A Man with a Flashlight

Susan Aldous interview, part 3
June 2, 2007, 2:32 pm
Filed under: Hell, Let's Call it Torture, The East, Undiscovered writers

The last round of questions with our favorite Thai prison activist. Read Part 1 and Part 2. And check out Susan’s new book. It’s an eye-opening look at prison life in Thailand and the redemptive power of helping others.

Dear Susan,

Very sorry to take so long with the last set of questions, it’s been a hectic week or two. I know you’re very busy right now with the launch and your work, so please answer at your leisure and I’ll throw it up on the website. Thanks so much for taking the time to have this conversation, I’ve quite enjoyed it, and I hope my five readers have as well. Here we go:

Hi there Jonathan,

Yes, I know the feeling—hectic past few weeks that is—anyway here we are again, you, me and the gang of five, how fun and I too have really enjoyed chatting! One of my favorite pastimes!

You were inspired to give your life to service when you converted to Christianity, and you write that at times you hear a voice that guides you. Is it God? An inner voice? Or what? And how much do you rely on that voice?

The inner voice is definitely a God thing. Sometimes the voice is angels or spirit helpers and at other times it’s Jesus and the big Guy Himself. Sometimes it’s a combination of all those along with the gift of women’s intuition and discernment that comes from tuning into God’s voice and life’s experiences. God broadcasts all the time, it’s just up to us to set our receiver to the right channel.

I rely on the direction-giving, life-changing and miracle-producing radio broadcasts as if they were my lifesaver in the sea of madness. Cannot do any of what I do without the transmissions …

The only credit I take for any other inner voices are the dark, let’s-not-go-there thoughts, which I do have to battle as most of us do daily. You know the self-defeating type of dialogues that we have with ourselves telling us that we should not attempt the impossible etc. I have to shut this kind of communication down by retuning to the Love Channel.

Human rights abuse is a problem all over the world. As an American I am angry that my own government is now practicing torture and worsening the problem. However, from a viewpoint of human rights, many Asian countries don’t compare well with the west. Burma, North Korea, and China are the famous examples, but even in Japan – a developed country with a large middle class – the police have broad powers, suspects do not have the right to an attorney, and the conviction rate per crime committed is over 90%, which makes one wonder if all those convictions are accurate.

Speaking from your experience in Thailand, does Asia have a particular problem in the area of human rights, and if so, why do you think that is?

Definitely a huge problem! In my opinion, the causes are many.

Life is cheap; a disregard for life can be a common mindset. For example, your Karma got you into it so you’re going to have to get yourself out by suffering through and hopefully you can change your destiny to something better. If you were crippled, mentally retarded, orphaned or a criminal you were in the same basket say 20 years ago in Thailand. You were suffering because you were in some sort of pay back mode for past bad actions. This is slowly changing thankfully and I see compassion starting to win out over indifference. Perhaps folk are being a bit more proactive in trying to create good Karma by showing mercy to those in need. Westernization is also responsible and Amnesty reports, books written by former inmates etc too. The changes in institutions have been huge and that is a credit to the Thais as well—I am always amazed when I see the differences in places I visited or worked at years ago compared to how they are at present.

Prisons have improved a great deal, but they are still closed affairs and there is a huge way to go. Additionally, there is much farther to go when it comes to the legal system, especially the court system and lack of concern for the individual. As with Japan, most likely, the big guy is ALWAYS right.

Corruption and greed is rife in Thailand and the west does not set a good example nor do they demand changes as usually our countries want only economic returns. So life may be cheap for us too…

If you are a lowly paid government officer, corruption is easy to succumb to even at the expense of someone else’s life. But, what is our excuse as so called “enlightened” western societies, the supposed bastions of democracy and equality? We are worse because we know better.

I find it interesting that religion played such a large role in your life, yet you write that going to church doesn’t interest you. Do you feel that organized religion falls short of the ideals of Christianity?

My faith is my foundation for my life and all I do, but that does not come from an organized form of religion…sort of a more Jesus, live-the-love-life-style of worship. Walk your talk, live it, do it, don’t preach it. It’s very intimate, passionate and it’s extremely motivating.

