Who do you think you are, white girl, writing from the first-person point of view of a Thai guy? Don’t you know that kind of appropriation has its roots in a classic and despicable colonialism?

Yes! I do know this! I was an English major heavy on the women’s studies at Oberlin College in the late 80s, and I studied exactly this in every three out of four classes. But I couldn’t help it. This character came and sat in my brain and started talking, and the writer part of me was stronger than the good student. I was like: Damn it, I don’t care! I’m writing this down! Plus, he was so handsome.


How did you come to know so much about cute Thai guys in the first place?

When I backpacked around Southeast Asia in my twenties, Thailand was my base. And I just about fainted from the charming beauty of the boys. And I hooked up with a few of them.


So is Piv based on one of these guys?

Not specifically, although I’m sure they all inform him. The book probably comes out of my pondering on the issues of sex and romance in a tourist culture, and about issues of power and attraction in general. I sure thought a lot about that. My best girlfriend at home was Vietnamese, and we mocked the legions of guys with Asian girl fetishes. Just generally, we were used to being in the role of the ogled, rather than the ogler—we had formed identities and oppositions around that. So there I was in Thailand, all butched up because I didn’t want my femininity to make me vulnerable as a woman traveling alone, and I found myself developing an Asian boy fetish. I knew it was potentially creepy! It felt especially so because of my own ungainly drag. But it was similar to my choice of narrator. My mind might have been saying: What’s up with this Asian guy fetish? But the rest of me was like: Hel-lo!

And actually, maybe I’m selling myself short. I don’t think I was a jerk. I wasn’t using people as blowup dolls with which to masturbate. I had real, if speeded-up, relationships with individuals. It’s just, this other baggage is always there—the transience, the imbalance, the difference. As a foreigner who didn’t speak the language, I was often dependant on the local person—which is sometimes sexy and sometimes scary, and which required a trust I didn’t always feel—and I was often entranced by him. But all that was very temporary. Even with the guy who supported me financially for a while when I was beggared, the dollars I could earn at home were worth much more in the world; I was much freer to roam. And my culture roamed—tromped, really—around the globe. I felt the presence of my race and nationality.

There are so many different impetuses for desire, so many reasons why one might be desired: physical, cultural, financial, personal. That’s the case anywhere, but Thailand is where the variety came into focus for me. Maybe this sense of having been on both sides of various coins fed into my decision to tell the story in dual narration. (In addition to the first-person Thai narrator, Piv, there’s a third-person narrator that’s very close to the American woman who becomes involved with him, Robin.)


And what about animal smuggling?

There’s a big animal smuggling plot in the book. It ties into the ideas about desire, to the questions of why we desire what, or who, we do. And it relates to the questions of global power.


So, what is this, some heavy, guilt-ridden book seeped in the identity politics of 1989?

No! Or, well, maybe, if you’re looking for that, but it’s also a totally smooth-flowing, page-turning beach read. It’s a literary thriller. You should read it. Please read it. Or at least buy it for a friend who likes to go on trips.


You have a full-time job and two kids, one of whom is two. Is it hard to find time to write?

I have a totally horrific image, and I won’t even say where it comes from—OK, it comes from my mom. A hummingbird got into her house recently, and she used bug spray to kill it. My image of me and writing is sometimes this: it’s more like a stick. Like I try to beat the hummingbird to death with a stick, or a club. Get out of here! You cannot live in my house! Then, obviously, I break down weeping and clutch the bird to my bosom and nurse it back to health and the violence with which I attacked it is now a scary-passionate love and I feel like I would die for it, or at least risk serious injury.

And the thing is, I was not there when my mom tried to kill the hummingbird; she just told me about it on the phone. But I was there when she did something similar to a big hairy spider. I was a little kid, and I saw her try to kill the spider with Raid. We were in her bedroom. The spider would not die. It’d curl up into a ball while the hissing streams of poison rained down upon it, and when the spray stopped, it would uncurl and scuttle away for a few inches until the next blast. The room stunk of fumes. Finally, she said, OK, one more time, and if he lives, he deserves to live. And my memory is that the spider lived to crawl away. Of course, who knows what happened to it once it got in its hole, but at least it died alone, in dignity.

