Monday, August 02, 2010

The Story Behind the Story:
“The Queen of Patpong,” by Timothy Hallinan

(Editor’s note: In this latest entry in our “Story Behind the Story” series, we once more welcome to The Rap Sheet novelist Timothy Hallinan, author of the Poke Rafferty thriller series, the new installment of which is The Queen of Patpong [Morrow]. In the essay below, Hallinan explains his inspiration for this fourth Rafferty adventure, and also his personal association with the illicit trade at the heart of that tense tale.)

The room is small--a bed, a couple of chairs, a table stacked with mismatched dinnerware. The only light comes through a window that’s been covered in wax paper against the rains. Sitting on a metal stool in the middle of the room, her back bent into the letter C as though the weight on her shoulders were too heavy to allow her to straighten her spine, is a Thai girl of 16. At the moment the picture was taken, she had just learned that her grandmother was planning to sell her into prostitution.

The girl’s name means “water” in English. Her hair is chopped to her ears in a schoolgirl cut. She is studying the floor. You can almost hear the shrilling in her ears as the weight of her grandmother’s words sink in.

I have an autobiography the girl wrote. It’s in two parts: a photograph of the original, written in Thai in a careful blue ballpoint script on blue-lined school paper, and an English translation, which reads, in part:
Grandma doesn’t pay a lot of attention to me. She’s busy drinking and when she’s drunk she hits me. I thought about running away but didn’t have the courage. I want to run away every time grandma tells me to drop out of school because she doesn’t have any money to support me. She tells me to go to work in Bangkok so that I can send her money. I say to her that I want to stay in school because I dream to become a doctor one day so that when I have a job I can take care of her. But she always says why stay in school. My father is dead. I have no mother. What would I study for!

If I have scholarship to study, I will work very hard to realize my dream. To get a good job. Then I can repay grandma. When I have a job I will repay my debt of gratitude to her until her last breath.
This girl is lucky. In the room with her and her grandmother is the girl’s schoolteacher, who got word of the planned sale--one 16-year-old girl for 60,000 baht, or $1,500 U.S.--as well as the woman that teacher called, who has come up from Bangkok in order to offer the grandmother a small amount of money (about $100 per month) to keep the child in school. In this case, the grandmother accepts.

Often, such an offer is refused, and so some Thai girl will begin a journey that’s undertaken by thousands of young Thai women every year--a journey that’s just a few hundred miles geographically, but a matter of light years internally.

In my series of thrillers set in Bangkok, my protagonist, Philip “Poke” Rafferty, is an expatriate American travel writer who’s now married to a former bar girl who worked under the name of “Rose” and whose resilience--acquired the hard way--gets them through some tough spots. I’d always known that sooner or later I would back up and tell Rose’s story--how she came to Bangkok, and how she was transformed from a shy village girl into the “queen” of Patpong Road, long the most lurid of Bangkok’s remarkably lurid red-light districts.

But I didn’t know how to begin the story. And then I received a letter that contained the autobiography and photographs described above. They were sent to me by a friend in Bangkok who’s a member (as am I) of a small group of people who pool some money each month to keep at least a handful of young Thai girls out of the sex trade. The fund is informal and anonymous, and the way it works is simplicity itself: a few schoolteachers in northeastern Thailand keep their ears open, and when they hear something, they call Bangkok. A wife of one of the group members heads up-country and, with the schoolteacher, goes to the girl’s house to make the offer.

I’m really happy to say that quite a few girls have remained in school--some have even gone on to college--as a result of this effort.

Left: A snippet from the Thai girl’s diary that led Hallinan to write, in his new novel, about Bangkok’s sex trade. This is hand-written in Thai but trimmed so the girl’s name doesn’t show. (Click to enlarge.)

The letter galvanized me. It became the beginning of Rose’s journey in the book that was eventually titled The Queen of Patpong (to be released on August 17). I used everything, even the stool, even the curve of the girl’s back. And in writing the scene, I realized it depicted a moment in which every certainty in a young person’s life had been stripped away and the world was revealed in a mercilessly new light--as a place where a person has to take firm command of her own fate, because malign influences are at work.

The rest of the tale came relatively quickly. But since this is, in a very real sense, a true story, true of tens of thousands of young women, it had to come carefully, too. As hard as I worked to present the story through the filter of Rose’s feelings, I knew (as David Sedaris has said) that “Writing gives you the illusion of control, and then you realize it’s just an illusion, that people are going to bring their own stuff into it.” I wanted to make certain that anyone who tried to read the story for titillation would have a difficult time finding it.

Rose and Poke have an adopted daughter, Miaow, who they took in off the street and who is based on a real Bangkok street child whom I knew for several years until she vanished--to where, I have no idea, but I doubt it was to anyplace happy. So the previous books in the series (A Nail Through the Heart, The Fourth Watcher, and Breathing Water) have paid a lot of attention to the lives and the exploitation of Bangkok’s street kids. And last year’s Breathing Water, especially, looked at the gulf between rich and poor as it manifested itself in the political movement that eventually led to this year’s riots.

But none of those books got as close to its subjects as The Queen of Patpong does to Rose. The book begins at a time when things look good for the whole family, and then, out of nowhere, comes a nightmare figure from Rose’s life in the bar. His appearance puts the family in physical danger, but also threatens to break them apart as past secrets emerge. Eventually, Rose has no alternative but to tell her story, and we follow her through it. I’ve been extremely pleased that the book has been enthusiastically and seriously reviewed, and especially satisfied that some of the kindest reviews have come from women. Considering everything Rose and her thousands of real-life sisters have gone through, I’m glad that I seem to have avoided exploiting them on the page as well.

My goal was to present these women as they are, as real individuals who have been given a very narrow range of choices. I think that most of them cope with their difficult situation with a certain amount of grace.

I don’t know that we can ask much more of anyone.


kathy d. said...

This looks like quite a story, a gut-wrenching one. As you say, this happens to so many young women and girls and even boys, driven by extreme poverty on one side and the exploitation of it for profits on the other. And, very sadly, there is a market.

I'd like to read this but worry it'll make me too upset (not at the writing, but the reality of it all) but I will read "Breathing Water."

Have read nothing but superb things about this series from all the blogs that have touched upon them.

emasten said...

I think you do a good job of presenting the situation and the reality of the way of life of the street children and young women in your books. I can sense no judgement on your part, just a respect for the true grit these human beings as they do what they must to survive. I have not read all your books yet but I have them to look forward to.

Timothy Hallinan said...

Hi, Kathy -- QUEEN does tell a sad story, but it's also the story of someone who refused to be changed in certain essential ways by a situation that almost demanded that she change. Rose -- like so many people who are forced into a way of life they would never have chosen for themselves -- preserved her personal morality, which means she retained her self-worth -- and, as the series demonstrates, she not only survives the bars but winds up running a domestics agency that exists to give bar workers a route out of the life. She is absolutely not defeated.

Emasten -- Thanks for the kind words. All the books are about people who are in the lower strata of society, which I think is often where the human spirit shines most brightly. Things are changing, although slowly, not just in Thailand but in much worse countries, so all we can do is hope that people cling to what's good in them and work for their betterment. 'Cause it's never going to come from the leadership.