My kind of Jesus, if He were in human form on earth today, would take me for a whirl on His Harley and we’d go for long moon lit walks on the beach as we discussed how to better the lives of those that I am put in touch with, plus He’d take time to answer my deepest questions etc. Sort of how it is right now, minus the Harley actually…ha!

Believe me, I respect whatever form of worship folk chose to take, but for me the big money-making hypocritical form of go to church on Sunday to be ‘seen’ doesn’t light my fire. Sometimes I feel closer to God sitting on the floors of some filthy holding cell with open toilets, violent criminals and withdrawing addicts.

So much evil has been committed in the name of God, which I believe to be political power plays rather than true religion. Anne Lamont said in one of her books when referring to some horrid situation, ‘it’s enough to make Jesus want to drink straight gin out of a cat bowl!’ Sometimes when I see man’s inhumanity to man, I am tempted to ask Him to sit down and share the cat bowl with me, and make it a double…

If I did not have faith, could not pray and did not believe that there is a God of Love, I could not bare the things that I constantly see. One day it’ll all come out good in the wash though!

Where would you be today if you hadn’t come to Thailand?

Geesh, that’s a tough one!

Can’t really say, because what was meant to be fell into place as I was swept along in destinies current. However, if I was given a carte blanche, go wherever you want, do whatever you want, no holds barred, no expenses spared, I’d probably use Thailand as a base and hit the road and do the world big time. Perhaps when my daughter is older, settled and if I still feel the same way, I most likely will let my inner gypsy child take over.

Must say though, I feel with my work, constancy of purpose is what makes it effective, so would keep the base here, keep on with the work and then make short forays into other countries and do projects. Somewhat similar to the things I have done in the past in the surrounding countries, but further abroad and a bit more exotic and with greater impact.

If for some reason, I cannot remain in Thailand, I would love to move to Latin America. In many ways I feel more suited to the Latin way of life, but this is the plot I have been given to work with for now. One day at a time, this takes me to the next question…

What goals do you have that remain unfinished? What is ahead for you?

On the personal front: I want to see my daughter grow up and find her niche in life. She is incredibly talented and writes amazingly well, so maybe that’s her thing. Who knows, but we are on one amazing journey to find out.

Take a real holiday.

I love to study, so most likely will do some more of that when the right doors open.

Take a real holiday.

I would like to establish a more stable financial base.

Take a real holiday.

Dare I say it? Perhaps even fall in love again.

Take a real holiday…it’d be nice to even be able to conceptualize what a real holiday looks like at least.

Take a real holiday! Did I already say that?

Improve my Thai and perhaps even learn how to spell in English. The first, being a more achievable goal and then take a holiday.

Work wise: I want to continue working towards seeing the death penalty abolished and working standardized prisoner exchange treaties globally in place. Also, fair treatment for the incarcerated, mentally ill and whoever suffers due to lack of love and justice!

Yeah, yeah, I know I sound like Miss Congeniality’s Sandra Bullock’s antithesis. And with such goals in mind, there goes the holiday! Better to wear out than rust out at least.

Currently, I am having a part in creating two new books. One is giving a voice to Thailand’s Ladyboys and the second is the story of a male sex worker, which all play into some of my outreach programs. This has been extremely interesting and a real learning curve for me, more to come I am sure.

I just want to keep on doing what I am doing, and keep on loving it as much as I do and I am very open to whatever form it all may take as time moves along.

I am satisfied enough to be content and dissatisfied enough to keep on reaching out to accomplish more.

Something that I really love about my life is that no matter what horrid things, difficulties or obstacles happen, I can always eventually reframe them and use them to empathize with those who are in need of encouragement or answers.

I look forward to the future with great hope and expectancy.

Thanks and best wishes,


Thank you too Jonathan, all the best!

Shine bright!


Hugs and kisses to you and the Famous FIVE…

“Dusty” Susan Dustin
P.O. Box 33 Suanyai Post Office
Nonthaburi Thailand 11003

Many thanks to Susan. I wish you luck both in love and in abolishing the death penalty. Keep up the lovely work. Cheers!

