An Unlikely Interview with Pear Nuallak

Candidate 45, Pensri Suesat explores, among other things, art, authenticity, academic culture, gender, mythology, and varying expectations of those inside and outside a culture. What drew you to these themes and combining them in this particular way? Did you draw on your own experiences in obtaining your degree in Art History as you wrote this story?

I wanted to question certain assumptions about art education. It can be just as academically rigorous, and also just as rigid and oppressive, as any other subject. There’s this idea of art as being above the world--above politics, above society--rather than being a direct cultural product. I wanted to write a story in a secondary world which pays attention to art as a cultural product.

Both my parents graduated from well-regarded Thai arts institutions, my mother from Poh Chang and my father from Silpakorn. I’ve always been proud of this heritage. When I got to university myself, however, I began to understand the larger histories and historiographies, personal and academic.

My time at university was alternately deeply fulfilling and dehumanising. I read theories of postcoloniality, learned of hegemony, resistance, and hybridity. It felt increasingly strange to be taught my own culture through a determinedly Othering lense. I tried to reconcile that feeling with the chance to research and write about my heritage and having access to a thrilling number of university libraries and online academic journals.

During my research, I looked into the history of Silpakorn. It was founded in the early 20th century by an Italian artist and academic, Corrado Feroci, who actively supported Thai people in the study of their native art. He’s at once revered and loathed by Thai artists, critics, and academics. His passion for and dedication to Thailand and its people is obviously genuine, but he has some shockingly essentialist views about art, race, and nation. Excusing this as being a product of his time is lazy thinking: firstly, opinions such as his were condemned by contemporaries, and secondly, similar racist sentiments are repeated in the present day, impacting how Thailand’s art and artists are treated on a global scale.

In addition to your fiction writing, you also write non-fiction about food. How do your passions for writing and for cooking intersect, if at all? Do you spend time thinking about what your characters eat, why, and what it reveals about them as individuals, or their place in society as a whole? What’s your favorite dish to cook either for yourself, or to share with friends?

When writing fiction, I think about a character’s relationship to food as much as I do all their other traits. Everyone has a unique relationship with food: it can--in any combination and at any point in procuring, making, having, and recovering from a meal--be absolutely practical, an elaborate pleasure, or a source of immense pain and stress. If it’s interesting and relevant, I’ll include it.

Also, when Asian or Asian-inspired characters and worlds are created under an Orientalist lense, the food is frequently centred as a point of particular disgust, rendered as mystery fruit and unnameable proteins. When I write food into my stories, I’d rather describe dishes, table manners, ways of shopping, etc. which are actually familiar to me in the hopes that someone will also recognise it--or will take the time to look it up and find themselves expanding their knowledge.

The dish I secretly like to make for myself is doctored-up instant noodles which taste of hot and salt. If I’m cooking for a crowd and feel like showing off a bit, I make a savoury pie with all-butter pastry, or curry noodles entirely from scratch (either kuay-tiao kaeng sai gai or khao soi). Both dishes involve slow, steady cooking—toasting and grinding spices, careful simmering—and both are ideally polished off in 5 minutes.

Whether it’s philosophy or quantum physics or economic theory, speculative fiction writers often draw from academic theory, research and new discoveries to inform their work, and it’s no surprise that an Academia-themed magazine will attract stories that do just that. Can you tell us a little about one such influence? Who are they? What aspect of their work resonated with you, and how has it influenced your own work?

Miranda Fricker’s epistemic injustice was the driving force behind the more fraught moments in my story. That perhaps sounds like a quibble in an ivory tower, opaquely academic, but it’s something many of us who occupy marginalised identities have encountered throughout our lives and is very much relevant to on-going discussions about oppression.

This injustice of knowledge takes place between two parties, the speaker and the hearer, and this dynamic forms a feedback loop with structual oppression. The hearer can commit a wrong by discrediting the speaker’s knowledge because of the hearer’s pre-conceived notions about the speaker (testimonial injustice). One very common manifestation is when PoC speak truthfully about their lived experiences of racism but are immediately dismissed as “angry” or “self-serving.”

It can also be a wrong committed when people are deprived of the words to describe a shared experience and are instead scorned and silenced (hermeneutical injustice). The tools they could use to demarcate and name their experience are, for many reasons, difficult to access. If the shared experience is made into, say, a personal fault, a single self made to feel trivial, then people are made lonely and confused, perhaps more inclined to believe in the Just World hypothesis than the truth of their own suffering.

Objectivity is, in academia, highly valued. But I have learned that it can actually be very dishonest and at odds with true justice.

We all start somewhere, and the learning curve from first publication is a steep one. What’s your first ever published work, and how do you feel about it now?

My first published piece was a short light-hearted poem about women and the sea in Stone Telling’s ‘Joke’ issue. It’s my first and only rhymed poetry piece. I feel glad that I worked on that little project; I was actually feeling pretty stressed and disheartened at the time, and working on something slightly silly but with a level of craft was satisfying.

What else are you working on have coming up you want people to know about?

In late 2015, my story ‘The Insects and Women Sang Together’ and two of my illustrations will be out in THE SEA IS OURS: Tales of Steampunk Southeast Asia (eds Jaymee Goh & Joyce Chng, Rosarium Press). It’s about domesticity and war, ambitious women, and clockwork insects.

I’m also working on queer re-imagining of a Thai folk tale, Manohara, which deals with memory, forgiveness, and tropes about Thai women.

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