This year’s winners of the Fukuoka Prize, Pasuk Phongpaichit and Chris Baker, talk about their successful writing partnership and how they love to argue
A MARRIED couple working together, say the experts, is usually not a recipe for a successful marriage or, for that matter, a successful business partnership. But then Thai economist Pasuk Phonpai- chit and her husband, British historian Chris Baker, are hardly the norm, having collaborated in love and life for more than 30 years and achieved so much that they have won accolades both at home and internationally.
The co-authors of such seminal works as “Thailand: Economy and Politics”, “Thailand’s Boom and Bust”, “A History of Thailand”, and “Thaksin”, Pasuk and Baker earlier this year became the first married couple to win the Grand Prize from Japan’s Fukuoka city and the Fukuoka City International Foundation. The award has been granted annually since 1990 to those who have made outstanding contributions to the preservation of Asian culture.
The two met as students at Cambridge University and married there in 1979. They returned to Thailand soon afterwards and almost immediately became keen observers of a Thai society that was going through profound change, both politically and economically.
“We both like to understand what’s going on around us,” says Baker.
Pasuk nods her agreement then adds: “But because of our fields of expertise, we often look at things slightly differently. Discussing, even arguing, brings as closer together and we help each other extend each other’s horizons.”
Baker says the idea for the first book arose from a wish to “put the facts straight”, explaining that when Thailand faced a political crisis in the 1990s, most international journalists were writing about the country as if it were still the ’60s and the Vietnam War was in full swing.
“I saw how the country was changing in the ’80s when the economic boom started. A new society was emerging and we felt we were in a position to try to start explaining how this country had evolved.”
The result was “Thailand’s Boom!”, which was published in 1996 and revised two years later under the new title “Thailand’s Boom and Bust!”
Their works offered an entirely new perspective of the country. Not only was the content very different from the views expressed by international journalists but their narration explained the society and the people in it rather than focusing on the political elite including the Monarchy and prime ministers.
This unprecedented style of writing history, Pasuk says, was something she had always wanted to do.
“When I was younger, I wanted to write novels or fiction about ordinary people. But since I chose to become an economist, I had to stick to papers that had to do with economics,” she explains.
The pair is quick to admit that despite sharing a passion for history and current affairs, they don’t agree all the time and can find collaboration an uphill battle. “But we don’t like arguing,” says Pasuk firmly only to be immediately contradicted by her husband.
“We wrote much of our first book at a beach home in Cha-Am. And because we were both working full time, we did much of it over the weekend,” Baker explains.
“And we spent half of the time walking up and down the beach shouting at one another because we always had something to argue about,” says Baker, laughing at the recollection.
“Anyone watching us probably thought we were on the point of breaking up.”
In fact, as soon as they reached the house, the argument would stop and turn to more mundane issues like “who’s cooking dinner?”
“And we came back and did exactly the same the following weekend and sometimes even the next day. But we never let it intrude on our personal life.”
Pasuk, who has been listening and looking at Baker the whole time with a smile on her face, nods and says “Yes, yes, yes”.
She adds that the reason they have been able to work together so successfully for so long is because they actually enjoy the mental stimulation and love to learn from each other.
“Honestly, back in Thailand, I was always a good student. But Chris, who was educated in Britain, is so much more knowledgeable and well-rounded,” she says. “So, for me, Chris is teacher, friend, and partner. I always listen to him.”
Baker adds that it’s been the same for him “As a resident in a foreign country, Pasuk has always been, and still is, my guide to the culture. I learn a lot from her,” he says.
And both love nothing more than a lively debate.
“I guess we both like to argue,” Pasuk says. “We are hard to convince. We try to argue against what the other is saying. But it’s not about us; it’s an academic discussion that helps us understand the world around us.”
In addition to the Fukuoka Prize, Pasuk and Baker have won several awards for their exceptional academic works. These include Best Book of the Year from the National Research Council of Thailand, Outstanding Book of the Year from American Library Association, and the AL Becker Southeast Asian Literature in Translation Prize from the Association for Asian Studies. Their extraordinary work is listed as the must-read for anyone interested in Thai history and politics.
Baker says the accolades would never have come their way if they weren’t so good at losing.
“We both are quite good at losing arguments,” he said. “I think that’s very, very important. You got to be able to lose.”
Pasuk agrees. “The reason we work together very well is because we respect each other very much,” she said. “It’s give and take and we both know the importance of losing with grace.”
READ A LITTLE
- The couple’s latest book, “A History of Ayutthaya: Siam in the Early Modern World,” was published in July by Cambridge University Press. It’s on sale at leading book stores for Bt1,150.