Susan Aldous interview part 2
May 7, 2007, 10:45 am
Filed under: Depression, Drug Prohibition, The East, Undiscovered writers

Susan Aldous is back! In the second part of our conversation we talk about her current charity work at a Thai women’s shelter, her wild adolescence, and being a mother.

See previous posts on Susan here, here, and here.

Hi Susan,

Good stuff! Thanks for such substantial answers, I’ve put them up on the blog, for all five of my readers! Here are my next questions. If this starts to take up too much of your time, just let me know and I’ll understand completely.

HI there Jonathan,
Back in the saddle and getting settled in Thailand after a grueling convoluted trip back home from my original home. Hi to all five readers by the way!
Ok, so here goes round two!

You’re still working part-time with prisoners, but you write that most of your time now is spent at a women’s shelter with abused women, single mothers, and women with HIV. Tell us a little about what you bring to these women, or indeed what they bring to you.

I spend a good amount of time with the women, perhaps not as much as I’d like, but each little bit surely counts in such a place. Number one is just being a friend, someone who cares and shows attention and encourages them with their lives and the lives of their kids. I help them feel good about being mommies, I help them feel important in their illnesses, I strive to be a part of all that they go through as best I can. Something that they particularly like is having their photos taken, especially with their kids and newborns. A tiny gesture on my part, but huge for those participating. A photo magically cements their relationships with their children and builds self-esteem. As for the HIV girls, it shows they will not be forgotten; they have a souvenir to send to their families back home, they will not be erased after they pass on. We play and glam it up, it’s so fun.
As for me, wow, somehow going to spend time with the girls is an exercise in serenity, happiness and the celebration of life, it’s a blessing of love to them and in return in my own life. Serenity in the sense, it’s a beautiful, quiet, safe place and I feel that the women are given dignity and that is so rewarding, I partake of the spirit.
Additionally it’s a joyous venture having twenty-something snotty nosed kids jumping all over you, hanging off of your arms and grabbing your legs so that you cannot escape. It can go from serenity to a madhouse in mere seconds. We all hug and kiss a lot too-joyful, joyful!

Shifting gears somewhat – I confess that for me, one of the most entertaining parts of your book was the description of your teenage years. I can call it entertaining because I know you survived and put it behind you, otherwise it would be depressing. To say you raised some hell wouldn’t really do it justice – you had probably done more drugs at the age of 14 than most people manage all their lives. You describe putting on shows for your friends where you would cut and pierce yourself, and burn yourself with cigarettes – sort of exhibitionism and self- destruction at the same time. I thought it was fascinating because it seems like you were trying so hard to escape the normalness of life. Indeed you told a friend you might kill yourself.
Not everyone goes through this, but many young people do. What can be done to make their struggle easier? How do you feel looking back at your adolescence?

It’s very surreal looking back as if that person died when I was born into a new life of caring for others. Somehow though, the old person is my bridge to reach those who hurt and ache now, a gift if you will. I respect all that I went through as being a great teacher. It’s been odd for me to hear how shocked folk are by my past when they read the book. I suppose it was normal to me and par for the course. In fact, I just read the book in print for the first time yesterday, and I felt that even by today’s standards I was definitely hard core and it was nothing short of a miracle that I survived to tell the story and to even make something good of the mess.
My greatest desire is that some young person will pick up the book and be affected for the better by it, that they will identify and it will offer hope and a way out. So many folk are affected by suicidal notions and attempt to kill themselves, many sadly succeeding. I think we can all make it easier on those who suffer by being honest about our own failings and weaknesses. It starts by being honest with ourselves, then by being real, open, available
and really listening.
Not only did I threaten to kill myself, I tried to several times, all in hopes that someone would rescue me and plant me on a more satisfying path. I was trying to escape normalcy, but more accurately, I wanted to find truth, a way of life that did not match the nine to five box that I was told I should get into. I was desperate for answers; I searched in all the wrong places. Finally I found what I needed to not only give me purpose, but to arm me for life’s difficulties and reach out to others. We live in hugely materialistic societies, where we are building walls against each other. Folk are isolated and lonely. The latest trinkets, the unfulfilling education, the grand job and the perfect marriage do not satisfy-there has to be more soul satisfaction, something to get passionate about.
Nothing better than being a part of the solution. If we want friends we have to be one. We can all reach out to a soul who is hurting and in turn find happiness as a bonus byproduct. We don’t have to have all the answers to help someone; we just need to be a friend.

