Suwanni Sukhonthiang was born in Phitsanulok, a province of Northern Thailand, on 1st March 1932. After leaving school, she travelled to the capital Bangkok, where she spent the next two years studying at the Pohchang Academy of Arts; she completed her education by taking a course in fine art at Silpakorn University, graduating in 1951. Taking a job as a teacher, she worked at the Bangkok School of Arts before lecturing at her alma mater. At the same time, she began penning short stories under the pen name Suwanni Sukontha; her first published story being Chot Mai Thueng Puk for the Siam Rath Weekly. Encouraged the positive reaction to her writing, Sukhontha decided to devote herself full-time to it, and produced her debut novel Sai Bo Yut Sane Hai in 1965.
Noted for her masterful character development, and powerful imagery, Sukhontha won the SEATO literature award in 1971 for her novel Khao Chue Kan, a gritty tale about an idealistic young doctor and his dissatisfied wife, dealing with the corruption and dishonesty of those around them and its catastrophic impact upon their own relationship. By 1973, the story had taken on a greater significance with the student uprisings in Thailand, and the ensuing transition of the previous military dictatorship into a more pro-democratic political system.
A year after she was given the prestigious award, Sukhontha founded and edited the female-orientated literature journal Lalana and used the publication as a platform for her progressive ideas about women and their involvement in Thai society. Sukhontha also received the National Book Week’s Award for Duai Pik Khong Rak in 1973.
In the late 1950s, Sukhontha had married Tawee Nandakwang, an artist whom she had met whilst they were both lecturing at Silpakorn. The couple would go on to have three daughters and a son, however, their union was a stormy one and they eventually divorced. Sukhontha found new love with Sirisawat Phanthumasut, another artist, and her parents were given custody of her children. As a response to what he felt was his mother’s abandonment of him, Sukhontha’s son Wongmueang Nandakwang, known to his family as Namphu, turned to drugs and tragically died of an overdose in 1974 when he was only 18. Devastated, Sukhontha believed it was her fault because she had been ‘incapable of raising a child.’
To cope with Namphu’s loss, she turned to writing, and the semi-autobiographical Phra Chan Si Nam Ngoen was the result, with Sukhontha confessing in the book’s preface, ‘When I kissed you for the last time, our tears blended together. I told you to rest in peace, my dear. From that day on, I lived my spiritless life like a wind-up toy. Today, I have just learnt the greatness of the suffering of a mother.’
In an interview, Sukhontha claimed she ‘would be very happy’ and could ‘not ask for anything else’ but that the book comfort parents in similar situations and ‘benefit the children of others.’ Additionally, Phra Chan Si Nam Ngoen was ground-breaking in that it encouraged open debate about drugs and addiction – issues that had previously been considered taboo ones in Thailand. The story was later turned into a film by director Euthana Mukdasanit in 1984, shortly after Sukhontha’s own death, and again in 1995 and 2002.
Driving to a market in Bangkok on 3rd February 1984, at around 4:30 p.m., Sukhontha’s BMW was spotted by two drug addicts who were looking for money to fund their habit. As Sukhontha left her car, she was ambushed by the pair, beaten, and stabbed eight times before they dumped her lifeless body in the undergrowth near Siam Park City, a water and amusement park. The culprits, Khachin Sombun and Phaithun Sawangphrai, were arrested the following day.
Sukhontha left behind several incomplete works, including Wan Wan, which was finished by the novelist Kritsana Asoksin. As Sukhontha said of her son Namphu, it often felt as if he were still alive, as she carried him in her ‘heart all the time anyway.’ Since her shocking and untimely death, Suwanni Sukhontha has become a literary giant in her homeland, and her compelling stories have become embedded in the very heart of Thai culture.
Self and Society in Southeast Asian Fiction: Thematic Explorations in the Twentieth Century Fiction of Five Asian Countries – Thelma B. Kintanar (1988)
Who’s Who in Contemporary Women’s Writing – Jane Eldridge Miller (2001)