“Interview with Ploi Pirapokin”

by Amanda Weiss

Ploi Pirapokin, author of “IF YOU ASK ME, I SHALL COME”

HIVEMIND Magazine spoke with author Ploi Pirapokin about her short story in our February 2024 issue, “IF YOU ASK ME, I SHALL COME.”

HIVEMIND: What were some of your inspirations for this piece? What aspects of Tolkien’s work were you responding to in this story?

Ploi Pirapokin: Tolkien’s elves’ origin story became my obsession. I researched laterally, trying to figure out the first ever elves, the Avari, a Quenyan word for “The Unwilling,” who chose to remain in the land of their Awakening. What does it mean to suggest that the elves who didn’t answer the Valars’ call had to dwindle in darkness as unlucky, bitter, dark-haired bastards, becoming corrupt and captured to be transformed into orcs? Are they condemned to suffering and subjugation because they refused the call to follow Oromë? Could it be a commentary on the necessity for modernization, for enlightenment of some kind, even amongst ethereal, pre-industrialized beings?  

Tolkien himself has argued against any allegory between his works and our real world, but his mythopoetic works on elves and their languages magnified the psychological impact of migration and diaspora for me. He created them as a sundered (divided) people, asking the very same question our archaic ancestors did two million years ago: “Do I stay or do I go?”  This parallels my own diaspora conflict. My entire family is in Asia, and they constantly guilt trip me for leaving them to remain in America. I wanted to imagine into the lives of elves who believed leaving their homeland would be a mistake and what are the consequences of staying? I would also like to go on record to say that Silvia Park copied me for her story, ha! In all seriousness, I think it’s because we’re part of the contemporary generation of writers who are born from multiple cultures, and constantly try to balance the pros and cons of living abroad and writing in English.

There was an interesting use of names in this piece: Shizuka is Japanese, Htay is Burmese, Plingnoi recalls Thai names like “Noi”—what were your thoughts as you developed these characters and their names? Did you intend to draw certain parallels culturally/historically?

In homage to Tolkien who imagined a pre-industrial and pre-modern origin story, I wanted to explore indigenous identity in Thailand, a country home to 70 ethnic groups, yet in popular and current culture, we only hear about and from the light-skinned, petite Thai-Chinese community who have gained power and influence over Thai representation around the globe. Prior to the creation of Thailand as a nation-state, the country was made up of smaller kingdoms and tribes, with different relationships to other kingdoms in other countries, and I wanted to point at what those relationships might have been like. Japan and Thailand have fought for each other in wars, traded goods, and established colonies on each other’s soil to nick off colonizers since the 15th century before Japan’s period of seclusion. It wouldn’t be far off to imagine alliances being formed between those two kingdoms, through marriage as a form of goodwill exchange. 

Names in my stories always have meanings, and like Tolkien, I’m interested in how nouns can sound, how they’re formed, and how they’ve been adapted to meet our needs today. Thai nicknames have always taken precedence over given names because we believe that nicknames prevent demons and bad luck from attaching themselves to someone’s real identity, and they could also be aspirational for us e.g. Ploi means Sapphire, so my parents wanted me to be precious and attract wealth, ha! Plingnoi was clearly a nickname given to her by people that disliked her, a diminutive to “leech” whereas Htay is “rich” in archaic sounding, like Burmese names. Shizuka, when written with different kanji characters can mean quiet and calm, but really, I’d like her to signify that she’s mute and motionless—not because of her own doing but because of her poor circumstances being married into this family of gaslighters in a patriarchal society. Lastly, Thai last names only became legally required in 1913, and then in 1962, a law was put in place forbidding the creation of a surname which is a duplicate of any existing surnames. I combined a few Sanskrit words for the House of Saccchikatra’s name, which probably contains no literal meaning, but it’s this particular family’s aspiration of wanting to sound noble, old, and generationally wealthy, that inspired them to call themselves that.

This story seems to be a searing indictment of racial stratification and hierarchy in Tolkien’s work. How do you view that aspect of Tolkien’s legendarium, and how does this story explore that theme?

My story features recurring themes that show up in all my work: Phenotypic traits being exploited for the purpose of racial classification, and Asia’s problematic beauty standard that’s also tethered to class i.e. being dark skinned and more indigenous looking means you’re unsophisticated and working on the land. I thought, how would social stratification be set amongst a homogenous group of people who are trying to set themselves in their community at the advent of industrialization? What roles are predestined, do they have a choice in the role they’re playing, and are willing to sacrifice to get to play? Are they indebted to play a role to sustain their own kin and what does that look like?  

Tolkien’s racially deterministic legendarium suggests that aspects of character derive from ancestry, and genetic variants can influence personality, which is still very much a tribal way of thinking today, like wondering if a child will be hot headed like their mother, or a pushover like their father. Unless you’ve read The Silmarillion, no one remembers Lord Elrond is half-elven, and when given the choice of kindreds, chose to be considered an Elf, whereas his twin brother, Elros, did not. In fact, Elros went by other names to sound more Adûnaic/Western—an act of assimilation, alliance, and responsibility to the men he would eventually govern. While Tolkien made his elves prettier, holier, and more noble than what we would’ve seen of elves at the time in Northern European cultures, they were also proud, suspicious, and elitist. I saw a lot of parallels there I could use in my story, anchored in my own history. 