At the age of 16, you leave all of that behind and decide to give your life to serving others. In your book the transformation seems almost effortless. Was it really that smooth? Can you describe how it happened? Did those feelings of being lost or desperate ever come back later in life?

It was a fast and easy transformation initially. Not dissimilar to asking someone to leave poison, fear and loneliness behind and showing them where to dump it, someone did that for me, so I walked from my past into something way better. That was the easy part, I had nothing to lose but the harder bits followed later. I battled with life, obstacles, lack of funding and relationships that left me sad. I met with folk who did not want help. I battled with my own selfishness, pride and anger. I had much to overcome within myself and to learn how to love and unselfishly care for others. I had to deal with disappointment time and time again in so many forms; I had to deal with the knowledge that I had disappointed others. It can be a
lonely job and sometimes you have to fight those closest to you to keep on going. The path that I have chosen, so few walk on it and it can be a solitary process at times.
All my battles and sadness though have a purpose and they teach how to empathize and help another, they are productive, therefore the old feelings of being lost have never returned in 30 years. Even the worst day now is better than my past, while some of my present days can be pretty frustrating, I can now make them work for me and others. A higher purpose!

You’re now a mother. Like a lot of hippies who have started families, you must struggle over what to tell your daughter about that era of drugs and free love. How do you deal with that question?

I have always been exceptionally honest and open with my daughter; of course all information has had to be age appropriate too. I have used my past to share with her the pitfalls of life and the solutions to these situations-I have tried to give her the tools to deal with such situations. She in turn, as all teens will do has hidden some things from me. However, she is on the overall extremely open with me and usually ends up ‘fessing up. She can ask me anything and sometimes she asks some pretty heavy sexual questions, which I welcome as it’s better to hear it from mom than to have misinformation from her peers. She knows she’ll not get in trouble for asking, and only a wee bit when confessing some wrong, but there’ll be big trouble if she lies and hides things and I find out later. Honesty pays in my house, even when it’s a hard truth to bear.
Like me, she’s had to learn some things the hard way, but we work through them and she’s a great kid with many gifts and even on her bad days she always somehow draws on her resources and pulls through.
Life was hard for me as a teen, but I’d hate to live in my daughter’s generation, I feel it’s much harder and the peer pressure is insane. I admire her for her fighting spirit at times, it’s just not easy and it’s hard being a mom at times.

That’s it for now, thanks again for taking this time!

Thanks to you too. All the best,
Love, peace and tie-dyed,

“Dusty” Susan Dustin
P.O. Box 33 Suanyai Post Office
Nonthaburi Thailand

Even after learning the hard truth about my blog’s limited readership, Susan comes through with another batch of detailed, hard-hitting answers. Much appreciated!

One last round of questions is coming up, so if you have any questions for Susan you’d like me to ask, this is your chance to email them to me.

Susan Aldous’ new book is The Angel of Bang Kwang Prison, published last month by Maverick House. Maverick House also published the memoir of Chavoret Jaruboon, Thailand’s last prison executioner, The Last Executioner.

Susan Aldous interview part 1

Our conversation with the the recently-published prison rights activist begins! Uncut, uncensored, unplugged. Here goes.

Hi Susan,

No problem, thank you for taking the time to answer some questions for the blog, I consider it quite an honor. Here are the first questions I have for you, just respond however they strike you:

Thanks Jonathan, kind words for sure. Yes, I’ll just sort of free fall here and see what comes out.

The book tells your life story. Reading it, I was struck by how far- fetched and unpredictable your journey has been. Can you say something about what guided you to Thailand, and to the work you do now?

