A talk with Jaed Coffin
By Jen Hodsdon
The first time I met Jaed Coffin, who was a year ahead of me in the Stonecoast MFA program at USM, I thought, this guy is so cool. And he is. Coffin, 28, is a talented writer who lives in Brunswick. The Thai-American has been a lobsterman, a boxer, a sea-kayak guide, and a monk. He’s traveled around the world. But he’s also a guy who will invite you to come hang out in his garage workshop with some warm beer and classic rock. In other words, despite all his accomplishments, he’s unpretentious.
Coffin’s first book, a memoir titled, A Chant to Soothe Wild Elephants, was recently published by Da Capo Press. It tells the story of Coffin’s journey to his mother’s village in Thailand several years ago to live as a monk and experience Thai culture.
The Bollard: So, I read your book. I picked it up and read it all the other night.
Coffin: In one sitting, right? A lot of people read it in four hours, something like that. That was the point…. The three-hour promise is a guarantee I really want to uphold as I move forward [laughs]. Well, I didn’t want it to feel heavy.
There’s been a lot of talk the last few years among memoir writers about figuring what’s ‘true,’ fiction versus non-fiction, in the memoir genre. What was your experience?
I know that my memory was pretty sharp. I kept a really good journal. Chronology was probably the most sketchy of all the faculties of recollection. I can remember my emotion, I can remember the things I saw, and the feelings I had, and even conversations better than I can remember when things happened.
Really knowing, Did this happen two days before this other thing, or a week later? Or, Did this happen in August or at the end of July? That stuff was foggy. And if that’s a point to be criticized upon, I understand that, but I don’t think anyone’s really that good at that kind of thing.
And even if one person told the truth, that’s not the whole truth – that would be their truth.
Well, the interesting thing is that, going over there, the perspective that I’m going to have on things is such a different – wildly different – expression of what was going on than what a fully Thai person would have.
The temple itself is a community temple. It’s a place where it’s not as rigorous. Five minutes down the road there’s a really serious meditation temple, and obviously there’s the forest temple where I spent time, which is also extremely serious. What went on at Wat Takwean, the temple where I was working, was pretty loose. It’s a place to be part of the Buddhist community as opposed to disappearing in the forest to ascend to nirvana or something.
It seemed loose: people coming and going as they wanted.
Yeah, guys were smoking cigarettes – not that it’s a boys club. It’s as real as a Christian monastery. It’s probably more stringent than that. You really can’t run, you’re not supposed to laugh. So it’s serious enough, but you can get away with some stuff.
In the book, you mentioned a couple of times the difference between the Buddhism you experienced there and American Buddhism. Have you practiced at all since you came back?
Not really. That was about six-and-a-half, seven years ago. I have traditions that I keep in mind and prayers that I remember and stuff, but when it comes to hard facts of being Buddhist in America, it doesn’t really feel the same.
It’s mainly a cultural thing, and visually, it’s just different. You don’t go to a sandy temple grounds and a canal and everyone’s wearing flip-flops. It’s like you go to some renovated building and it’s a bunch of people who are Caucasian or whatever, and having a very different Buddhist experience.
Maybe I’m not forgiving enough, but it feels like a very different thing altogether. I’d almost feel more comfortable going to the Catholic church in downtown Brunswick, because it’s that local feeling of religion.
Your story is about a transformative experience. Was writing the memoir transformative for you?
It’s tough, because I don’t think I said the right things about my ethnicity until I was done with the book and I said them to myself. It’s kind of a sparring session with some big issues, and then I finish the book and now, six months later, I’m actually starting to learn for the first time what it means to have a biracial identity.
I think I was writing from a place of preconceptions, with little experience, which was hard. I would never make my story explicit if I were to write it again. It would be very different if I could do that. If anything, it makes me feel like [my ethnicity] is less important. Keeping a cultural connection is important, but it can be kind of a hang up…. I don’t want to write this story a million times, but I think it’s always going to be a ghost in a lot of things I write.
It seems like the memoir-writing process can stir up a lot of psychic shit.
And it has. It’s a lot of shit that I thought would be really fun to express, and it is – the first couple times – and then you realize that you’ve kind of marked yourself, in a way, even to your own eyes. And that’s really tough.
I’ve written some things in that book that weren’t scandalous, but they were things that I wouldn’t really want to be held to for posterity…. It’s like tattooing your ex-girlfriend’s name on your arm and then getting a new girlfriend, and what then?
You said in the book that the feeling you have being half Thai is kind of an American issue.
The lukron is an identity in Thailand. It’s a half-Western person, and it’s seen as… a blending of the best of both worlds. All the movie stars and talk show hosts and models are all half Thai and half Western, and they see it as blending Western independence with Eastern elegance, or something like that. And that’s kind of cool.
In America, you look kind of ambiguously featured. Since there aren’t any Thai people in Maine, no one’s going to walk down the street and say, ‘Oh, he’s definitely half Thai.’ They’re going to say, ‘Oh, he’s… something else.’ In Thailand, they’re always like, ‘You must be half Thai, because why else would you be here?’
What are you working on next?
The book I’m working on now is about boxing in Alaska, when I used to fight in this roughhouse circuit in a bar in Juneau, Alaska.
It’s basically me fighting a bunch of guys who are Eskimo and Tlingit and Filipino and Mexican and white, and beating each other up and trying to figure something out. I’m not sure what that thing is. I’m writing that book to try and figure out what that thing is.
You also boxed here in Portland, right?
Yeah. I had a head injury, so I stopped. I’m still trying to coach, but I’m so busy now with stuff that it’s hard to get in there and get much time.
Yeah, the next book’s going to be better, I can already tell [laughs]. This Thailand book was really hard to write. I felt like I was pulling teeth a little bit. My prose felt tight. I couldn’t put on the writer’s mask — the narrative mask, or identity mask — and I really felt like I couldn’t wear a mask in this book. I couldn’t craft a narrative personality. It was so much me that it doesn’t sound real in a lot of ways. It feels a little too data oriented. This other book will have me, but kind of as a smartass, kind of talking out of the corner of my mouth.
There’s stuff that’s so right in front of me that it’s hard to put into words. There’s this great Heidegger quote that fish don’t talk about water. The most beautiful thing is water, and fish just don’t have anything to say about it.
Jaed Coffin reads from his memoir, A Chant to Soothe Wild Elephants, on Sat., Feb. 23, at Gulf of Maine Books, 134 Maine St., Brunswick, at 3 p.m. Free. 729-5083.