Tuesday, July 01, 2008

jaed coffin's "chant to soothe wild elephants"

i just finished this memoir, purportedly written in the style of hemingway. jaed coffin is half thai - half white, and spent a summer in thailand as a monk, attempting to find his thai identity. i enjoy books with bi-culturalism as a theme; with my job, i am confronted by this issue daily, and i am reminded regularly of my whiteness through the my interactions with the families i serve. (the "i am american" movie we made addresses this issue as well.) i especially liked jaed's reflections on his airport experience (where he "hates" the american tourists and attempts to view himself as separate from them,) and the book is full of this kind of insight.

the one thing that some people may find offensive: he describes his monk friend narong as being "dark like the Lao." he goes on to make other references to the dark Lao people as if this is a trait that distinguishes them from the thai. this could signify jaed's lack of knowledge of the relationship between the thai and the Lao, the history of the isan region, and the oppression and social stratification that comes with the darkness of one's skin. also, i wonder if jaed has met any Lao in america and noticed the great variation in shades and skin colors of those he has met? or is he just relying on stereotypes that some thai people have used to describe the Lao?

i think he also coulda checked some of his romanizations of thai - or even the grammar - like "will you 'jam dai' lek?" or his use of "unsure heart" as a translation for mai neh jai... but these are minor points. i didn't really intend to write a book review - especially not a negative one. the author really does an excellent job of telling his experience, especially for someone like me who is off to the side, looking in from the secure sidelines of my whiteness.


D said...

Finally a new post. For a while there I was getting bored of your blog. Not sure I will read this book since he's a Lao hater.

jrm said...

he isn't a Lao hater - its just that he has the view that Lao people are dark skinned, that's all. It's not an intense read, and I would recommend it - the biracial, bicultural piece is very interesting!