Hybrid Interview: Ira Sukrungruang
In our hybrid interview series, we pair an author Q&A with a critical essay about one or more of their books. We’re happy to share this conversation between Ira Sukrungruang and our Editorial Assistant Sam Risak, who also essays about Sukrungruang’s latest memoir, This Jade World. —CRAFT
Essay by Sam Risak •
Author of a combined six books of poetry, fiction, and creative nonfiction, Richard L. Thomas Professor of Creative Writing at Kenyon College, and president of the literary nonprofit Sweet: A Literary Confection, Ira Sukrungruang is a writer with many roles: these are only a few he fills within the literary world. Also a father, teacher, husband, ex-husband, son, nephew, lover of fish sauce and WWE, Sukrungruang exists as many different people to many different people, which is exactly what his latest memoir This Jade World demonstrates. We are very pleased that Sukrungruang has agreed to judge the 2021 Creative Nonfiction Award at CRAFT.
A multi-POV book told exclusively from Sukrungruang’s perspective, This Jade World moves between first, second, and third person to create a cast of characters embodied within one narrator: whereas “you” might engage in online dating culture, when “I” is in Thailand with his mother, “I” is embarrassed by the mere mention of sex. Set in the period following Sukrungruang’s divorce from writer Katie Riegel, these shifts in point of view reflect the various identities Sukrungruang tried to construct for himself both inside and out of his marriage. They vary the narrative distance and provide readers with a sense of who Sukrungruang was in the moment as well as how close he feels to that version of himself now:
“You meet a woman you’ve seen online for the first time in a motel room.”
“Eleven years ago, I was married in the shadow of a looming Buddha, leaning against my midwestern bride, Katie, a white string lacing through our hands, believing, despite the heat and humidity that dampened our backs, that this would be forever.”
“Now, I return divorced, and the year between visits seems a deep hole I’m emerging out of.”
“On this day twelve years ago was a wedding. A Thai boy was marrying a white woman from the plains of Illinois during the monsoon season.”
The multiplicity of self Sukrungruang depicts here is something we all experience; however, what This Jade World shows is that we do not all possess the same level of control over how those selves are interpreted. Particularly in the United States, where white is the presumed neutral, for a person who is anything but, their race becomes a defining characteristic of who they are. Very few examples of Thai-American narratives can be found in popular media and literature, and those that do exist often rely on gendered stereotypes that emasculate men and hypersexualize women. Sukrungruang illustrates the ramifications of this lack of representation throughout his memoir, but the point is perhaps made most directly when he writes from the third person—the outsider’s point of view.
When Sukrungruang refers to himself as “Thai Boy” and Riegel as “White Woman,” he reduces the two of them to their race and gender not to attribute their divorce to racial differences, but to illustrate how he felt others perceived their relationship. Rather than focusing on their interpersonal conflicts, these sections depict the couple during intimate moments in a hotel room or in bed where the only “trouble” is the hyperawareness Sukrungruang exhibits toward his Thainess in response to Riegel’s whiteness. He contextualizes some of what this awareness entails early on in the memoir when he recounts a story his mother told him as a teenager:
Once there was a Thai boy who fell in love with a white woman. This white woman was the whitest of white, but her hair was the color of silky strand. The Thai boy—so frail so delicate—was enamored with the white woman. It was as if her whiteness cast a spell on him. He groveled for her affections. He became her supplicant.
The poor, poor Thai boy…
By the time the story ends, the white woman leaves the faithful Thai boy to have sex with everyone in the kingdom because he has failed to satisfy her. The story is meant as a warning against white women, but has a different impact on Sukrungruang, who is determined to prove he is nothing like the pitiable Thai boy. The scenes featuring “Thai Boy” and “White Woman” show how Sukrungruang carries the character with him into his relationship with Riegel. As he reflects back on this period, he refers to himself as “Thai Boy” to highlight how much his identity has been informed by the stereotype he sought to define himself against.
Divorce suggests an ending. Finality. Completion. None of that is to be found in This Jade World. In the memoir, relationships do not close, but re-form. Readers gain a sense of resolution, but no cause-and-effect narrative. No strict adherence to chronology. Along with Sukrungruang’s other works of creative nonfiction— Buddha’s Dog & Other Meditations, Southside Buddhist, Talk Thai: The Adventures of Buddhist Boy—This Jade World illustrates the genre’s capacity to not only revisit history, but to unveil its continued presence in our today. As an undergraduate at the University of South Florida, I was introduced to the time-traveling opportunities afforded by personal narrative in a Creative Nonfiction workshop taught by Sukrungruang. Now, six years later, we had the opportunity to return to the topic over Zoom where we discuss how and why he decided to document some of his travels on the page.
Sam Risak: This Jade World takes place after your divorce to poet, prose writer, and professor Katie Riegel, your wife for eleven years and partner for fifteen. During this period, your life takes a sharp turn away from monogamy, and the beginning of your memoir reflects on many of the relatively anonymous sexual relationships you had. You write that these encounters were partially an attempt to “eradicate that notion of Asian man sexlessness,” and I’m curious: Were you aware of that intention at the time? Or did that awareness arise through the writing process?
