Mud City Press


Amanda Kovattana's


(Tiny Red Desk Publishing, June 2022, 338 pages, ebook $8.99, paperback $15.99)

Reviewed by Frank Kaminski

Amanda Kovattana is a fascinating woman, someone who has lived a truly extraordinary life by consistently choosing to live it on her own terms. Her memoir The Girls' Guide To Off Grid Living brims with examples of how, throughout her life, she's rebelled against conventional norms, societal expectations and pressures from her family to pursue her dreams and live authentically.

There's perhaps no better illustration of this than her decision to forsake the promise of affluence and status back in her home country, Thailand, in favor of a simple, off-grid existence in America. It's a decision she aptly calls an inversion of the stereotypical immigrant story, which goes from rags to riches, not vice versa. Her family back home was part of the Thai aristocracy and always expected her to join its ranks one day, too–but she had other plans.

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Kovattana has set herself apart in many other ways as well. To take just a few examples, she's defied traditional gender norms in everything from her clothes to career choices; she proudly embraced a lesbian identity at a time when gay people tended to be closeted; she mastered the unicycle and tried to join the circus as a young woman; and she's been living in a micro tiny house without refrigeration or hot water for the past seven years in an effort to live sustainably. She's also continually sought to expand her knowledge and thinking beyond conventional boundaries and into realms as far from the mainstream as seems possible.

The richness and diversity of her life experiences are amply matched by the skill with which she writes about them. Kovattana is a fine storyteller with a keen sense of pacing and a gift for vividly capturing a particular place and time. Her writing is filled with immersive descriptions; sharply drawn characters; poignant cultural and historical insights; and evocative themes of adventure, self-discovery, and love and loss.

The memoir opens in mid-1960s Bangkok, where Kovattana, the only child of a Thai father and a British mother, attends a Western-style elementary school for children of expatriates. Her Thai side of the family lives in a gated compound. Her Thai grandmother, a protocol officer with the national government, rubs shoulders with celebrities of the likes of Neil Armstrong and Queen Elizabeth II. In kindergarten, Kovattana had a stint as a child runway fashion model for upper-class elites. While she would later come to reject all this wealth and opulence, she says she still fondly remembers this time in her life.

Her mother imparted on her a passion for reading and literature, and since English-language books were hard to come by in Thailand, she treasured the few that she had. She adored Joyce Lankester Brisley's Milly-Molly-Mandy children's books, whose plucky titular character she idolized. One of the joys of this memoir for fellow book lovers is the way Kovattana chronicles her reading journey from early childhood to present, pausing to reflect on the books that have most impacted her intellectual development.

Kovattana's parents immigrated to America in 1968, when she was 10. This move marked the beginning of a prolonged identity crisis for her. Though she would eventually come to thank her parents for giving her "the gift of a biracial, bilingual, and tricultural perspective" (to quote from her previous memoir, Diamonds in my Pocket: Tales from a Childhood in Asia), early on this complex identity was a source of great confusion and internal conflict for her. She struggled to reconcile her Thai and British heritage with her new American surroundings and to fit in with her American peers.

Her mixed upbringing caused her to experience jarring culture clashes between East and West. Her Thai family couldn't relate to her newfound lust for the American ideals of individualism, adventure and self-discovery, for example, while her American companions couldn't grasp her inability, as a Buddhist, to "get into the tragedy" of terminal illness and death. "I hardly understood myself," she writes, "how different my perspective was–this mixture of Buddhist fatalism, karma and luck overriding Western notions of individual autonomy and self-determination."

Kovattana gives a remarkably candid, moving account of her gender-nonconforming childhood and coming of age as a lesbian in late '70s and early '80s San Francisco amid the emerging gay liberation movement. As a girl she kept her hair short, went by "Andy," wore jeans instead of skirts and took an avid interest in the Boy Scout Handbook, even though she couldn't formally join the Boy Scouts as a girl. As a gay young woman she spent time in the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood, became a founding member of Dykes on Bikes, and read and thought deeply about lesbian and feminist politics.

She beautifully captures the excitement and heartbreak of her early romantic encounters, delves into the complexities of her time living in a polyamorous household, and reflects fascinatingly on her evolving perspectives on monogamy and the diverse expressions of lesbian identity. Yet she also laments the isolation she felt as one of the few lesbians of color at the University of California Santa Cruz.

A big part of what makes Kovattana's life so fascinating is the wide range of unconventional jobs she's had. She's been, among other things, a graphic artist, a videographer, a movie theater projectionist, a gas station attendant, a carpenter, a freelance writer and a professional organizer. Due to the modest pay of many of these jobs, she's learned to get by on as little money as possible. She has found great fulfillment in her frugal way of life and has come to revel in a blue-collar identity.

It was within the peak oil and sustainability movements that began to coalesce around the early 2000s that Kovattana found true belonging. In a series of chapters with titles like "The Low Tech Road," "Be Your Own Medicine," "House of Mud" and "Tiny House of My Dreams," she chronicles how she first came to join, and eventually became a prominent figure in, these communities.

She recounts her experiences living in a communal household, learning about alternative medicine and alternative construction techniques, embracing the self-sufficiency ethos of the '60s counterculture, and going back to Thailand to lend her hand to cob building projects in impoverished rural communities. She devotes multiple chapters to her quest to acquire, customize and adjust to life in her 130-square-foot tiny house. And she describes how she came to be a writer for the major peak oil news site Energy Bulletin (now Resilience), where she contributed book reviews and documented her journey toward a lower-energy lifestyle.

This section of the book vibrates with passion and a charming sense of awe and curiosity–and the examples I've chosen only scratch the surface of Kovattana's fearless pursuit of new experiences. One truly is left wondering if there's anything she won't try.

Professionally she hit her stride as an organizer, a job she finds rewarding because it allows her to leave places better than she found them–a feeling that aligns beautifully with the ideal of environmental stewardship that is so dear to her heart.

True to its title, this is as much a guidebook as a memoir. It concludes with an excellent resources section for those interested in exploring green living, holistic health, sustainable agriculture, rainwater harvesting and related topics.

It isn't perfect, though. Unfortunately, it contains a number of typos, some infelicities of grammar and punctuation, some misnumbered chapters, a misspelled name and a couple of inaccuracies in book titles. Of particular note is Kovattana's seeming aversion to commas. I had to chuckle at a line in her acknowledgements section in which she thanks her proofreaders for helping fix her "comma-deprived punctuation." If it was comma-deprived before, was there even a single comma throughout the entire book?

But the idiosyncratic comma usage seldom hinders our ability to grasp the author's meaning, and the other mechanical issues barely take away from an otherwise deeply enriching work.


If you enjoyed this review, you might find Quicksand a worthwhile read.

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