TENNESSEE WILLIAMS IN BANGKOK
by Eddie Woods
ISBN 0 934301 71 9
Distributed by aftermathbooks.com
aftermath books, 42 forest street, providence, rhode island, 02906, USA
What I look for in any kind of autobiographical book is – a) that it is written well, b) that the experiences narrated in it have a ring of authenticity about them and c) that it is readable and entertaining. Of course, it helps if the subject-matter interests you as well, but that must be taken as read. On all four counts, Eddie Woods’ memoir of the time he spent in Thailand and its environs in the 70s, Tennessee Williams in Bangkok, passes with flying colours. One of the great things about Woods’ writing – especially about sex – is that it is invariably vivid. This is especially true of Woods’ account of his relations with the transgendered men – or ‘lady-boys’ – in the book. The big love of his life at the time was a cross-dressing Singaporean Chinese rent-boy called Kim, living with whom he describes in very intimate terms. The fact that Woods is a good, crisp and humorous writer helps him convey all that he needs to about this relationship without in any way boring the reader.
Tennessee Williams in Bangkok is mainly – but not exclusively – about Eddie Woods’ relationship with Tennessee Williams during the periods the latter spent in Bangkok. Eddie Woods first met Tennessee Williams (aka Thomas Lanier Williams) during the early 70s, while on assignment with the Thai English language paper, the Bangkok Post. A lot of his account is gossipy, as you’d expect, with the crisscrossing of names such as Gore Vidal, Yukio Mishima, William Burroughs, Harold Norse, Paul Bowles, Brion Gysin and others. But this is not simply name-dropping, as all these figures are woven into the text – sometimes in insightful ways. Some of the book’s interest for me lay in what is revealed about Williams’ – and Woods’ – sexual proclivities and their contrasting attitudes towards them. Both Woods and Williams could be described as “gay” – though Woods would be more aptly described as bi-sexual. Nevertheless, they represent very divergent versions of what it might mean to be “gay”. You don’t have to go very far into the book to realise that homosexuality is not simply one thing and that there are many homosexualities – or bisexualities for that matter – a fact which may be confusing to some people, who like the question of what people are cut, dried and neatly pre-packaged. Williams’ tastes ran to ‘butch’ men, while Woods’ veered off towards the androgynous Katoy, or ‘lady-boy’ type, for which Bangkok is famous. (A troupe called The Lady Boys of Bangkok have been performing at the Edinburgh Festival for so long now that they have become almost part of the furniture!) As Woods says, there are just not the same hang-ups in Thailand about sexual orientation as there have been in the west.
At one point, the political implications of Woods’ and Williams’ contrasting preferences are vividly brought out when Woods discusses what Williams later wrote in his Memoirs. “For him, Gay Lib was a serious crusade in which ‘camp mannerisms’ had no place. He viewed extreme forms of swish and camp as products of self-mockery.” Woods strongly disagrees with Williams here, arguing that some men are simply like that. I must confess to being in agreement with Woods on this point. Some people ARE simply like that, and there is nothing anyone can do about it. A ‘butch dyke’ is simply that; she is not trying to live up to her image of a man – or indeed anyone’s image of anything at all. Likewise, the ‘camp queen’. Differences of this kind seem to emerge naturally, and it really doesn’t matter what your political – or indeed religious – convictions are, because it won’t make a blind bit of difference. Woods also discusses a parallel situation involving tensions between the theatre-groups, Gay Sweatshop and Blue Lips, aka The Brixton Fairies in London while Woods lived there during the later 70s. Philosophically, he sided with the latter, despite the respect he obviously had for the former. As I see it, Woods’ predilection for ‘lady-boys’ should elicit no more comment than Williams’ preferences for big butch men. After all, as he is quite happy to tell us, such propensities in Woods in no way preclude the apparently paradoxical fact that he liked to be fucked by his ‘lady-boy’ lovers and in the book even describes himself as a male lesbian. People might mock at this, but all I can say is “Why not?”. Nothing is written in any of these matters. Difference is the name of the game, after all, not an identity-politics which, in the end, becomes a kind of Procrustean bed for people to lie on. One of the things I liked about this book was the vividness with which Woods brings matters like this to life, especially in the context of the relationship he strikes up with Tennessee Williams. They never, by the way, ended up sleeping together. Woods wasn’t butch enough for Williams, and Williams (or Tom, as he was known by his friends), though camp enough, was not really Eddie’s type.
Woods doesn’t just deal with Williams’ sexual appetites, however; the creative impasse Williams felt he had reached, especially since the death of his lover some years earlier and his subsequent alcoholism is also well brought out. Woods got close enough to Williams for the latter to reveal that he had lost his sense of direction, creatively speaking. This was in part due to personal factors, but also to the kind of work the public expected him to continue writing. Williams was moving in a more experimental direction, which wasn’t appreciated by his public and Woods deals with this creative dilemma in a very insightful way. It is, after all, a dilemma that most artists of integrity face once they reach a certain stage of development at which they are not content to rest on their laurels. As a result, Woods’ account goes a long way towards humanising the myth of ‘Tennessee Williams’ which may exist in the mind of his public.
Woods is one of those people who has obviously kicked around quite a lot in his life, and this comes across vividly. “Been there, done that” could almost be the book’s leitmotif. It’s partly what gives it its flavour. His time as a journalist in Bangkok and elsewhere, for instance, put him in touch with many leading political figures in Thailand, Indonesia and Singapore in the 70s – not all of them very savoury characters – and what he has to say about them can be very revealing. One particular incident in which Woods had to hightail it out of Thailand to avoid arrest for a certain journalistic indiscretion he committed during the dictatorship years of Prapas Charusathien and Thanom Kittikachorn in the early 70s is especially memorable because it is so well described – almost down to the last palpitation of panic. It is one of the great virtues of this book that Woods can take you into his own feelings about whatever it is he is relating in a way that you seem to be there with him and can identify with what he is going through.
The main autobiographical part of the book and its Epilogue, in which Woods relates how the book came to be written, is followed by a short 3-scene play called One Audience In Search Of A Character, which was first published on the front page of the Bangkok Post‘s Sunday Magazine on October 18th 1970. The text is complemented by photographs which were taken at the time of many of the characters who crop up in the book.
The final impression left by Tennessee Williams In Bangkok is that of a natural story-teller relishing telling the tale he has to tell and bringing his characters and situations to life in a way that is highly infectious.
Tennessee Williams in Bangkok can be purchased directly from Aftermath Books (recommended for folks in the USA) by sending an email to: firstname.lastname@example.org
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This review first appeared in issue 16 of Ol’ Chanty (Chanticleer Magazine online), November 2013