Verita Sriratana: fiction, empathy, and finding hope in dark times

In Verita Sriratana’s office, visitors are greeted with a portrait of Franz Kafka, a poster by the political satirist Kai-maew, and a die-cut greeting card of Virginia Woolf. The slide door is lined with posters of events she has been involved in, and one can find her sitting behind a clustered desk, next to a shelf full of books.

At the Department of English, Faculty of Arts, Chulalongkorn University, Verita is a lecturer in 20th and 21st century literature, and is also known for her passion for Central Europe and the numerous events she has organized in recent years to promote Central European arts and culture. And in June 2019, Verita became the youngest person and the first Thai citizen to be awarded the Gratias Agit Award.

Verita Sriratana in her office at Chulalongkorn University

Formerly known as the Jan Masaryk Gratias Agit Award, this lifetime achievement award is given by the Czech Ministry of Foreign Affairs for the promotion of the good name of the Czech Republic abroad. It is currently the only statutory prize awarded by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The award was launched in 1997. Previous recipients include conductor Jiří Bělohlávek, gymnast Věra Čáslavská, and author and illustrator Peter Sis.

The 2019 Gratias Agit Award was presented by the Minister of Foreign Affairs Tomáš Petříček on 14 June. This year’s recipients included Bohdan Pomahač, a leading plastic surgeon living and working in the United States; the head of the Festival of Czech Art and Culture Prague-Berlin Dušan Robert Pařízek; Iranian translator Reza Mirchi, known for his translations of Czech authors Ivan Klíma and Václav Havel; Zuzana Ceralová Petrofová from the Petrof family of piano makers; Dr. Miloš Krajný, who promotes Czech music in Canada; Karl Peterlik, an Austrian diplomat who served in Prague in 1968 and 1989, and Memorial, the Russian NGO that documents the victims of communism in post-Soviet states.

Verita was nominated for this award in recognition of her contribution to teaching and research on Czech culture, history, literature, and politics, and for her promotion as well as organisation of Czech arts and culture activities in Thailand. In 2016, she adapted and staged a theatrical version of Jaroslav Hašek’s The Good Soldier Švejk as part of the Czech Arts and Culture Week, held at Chulalongkorn University, and her translation of Bohumil Hrabal’s Too Loud a Solitude, first released in 2017, is now in its third printing.

B-Floor Theater's performance of Verita's adaptation of The Good Soldier Švejk in February 2016 (Source: Central and Eastern European Studies Section at Chulalongkorn University)

Verita said that she was “initially shocked” to learn that she is receiving this award, which she said “is considered one of the most prestigious awards given to a non-Czech citizen, a Czech citizen living abroad or a non-governmental organization which helps to promote Czech culture abroad.” At the same time, she said that she is deeply honoured and terribly humbled.

“How many people would have thought or imagined that such a prestigious award could go to an Assistant Professor of literary studies, one of the most underrated academic fields in many countries compared to the fields of engineering, technology and medical science?” Verita said. “While at the award ceremony, I also reminded myself in each passing minute that I was a mere representative of the many people who kindly assisted me in all the past academic and cultural activities, of which the main goal was to render one’s understanding and interpretation of Central European history and literature, particularly Czech history and literature, a platform for self-reflection and critical thinking. I hereby, in this interview, dedicate this award to my parents, my colleagues, former and present university staff and, most importantly, my students and student volunteers. I also dedicate this award to all freedom fighters who are doing their part, no matter how grand or minuscule, in contributing to the good of a civil, democratic and humanitarian society.”

On this occasion, we speak to Verita about the importance of literature, what Thailand can learn from Central Europe, and how to find hope in dark times.

How did you become interested in Central Europe and why?

When I was in my first two years of PhD studies at the University of St Andrews writing my thesis on British Modernist writer Virginia Woolf and the philosopher Martin Heidegger, I had for the first time, out of the urge for an adventure in countries I had never visited before, the good opportunity to travel to the Slovak Republic on a conference and sightseeing trip. From there, months later, I ventured to Prague. The experience was life-changing. I fell in love with the landscapes, the languages, the cultures, the literatures, and the socio-political histories of the Czech and Slovak people and could not help but wonder why, prior to my trip to Central Europe, I had so little knowledge about the countries I just visited. I came to realise that Humanities is still very much Anglocentric and Western Eurocentric. Hence, I would like to promote a less studied academic field rather than what is already established and already promoted in Thailand.

