Who Are We to Judge? An Interview with Chart Korbjitti

There, he lives the kind of semi-ascetic existence one might assign to any artist, amidst the buzz of the rainforest with his lovely wife and their pets.

By | Wed 31 Jul 2013

When studying at Chiang Mai University last year, I was required to choose an area of Thai culture on which to write a research paper. For me, a student of Thai language and English literature, the answer seemed obvious: what could teach me more about contemporary Thai society than contemporary Thai literature? Having had little prior knowledge of the whos and whats of the Thai literary world, I was advised by my ajarn at the university to read Chart Korbjitti.

Chart’s excellent novel, The Judgment, for which he won his first SEA Write Award in 1981, points to the dangers of forming judgments about anyone besides ourselves. The book follows the downfall of Fak, a young and recently disrobed monk. After his father’s death, Fak’s stepmother Somsong begins to court her stepson in strange and inappropriate ways. The close-knit nature of the village in which Fak lives and works means that once the villagers get wind of this, Fak – who was once the village hero – can no longer do any right by those who used to cherish him.

To learn more about the man behind the words, I visited Chart, 58, at his stunning home in the Pakchong forest. There, he lives the kind of semi-ascetic existence one might assign to any artist, amidst the buzz of the rainforest with his lovely wife and their pets. He also drives a jeep, wears an earring and loves Leo beer.

Chart and I spoke easily about his literary influences, his voracious appetite for reading, and the media’s unrivaled ability to distort the truth. I found myself wondering whether he had any anxieties about who should take the baton from him now that the greater concern of Thai society has shifted remarkably from the social reforms that preoccupied students in the 70s. After all, it is easy to feel more than a little scornful towards the groups of Thai students who cluster together in any one of Chiang Mai’s hotspots, enjoying an almost sacred silence whilst musing over their iPhones, uttering not a word to one another. It all seems quite superficial; if they don’t talk to each other, who do they talk to? Who do they talk about?

Interestingly enough, during my interview with Chart, I discovered that despite being far more eligible than I to cast a disdainful eye upon Thailand’s youth of today, Chart actually feels quite differently towards them. For someone who’s writing so explicitly explores the consequences of gossip, Chart seemed progressive in his attitude towards the kinds of modern tools with which such chat can be exchanged (iPhones, iPads, Facebook, Twitter – the list goes on). Chart doesn’t live in hope that youth culture will come to some abrupt change in attitude and interests. Rather, he believes that we must move with the times and not look down upon the Facebook fads and K-Pop crazes that occupy the day-to-day lives of Thai teens, even if these things tend to replace more wholesome hobbies such as reading and writing.

In other words, Chart does not share the intense feelings of anurak-niyom that much of Thailand’s older generation hold: a nostalgic need to cling to the past in the hope that it might one day repeat itself in all its glory. The past doesn’t necessarily represent the good, after all.

Citylife: What made you want to write The Judgment?

Chart Korbjitti: Myself. I used to judge others, like this guy who was my age and also a writer. I didn’t used to like him because he just worked for the money – I didn’t think he was a real artist. I used to tell my friends “this guy’s no good,” but then I was taken to his house and saw that this was all necessary. He looked after his children, his family and his home, which meant he needed to work lots for the money. So, I felt bad that I had judged him and therefore wrote a similar story. I created a new story from one I’d already been met with.

Citylife: The Judgment is about society, right?

Chart Korbjitti: Well, it’s more about humanity.

Citylife: Yes. And it’s a story about things that happened in Thailand – in a Thai village, right?

Chart Korbjitti: I think that it’s a story that could have happened anywhere – it’s comparable throughout the world. The cultures may not be the same – maybe farang culture means you might not care so much – but the main story is about the impact of gossip, of not knowing the facts on the person being talked about. The solutions to the problem might not be the same for every culture…

Citylife: Because the problems they’re confronted with are different, right? The Judgment talks about globalisation and the arrival of electricity…

Chart Korbjitti: Yes, it was written nearly thirty years ago now. Were you even born then?!

Citylife: Haha, no. Fak, the main character, does he bring about his own downfall or does the village society impose it on him?

Chart Korbjitti: He doesn’t know how to solve the problem himself. It’s others around him, others outside, who decide “oh, he’s like this!” It’s difficult. It’s like when we watch the news on television: we don’t know whether people are good or evil, but the news purports that they’re no good. It’s already been decided! We don’t know the real person, we just follow the news. It’s the same for Fak.

Citylife: So, when the book was published, did you know who your main readership was?

Chart Korbjitti: It was mainly students but people everywhere had the book. People from the villages didn’t read it, though. They watched the television show instead, or the film [of the book].

Citylife: Did the television series and the film have the same meaning as the book, or did the meaning get changed somewhat?

Chart Korbjitti: It’s natural [that the meaning changed a little] because the media form is different. Like, when you read a book – you sit there and read it page by page and you can think about the characters’ feelings. But with a series or film you just sit and watch it casually. It’s got to change – it’s natural.

Citylife: The Judgment is still an important story, but are you worried that the Thai youth of today just aren’t interested in reading? They’re interested in the internet and other things. What do you think?

Chart Korbjitti: It’s natural! It’s the same throughout the world. Maybe they read on the internet. This is their society now. You can’t tell the kids “you’ve got to do it this way, that way’s wrong!” It’s their generation. The ways of reading and writing have to change.

Citylife: Everything changes, right?

Chart Korbjitti: Yes. Ways of thinking, reading. Ways of being a good person, of loving nature and creation.

Citylife: This shows that you’re not a conservative?

Chart Korbjitti: No way! It’s like this: today you brought along your tablet to interview me with! Think of it like that.

Citylife: Do you think Facebook is good for society, or detrimental to it?

Chart Korbjitti: I think it’s a good thing. It enables us to acquire knowledge about different things easily, whilst opening the way for young people to express their opinions and ideas. It also helps small and local businesses to contact their customers directly, without relying on advertisements. Facebook also helps give rise to new friendship groups wherein everyone shares similar tastes.

Citylife: Does this mean Facebook is capable of changing societies, then?

Chart Korbjitti: Yes, Facebook is building a new society – one which allows people to talk to one another and exchange their different perspectives without having met in person. But, it’s like all things – with the good comes the bad. We can’t necessarily trust all of the information that’s being exchanged over Facebook. People can be wrongly accused of things, sworn about and defamed because users don’t always take responsibility for their actions. It all depends on us – the users – and whether we choose to use Facebook and social media positively or negatively.

Chart Korbjitti currently has  five books published in English, each of which can be found in Kinokuniya bookshops throughout Thailand.