So here’s perhaps the biggest tragedy that can befall a writer. You write your first book, and later critics will opine that it’s better than any book ever written on your subject. Readers love it and it’s still talked about and read 50 years after it’s published. But you die before you ever see it published. At the age of 45.
This story of triumph and tragedy is the story of Carol Hollinger, a housewife who accompanied her husband on a U.S. government assignment to Bangkok. From a longevity perspective, her book Mai Pen Rai Means Never Mind (1965, ISBN 974-8303-35-7) is certainly one of the most successful books ever written about Thailand. Since it was published, it’s never gone out of print. Today, every English bookstore in Bangkok has at least one copy for sale, and it’s in every bookstore at the airport too. But Hollinger never saw a royalty check or a review. By that time, she had died, the victim of a cerebral hemorrhage. From the perspective of a housewife (yes, that’s the term used in 1965), she saw Thailand with unprejudiced eyes, the antithesis of the ugly American. She took joy and wonder in everything as she concentrated on raising a daughter and navigating her way through the expat social milieu. And when the reader finishes the book, he or she wants more and to know more. When’s Hollinger’s next book coming out? Who is she? What’s in her background that gave her the perspective of seeing a new land in just the way she did? The book provides no answers. It has neither an introduction nor an afterword. To a very great extent, Carol Hollinger has been lost to the ages.
Reviewing Mai Pen Rai
After reading the delightful Mai Pen Rai Means Never Mind (1965, ISBN 974-8303-35-7), one can’t help but thinking that author Carol Hollinger has somehow become an old friend, and accessible by email, telephone, or samlor. Of the nearly 100 mentions of her in search engines, none describes anything about her life or death, mentioning instead only her book, and a short synopsis. This book is a remarkably insightful, witty, and charming book, leaving the reader to wonder how she sorted out her final years after returning to the U.S.
The cover of the book refers to her as an “American Housewife,” which is a little like classifying Hemingway as a fishermen, or Carême as a short-order cook. A wonderful essayist in the manner of Marya Mannes, Hollinger is intelligently self-deprecating:
“… my social talents are non-existent. I do not shine at parties. In fact, if there is a gloomy spot, I am usually it. I am prone to the wrong dress and a lock of hair that juts the wrong way in my coiffure. My feet always hurt. The result of this combination of limiting factors is that I usually end up in a corner with a frantic gentleman. He is frantic because he cannot escape me politely.”
Hollinger offers remarkable insights into the interactions between farang and Thais, and, perhaps more interestingly, between Western expats themselves. She’s keenly aware of the intricacies and injustice of class structure, and unforgiving of the Americans living in Thailand who choose to adopt superior attitudes, particularly when involving servants. Perhaps her finest writing is in the chapter entitled “The Joker in the Deck” in which she relates the beginning and end of her days as a card-reading fortune teller, who unwittingly predicted the death of a close friend’s 19 year old daughter. The book remains an landmark memoir of an expat in Thailand, a major reason why it’s still being sold — and loved — today.
Through veteran expat writer Steve Rosse, we were able to trace down Carol’s daughter Holly, and here’s what we found out about her talented and insightful mother:
Carol was born in Honolulu on October 18, 1919, descended from a family that originally came from the Azores or Portugal, and had two siblings, Ben and Louise Hollinger. Her mother’s maiden name was Louise Bushnell (anglicized from Busnoa or something similar). Her cousin, O.A. “Ozzie” Bushnell was a noted author on Hawaiian subjects. Carol’s father, Ben Hollinger, was Administrator of Parks and Recreation, where Queen Kapiʻolani Park came under his control. Ben Hollinger maintained a fascination with animals and began collecting them to showcase at the park in Waikīkī, and ran for governor at one point.
Carol attended Punahou school in Honolulu (its alumni also include Barack Obama and Sun Yat Sen). She joined the Navy during World War II as a Wave, and met Jack Turton, a Navy pilot, and they soon married. Returning to the States after the war, she may have graduated from George Washington University or was working on a master’s degree there (unfortunately, much data detailing her pre-Thailand history has been lost).
She arrived in Bangkok in 1957, along with her husband and daughter Holly, where Jack had accepted a position with the U.S. government. She immediately fell in love with Thailand and its people. She became a member of an informal get-together called the Friday Night Group, taught history and perhaps English as well at Chulalongkorn University. As Holly notes, “We had a gibbon named Gibby. And a handful of servants. She loved the chaos of the servants’ quarters. There were always relatives and mothers-in-law and babies, and it was quite lively.”
Carol and her family returned to the U.S. in 1959, where she wrote Mai Pen Rai. Steve Rosse interviewed writing instructor Dan Wakefield in 1999, who recounted how Hollinger got her book published.
I was teaching at Bread Loaf Writer’s Conference in Middlebury, Vermont. I don’t remember which year, but I taught there for the even years during the 1960’s, so it was likely 1964. [Carol] was a very pleasant and very attractive woman. Like all the students, she submitted the book as a sample of her writing. All the students got to have a one-hour private conference with one of the professional writers on the faculty, and Carol asked that this manuscript be the subject of her conference with me… We always received the students’ work prior to the conference, and when I went to the conference I was elated that this was, finally, somebody who had actually written a publishable book. You must understand that all the students wanted to be discovered at Bread Loaf, and in most cases their work wasn’t nearly ready to be published. I knew on first reading that Carol’s was. I think she did too, but she had no contacts in publishing, and had come to Bread Loaf in hopes of making some connections. I was very enthused about the book and immediately sent it to my agent, James Oliver Brown. He usually represented fiction writers, but he was charmed by her book and taken with it, just as I had been. Then he met Carol, and he was charmed and taken with her. The first publisher he sent it to was Houghton Mifflin, and they immediately signed it up. It is very rare for a book to sell to the first publisher who sees it.
During this time, Hollinger fell in love with another group of people, teaching at Paul Junior High School, an inner city school in Washington D.C. According to Holly Turton, “The students had a certain magic for her, not unlike the Thais. She treasured them and they adored her. She put on plays, probably something no one had bothered to do at that school.”
Summers were spent on a lake in Vermont where the beauty and solitude soothed her. The cabin next door often housed her sister Louise Hollinger Miller or friend Martha Dudley, with whom she often discussed travel, history and philosophy.
Carol Hollinger Turton had a long history of migraine headaches, and she died from a cerebral hemorrhage on July 2, 1965, before her book was published. She didn’t live to see her soon-to-be-famous book in print.
Hollinger’s tragic and premature death underscores her legacy as an important essayist on Thai culture and the expat experience of living in a foreign country. Her legacy consists of one book, and it’s a rich one. You can find used copies in many internet venues, and new copies in Thailand. Here at WoWasis, we think that this is an important book that shouldn’t be missed, and learning more about the author heightens its appeal and provides a final curtain on a most fascinating story.