Scheming for the Good Life in Bangkok

Mai Nardone’s short story collection "Welcome Me to the Kingdom" exposes the raw wounds beneath the sparkle of the Thai metropolis

Photo by Evan Krause on Unsplash

Mai Nardone’s dazzling linked story collection’s Welcome Me to the Kingdom exposes the raw wounds beneath the sparkle of Bangkok, his hometown and the original playboy city. Gamblers, bar girls, street kids, sexpats, models, and the model-adjacent populate this stunning debut. Funny, moving, and evocative of the grit of survival without the sheen of the exotic, the characters climb the rungs of a hierarchy they can’t seem to win. In the final story, street kids even join a volunteer rescue squad to make merit so they can be “born into a bed of pearls” in the next life. “It’s understood among the bookkeepers on high that karmic merit is their pay. They’re saving up by saving people.” 

Mai is my brother. I could have spoken to him for a long time about a collection that is complex, bewitching, and the worthy fruit of a decade of labor. We discussed building fictional worlds from a shared childhood; the slum behind our townhouse; when sex tourism crossed from being the backdrop of the everyday to something we were consciously aware of; and balancing a narrative so that the rational worldview and the superstitious one are equally plausible interpretations of a story. 

I spoke with Mai over Zoom—he in Bangkok, me in Philly—in early 2023, about a month before Welcome Me to the Kingdom hit shelves. 

Sunisa Manning: Let’s talk about the title. Where is the kingdom, and who is being welcomed there? 

Mai Nardone: What I liked about the title is that it can sound like a plea and it can also sound like a demand, a kind of insistence. The title story is about two women who are trying to find their place in the world geographically and also socially. One is older and one is much younger; it’s the younger one who is reeling from dislocation. In that particular story “the kingdom” is the men’s world of gambling. The title is the older woman joking about entering that kingdom.

At the same time, the title is relevant to one of the larger arcs in the collection which is about a mixed-race daughter trying to find her place in Thailand. This is something that we face a lot, coming from two worlds and trying to prove a certain Thai authenticity and yet being an outsider, and taking advantage of both those worlds. The title is not meant to be representative of the kingdom [of Thailand]—it’s meant to be playing with this idea of Thai-ness.  

Like the title of your novel, right? A Good True Thai. Playing with the idea of national identity and what Thai-ness looks like. There has been some pushback on this, but the recent Miss Thailand winners have been mostly mixed race. The ones who aren’t mixed race have, frankly, had plastic surgery so that they look like they’re mixed race. 

SM: And yet we’re counted as outsiders.

MN: As outsiders, and there’s the stigma because of sex tourism, like: Okay, well, your dad is white and your mom is Thai. What does that imply about your background?

There’s a shame attached to that. I think a lot of mixed race Thai kids growing up in Thailand go through that, as well as trying to process… again, being in the backseat looking up at these sex parlors going by.  

SM: One of the things you do well is capture the wonder and terror of early adolescence. You seem to have a tender spot for vagrant kids, whether it’s “strayboys” in a slum or the kids in “Parade” whose parents channel spirits to try and heal a kid’s karmic imbalance. You create a whole mythology complete with names like “the Fatherless” that yoke young ones into belonging. Is this a theme you mulled over deliberately? Why vagrant kids?

MN: In “Parade” I had the idea to write a story that was set around a cult, or alternate beliefs. In order to tell it from within, it seemed more convincing to tell it from the perspective of the children, because children absorb, even though at age 11 they are starting to question the spirits in that story. To tell it from an adult perspective you would have to either inhabit the belief or inhabit the cynicism, and either way it felt like too much distance. 

SM: One of the things that’s so beautiful about “Parade” is that you get both the belief and the cynicism because the characters are early adolescents. So they are not questioning the spirit channeling because they’ve been children and it’s a received belief system, but of course, their growing cynicism doesn’t throw the reader out as far as it might if the character was an adult, because the cynicism is a natural developmental progression. Well chosen.

MN: Right. I don’t know if we want to call it magical realism, but the manifestation that happens at the end of that story doesn’t require as much explanation when it comes from the perspective of children. There’s an entry point there.

