Jai Arun Ravine’s The Romance of Siam: A Pocket Guide
Sometimes a book is a thing that you read, cover to cover maybe, and it represents a self-contained, invented world. Other books may be reflections, mirrors even, of a pre-existing set of conditions we encounter every day of our lives. We draw connections from these sorts of books to known facts and to the media by which we’re surrounded. There are also texts that live in the middle space of a Venn diagram made up of these two sorts of books and Jai Arun Ravine’s The Romance of Siam: A Pocket Guide (Timeless, Infinite Light; 2016) is this sort of book in the best sense. Described on the SPD website as “a subverted travel guide that interrogates the desire White people have to lose and reinvent themselves in Thailand,” The Romance of Siam delivers on its promise and contains numerous references to real people, real situations, and real works of art. (You may find yourself, as I did, doing some Googling while reading this book.) As the author explains in “Hints to Walkers,” which opens the book, “despite the fact that Thailand was never colonized by another country, tourism is the occupying force in the country today. The hyper-referentiality and over-saturation of sources, links, quotes, references, actors, and characters that I work with in this project are meant to mimic that colonizing force. In this process, Thailand itself becomes obscured. What is left is Whiteness.” What follows is an almost phantasmagoric world crafted out of new and reimagined versions of these people, places, and situations. (We get everything from ‘deleted scenes’ from The Beach, to a reshaping of The King and I, to an exploration of the life and disappearance of Jim Thompson.) In the middle part of the Venn diagram, where reference meets reinvention, we find a book that butts fictional retellings against verifiable reality to reshape the reader’s understanding of what is actually real, all told in hybrid infusions of prose, poetry, and drama, framed with ‘Information’ and ‘Did you Know?’ tidbits that gives The Romance of Siam: A Pocket Guide its subversive travel guide feel.
In many ways, Ravine’s work is like a documentary. Much of the writing is straightforward, matter-of-fact even, but it is the very juxtaposition of this no-frills writing style combined with fictional, seemingly impossible but realistically presented plot points involving actual people, that distinguishes the book as somewhat sur/real. This sur/reality works to highlight the essential conundrum behind some of the book’s central questions: why do White people have full access to Thai culture, food, space, even language, when many Thai in the diaspora do not? Or, as we read in an Information aside, “The author is interested in confusing the desire to escape to Thailand, as it is produced by tourism, with Thai people’s desire to escape from Thailand.” Ravine’s work, after all, includes testimony about a world where Christy Gibson, a Dutch-born performer of traditional lookthung music, can be awarded honorary Thai status (“You are thai anyone with a Thai heart is Thai Most/Thai people think of you as Thai”) but the author themself (who is of White and Thai background) is “a stranger in a place I, I thought was mine.” Christy Gibson — you can watch her in this video, this video, this video (and in many others like it) — will pop up many times in The Romance of Siam, as will many other names, some familiar, some perhaps less so. There are extended references to Yul Brynner in his recurring role as the King in The King and I, Leonardo di Caprio filming The Beach (and even to the film crew that caused environmental damage while manipulating the set, if you can call a beach a set), Claire Danes talking about cockroaches while filming Brokedown Palace, Ian Wright and Globe Trekker, Tony Jaa, Anna Leonowens, Kathy Lee (a Malaysian ballerina who became Yul Brynner’s fourth wife), Nicholas Cage and Bangkok Dangerous, Street Fighter, Jerry Hopkins and Bangkok Babylon. The list goes on, and as these real people become figments in Ravine’s imagination, they serve to highlight how irreality can serve up a new, realer reality. For example, the author writes in “Exotic Leading Man,” “Yul Brynner will not be usurped as his role as THE KING no matter how often Jim Thompson’s ghost will sit in his dressing room and scowl. Christy Gibson is counting on Pete Burns to steal the show from him, using not ferocity but homoeroticism in a sub-textual language Yul won’t get, busy whacking the air with his Siamese no-arms and Siamese no-eyes, savage in the ways Pete will be sensual, throwing Yul off-kilter in a strange balletic advertisement for the TAT.” The presence of Pete Burns in several poems in the book adds an additional element, that of the staged world of reality television, that only serves to highlight Ravine’s world building. (Burns, a musician known for his androgynous look, has appeared frequently on shows in the Big Brother franchise as well as guest spots on other reality shows.) Ravine’s world building, though, isn’t any kind of exercise in escapist fantasy. It’s an account of a mire. Unlike the White ‘characters’ who have fled to Thailand to lose themselves (or who have lost themselves in the portrayal of Thai characters or White characters who themselves have fled to Thailand, such as di Caprio in The Beach), Ravine, the author of both Thai and White descent has to contend with the fact that, “my attempts to connect with Thailand as ‘place’ and ‘cultural identity’ are colonized by tourism and White desire.”
The Romance of Siam: A Pocket Guide is a book that opens doors. It’s an invitation to Google, and it even includes links. It’s a book that questions the presuppositions White people have about Thailand (for example, “When you say Thailand is tolerant of gender variance, you’re referring to the ‘ladyboy’ you almost had sex with who turned into a zombie and threw an arsenal of coconut bombs at your head while you went into a coma” from “Backpackers 2: [White Goes East]”) and juxtaposes them with the reality of Thailand (for example, “At the guesthouse there’s a sign saying ‘IF YOU BREAK THE RULES AND BRING ‘LADYBOY’ WE’LL CHARGE EXTRA IMMEDIATELY 1000 BAHT” from the same poem). It’s cultural criticism and world building in one. A journey begun because of one author’s experience that becomes a journey for everyone who picks up the book. This journey is and isn’t touristic. This journey subverts the journey.