife: How has our reading habit changed over the years?
Trasvin: New platforms may be destroying old business, but it doesn’t mean that people are reading less. They just don’t want to pay anymore. They don’t want to pay for any entertainment such as films, songs or articles. But when it comes from pleasure from an iPhone…values have changed. An iPhone is to have and to hold. We used to sit in front of the TV with friends or family, afraid of missing a single episode, else how would we know who slapped whom? Now, there are no fixed hours, it is instant and on the go. We have to accept and adapt.
Citylife: Why did you decide to open Silkworm Press?
Trasvin: English language books were so expensive in those days and I was getting bored with the bookshop which was beginning to sell more and more books about sexy Thai women and other sensational topics. I wanted to provide quality books at reasonable prices. My first book I bought the license for was David Wyatt’s Thailand: A Short History, which was on sale in Bangkok as a hardback for around 1,500 baht. We sold it for 375 baht. My family didn’t want to get involved and thought that I was just creating problems for myself, but I was determined. The first issue of the first book I published arrived upside down. I nearly keeled over! Thankfully it was just one book, the rest of the run was fine. Another early book we did was David Unkovich’s A Motorcycle Guide to the Golden Triangle. I took it to the Frankfurt Book Fair and it became a sensation. People had never heard of such a thing before. It was considered weird and was all over the media, becoming the talk of the town.
Citylife: How does it all work?
Trasvin: I did it alone for the first seven years, but in 1997 I hired an editor and we currently receive around 20 submissions per month. We are pretty clear about what kind of books we publish, so the early sorting is quite easy. Our editors will read and comment, but the final decision is mine. Publishing is like gambling. You never know.
Citylife: Do you turn away a lot of bad books?
Trasvin: Let’s just say that expats who spend one year here think that they can write a book. Once they’ve spent three years here they can write an article. If they have been here ten years, well, they don’t dare write at all! We are a general publisher with a reach of Thailand, Laos and Myanmar, so we are very specific about what we are looking for. There is so much power in the pen that I take my responsibility very seriously. If the topic is about something so far removed from my understanding, culturally or linguistically, I won’t touch it because I am afraid of the damage that I could do disseminating false or misleading information. While I need to publish something that I can sell so that I have a living, I won’t do books that I am ashamed of. Different books have different strengths.
Citylife: In 2010 you released the English translation of the epic poem Khun Chang Khun Phaen one of the most iconic pieces of Thai literature. Tell me about the challenges in translating such a tomb.
Trasvin: Translators Chris Baker and Pasuk Phongpaichit are two incredibly prolific writers. This 960 page book has over 400 illustrations, we were sending feedback and corrections backwards and forwards every day. Translation is a very difficult skill and one which many Thais fail at. Westerners are interested in reading about foreign lands, but not in a way which is foreign to them. Each country expresses its artistic senses differently and is not easily translatable. Thai language in particular doesn’t translate well into English. On the other hand, Thai movies seem to be much more adept at speaking the international language. It is a real shame that the Ministry of Culture keeps banning our great movies, they simply don’t understand the market. English literature has been developing over half a millennia and outsiders often find it hard to penetrate and understand. And you can’t translate for a native English audience by simply transposing words upon each other, you must understand the culture of the language. As a country, we also don’t have colonial friends to promote us to the west. When Vietnamese or Burmese writers share stories of their heartaches and pain, it is more relatable. But when Thais write about it, it almost comes across as fake because we don’t have that relationship with the west. Vietnamese writers have read Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky; Burmese writers have read Kipling and Maugham, they know how to speak in a language which communicates. We don’t. That is not to say that we don’t have our own very unique literature, it is just not one with any context relatable to western culture.
Citylife: We have come across so many cases of plagiarism over the years, is this something you have also seen?
Trasvin: Our culture teaches us to be like our teachers, to copy and emulate them. So plagiarism is just a natural extension of this. Knowledge is a gift, but we are not taught to see it that way so we see no value in knowledge, just in replicating.
Citylife: Thailand doesn’t have a culture of critique, how do you view this as a publisher?
Trasvin: We Thais avoid. So of course it affects the book industry as we don’t strive for excellence as there is no one pushing us to do so. There are terribly badly edited books out there, with texts going around in circles, yet there is no criticism or review. We are a culture of peers. Our school or university gang is of utmost importance to us and we will defend them at all cost. So we don’t like to step on toes. Reviews here tend to all be positive and frankly that embarrasses me sometimes. Thankfully our books are reviewed by international critics, so our feedback is real.
This culture affects book consumption. I was asked by a Thai friend once why he kept falling asleep when he was reading every night. I told him to get a better book. He actually looked surprised, not really realising that it wasn’t him at fault, but the book. No one had told him that his book was rubbish.
Citylife: I am going to tread lightly here, but what are your thoughts on freedom of expression in Thailand today?
Trasvin: We don’t have freedom of speech. But it isn’t totally gone — and I am not making excuses here — I am just saying that other neighbouring countries, and those further afield, face similar concerns, ours just surrounds one particular topic. The problem now is that we don’t know our boundaries. Someone gets thrown in jail for breaking the lese majeste law, but we don’t know what they said because the act of publishing that would also be breaking the law. So we are all guessing and self-censoring and erring on the safe side. That is not good.
Citylife: You are known to be a close friend to Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn, and I can see a framed picture right here in your room of her opening Silkworm Press. Is she a reader too?
Trasvin: Yes! We actually met because she used to hang out at Suriwong Book Center when visiting Chiang Mai. She loves books and can quote a bewildering number of books and literature in Thai and in English. She doesn’t just quote them, she knows what chapters or passages they are in too!