Surely my life sounds bizarre and totally unpredictable and especially if you know me personally, you’d realize just how incredible that is. I like to do the daring, crazy and adventurous, but I am a deeply pragmatic person who also appreciates a bit of stability so these two sides sort of play themselves off against each other and then final mix comes out to be some significant care giving.
My work, I believe it to be nothing short of a calling and my passion, the thing that I was born to do. I knew from a very early age that I needed to make a difference and searched for it in all the wrong places until at 16 the challenge came to “give my life away instead of throwing it away” and a volunteer calling ensued. My work has taken me to 18 countries over the past 30 years, most of which have been in Thailand.
I’d been in SEA for almost 5 years, I’d visited Thailand a few times, and I was working on shipments of donated goods for refugees along the Thai Cambodian border so I had links. For some time I fought with myself over moving to Thailand, I knew I was supposed to, but worked to drown out those thoughts when they pestered me. I think I was afraid as I sensed that such a move was going to change my life drastically. Eventually, those inner whispers were becoming relentless and deafening, additionally, circumstances provided an opportunity to visit and I could no longer fight what was happening or was supposed to happen—so I went with the flow.
I believe in destiny, I believe in choice and when they work in unison, well miracles burst forth. Little did I know what lay ahead and what an adventure it has been so far!

I’ve been trying to think of a way to sum up the charity work you’ve done, and it hasn’t been easy. You have worked in hospitals with paralyzed and dying patients; in prisons with murderers, rapists, and drug traffickers; in hospitals for pregnant women with HIV; and much else. What ties it all together?

The heart strings of love tie it all together, the desire to make a difference and crazy Don Quixote like spirit. I go through any open door that I feel right about, I go for short periods, long periods or one offs…I just go, I do and I follow the leadings that come to me. Some projects I work on for years, others are as simple as a few hours spent with a single person. But the common thread is compassion and caring being bought to a needy world and a desire to be a part of the solution instead of the problem.

I’m struck by the fact that you haven’t done much political agitation or lobbied to change government policies in Thailand. Is this a fair statement? What made you choose this focus on addressing problems “one life at a time,” instead of at the level of government policies?

If we can change one life, then we change a very significant part of the world and naturally that starts with ourselves. If I can inspire one person, he or she may be a Gandhi or a Mother Teresa in the making, or perhaps a politician who can change laws and a country’s outlook on life and the wellbeing of its citizens. I work by sample, I let that speak and I do believe that through my consistent actions I have made significant changes and affected officials to do more to care for their own. At least some feedback tells me this.
The media has been great and due to good coverage there has been changes wrought and folk spurred into action as well. Additionally, there have been times in which I have put pressure on individuals or organizations and in a small degree, some governments and government bodies. However, it’s the one on one I often work with and that’s where I feel I can have the greatest impact.

Prison life is hard anywhere, but in Thailand it’s particularly gruelling. For those who haven’t read your book yet, tell us a little about the experience of prisoners there, both Thai and foreign.

Ha, Jonathan…now that’d take a book, it did and in fact, I could not even begin to cover all the experiences and heartbreak that one meets when hearing of inmates stories. Suffice it to say though, life in a Thai jail is basically hopeless. You can endure difficult situations, deprivation, cruelty, indifference, rejection, injustice and the likes if you know there is an end in sight. But when you have to think of enduring such things for 50 years or the rest of your life…well, where do you go in your head to cope? Where is the place of escape in your mind?
It’s a walking death at times, a constant struggle full of despair with no way out, up, over or around it. Many folk fluctuate between wondering through their sentences like lost souls to flamboyantly contriving unrealistic plans and expectations of how they will bring about their own releases, both poles being futile. It’s heartbreaking, and juxtaposed against such a dark background, there is nothing as joyful as watching a man walk through those gates to freedom.
There are so many nonsensical variables to deal with as well. For example, murderers and rapists will often get out before drug cases. Some countries have exchange treaties so that their inmates can go home and serve some time in their own countries. This could translate anywhere between 4-8 plus years in Bangkwang and then home for however long the home country deems it fit that you serve. And again this home sentence varies so dramatically. If you are from the UK, you serve 2/3rds of your sentence in a maximum security horrible prison back in freezing England. If you went home on a life sentence, you’d serve less than someone who went home with 50 years. Life is natural life in Thailand and it’s about 20 in the UK. So you pray for a life sentence versus a numbered sentence if you are going to use the exchange system. It’s inconsistently crazy. The American returnees may serve bout 3 months in a detention center and then you are out on parole. Very few re-offend either. Australia is yet another deal as are the European nations. Then there is poor Nigeria, some inmates get out right away and others because they are sent to state prison serve incredible amount of years after their return in prisons worse than Bangkwang. And all, for the most part, small amounts of drugs which would not have warranted long sentences or even any sentence in their own countries.
Even if life looks like a complete free for all, anything goes, fair, you’d have to be crazy to do/courier/sell/get near drugs in Thailand.

