It may surprise readers that Mai Nardone’s lyrical and haunting “Welcome Me to the Kingdom” had its origins in an economics class.
Attending college in the United States and majoring in economics, Nardone, who is Thai and American, studied Thailand’s 1997 economic crisis, which he described as a “cataclysmic moment for my parents’ generation.” Later, when he began writing fiction, Nardone was drawn back to this historical moment and how it impacted his family and community. “The rest of the story line unspooled from there,” he said. “I was going backward and forward in time trying to find these characters at different points.”
“Welcome Me to the Kingdom,” a collection of loosely connected stories, follows three sets of characters in Bangkok whose lives intersect over the course of several decades. From varied perspectives, we watch Lara, the daughter of an American father and Thai mother, navigating the challenges of being mixed race and female; Pinky, the daughter of “Thai Elvis,” and her cousin Ping, whose overbearing Chinese-born father mourns the loss of his family’s wealth and standing; and orphans Benz and Tintin, who get by thanks to their wits and their care for each other.
Nardone’s stories touch on poverty, class divisions, colorism, cockfighting, sex work, abortion, police corruption, the impact of colonialism, and the lengths that people will go to in order to survive. Nardone also introduces us to cultural oddities that intrigue him, like the popularity of Elvis impersonators, the ubiquity of playful nicknames, and the peculiar development of Bangkok’s unregulated and territorial volunteer paramedic teams.
The overlapping stories of “Welcome Me to the Kingdom” reflect the physically, socially, and culturally layered quality of Thailand and particularly Bangkok. “In Thailand, everything is kind of on top of one another,” Nardone said. “You have a lot more interactions with a wider variety of people.” In his writing, Nardone peels back those layers to reveal what outsiders rarely see. “I wanted to show the Thailand that is not tourist facing. When people think of Thailand, they think of what the tourism sector, whether officially or unofficially, is pushing. It’s the ‘land of smiles,’ which was a tourism slogan, or its reputation as a destination for sex tourism,” he said. “I wanted to cover some of that range, and to show the other sides of the country as well.”
Megan Rubiner Zinn is a freelance writer and editor; her website is cherryandparsons.com.