Kati's happiness wins through
The poignant tale of a little girl whose mother is suffering from an incurable illness lands Thailand's major literary prize
Ngarmpun "Jane" Vejjajiva, winner of this year's SEAWrite award for the delightful children's book "Kwam Suk Kong Kati" ("The Happiness of Kati") beams up at her fans from her wheelchair.
Although unable to stand without help, today she is taller than everyone around her.
Yet she confides that under the exuberance of winning, there's still a lingering disbelief.
"I feel like nudging Kati and saying, 'look you finally did it!'" she says.
Like many great writing talents, Ngarmpun realised at an early age that she wasn't really interested in maths or science, so decided to concentrate on the Arts, studying French at Thammasat University.
Her professor gave her foreign works to decipher and propelled the young woman into an exacting literary career as a translator.
Later, after acquiring Italian, Ngarmpun headed to Belgium to learn the art of her chosen craft. Since then, using her expertise in French, English, and Italian, she has translated more than 20 titles.
Ngarmpun's works of translation include JK Rowling's "Harry Potter and The Goblet of Fire", Kate Dicamillo's "The Tale of Desperaux", and Emmanuel Dongala's "Les Petits Enfants Naissent Aussi des Etoiles" ("Little Children Are Also Born From Stars"). She is currently managing director of Silk Road Publishers Agency.
But she's always dreamed of writing a book.
"When you translate, the imagination isn't yours. It's like being a shadow," she explains.
"Writing is much better because you have that freedom to create."
Before finishing the book that landed her the SEAWrite prize, Ngarmpun had penned a few short stories for magazines, but has never attempted an entire book. Part of this, she says, was due to lack of time.
"Translating keeps me very busy."
Her chance came during a rare one-month break. Itching to write, she went into the kitchen, picked up a spatula and frying pan and found herself formulating a story from the simple utensils.
"'Kati' started out with me thinking, 'how come kids are happy with small things?' A little thing like eating a snack will bring a kid a lot of joy."
The symbol of the spatula and the characters of Kati, her uncle and her grandmother, became the sources of inspiration for her book.
A recent visit to central Thailand encouraged her to look deeper into the region, which gave her the setting of a small village near the Chao Phya River and the traditional Thai home in the book - the elements that charmed international publishing houses.
"The editors abroad didn't know that this type of culture existed in Thailand," says Ngarmpun.
"Kati" went through five reprints before winning the SEAWrite award. The author has sold the rights to the book to publishers in Germany, France, Japanese, the United States and Spain, spreading Kati's happiness in five languages.
The story of Kati's life with her grandmother and cousins, while still mourning the absence of her mother, has touched readers in countries right round the world.
"I've had editors call to tell me that they read the book on the train and found themselves in tears."
Ngarmpun says she didn't set out to write a children's book.
"I was in my own world. But I wanted to write something contemporary that would be interesting for modern readers and would keep them turning the pages until the end."
A fan of mysteries, she chooses not to reveal if the child's mother dies or the whereabouts of the father until the final chapter.
But she admits that she was unable to come up with an intricate plot.
"I knew I wasn't good enough to start writing whodunits, so I began with a simple conundrum - making readers wonder what really happened to Kati's mother and father."
But she laughs off any similarities between herself and the little Kati.
"It's not about me, there's nothing in the book that is real!"
Neither is there any relation between Kati's mum's incurable disease and the author's own cerebral palsy.
"My father is a doctor so he knew this disease well and I was able to ask him about the symptoms."
Is Kati like her at all?
"I've had my problems, but I've been able to get through them," she says.
Ngarmpun has already launched the second title in the "Kati" series and has a further sequel in mind. She's also planning to write other stories in the future.
"But I can sleep easy now, I've achieved my biggest dream by winning this award. Anything after this is a bonus."
Ngarmpun is grateful to the first SEAWrite winner, Kampoon Boonthawee, who won the 1979 prize, for encouraging her to write a book.
"He once told me, 'if I can win the SEAWrite Award, then so can you'."