As I read Natalie Appleton’s memoir, I Have Something to Tell You, I was reminded of a time in my life spent wandering toward a certain something I could not define, but that I believed was out there waiting to be found. In I Have Something to Tell You, Appleton returns to these restless years to examine how fate and serendipity shaped her life. But equally, to reveal the will that can be brought to bear to find a way forward.
Appleton’s journey began in her home town of Medicine Hat, Alberta, where she found herself at odds with the expectations of friends, the norms of small town life, and the burden of her own family history. From there, the story moves to Bangkok, Thailand, where she took a one-year contract to teach English at a Rajabhat university, the Thai equivalent to a British polytechnic.
Regardless that the place had changed, Appleton’s personal turmoil and uncertainty mark her days in Thailand. She writes, “the hobo, the seamstress, the sweeper, the guards—they are my neighbors now. Already, I wonder if they will come to know me, and nod at me in the afternoon as I pass by. Already, I want to be with them.” (92) But in Bangkok, by virtue of her physical stature, her hair colour, her race, nationality and gender, she finds herself distinctly “other” and alone. Of these days, she says, “I’m stuck in some kind of strange social limbo. I can’t really spend time with the teachers after hours. Even if either party wanted to, I am seen as a bad influence. Western women, if you can imagine, are thought to be loose.” (125) Using the internet to make connections, Appleton eventually meets and befriends a few expat women and begins a series of ill-fated blind dates with Thai men she finds on a dating website. Significantly, her posts on the dating website also result in an email from another Canadian living and working in Thailand.
Constructed in three parts—“Wild Rose Country,” “City of Angels” and “Magic Roosters”—Appleton’s prose propels the memoir quickly through short tight chapters rich with details that convey the smells, sounds and atmosphere of Medicine Hat and Bangkok, two diametrically opposed locations. In particular, the memoir is bracketed by Appleton’s participation in Loy Krathong, a lovely Thai ceremony that allows participants to make a wish and float their troubles away on a carefully crafted banana leaf lit with candles. Not long after arriving in Bangkok, she launched her first krathong, “a little birthday cake, iced with banana leaves, yellow carnations and purple orchids, incense sticks and a single candle.” (xv) Urged to make a wish, she asks for understanding. “I blink and make my wish: I want to know why I’m here. Just as quickly, I drop the krathong into the river. It bobs twice, then tips over. I gasp. My float’s wet underside sails away into a stream of failed krathongs, lining the river like old board ropes.” Song, her guide for this first ceremony, consoles her saying “Maybe next year will be better, na.” (xviii)
Through these glimpses into Thai life and culture and the in-between world inhabited by her fellow expats, Appleton weaves the story—veering on chaos—of her struggle to come to terms with her departure from Medicine Hat, her family’s complicated history, and the miracle she found in Thailand. A year after launching her first krathong, she is again beside a river. This time, she is not alone. She tells us, “Thais believe it’s a good omen if the krathong stands and sails downriver, candles still alight.” (273) And this time, her krathong slips along on a gentle current and “floats through the night.” (276)
I Have Something to Tell You
by Natalie Appleton
Ravenscrag Press, 304pp., $17.95
Jody Baltessen is an archivist and poet in Winnipeg.