'A Hundred Loves', 'A Thousand Lovers': Portrayals of Sexuality in the Work of Thidaa Bunnaak

Article excerpt

Western academic approaches to cultural, gender and literary studies have, for the past thirty years or more, engaged profoundly in the debates surrounding feminism, the body and female sexuality. These issues are consequently well established as a focus for research in contemporary European, North American and Australian academe. They are reflected not only in a plethora of broadly theoretical publications, but also in more specific studies of particular literatures and cultures. (1) Toril Moi has, for example, brought together issues of sexuality and feminist literary theory in her invaluable work, Sexual/Textual Politics Elaine Showalter has produced a stimulating text on feminism, literature and sexuality; and Stevi Jackson and Sue Scott have published an informative reader on Feminism and Sexuality. (2) Such key texts as these have been followed up by numerous other, more narrowly focused works: Carla Kaplan's book, for example, on women's writing and feminist paradigms; Sidonie Smith on Subjectivity, Id entity and the Body, and John Phillips's discussion of pornography and censorship in twentieth-century French literature. (3)

This vast collection of material is evidence of the fact that the lens of gender, feminism and sexuality has been established as an important one in understanding and interpreting Western literature. Nor has this focus been confined to studies of Western fiction, for it has impacted upon research in Asian literatures, too. In 1991, for example, Fedhwa Malti-Douglas' work on gender and discourse in Arabo-Islamic writing was published; five years later came the publication of The Woman's Hand, a collection of papers dealing with gender and theory in Japanese women's writing, which includes chapters on the body, translation and reproduction, and the quest for jouissance. (4)

To some degree, the trends established in Western literary criticism (and in the analysis of world literatures influenced by these trends) are not reflected in studies of Thai literature. This is understandably so to the extent that these trends have grown out of certain cultural and philosophical concerns specific to the West. Moreover, the majority of work on Thai literature has been done in Thailand itself and has consequently mirrored local issues and perspectives, rather than those from beyond. While this stands to reason, one new direction in which Thai literary studies might fruitfully be taken is to allow it to engage in a dialogue with the comparative study of Asian, African, American and European texts through the perspective of gender and sexuality. For it certainly has something to say to this field of teaching and research and has things to learn from it as well.

It is in the context outlined above that discussions of Thai women's writing and of literary texts dealing with sexuality have a place. To date a relatively small amount of work has been undertaken on this topic by Rachel Harrison, (5) Susan Kepner, Niels Mulder and Orathai Panya. (6) This article investigates the fiction and writing career of the Thai journalist, novelist, short story writer, poet and agony aunt, Thidaa Bunnaak, in order to explain her significance. Despite the fact that Thidaa produced some ten novels and short story collections between the 1940s and 1960s, relatively little is now remembered or known of this once popular writer - even the simplest of information, such as her date of birth and whether she remains alive today. (7) As a result, Thidaa's publications are themselves now extremely rare and, while it is not uncommon for even quite recent Thai fictional works to go out of print and not be republished, her texts have not been preserved in public or university libraries, nationally or further afield. (8) This current research has therefore only been made possible through the generous support of the private collector and literary editor, Suchaat Sawatsii, who made available his own personal copies of Thidaa's fiction. …