Inside Out with Daniel Ziv & Guy Sharett
I am an avid fan of both Jakarta Inside Out (JIO) by Daniel Ziv and the more recently-released Bangkok Inside Out (BIO) by Daniel Ziv & Guy Sharett. So naturally, picking the brains of both pop culture observers cum travel writers was an inevitable assignment for Myindo.com. Finally, after four months in the brewing, we are ready to reveal the "inside-outs" of Daniel & Guy! Brace yourself, this ain't your regular interview...!
Daniel: Bangkok Inside Out (BIO) was a very different experience for me than Jakarta Inside Out (JIO). To be honest, I didn’t know Bangkok as well as I knew Jakarta, which is the reason I held a gun to Guy’s head and forced him to co-write BIO with me; he knew Bangkok the way a Polish prostitute knows the back alleys of the red light district in East Warsaw, so we were pretty set. And JIO was a lonelier experience and I really had no idea what the end product would look like. With BIO we had a clear idea of what we were aiming for, so the process was more fun and there were a lot of laughs as we researched the city together. At least we laughed. Ordinary passersby were mostly appalled. A few cried. But the book is finished now.
Guy: Very funny. My grandmother was born in Poland and I don’t see any reason to make fun of it. No, Daniel, she’s not from East Warsaw, thank you very much. I believe you’ve got roots there as well.
2. Why Bangkok? How did you and Guy come to decide to peel the skin off Bangkok?
Daniel: Bangkok was always a natural choice for the next ‘Inside Out’ book, because as a colorful, fast-moving, funky, mysterious Southeast Asian city with lots of quirks, it seemed to lend itself perfectly to the ‘Inside Out’ format. We would not have chosen Luxembourg or Ipoh or Kansas for instance. (Although I’ve never actually been to any of those places, so I might be doing a terrible injustice to cities that in fact have a secretly exciting edge and should be documented right away in the funkiest possible manner.)
Daniel: I seem to have created parallel lives for myself (apartment, friends, hangouts, angry neighbors) in both cities, so it’s hard to say which is ‘home’ right now. I’m in Jakarta for the next few months working on a film project. Moving back and forth between the two cities is mostly enjoyable, if a bit schizophrenic and unsettling at times. As for the chaos factor, Jakarta takes the cake. Bangkok still has tons of intrigue, but it’s a far more organized city. Jakarta, endearingly, is still very raw, untamed and gritty. Which is why it’s loads of fun.
4. We've read that Guy is fluent in Thai and six other languages. Do you speak Thai? Is it harder to learn than Bahasa Indonesia?
Daniel: Thai is definitely way harder than Bahasa Indonesia, and I salute Guy (although he rarely salutes back) for having mastered it in a few short years. Then again, Guy gets his thrills from trying to read the bible in Swahili or Urdu, so go figure…I speak enough Thai to get by, but I have a long way to go before I can begin lecturing on early Canadian history at Chulalongkorn University. I know absolutely nothing about early Canadian history.
Guy: I have to admit Thai is the most difficult language I have ever studied. Thai is very idiomatic, and many times you just need to accept formulae which come ‘as is’.
5. What was it like working with Guy Sharett on BIO? When Guy said he collected retro posters, did he mean Thai movie ones? Apart from airline timetables, does Guy collect barf bags too? (Like this dude: www.airsicknessbags.com)
Guy: No barf bags for me, I’m afraid (but thanks for the fascinating web link, Fairy. Busy week, huh?) I do have a collection - secular, of course - of Bibles in different languages. My Retro posters are mainly what I call indoctrination posters, such as an Indian poster I bought in a Delhi bazaar, entitled 'An Ideal Boy'. It portrays a young boy doing his daily activities. This boy 'takes meals in time', 'salutes parents' and 'goes for a morning walk'. A real ideal boy.
Daniel: Working with Guy is frustrating and hazardous, because he constantly cracks me up. We’ll be trying to conduct an interview in the street or edit some text and he’ll suddenly launch into a frighteningly accurate imitation of a Thai ladyboy speaking Indonesian with a heavy German accent. What does one do in the face of such an absurd spectacle?! I am still helpless. Also, we’ll go to a live music joint and he’ll order the band to sing a Bee Gees or Britney Spears tune and have them dedicate it to me because he knows how embarrassed I’ll get. I hate it when he does that. It makes we want to bitch-slap him the way Russians do to each other in winter in Vladivostok.
