On Monday I am off to New York City where the 10th novel in my Vincent Calvino series will be launched on 6th October. Also while in the United States, I’ll attend Bouchercon in Indianapolis. I will participate on a panel “Murder at the Edge of the Map” moderated by Leighton Gage and including Tamar Myers, Yrsa Siguroardottir, and Michael Stanley.
You might say the edge of the map is never where you are living, writing, breathing and enjoying a laugh with your family and friends. The edge is always somewhere between extremes—an alien, hostile, unfriendly place you want to avoid or with a sandy beach, palm trees, with cool, tall drinks where you are planning to spend a holiday. It is human nature to think that the place we occupy is the center of the map and all other places exist along the edge. When you have lived abroad as long as I have you understand that most people don’t think much about other countries and cultures.
Mass media focuses attention on what most people are thought to be interested in viewing. What is relevant to their day-to-day life. Advertisers push their products to the largest audiences possible. Messages or images can’t be too complex because that confuses people. They can’t be too exotic or disconnected from what the masses are comfortable with inside their own communities. The edge of the map is either a cause of fear or boredom. Unless it is a holiday resort, life on the edge isn’t going to sell a car, iPhone, or pizza.
Most people watch on TV about other cultures located on the edge of the map through the prism of a nightly news report. A reporting team raises questions about the success (or failure) of an aspect of American policy. Or the projection of British foreign policy if one tunes into the BBC. Disasters and violence also attract the attention of the international media. Floods, earthquakes, fires, demonstrations, wreckage from bombs, mangled bodies are familiar images. They are part of the feedback that sends a message: places on the edge of the map are dangerous, unhealthy, teeming with misery, disease, and hunger. Culture hardly ever gets a look in unless it is National Geography, Discovery Channel or NPR. That is a niche market.
So how do I convey to the Americans on this trip what is the situation in Thailand? Most won’t have been following the politics. That is understandable. There are many countries around the world, and each of them has some political scandal, instability, or rumors of disintegration circulating. Anyone would be overloaded with so much information.
When I talk with people in the United States I expect to be asked about Thailand. It may be a polite way to express interest. It might be a genuine interest to understand something about a different culture. In any event, when on the road, I find myself trying to reduce the complexity of life in Asia to the kind of sound bites that people are accustomed to hearing. There are the issues of language, ethnic minorities, cultural shifts as urban and rural populations come into conflict in the political space, and issues that involve foreigners living and working in Asia. Then I remember something important. I am not a historian or sociologist or political pundit. I am a novelist. In writing fiction, I focus on lives of people, look inside their fears, dreams, hopes and delusions. A novel rises or falls on the ability to convey the differences in perspective of people in Asia by making them accessible. The key to open the door, in my view, is to show that despite the influences of culture, tradition and language, underneath there is a fundamental human condition shared by everyone on the map. Empathy pulls us all into a common center of the world because we can identify with the pressures and conflicts experienced by others. Other people in places like Thailand have concerns and problem very much like our own.
What makes Vincent Calvino stand apart from many of the private eyes on the bookshelf is that he’s a cultural detective. He sifts through the evidence in a way that makes sense of the location and people living in Southeast Asia. Calvino might be working along the edge of the map for some; but for people who live in the larger world, he is doing something different. He’s illustrating what it is in modern times to work in a world where map no longer has same alien edges as in a previous era.
Increasingly everyone is inching closer to a common center. Things like pandemics, global warming, and trade have made all of us look to the larger world. When I look back over the 11 novels in the Calvino series, I have discovered that the relative isolation of twenty years ago in Thailand has vanished. This trend will only accelerate in the years to come. With social network sites and the resources of the Internet, we all know much more about each other lives. We will continue to find common grounds and the new generation will think how strange it was to live in a world where the map once had edges and along those edges were dragons and if one wasn’t careful, you could step off edge and disappear from the earth altogether.