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From my interview archive: Lawrence Osborne on Bangkok

I’m listening again to selections from the archive of long-form interviews I conducted on the public radio program The Marketplace of Ideas and podcast Notebook on Cities and Culture between 2007 and 2015.

In recent years, Lawrence Osborne has become famous as a novelist, expertly constructing his stories in settings as far-flung as Morocco, Cambodia, Greece, and Mexico. He wasn’t when first I interviewed him, though he was hardly unknown, having published non-fiction books on a variety of subjects including wine, tourism, Asperger syndrome, and the history of sexual pessimism. After reading a review of his Bangkok Days, on the city in which he’d spend a good deal of time off and on over past couple of decades, I requested an interview without hesitation.

What was it about the book that demanded my attention? At the time, I’d never lived in Asia. In fact I had yet to set foot there, and indeed labored daily under the shame of having never traveled no further abroad than Canada. But looking back, it must have tapped into several currents of inevitability that I had yet to acknowledge (or had resisted acknowledging). Though I maintained a variety of divergent professional aspirations, my future clearly lay with writing, and writing of an essayistic kind. For some time I’d been reading memoirs by Westerners in Japan, and occasionally interviewing their authors. And for even longer I’d been learning the Korean language, an effort I told myself was just so I could read Korean DVD boxes.

A decade later, I live in Korea and write about cities. This perspective certainly enriches a revisitation of my interview with Osborne about Bangkok Days, but in truth I’ve listened to it more than a few times over the years. (This sets it well apart from most of the hundreds of others I’ve recorded, edited, and never heard again.) Without quite being able to separate cause from effect, I can say that many of the subjects we discussed have turned into longer-term themes for me: the “new urban civilization” emerging in the 21st century, the necessity of speaking the local language, the persistence of Judeo-Christian morality in ostensibly secular societies, the danger of the West “regulating itself out of existence,” the insult to intelligence that is the U.S. publisher-applied subtitle.

Many of the observations Osborne made in our conversation have stayed with me, none more than that “our relationship to cities is very much like our relationships to a person.

It’s almost like a love affair or a friendship. If you think about the way in which you get to know a human being in all their complexity, it’s something that happens over many, many years. You don’t meet somebody in one period of time and decide that they’re a friend or a lover. You do in some ways, but what you really do is drop in over and over again, you get to know that person over a very, very long period of time. And when that happens — 10, 15, 20, 25 years — the accumulation of those visits, the accumulation of that time spent, produces in you complex feelings.

This is never far from my mind when I write (or indeed read) about cities. Nor, after half a decade living in Asia, is the fact that I still haven’t been to Bangkok. My Korean, Japanese, and Mandarin skills have each come along at their own pace — or at least they’ve come along from their near-nonexistence in 2009 — but I have yet to mount an assault on the heap of Thai language learning materials I’ve been gathering as preparation for my first trip there. Given the tricky international travel situation at the moment, of course, mine will be Seoul days for the foreseeable future.