Thailand seems to contain all the contradictions surrounding drugs in modern society. On the one hand, it’s famous among young people for wild full-moon parties which feature the consumption of every drug known to man, if the tales are true. On the other hand, Thailand’s laws on drug use are extremely strict. Drug traffickers can be sentenced to death, and in a nation-wide drug crackdown in 2003, police shot dead over a thousand suspects, in what many view as executions without trial. You write about experimenting with drugs as a teenager, and you were married for a time to Garth Hattan, a man you met while he was serving a heroin-trafficking sentence in Bangkok’s Bang Kwang prison. What is your view on the international war on drugs?

Don’t even get me started Jonathan…
I do not use drugs anymore, I am higher now than I have ever been and it’s totally natural so I am not speaking from a need to party view point. I do not like what a negative use of drugs can do to people, their lives, their families and societies resources; I do drink a bit, but also hate what alcohol can do to folk and again the world in which we live. However, it’s all in the user and the reasons behind their use of whatever substance that determines whether it be a good or a bad thing.
I feel some of the big drug companies and their dealer doctors are the worst blood sucking criminals on the face of the earth, and arms dealers aren’t my favorite folk either by the way, ha! Medicine also has a good place in our society, but when it’s brought down to the level of billions of dollars in profit as being the goal, then it’s wrong and especially when it’s prescribed by your friendly GP to finance his trip to Barbados, forget it…and forget the guy who selfishly wants to get a bit of cash as well off the backs of junkies—both are selfishly plundering the lives of those they have no right to.
Amazing when governments or big companies deal drugs or guns, it’s ok, aye? Hmm, not right and neither is the war on drugs…it’s a bunch of rubbish and a joke. Some folk may really be sincere in trying to suppress the production and sales of illegal substances, but it’s a lost war, a waste of time as there is much corruption in the whole money making façade that if they, the smaller law enforcement individuals or a few naive politicians, really do a sincere job they are at risk of ‘disappearing’ or being sacked. I could go on forever citing why I feel many substances should be legalized and why the war on drugs is a lie, but we don’t have time for that today…in short, it’s not working anyway and it’s highly hypocritical and many lives are also destroyed in the process.
If only we could all learn to really care for each other and take responsibility for our actions then the need for a war on drugs would be a moot point. Greed, self destruction and profiting by another’s demise are ugly in all and any field. Be they legal or illegal!
I guess you can see that I am never going to run for Mayor, ha!

Thanks again for your interest in this. When you’re through with these, I’ll send the next batch through.


Cheers, take care,

There is some back-and-forth still to come in parts 2 and 3, so please do send in any questions you’d like me to squeeze in. And thanks very much to Susan for spending this time with us.

Susan Aldous’ new book is The Angel of Bang Kwang Prison, published last month by Maverick House. Maverick House also published the memoir of Chavoret Jaruboon, Thailand’s last prison executioner, The Last Executioner.

Upcoming interview: Susan Aldous
April 30, 2007, 3:41 pm
Filed under: The East, Undiscovered writers

Susan Aldous has been doing charity work in Thailand for eighteen years. With little money and few resources, she has focused on helping people forgotten by society: prisoners, drug addicts, the sick and dying. Armed with her faith, and what donations she is able to collect, she works to let them know that, whatever they have done, they are worthy of love. That simple message has made a profound difference in the lives of many.