After my PhD studies, I won a scholarship to undergo my postdoctoral research in Czech and Slovak Modernism in Bratislava, where I wrote my first book. Upon my return to Chulalongkorn University, I suddenly realised that I have already embarked on a life mission, and that mission is to continue my self-education (as I know I cannot call myself an expert in Central European studies) in Central European studies so that I may introduce and strengthen the Thai public’s knowledge of Central Europe, particularly of Czech and Slovak cultures, histories and literatures.

What do you hope to see from your mission to promote Central European art and culture in Thailand?

I hope to see Thais able to transcend the heartless and narrow-minded insularity in the notion of “Thainess” which we have been programmed to accept as absolute truth. I hope to see Thais eradicate that version of “Thainess” which delights in, for example, our freedom fighters’ plight when they were violently assaulted. I hope to see Thais, through their understanding of other cultures and concepts, situate themselves as global citizens who question the worst possible version of ourselves which does not hesitate to say, “if you are not with us, you are not a Thai, get the hell out of this country”.

Likewise, I would like to see people in Central Europe and the rest of the world able to transcend their one-dimensional image of Thailand, and join us in our dissidence. Solidarity is needed in our fight against dictatorship and social injustice just like how, in the 1980s, “Solidarność” a labour union founded in the Lenin Shipyard in Gdańsk, Poland, became a civil resistance social movement which transcended class and national boundaries.

The crystal globe and the certificate given to recipients of the Gratias Agit Award

If one would like to start reading Central European literature, with which book or writer do you think is the best place to start and why?

I agree with Timothy Snyder who said that the rest of the world can learn from the political history of Central and Eastern Europe, and I think that Thais can learn from the socio-political history and prominent thinkers of Central Europe. The Czechoslovak dissident movement leading up to the Velvet Revolution can inspire Thais to question their own political predicament.

Václav Havel’s famous example in his essay “The Power of the Powerless” (1978) of the greengrocer who displays the poster which says, “Workers of the world, unite!” without necessarily believing in the message of the slogan is a case in point. One is not to blame the greengrocer, who wishes simply to live his life and survive in the business world. Yes, the greengrocer’s action and reasons may be understandable BUT they can never be justified. Most importantly, one must not overlook the fact that it is far easier for one – living under censorship and surveillance – to proclaim loyalty to a figure, an institution, an idea, or a slogan, than to be honest to oneself by rejecting the poster or speaking out against it. More is at stake for dissidents who dare to fight the system as much as those who simply refuse to conform. In Czech literature and Czechoslovak political history, those who sought to slowly and compromisingly reform the system or regime out of real love for and true belief in such idea, system, or institution tended to be brutally punished whereas anarchists, revolutionaries and those who pretended to be “true believers” and hijacked the system and regime as pretexts for their tyranny got away with anything.

I remember the feeling of having read Milan Kundera’s The Joke for the first time while in Warsaw for a conference. I bought a second-hand dog-eared copy from a bookshop near the University of Warsaw, took it to my student flat, where I finished the book in one sitting. It was remarkable. The story of a man’s ridiculously futile attempt to seduce and “steal” his old friend’s estranged wife (the word “estranged” is itself the plot twist) – who fell in love with him – in order to take revenge for the student days’ betrayal and “witch hunt” as a result of a thoughtless prank, which utterly destroyed his life, made me question the notions of dissidence, censorship and persecution in my contemporary political landscape. When violence begets violence, revenge is never-ending and oppression replicated. The bitter joke lies in how each tyrant will not only find new pretexts for tyranny, but also bend, hijack or “make a joke out of” the fates of others and even the laws at will. Abject victims and fervent revolutionaries can also easily ease themselves into the role and position of tyrants.