The other reason that I ended up with a lot of children was that in the process of linking the collection, I had these stories and had these characters that already existed. I was taking hold of the thread of that child character and drawing it backwards and forwards in time.

“Parade” fills in family biography details around Lara’s family and gives some of her young years. Then for the slum boys, these two characters come from the bottom rung of society. The arc of the story collection is the arc of their friendship. They don’t necessarily move up in the world, but they do move through it, and so they needed an origin story. 

SM: We’re talking about “Stomping Ground”?

MN: Yeah. Some of the details there are taken from the slum across the klong, behind the house that we mostly grew up in. Me and my international school friend James used to go riding through on our bikes and spend time getting into trouble and playing with fireworks with the local kids. I was recalling that environment and the common juxtaposition in Thailand of having informal housing beside—well, we were living in a townhouse, but often a slum is beside a glossy condominium.

SM: Do you think of “Pink Youth” and “Parade” as magical realism? Ghost stories? How do they live in your head?

Wherever sex does come up in the story collection, it’s transactional, and it often occurs between people of different hierarchies.

MN: That’s where different narrators give a different reading of what they are. The narrator of “Pink Youth,” by the end of the story, reveals herself to be less reliable, so I think there’s an element in which we doubt what she sees. Whereas we can trust the children in “Parade” a little more, even though we also doubt what they see, because they’re children and they might not entirely understand the situation. There’s enough doubt sewn into the narrative structure, or the type of narrator, to make it plausible whether the reader believes or not.

I remember a driver being like, “Yeah, I couldn’t sleep because I was haunted by ghosts all night.” In Thailand it’s taken at face value. Whereas if you’re writing for an English language audience, you have to bridge that divide a little bit. And part of it is building in these little ways for an English language audience to rationalize the situation that doesn’t involve assuming that there is a supernatural force involved.

SM: I would say you give equal credence to the fact that it could be ghosts. The narrator of “Pink Youth” is a Muslim woman from the South who is in Bangkok carrying on a matrilineal lineage of performing abortions. The narrator Hasmah does this for women in the slum, who are at least nominally Buddhist. Hasmah has also been bullied by the slum community for her work. There’s a mental health argument—maybe Hasmah is being haunted by the children she aborted, who are unborn? But Hasmah has also suffered for her trade.

MN: There’s a deliberate kind of confusion around the children. When they first appear, they seem like Hasmah’s antagonists in the neighborhood, and they’re regular children who are hounding her. They have this kind of nursery rhyme. But then, as the story goes on, the narrator shows herself to be a little less reliable, with another adult coming into the scene. We get the feeling that the children might not be real. Either way, whether they’re real antagonists or imagined antagonists, they are representative of the community. Hasmah is in this place as an outsider in the way that Muslims are in Thailand. They’re treated as outsiders and second class citizens.

SM: I think you capture the hypocrisy of that well. I found it moving to read about abortion at this moment in the U.S., too.

To change the subject a little, a lot of your stories include foreigners, or farang, coming to Thailand for the sex trade. In “Stomping Ground” you write: “Why a house for boys? Because only pretty girls can earn money, and with all the farang men swooping in from the first world, there aren’t many pretty girls left.” Tell us about this dynamic and why you chose to capture it in fiction.

MN: There is the familiar kind of story of foreigners coming to Thailand and marrying Thai women. One of the three arcs of the book is a family of a mixed-race daughter with a white American father and a Thai mother. The father in that context does come over with this presumption, coming out of another marriage, that he will find a Thai girl at a bar.

There’s also the sex trade that is not geared towards foreigners. That’s in some of the other stories, like “Feasts.” Basically wherever sex does come up in the story collection, it’s transactional, and it often occurs between people of different hierarchies. Those inequalities are what I’m playing with throughout the collection. In fact, the only time that there is a sexual moment where it’s not fraught in that way is between two men who are of equal station. Both of them really have nothing. That’s the only moment where the characters are allowed to have a sexual experience that isn’t fraught with the baggage of Thailand’s reputation.