So I guess me and writing is more like the spider and the bug spray. For one thing, the urge to write is still alive in me. But also, this urge does not always make me happy. It’s not always light and pretty and busy, like a hummingbird. I’ve had periods when it’s been like that, but as long as I can remember, well before the kids and the mortgage, it’s been a gross scary thing, too. But what can you do? And really, most spiders aren’t all that dangerous. They eat mosquitoes, after all. It’s probably the mosquitoes that will get you in the end. So I’m in a stage where I’m trying to let the spider/hummingbird stay. I’m setting out saucers of sugar water for it, or whatever. But yes, it’s hard to find time to write.

But I got derailed. I want to talk some more about Currency. I think it’s a pleasure-giving book. It has good characters, and, just to be clear: I’ve never tried to spray them with poison. I’ve nurtured them; they’re nurtured me. It has an interesting setting, a suspenseful plot. I really hope it finds an audience. I hope people read it while they’re traveling, or that it gives people the sense of traveling, of being swept along with eyes wide open. In fact, if you’re about to go on a trip and would like to take Currency, contact me at my blog and tell me where you’re going. I’ll send a free copy to the first person or two who does so, with the request that you leave it behind when you’re done, so someone else can find it.

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ZOE ZOLBROD's first novel, Currency, won a 2010 Nobbie Award. She was born in Meadville, Pennsylvania; went to college in Oberlin, Ohio; and got a MA from University of Illinois at Chicago. She works in educational publishing and lives in Evanston, IL, with her husband, the artist Mark DeBernardi, and their son and daughter. She's currently at work on a memoir.

10 responses to “Zoe Zolbrod: The TNB 

  1. Sue Diessner says:

    I, too, wondered about the audacity of a white girl from Pennsylvania (I’m a white girl from Pa) writing in the voice of a Thai boy. I’ve never been to Thailand, but I spent a little time in South Korea and China and your delivery rings true to me. I’m 8 chapters in and this is a great read!

    • zoe zolbrod says:

      Thank you so much for your comment, Sue! You’re the first person I know of who I don’t know who has picked up the book, and I can’t tell you how glad I an that it’s sitting right with you.

  2. Christina says:

    ooOOoooo. . . this sounds like a great read!

    I’m living in China right now and I’m curious to see how you captured the pov from an Asian–Thai– man! Thinking about writing from the perspective of a Chinese man fills me with anxiety, putting it mildly.

    • zoe zolbrod says:

      Christina, I never would have dreamed of writing in that POV when I was in Thailand. I think it’s the kind of thing were distance can help. But I guess I’m that kind of writer, anyway. I need time to digest and mull about anything. I’m not so great on the spot.

  3. Dika Lam says:

    Zoe, I’m looking forward to reading the book. And bravo to you for writing from the perspective of a Thai man. I think the danger of political correctness is its tendency to limit a writer’s range.

  4. […] of course, everything’s more interesting if it’s autobiographical—I’ve been yakking about how sleeping with Thai guys probably inspired me to write from the first-person point o…. I’m trying to get over my fear that I’m boring people by talking about or reading from my […]

  5. […] ZOE ZOLBROD on Zoe Zolbrod […]

  6. M.J. Fievre says:

    I love how you casually mention backpacking around Southeast Asia. So cool 😉 I would love to visit Asia. I’m going to check out your book on Amazon.

  7. […] from me in person. She found one mention of herself in my online writing—it was on this site, in my self interview—and she took issue with it. She wants you to know: That hummingbird that got into her bedroom? […]

  8. […] They invited me to participate in super-rocking events in New York City, Los Angeles, and Chicago; featured me as an author on the site; posted a excellent review of Currency a few months later; gave me a […]

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