In his memoir, “A Chant to Soothe Wild Elephants”, Jaed Coffin is the child of a Thai mother and an American father, in search of the concrete identity he feels he lacks because of his interracial background. As an American college student he returns to Thailand, where he briefly becomes a Buddhist monk in an attempt to cure his adolescent identity crisis. He relates both his physical and mental journey as a monk, taking the reader to his mother’s village of Panomsarakram, to a Buddhist temple, to a bizarre, introspective retreat in the forest, and back to the temple as his spiritual endurance winds down and he finally returns to secular life.
Coffin’s descriptions of life in Thailand as a monk are intriguing, yet so much of the memoir is so internal that the reader only gets a limited glimpse of the world outside Coffin’s insecure, convoluted thoughts. This is fitting, considering that in many ways the young Coffin is the archetypal “seeker” personality—always searching for his own miraculous enlightenment. His purpose is to cure his identity crisis, so some heavy introspection is required. Simply put, the memoir is more a description of Coffin’s mental processes than what happens in the world around him and the full breadth of his experience is lacking in this sense. The character goes through something of a transformation throughout the memoir, but only in that he realizes that a mysterious foray into the culture and religion of his ancestry is not an instant cure for his identity crisis. Coffin’s writing is blunt and honest, with many allusions to his proclaimed literary heroes such as Earnest Hemingway and Jack London, but because of this he lacks some of the charm of ingenuity.
“A Chant to Soothe Wild Elephants” by Jaed Coffin. De Capo Press, 2008.