Susan is best known for her work counseling the inmates of Bang Kwang maximum security prison in Bangkok, and working to improve their abject conditions. She has appeared on this blog before here and here. She has written an autobiography, The Angel of Bang Kwang Prison, released this month by Maverick House.

Susan will be answering some questions for the readers of this blog in the near future, so check back soon to hear more about her story and her new book. In the meantime, please email me with any questions you’d like me to pose to her.

Garth Hattan – Susan Aldous responds
April 6, 2007, 1:00 pm
Filed under: Crime and Punishment, Undiscovered writers

In response to my post on the writer Garth Hattan, an unexpected pleasure – a response from Susan Aldous, the volunteer who befriended Garth in prison and married him. And divorced, it turns out. Life is messy, no?

Yes, you are right, Garth is an incredibly talented man who can write up a storm about the storm and the peace that can be found within it.
To update you: Garth was released from the LA dentention center after three months from the day he returned to the USA, we got married, lived the fairytale and then divorced when he went back to old ways and unfortunately reoffended. Prison awaits and perhaps more chapters and let’s hope that in so doing, he will find eventual freedom from his past and the things that haunt him.
In the meanwhile, I am releasing my own book this month, The Angel of Bangkwang Prison, published by Maverick House.

It’s a sad surprise – I wouldn’t have thought Hattan would be tempt fate again after being taught such a hard lesson. I stand by my judgement on his writing, which is well worth reading.

Susan’s organization One Life at a Time is here. Her book is here.

Undiscovered Writer of the Week: Garth Todd Hattan
March 28, 2007, 1:13 pm
Filed under: Crime and Punishment, Undiscovered writers

garth hattanGarth Hattan hasn’t published a novel, and as far as I know, he hasn’t even published a short story. All of his work to date, to the best of my knowledge, was written in 2001 and 2002 for Farang Magazine, an online and print journal targeted at English-speaking expats in Thailand, which has since been renamed Untamed Travel.

Hattan’s pieces were more or less journal entries, so technically he could be called a blogger. However, it was an unusual blog, because he didn’t have internet access, or even a computer. That’s because Hattan, a surfer and musician from California, composed his columns using pen and paper inside Bangkwang maximum security prison, on the outskirts of Bangkok, where he was serving a life sentence for trafficking heroin.

You may be thinking that I chose a heroin-smuggling con to be the Undiscovered Writer of the Week not because I dig his writing, but because I want you to dig how street-smart and hip I am myself. Is this Undiscovered Writer of the Week or Hard-as-Nails Cunts?you may be wondering. In fact, there’s nothing tough about Hattan’s writing, and though you might call him hip, it isn’t the empty pose of the cool kid whose wardrobe is in lock-step with the fashion elite. He is hip in the older sense of the word – wise, and with a powerful awareness of what matters and what is bullshit.

It could be that was a side effect of going to prison. Whatever the case, Hattan’s writing resonates with a quality that can’t be faked. Far from calling for pity, he details the myriad frustrations and scant pleasures of Thai prison life with zen-like calm. Reading his essays doesn’t leave you feeling sorry for him – well, yes, it does, but more powerfully, it leaves you wishing some of his appreciation for life’s small mercies would rub off on you. And that demonstrates a strong mind indeed.

If you’ve ever tried snapping a picture with your digital camera, you may have been amazed to watch how, when you point the camera into a shadowy corner, instead of turning to black in the insufficient light, the camera screen brightens and shows you a new level of detail. Hattan’s writing has the same quality – in dark circumstances, locked inside what is certainly a hell on earth, he doesn’t fade to black. Instead he takes a careful look around, and describes what he sees. The price of fried rice or a massage, etiquette of the morning shower ritual, the ins and outs of getting high behind bars, and the pros and cons of recieving visitors are all presented in a calm, often funny tone. Hattan doesn’t speechify or rail against anything much, which for a man in his position is in itself quite an achievement. But even more of an achievement is the emotion his writing conveys, which I can only describe as gratitude – a whole-hearted appreciation of the few good things that can still be savored from inside the belly of the beast.