There’s an excellent blogpost on Compromise and Conceit by faustusnotes from 2009, responding to Tolkien’s innate prejudices of his time, unintended consequences of his descriptions of racial purity, and racial conservatism. The blogpost author says, “Just as Tolkien can write an inspiring and great novel with odious racial politics, modern genre writers should be able to liberate the genre from this type of conservatism and still write inspiring and great novels.” I’m adopted, and my biological mother is from Suphan Buri, a rural, poverty-stricken, land of dry rice fields, where access to education, white collar work, and international cuisine is limited. Sometimes I feel like Aragorn, who wondered as Isildur’s heir, whether he would also fall into the temptation of not being able to destroy Sauron’s ring like his forefather? But really, the lesson to be learned is from Galadriel, which is, when tempted with an opportunity to obtain unmitigated power, what do we do not just for the greater good, but to better ourselves? I’d like to think I added to his legendarium and expanded the East for him, in a project he passed before completing.

Gender seems to be another important motif. The antagonists and narrators are a chorus of vengeful female family members; the tragic target of their enmity is also female. Meanwhile, the male family members are either dead or absent. Could you speak to how this theme figured in your story as you wrote it? Was it important that these figures are all female?

In a male dominated Lord of the Rings, we were shown honorable, responsible, and courageous men: Aragon, Legolas, Sam. I’m not interested in the binaries of good and evil the same way Tolkien might’ve been, and he did gift us plenty of grey-area characters who help each other despite being of different races, resist the pull of the ring, and are forgiving even after the most heinous of betrayals. Women, on the other hand, are often overlooked and uncomplicated as characters, possibly mirroring their lack of agency at the time and in history. 

I wanted to share a sneak-peak into how blame is constructed within female hierarchies, something I feel is worth discussing today. Women gaslighting other women in service of the patriarchy, or to stay above all other women through sabotage, is a violence more insidious than terrible men in power because it’s a betrayal of your own sex, regardless of kinship. Nobody wins in the long run. Yet, the temptation to compete with the evil you know (over the evil you don’t know) is alluring, especially in the short term. I wanted to imagine what it was like to play by all the rules—are you happy afterwards? And if you’re not happy, can you find happiness outside of what’s expected of you? Lastly, how can we hold our men accountable, by confronting how much of our actions as women have raised them to trespass our boundaries? 

Finally, you explore a central theme of Tolkien’s legendarium—everlasting spiritual life versus earthly, suffering mortality. What drew you to these themes?

In Ursula Le Guin’s essay, “The Critics, the Monsters, and the Fantasists,” she claims, “What fantasy often does that the realistic novel generally cannot do is include the nonhuman as essential.” The thesis of her essay is that “Realistic fiction is drawn towards anthropocentrism, fantasy away from it.” This sentiment, that “Tolkien’s Middle Earth is not just pre-industrial. It is also pre-human and non-human,” was echoed by our conversation for the Hivemind launch party with Ken Liu and Silvia Park. 

I’m a practicing Buddhist, so all life is suffering, aha! However, I was thinking more along the lines of, when we try to give meaning to our lives, and reflect on our actions to see what we do so we do it better, not just for survival’s sake, but for harmony in a group and within ourselves. I think we do that with memories too. I lost a friend at the beginning of 2023, truly an abrupt and unplanned death, and my memories of Hong Kong during that time were associated with tears and grief and getting lost in the streets I’ve walked on over a billion times. When I returned last summer, I tried to re-do everything I did when I was grieving, like visit my friend’s grave and walk on the same streets to form different memories, to try and create new associations of joy in my muscles performing the very same actions. I can’t say for sure what clicked, but I wasn’t crying as much anymore, or lost. To me, that physical act of surviving, of replacing or rewriting over old cells is very pre-human, almost non-human in the sense that, doesn’t the replacing and rewriting of cells happen to every living thing? When our cells are replaced, is this when we can finally let go, shedding our memories on the cellular level? I think that’s how I wanted to portray earthly, suffering mortality—it is only a phase, and whether or not everlasting spiritual life makes sense to you in organized religion, or if it’s a feeling you know you can live in, you can reach it by simply having to live through it—as yourself, compiled of cells that are rewriting themselves anyway. 

About Ploi Pirapokin

Ploi Pirapokin sits on the board for Khōréō Magazine, Hivemind: Global Speculative Fiction Magazine, WP NOW,  Mendocino Coast Writers’ Conferenceand the Ragdale Foundation. Her work is featured in Tor.com, Pleiades, Ninth Letter, Gulf Stream Magazine, Sycamore Review and more. She currently teaches at the Writers’ Program at UCLA Extension, WritingWorkshops.com, and the University of Hong Kong.

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