Ira Sukrungruang: Examining Thai-American Identity through Poetry and Prose

Ira Sukrungruang

Ira Sukrungruang. Photo courtesy of author.

Ira Sukrungruang won the Santa Fe Writers Project Literary Award in 2000 for his memoir, Talk Thai: The Adventures of Buddhist Boy, in which he both humorously and painfully conveys what it was like growing up as a first-generation American with Thai parents, balancing his family’s cultural past with a new world, straddling countries, languages, identities, and traditions. Author Kalia Yang called the book, “a rich contribution to the voices that create the language of America’s immigrant population.”

Though he holds an MFA in creative nonfiction from Ohio State University, Sukrungruang is one of those wonderfully multi-talented writers in terms of genre: he has since published a second memoir in the form of a collection of essays, Southside Buddhist, a book of poetry called In Thailand it is Night, and his first collection of short stories, The Melting Season, which came out last year. Each volume carries on his main themes of dual identity, family and personal history, location and dislocation.

“I am driven by curiosity and uncertainty as a writer,” Sukrungruang says. “I’m a writer that needs to doubt on all levels—the self, the world, language, and form. It’s probably why I write in multiple genres, trying to explore the things that haunt from various lenses. What is the immigrant narrative in story /poem /essay?” he continues. “What can be uncovered if you allow yourself not to answer but to discover? And language, man, you have to have a love affair with words and their potential and limitations.”

What is the immigrant narrative in story /poem /essay? What can be uncovered if you allow yourself not to answer but to discover?

When asked what he is working on now, Sukrungruang answers sweetly, “I’m working on being the best father I can be to my nine-month old. He’s amazing and breaks and fills my heart in all the right places.”

But he is also working on two new writing projects: “The first is a memoir set in Thailand, during my yearly visit to see family, after a year of discovery and darkness, the end of a twelve-year marriage,” he says. “I married young, so my wants were my ex’s wants, and now, alone, what was it that I wanted? Who was I? As an Asian man? As an Asian man in a big body, which I love and hate.

“It’s a book that drains me,” he goes on. “But I’m not rushing it. I’m letting it come at it’s own pace. It’s been a challenge because it’s like poking at a fresh wound. But that’s what writers do. We sit in our darknesses and sometimes out emerges light.”

“The second book is about my time as a Buddhist monk in Chiangmai, Thailand,” Sukrungruang explains. “Most Thai men become monks for brief stints as karma for family. I wanted to discover Buddhism apart from family. I was born Buddhist and have felt it more closely related to family rather than religion. It’s the hardest thing I’ve done and most fulfilling. The monastic life is a quiet life, but the quiet carries with it barbs, too. And it is a religion that is governed by men. And men, even monks, cannot escape ego.”

…that’s what writers do. We sit in our darknesses and sometimes out emerges light.

Additionally, Sukrungruang has coedited two anthologies on the topic of obesity: What Are You Looking At? The First Fat Fiction Anthology and Scoot Over, Skinny: The Fat Nonfiction Anthology and currently edits The Clever Title and Sweet: A Literary Confection.  His essays, stories, and poems have appeared in such magazines as North American Review, The Sun, and Creative Nonfiction, and he is the recipient of the 2015 American Book Award, New York Foundation for the Arts Fellowship in Nonfiction Literature, an Arts and Letters Fellowship, and the Emerging Writer Fellowship.

Sukrungruang taught creative nonfiction at SUNY Oswego for six years and now teaches in the MFA program at University of South Florida. He says, “If I did not teach I would not write.  I write most during the school year. I feed off my students’ energy and ambition. I talk about writing, I am in a mode of constant reading.” He loves “the lyric precision of Eula Biss, the voice and fearlessness of Lidia Yuknavitch and Cheryl Strayed, the comic sensibilities of Elizabeth McCracken, the intellect of Ta-nehisi Coates, the narrative drive of Lee Martin.”

He advises writers, “Publications do not define your art. The making of art defines your art. Be in a community of support. And don’t be afraid to fall. Just get up again. Keep getting up.”

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