Our friend James Yu did this good review of fiction about Thailand, written by foreigners over the decades. It includes Lily Tuck, Paul Theroux, more recently Lawrence Osborne. It’s a foreigner, usually white foreigner, coming to Thailand and Thailand is the exotic place. Part of the exoticism is also the sense of peril right? Thailand is dangerous in some ways, and maybe foreigners are being swindled out of their money. You can’t rely on the Thais. Along with those books, in the larger Western, English language imagination, Thailand exists as The Hangover or The Beach or Only God Forgives.  

Part of writing for an English language audience was trying to get into those assumptions and complicate that view of Thailand. And so like, how do you go into the world of sex tourism and humanize it and try and show different facets of it? That’s one part of it. 

The other part of it is to try and show that actually it’s impossible to grow up in Thailand and not have this in your peripheral vision. Even though it’s known as a sex tourism destination, a lot of the ahb-ohb-nuat massage parlors are actually geared towards Thais. It’s the one thing that you see in every province, in every town– you see your karaoke places, you see your sex parlors. 

I mean, growing up, our one kind of “meal” was to go downtown to this Italian restaurant, and I remember lying in the back of the car as our dad is driving into town and looking up on Phetburi road and you just see—before I even understood what they were—the same huge concrete monuments that are sex parlors, with these bright neon lights. They are still there today and I pass them all the time. As a child, you kind of absorbed it without really understanding it. Then over time, you start to think about what you’ve seen. So a lot of this is processing that image of Thailand.

SM: That’s actually my next question. A collection that’s linked has this narrative coherence—it has a lot of the satisfaction of the novel, because as you said, we follow this mixed-race family, and then Tintin and Benz and their friendship. I think your third thread, the local sex trade you mentioned, is the Pinky storyline. She goes in and out with Ping. We carry these characters over time and so I grew to care about them a lot. But also, because it’s a story collection, we enter way more worlds than a novel could pull off. 

Some of them– this isn’t even an exhaustive list– are a death cafe; breeding prize roosters for cockfights; Muay Thai training; and my favorite, a gambling den masquerading as a noodle house where fish balls are the betting tokens. What was your research process? How did you go so deep into these worlds?

Nothing I’ve written about doesn’t exist on Thai YouTube.

MN: I often say this when I have to explain a really far-fetched idea to any audience. Nothing I’ve written about doesn’t exist on Thai YouTube. The chicken fighting story, which was an entire world that I didn’t know about—that story was written mostly during the lockdowns. I was on a YouTube channel of a guy who makes “How to feed your fighting chicken,” and “How to train your fighting chicken.” Then later I actually went to his farm with my girlfriend who’s a journalist, and was working on a story related to this. As the translator of that story, I got to ask a lot of questions that were angled towards the fiction.

Some of it is hearing an anecdote and going with it. Am I allowed to say this? Your husband, Nat—I don’t know if you remember this—it was years ago—he at one point was telling the story that he was caught in a rainstorm in Bangkok, and he stepped into this bar and it was an Elvis bar. 

I don’t remember anything else about what he said. I don’t know if the bar still exists. But that is the germ of the story in the way that Henry James describes it. Once you’ve whittled the grain down to this basic thing, which in this case is a very bizarre premise of an Elvis bar, then okay: where can you go with that?

SM: You went to “Goodbye Big E Bar,” a story about the end of an Elvis bar, right?

MN: That’s the beginning of that story, no research whatsoever. Just an anecdote. I wrote it one time from a different perspective and it didn’t work and the story went somewhere else. Then I tried rewriting it from the perspective of the daughter of the Elvis impersonator who owns the bar. That was the one that worked.

At the same time that I was writing that, Thailand was mourning Rama IX who had recently passed away. There was a lot in the air about inheriting a legacy and maintaining it. The character in the story is maintaining her father’s regalia, which in this case is the Elvis costumes. It’s all mixed up in there. 

SM: I love that. The regalia of the king. As you said in the collection, there’s a famous photograph of the real Elvis and the King of Thailand, Rama IX who you just mentioned. The photo is called The King. When Thai people look at it, we only see the Thai King. I have that photo. It’s in my house.

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