6. There are undeniably many similarities between Bangkokian and Jakartan pop culture (i.e. krating daeng, lady boys, piracy, etc). Crossing racial and religious boundaries, which pop culture traits would you say Asian cities share most?
Daniel: Gosh, Fairy, that’s a hard question. Why are you asking us HARD questions? We are not clever. We’ve pretty much been bluffing our way through most of this interview. But I guess I would say that in the Southeast Asian cities I’ve spent the most time in, a common trait is that young people like to live fast and fun and for the moment, hence things like energy drinks, the obsession with karaoke and pop music and mobile phones, the many sexual intrigues, the interest in fashion and shiny new gadgets. I suppose young people everywhere enjoy those things, but Southeast Asians seem to embrace it all with greater gusto. Southeast Asians can SMS faster than any other people on earth. I think Filipino teenage girls are fastest, but we need to double-check this.
7. Which chapters were the most challenging to put together in BIO?
Guy: I guess each chapter had its own difficulties and sensitivities. In 'Farang' (foreigner), for example, we found it hard to sum up all the emotional baggage of this loaded term in just 400 words. In 'Katoey' (transgenders) we had an idee fixe that transgenders were truly accepted in Bangkok society, but during the writing process we learned that this was not actually the case. In 'Monarchy' we were walking on thin ice because of the sensitivity of this issue in Thailand, especially as non-Thai writers. We kept showing drafts of this chapter to Thai friends until we got the cultural green light.
8. Your favorite chapters from BIO?
Guy: Soi Dogs, 7-Eleven, Pha Yen (wet towel) and Luuk Kreung (Eurasians) were all chapters that were aching to be written. For me, they represent the reason for writing this book. I still laugh out loud when I read Soi Dogs.
Daniel: Ditto for 7-Eleven, plus Sounds, DIY Dining, Emporium, Hi-So/Lo-So and maybe Chao Isaan. They all represent sides of Bangkok that to me are either ludicrous or endearing, or both.
9. Which food tastes better, Thai or Indonesian?
Guy: With all my love for my second tanah air (heimat, patria) Indonesia, where I lived for a year, I must admit Thai food is better. It is more intriguing. Sometimes I feel that eating it is a journey, with so many flavors you encounter in phases. Sate is great, but you can't say it's particularly refined. Laab is challenging.
Daniel: “Laab is challenging”?! Good lord, where did I find this person?! But I must admit I agree with Mr Laab here. Thai food is incredibly complex and delicate and really each dish is a kind of adventure. The variety, too, is endless. But Indonesian food is delicious. And there is a kind of sophistication to Padang cuisine in particular that on a good day could give Thai fare a run for its money.
10. The most over-romanticized subjects of Thailand are...
Guy: Don't get me started. The temples, the Grand Palace, the canals. The Chao Praya River. The Land of Smiles.
Daniel: May I puke please?
11. We can't help but notice the prominence of gay/lady boy culture in your two ‘Inside Out’ books. Your thoughts on the matter?
Guy: We thought it would be interesting to see whether some Bangkok stereotypes were true. We went to see a gay bar where guys were erotic-dancing inside a live aquarium, and we talked to Bangkokian transgenders. We felt each of these groups deserved its own, separate, chapter. Nowadays gays have considerable influence on fashion, lifestyle and contemporary culture all over the world, including Bangkok. Linguistically, katoey contribute words and expressions to Bangkokian language and we thought it would be cool to give them some credit for these tremendously creative idioms.
Daniel: ‘Prominence’ in our books? That’s a relative term. Gays and lady boys account for two out of the sixty or so topics in each book, so about 3%. Discussing either city without including these important communities would border on negligence; they are an inseparable part of the landscape and a delightful, energetic part of the great human mosaic that is Bangkok and Jakarta. It’s something to celebrate rather than ignore.
12. At the back of BIO there were no funny caricatures depicting stereotypical characters of Bangkokians like you had of Jakartans in JIO. Why did you choose instead an essay about the Grace Hotel as the closure to BIO?
Guy: We tried hard to find the Bangkokian equivalents of Benny and Mice, the gifted Jakarta cartoonists who created those funny caricatures in JIO, but never found them. There were many artists who invited us to 'order' caricatures from them, but we refused. We wanted artists who already had their own original, hilarious take on the city, and since we didn't find them, we went for something else. Daniel came up with the idea of Grace, his Mecca, but I'll let him tell you all about it.