I am glad to report that Hattan’s story has a comparatively happy ending – in 2002 he returned to the United States under a treaty agreement with the Thai government. Whether he continued serving his sentence isn’t clear from news reports, but it seems possible that he was freed. I certainly hope he was. While in prison he got engaged to Susan Aldous, an Australian woman who works for better conditions for prisoners in Thailand, and I have seen at least one website which refers to her as Susan Aldous-Hattan, suggesting they have married. [Update: The ending is not as happy as I had hoped; see Susan’s reply to this post and my new post here.] My hope is that we will see a full-length autobiography, if not more, from Hattan in the next few years. It remains to be seen whether he will keep up his writing, or if it was just one method by which he passed time while behind bars. Given the unique qualities of the writing he’s done so far, I certainly hope not.

Click through to Hattan’s articles in Untamed Travel here. A good place to start is Human Monkey in the Cage, but you can read his whole body of work in a pleasant afternoon. (Note that the 2005 article “Afghan Loony Bin” wasn’t written by Hattan at all and has little to do with his work.)

The Top Ten Writers Pick Their Favorite Books. Not a book review
March 27, 2007, 8:33 pm
Filed under: Undiscovered writers

top-ten-writers.jpgThere’s a new book out edited by Peter Zane where famous writers list their ten favorite books. I haven’t read it, so this is not a book review. But I gleaned a little knowledge about it from a review or two on the web, and a little knowledge is a dangerous thing, don’t you know… and it got me thinking.

First, the summary list, which combines every author’s choices into one final ranking, is amazingly predictable (what other outcome was possible?). Number one is Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, two is Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, three is Tolstoy again with War and Peace, four is Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov, five is Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn. Next is Hamlet.

Hardly surprising, but it makes me wonder. I’m not really sure who is supposed to use this book. Its lists are written by a hundred and twenty-five of what the BBC calls “leading writers.” Apparently one of them is Stephen King, but dollars to donuts the others are not household names, times being what they are for the publishing industry. If you haven’t heard of Huckleberry Finn and War and Peace, then you damn sure haven’t heard of most of these writers, and their reading suggestions may not carry much weight for you. Then again, if you love reading and are up-to-date enough to have heard of these people, you’re not going to pick this up and say, “War and Peace? hm, haven’t heard of that, but since it’s recommended by Thomas Keneally, maybe I’ll give it a look.”

This is a marketing move that would make a lot of sense in the movie world. If a household name movie director like Spike Lee, James Cameron, or Stephen Spielberg made a list of their favorite movies, it could turn people on to the work of past directors like Orson Welles, John Ford, Frank Capra, or Alfred Hitchcock. In fact, viewers in the States were first turned on to contemporary Hong Kong director Wong Kar-wai when Quentin Tarantino arranged for Chungking Express to be released in the States by his Rolling Thunder Productions – or I was, at least.

I just don’t understand the need to do this with literature. There isn’t much danger that Tolstoy, Nabokov, and Shakespeare are going to be lost to history. There is a danger, on the other hand, that more and more people are not finding much of relevance in the books currently being published. The literary world – itself a small niche within the publishing industry, which is mostly mobilized producing the next sequel to Chicken Soup for the Soul– has several things in common with a cult. It deifies a few figures and demands that every cult member worship them. (Thus The Top Ten, in addition to being a good coffee-table prop when setting up your living room for a girl or boy you want to impress, also makes a perfect devotional object for placement on the altar of the Gods of Literature.) And its authority seems to drive rebellion among its subjects. David Foster Wallace and Dave Eggers, like Nabokov, Thomas Pynchon and James Joyce before them, seem to have achieved artistic independence by choosing territories so far out on the white spaces of the map that no authority would apply to them. Their works are stimulating and original, but one wonders why we hear so little about writers working in more mundane spheres. Keri Hulme, Doris Lessing, and J.P. Donleavy, to name a few examples, may not have been relegated to complete obscurity, but they don’t command the same rock-star cachet.

In conclusion, I am giving this book the finger. The editor should have told all his writers to give the top ten books they felt were obscure or under-appreciated. And to strike back in my own inconsequential way, I am inaugurating the Undiscovered Writer of the Week.