The third book which I would like to recommend is Bohulmil Hrabal’s I Served the King of England, where the childlike protagonist, whose name is Jan Dítě, “dítě” meaning “child”, naively thinks that he can go on a rags-to-riches quest by shutting his eyes and ears to what is happening around him and by sleepwalking his way through the political turmoil of his time. Hrabal, without a single passage of direct political criticism, shows readers that the personal is always political. This wonderful writer shows that if we think politics is just politics and so we should care only about working and surviving in the capitalist world, we are nothing but a Jan Dítě, whose quest is founded upon the oppression of others or we are nothing but the other main character whose only pride in his own existence and his only contribution to the world – not to mention the only evidence of his existence – is the ridiculously insignificant fact that he has slaved for and served the King of England, who cares and knows absolutely nothing about him.

What is the significance of reading literatures from other cultures and learning about other cultures in general?

One of the strongest virtues of literary studies is not only the fact that reading and discussing literary texts fortifies empathy, which is so important especially in the kind of society that clearly lacks even sympathy and rejoices in the pain of others who do not share one’s political views, but also the fact that reading and discussing literary texts, especially those from other cultures, give us a special – to quote Kundera –“laboratory of twilight”, or a critical platform, through which we come to question our own society. It is the same with travelling. We come to know more and understand more not about the foreign countries which we visit, but, rather, about ourselves and our home country in comparison with others and our actual travel destination.

History might not exactly repeat itself, but we are living in the same world and we are part of humanity. We can and we should make such connections and learn from the past and from other cultures. Central Europe, particularly Czech literature, can teach you more about being a Thai living in the 21st century than about being a Czech living in the past century.

Verita (second from right) at the Gratias Agit Award ceremony (Source: the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Czech Republic)

In our current political climate, what do you think we can learn from Central Europe?

We see too many Hrabal’s Jan Dítěs and Havel’s greengrocers in Thailand. We also see how, like in Kundera’s The Joke, those who seek to reform the law and constitution in ways that would empower the people, rather than the selected few, are being condemned and severely punished as we speak.

My hope is that the people in Thailand, especially the young people, who come into contact with Havel’s description of the greengrocer will see that they do have a choice in how they should make out of their lives and that, even under tyranny and rigged rule of law, all have not been lost. Czech literature can give us hope and inspiration, which, in my opinion, are important today.

You said that Czech literature can give us hope and inspiration. At present, it seems as if we are living in the darkest of times, due to the political and human rights issues we are facing, both nationally and globally. How do you think we can find hope in such a time?

I think we find hope in the gradual changes that we see. Literature, for example, Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poem “Ozymandias”, teaches us that nothing lasts: “Nothing beside remains. Round the decay/ Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare/ The lone and level sands stretch far away”. All dictators in the world throughout history have fallen and will perish under the will of the people. Everything is in flux. Now Thais follow the news and listen to parliamentary debate with increasing interest and concern. The young people, especially, are not afraid to voice out their frustration. I think this is a good sign. If everyone of us has the courage to be true to oneself and stop being the complacent and indifferent greengrocer as depicted by Havel in his prose, I am sure that the changes which we want to see and which we want to be will come sooner than expected.    

I also think we find hope in each other. If we search ourselves hard enough, we would come to a realisation that we do live for others. If the work is right, we would also come to a realisation that we even work passionately for others – like how writers write against the grain of time and for the unknown readers. The love for our family, friends and fellow humankind can be found in the work that we do, be it journalism, teaching and researching, or the extra things that we do to maintain our sanity and to express our political views as activists and dissidents. In my case, translating and editing translation of Czech literary works, among other Central and Eastern European works, into Thai, the extra work which barely even counts in the quantifying rubric of academic work upon which academic titles and advancements are based, is the region where my hope for the future lies – for much as we live for others, we also live in others. We should do our best in the limited time and in the limited capacity we have.

We should also remember that it is much harder to take a stance or take the initiative to begin or establish something new. It is far easier to put up a sign which declares one’s fake loyalty to some authority, to put up a sign which says, “I conform. Please let me live” than taking risks. The stakes are higher for those who decide to “live in truth” and bear the consequences. We should therefore honour those who do so for they do it for us and, by so doing, present us with the rare gift of hope. We should also aspire to pave our own paths towards that direction.    

Verita (center front) with the Faculty of Arts, Chulalongkorn University's board of directors

What are you planning to do next?

Well, the work continues. Teaching continues. A new term will start soon.

I would like to finish all my pending translation, research and other cultural projects and then set out to write a book on censorship and the connection between Central/Eastern European and Southeast Asian literatures and political histories.