Daniel: The Grace Hotel just always struck me as this absurd little corner of Bangkok, a sleazy but culturally curious place that had very little to do with the rest of the city. Anomalies are always interesting, and the color in and around the hotel was too much to resist. So I spent a weekend there and did a fun little essay on everything I witnessed. It’s not a terribly important piece of writing. Readers can always use those pages to roll cigarettes or scoop up kitty litter. It’s good to be resourceful.
13. What's your next target city? Would you ever consider a ‘KL Inside Out’ or ‘Singapore Inside Out’? Criteria or potential cities that would make it into your "Yes-I'll-'Inside-Out'-This-City-For-Sure!' list.
Daniel: The target city would have to be frantic, confusing, colorful and quirky. A place like Singapore wouldn’t quite make the grade. It’s too clean, polite and organized, and we wouldn’t be allowed to say anything cheeky about their excellent government, so it wouldn’t be much fun anyway. KL? Hmmm. It could happen. But the thing to keep in mind is that the ‘Inside Out’ concept requires a writer who knows the city intimately, speaks the language, has lived there for years. It’s not a Berlitz travel guide listing phone numbers for hotels and restaurants or directions from the airport. The ‘Inside Out’ format requires a degree of cultural assimilation that I don’t think either of us possesses for any other city on earth right now; if we ever decided to do ‘Istanbul Inside Out’ it would probably take Guy at least 3 weeks to become totally fluent in Turkish, so I don’t think you’ll see this series grow too quickly unless we identify some great local writers who can do the job for us somehow.
14. Other travel books (or books in general) that you'd recommend to fans of Jakarta Inside Out and Bangkok Inside Out.
Guy: 'Khabarovsk Outside In' is an amazing book that every traveler should carry. Daniel wrote it in the 1950s, when his family was sent to the Gulag there. It's full of wisdom and inside jokes, especially when he writes about his hamster at the time, Grisha, Daniel's source of inspiration. Unfortunately Grisha is long gone, but it's amazing how the book remains relevant in this day and age.
Daniel: Now that I am remembering Grisha I can hardly remember the question. Such a good hamster. And such a cruel death. Oh – travel books. Far too many to cover here, but personally I’ve been moving away from traditional ‘travel guides’, as such. Although they are a convenient way to find out the bottom line about a place (assuming places even have a ‘bottom line’), they tend to narrow rather than expand one’s experience of a place. They tell you exactly where to go, what to eat, and sometimes even what to think. This defeats the whole purpose of real travel, which, as I see it, is to delve into the unknown and feel your way through the dark a bit until you form your own impression of a place. So I’m a big fan of more general background books: novels set in the place we’re traveling, well-written historical takes, pop culture accounts, and other such sources that might illuminate – rather than dictate - our experience of a place. As far as I know, very few travelers have been killed during their journey because they didn’t have a Lonely Planet guidebook in their hand.
15. What makes your books different from all the other travel books that are on the market?
Guy: BIO is not a travel guide in the usual sense: we don’t provide lists of hotels and restaurants or even official ‘must-see’ sights; but we hope that through our light, pop-anthropological explanations, travelers (or just ‘armchair travelers’ at home) can better understand slices of real life in Bangkok, or what makes the city tick. We see it as complementing traditional guidebooks, not replacing them.
Daniel: It’s a book that’s meant to inspire, not tell you what to do or where to go. It’s a book that hopefully you’ll read and maybe suddenly lift your head up and say “Ah, so that’s what that thing we saw yesterday is all about!” It’s social commentary. It’s humor. It’s urban exposé.
16. Words of wisdom for travel-writer-wannabes?
Daniel: Read a lot first. And then read some more. Travel writing is a tight market and a tricky craft, so you’ve got to know your subject well if you want to earn the right to have your voice heard as an ‘authority’ on a place, and that voice had better be original. There are enough “My Trip to the Paradise Island’ articles out there, enough “A Year in Timbuktu” books on the shelves. Writers need to have something new and refreshing to say, and must avoid clichés and over-romanticizing or over-sensationalizing a place. Good travel writing is actually quite subtle. Also, it’s not enough to just go somewhere and then write about it. Plan on spending considerable energy and time and curiosity and emotion figuring places and people out. That’s your value to the reader. Travel writing sounds like a luxury, but it’s not an easy task at all. There is probably more bad writing in travel than in any other literary genre. Be sure to keep your day job.
But seriously, thank you Daniel and Guy for this exclusive interview. Hope we'll see many more "Inside Out" books from you in time to come!Support MyIndo.com and purchase your copy of Bangkok Inside Out and Jakarta Inside Out from Amazon.com! :)
You absolutely have to read my take on both books mentioned in this article:
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