"Some Nights, I Helped People Visit Their Pets." Countdown to Muse 20 with Pitchaya Sudbanthad
The Muse and the Marketplace 2020 will soon kick off on April 3rd in Boston! This year’s theme is “Imagination and Reality,” as many presenters are exploring the boundaries between fact and imagination, and how each contributes to great writing. Here, presenting authors have selected a passage from their own work, highlighting in green which elements came roughly from their direct experience, memory, or fact; while highlighting in blue which elements came from their imagination or speculation. Here is presenter Pitchaya Sudbanthad from his novel Bangkok Wakes to Rain (2019).
Some nightshifts, he could climb on top of a pallet of bottled water and leap across a warehouse full of them as he scanned. Other times, there was so little water available, the refugees had to line up with their issued canteen — or more likely, a cup or bucket — to claim their share of a bottle. He stood at the commissary window, measuring out water, until his ankles ached.
One night, while taking a break outside, he heard a cry from one of the nearby tents. He couldn’t make out what the voice was saying. He looked around to see if anyone would respond, but after a minute passed and nobody did, he decided to unzip the tent and climb inside. The shit and urine stink immediately struck his nose, followed by damp rot. He held a hand over his face and turned on a headlamp to find an old woman lying on a pad stained green and brown.
“Is anybody there?” she pleaded. “Hello? Anyone?”
He took her hand and felt a cold web of creased skin slide against his palm.
“Yes, there’s someone,” he said.
The woman didn’t seem to acknowledge him. “Anyone there? Hello?” she went on.
“Yes, someone’s here,” he said. She looked to him to be in her late seventies. She wore a blouse that used to be white, and gold-rimmed glasses. She might once have been a teacher or accountant, he thought.
“Hold on, okay?” he asked her. “Let me radio for someone.”
He let go of her hand, and although she still hadn’t acknowledged him, the pitch of her voice rose as he left. “Is someone there?”
He did as he’d promised. He scanned and sent her tent number. Then he got busy with an onslaught of supply problems. He never saw the old woman again.
[End of excerpt.]
This excerpt comes from one of the later chapters in my novel, Bangkok Wakes to Rain. It is one set in the future, and a character is reminiscing about an earlier period in his life when he was working at a refugee camp, after Bangkok had flooded.
I based parts of this scene on my own experiences in 2012, when I volunteered at a Brooklyn shelter that had been set up in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. The storm had passed without much effect on those, like me, who were privileged with higher ground; those who lived in less protected neighborhoods saw their homes and lives destroyed in a single day. Not long before, I was in Thailand when large areas of the country flooded from abnormal rainfall and bad water management. I was unable to help then, but I could now. So I volunteered at night, after work, shifting from one job to another, depending on need.
Some nights, I helped people visit their pets — dogs, cats, someone’s little white mouse — in a separate animals area. Others, I worked at a commissary where evacuees could get supplies, like toiletries and blankets. There was an auditorium filled end-to-end with cellophane-wrapped pallets of bottled water, and I did climb up on them to get around. One night, I worked at an area for elderly evacuees. A woman kept crying out to ask if anyone else was there. She needed so much to hear someone say, "Yes."
You can catch Pitchaya’s craft discussion, "Place: From Where to Why" on Saturday, April 4th at 1:45pm at the Muse. For all the latest Muse news, follow #Muse20.
Pitchaya Sudbanthad is the author of the novel Bangkok Wakes to Rain, published by Riverhead Books (US) and Sceptre (UK), which was selected as a New York Times Editors’ Choice pick and a finalist for the Center for Fiction’s First Novel Prize. He has received fellowships in fiction writing from the New York Foundation for the Arts and the MacDowell Colony, and currently splits time between Bangkok and Brooklyn. For more, go to www.psudbanthad.com.
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