• Wednesday, July 06, 2022

Interview With Trasvin Jittidecharak- Owner and Founder of Silkworm Books, Founder of Mekong Press and Mekong Press Foundation

on Mar 04, 2022

Trasvin Jittidecharak is the owner and founder of Silkworm Books and also the founder of Mekong Press and Mekong Press Foundation.

Trasvin founded Silkworm Books in 1991. Silkworm Books is a general, independent publisher of English-language books in Thailand and Southeast Asia. It is the only Thai publisher distributing its publications in North America and the UK through an agreement with the University of Washington Press. In 2005, with external funding from the Rockefeller Foundation, Trasvin founded Mekong Press, which became Mekong Press Foundation in 2008, to support publishing activities in the Greater Mekong sub-region and establish a network of publishers in the region.

She has served as a judge for several national publication design competitions, and since 1989 she has been actively supporting adherence to copyright law in Thailand. In 2008, she became a member of the International Publishers Association’s Freedom to Publish Committee and has become one of its most active members.

Frontlist: As the founder of Silkworm Books- the only independent Thai publisher that distributes books in North America and the UK, what type of challenges have you faced in the industry as a woman?

Trasvin: In Thailand, women had space in trading, even before it became the modern nation-state. A female poet who lived during the mid to the late 19th century was the only female commissioned to compose stories for different occasions. She wrote the life of another woman, a widower, who took over her late husband’s business, sailed to purchase goods in South China cities for reselling. In the North, in another kingdom, women had to trade. In the feudal system, males were served six months per year to their lords and recruited to the army in wartime. Women also inherited their properties. When Siam took Lanna as part of the kingdom, the law changed, it became a more patriarchal society.

I never experienced intimidation among peers. It could be because I began to work with a university press, where people are liberal and sensitive. However, when I was growing up, our family was also a newspaper and magazine distributor in the upper Northern region. My father passed away when he was only 49, so the business became a women’s run. The publishers’ reps, all males, of course, didn’t like working with us. Neither my mother nor sisters hung out, let alone treat them to brothel visits. Those days, it was a common practice. When I grew up and worked for a short time in Bangkok in a trading company. I loathed calling factories. In Thailand, we go by first names, so when a male received a call, they heard my voice and my name, indicating gender, their voice changed. They made it so clear that they don’t take you seriously. So, I made up the name and officially changed it. Trasvin neither means anything nor tells whether it’s a male or female. I confused them. It worked.  

Frontlist: You are a member of the PublisHer community. How do you think it is helping women in the publishing industry?

Trasvin: On a personal level, PublisHer boosts individual confidence. It also clarifies that no matter in which department you belong, gender has nothing to do with the job. On the organizational level, it encourages—if not demands, the management to provide an equal opportunity and pay for all genders. However, sometimes even the business owner offers a chance to a female employee, and  the employee may have a family reason for not accepting the offer. For example, if she has children and her husband requests her to sacrifice her job for taking care of children so that he has time to devote and advance in his position. While I believe that both men and women should share responsibilities and devote and advance in their positions together, instead of letting one sacrifice their job. Nevertheless, the employers must offer and try to find a suitable solution. 

Frontlist: You are the second woman in over 100 years to sit on the IPA’s Freedom to Publish Committee and an active member too. You would provide what type of changes or guidance to the women in the association?

Trasvin: When I was running for the IPA Board, I didn’t think much until elected. The reason women stayed away from the IPA board could be that IPA functioned differently from now. Maybe there were not many female executives in the member associations, or they were not ready to travel due to personal obligations. All I did was step in and open the door. Since then, the IPA leadership has unanimously encouraged and recruited more women to run and serve. Since 2012, we have made much improvement. Now, IPA has a female President and Vice-President. Each IPA committee has a good balance of genders, and everyone contributes equally. We hope the association members will do the same. Some association has balanced genders on their board. Some still have to do more. Of course, we have to take each country and society’s cultural context into account. In my association, the previous executive board of 15 members had 7 females and 8 males. Still, the present board only has only two female members.   

Frontlist: What inspired you to start your own publishing company?

Trasvin: It’s destiny. I grew up within my parents’ bookstore, and I could read before school. Books are everything for me, and I studied Book Design and Typography. In my late teen, the political situation in Thailand was exciting. We had freedom at that time, and everyone read. Reading moulded the youth and adults to dream of a better society. Books changed people for the better. Being an avid reader is equally or even better than conventional education. With the dawn of tourism in Thailand in the late 80s, a few English books about Thailand were written. 98% of those books were written by western authors. I thought it better to have books written by Thais, so I published them in English.

Frontlist: On this International Women’s Day, how do you think you are going to #BreaktheBias (theme of 2022), and how shall you continue to do so?

Trasvin: Be an exemplar. When I was still working at my family bookstore, my sister-the boss didn’t have an equal pay policy. We fought and fought, and I lost. I don’t do what I dislike when I have my firm, I don’t laugh hearing a sexist joke, and I speak up whenever I have an opportunity. We have to do what we preach, even in our dreams.

Frontlist: It is said that Thailand as a country is not for readers. What are you doing for the next generation, especially women, to start reading?

Trasvin: We are improving. The Publishers and Booksellers Association of Thailand statistics’ showed that women bought more books than men. However, the statistics are based on the Bangkok population. We have to promote reading for women in the provinces where many are illegible. During the pandemic lockdown, schools were closed, children had to study online, and mothers and grandmothers were devastated as they couldn't help their kids learn. Many years ago, a study showed that the more the mothers read, the better they raise their children.

Frontlist: The PublisHer is completing its 3 years in March 2022. How do you think it is performing to #BreaktheBias and forge gender equality in the publishing industry ?

Trasvin: PublisHer’s communities are growing, and it is too soon to say what we are trying to do, is bearing fruits or not. As I mentioned earlier, we have to consider cultural context, and some cultures, societies and spaces require more effort and different approaches. The pandemic has slowed us down. Hopefully, the development will be visible when we resume traveling and meet in person. Change takes time. However, publishers are a band of intelligent people, and most of us are open-minded and willing to change.

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