Ira Sukrungruang: It was a mixture of both. Honestly, I’ve always been quite aware of how the world—or at least the country—views Asian-American masculinity. I started reading about the feuds between Maxine Hong Kingston and Frank Chin—who was such a big proponent of Asian-American masculinity—a long time ago, and I was always taking in how the culture proceeded. And just recently I read Charles Yu’s National Book Award winner Interior Chinatown. It’s a phenomenal book written in the form of a screenplay that’s about an Asian man who wants to rise above and become the pinnacle of Asian-American identity: the ‘kung fu’ hero. It shows how if you’re not the hero, you’re an extra, someone to be used for certain bits of movies and shows.
As an Asian American growing up in Chicago, I absolutely absorbed that lack of representation. And while the notion of Asian sexlessness was never explicitly part of the drama between my ex and I, it was something that I interiorized, which is the problem with stereotypes: when you hear them all your life, you begin to believe them. And that was something I had to undo. I had to find out how to obliterate that stereotype.
SR: The very identity “Asian American” is one that has come under scrutiny for being too universalizing and ignoring the important roles that factors such as class and skin color play. Where do you stand on this? Do you conceptualize yourself as an Asian-American writer? A Thai writer? Neither? Both?
IS: I prefer Thai-American writer over anything else. It pinpoints the Thai culture, the Thai heritage, it talks to my Thai upbringing. The Thai immigrant is not like the Chinese, Japanese, or Korean immigrant. The Thai immigrant story, the Laotian immigrant story, the Hmong immigrant story, they’re all varied, and they came later in American history, often around the 1960s and ’70s, whereas Chinese and Japanese populations have had roots here for generations. But because our culture has lumped us under the umbrella of Asian American, and because the systems that exist in the world have treated us as though there are no distinguishing factors between one Asian culture and another Asian culture, I don’t mind being part of the Asian-American tribe. Even though it is a form of orientalizing when there are so many various cultures and heritage that exist under that umbrella. Which is why the statistics are skewed when they say that Asian Americans live above the poverty line.
SR: And you don’t focus on issues faced by men alone. In the United States, Thai women are often reduced to sexual objects, presented as passive and without voice—a stark contrast to the women you describe in your memoir. Both your mother and aunt appear strong and independent, and when they talk about sex, they do so with more confidence than you can muster. Was it important that you emphasize their sexual agency?
IS: Absolutely. A lot of the book talks about the idea of gender in Thai cultures and how complicated it is. Much of the workforce is women, and yet it’s still a highly sexist culture, and I think that sexism is ingrained even into the most powerful women like my mother and aunt.
I wrote an essay in the magazine Solstice about some of the effects of toxic masculinity and how my upbringing was shaped by the expectations of what my mother and aunt thought I should be. Both in the memoir and essay, I wanted to show how they could be the strongest women and feminists that I know and still fall into the trap of gender roles, believing they should raise a strong man—not a strong person—but a strong man.
SR: Is that why you refer to yourself as a “Man Baby” in the memoir? To point out some of the consequences of toxic masculinity?
IS: Definitely. The idea that domestic work is the female’s realm is outrageously stupid, but it’s there everywhere we look. That chapter “Man Baby” calls me out. It describes a time when I was sick and my mother helped me, and it shows how I am a product of the world where these ideas exist.
There’s another chapter in the memoir called “Stupid Men” that talks about the power of women, and how they drive the workforce. In it, I’m having a conversation with my cousin who’s a powerful woman in a world governed by stupid men, and by the end of that chapter, I’m a stupid man. I fall into that role and part of my attempt with the book is to address that and point out the issues with these gender stereotypes that are so deeply entrenched in our culture.
SR: And you do show how gender varies with culture. The memoir shifts between Thailand and the United States, and when you portray your mother in the US, her voice largely disappears: the once assertive woman who demands a good deal in Thailand’s markets is described as timid and dependent in Chicago. Why include this vulnerable moment? Why not focus on your mother’s strength and authority?
IS: I wanted to show how much of our comfort comes from the sense of home and how home empowers us. My mother was away from home for thirty-six years. It stripped her of power. It stripped her of her voice. It took away all the things she learned to be prior to coming to America. That’s true for a lot of immigrant women who come from Asian countries, and I wanted the book to show the effects of that.
And when I think of home, I don’t just think about place. I think of home as the vessel—the body—that we exist in. This Jade World is set during the year after my divorce, which was a time of homelessness. I felt my voice disappear, and I had to find a way to get it back.
SR: Is that why This Jade World frequently switches point of view? If so, how did you select which point of view to use in a given chapter? While I understood why you might use the second person to distance yourself while writing about anonymous sexual encounters, I was less sure about the third-person sections. What effect did you hope to achieve through those?
IS: I’ll let you in on a secret joy I have: I used to really, really love to watch wrestling. And it’s not the wrestling part that I like. It’s the mic work. When the wrestlers are being interviewed, they’re so full of drama. Of melodrama. And part of that is because most wrestlers speak about themselves in the third person. Like The Rock: if you can smell it, The Rock is cooking. I love that. And when I utilize that third person, or when I utilize that technique, I’m doing it to create an out-of-body experience.
In memoir, there are always two “I”s. There’s the writer at the desk who’s reflecting, thinking, and analyzing. And then there’s the character-in-the-moment—the person going through the drama. When you write in third person, you create a much more definitive divide between the writer-at-the-desk and the character-in-the-moment. So when I move into third person, I’m forcing myself outside my body to look at that person who was, say, stuck on the couch depressed about a breakup. Or that person reflecting on the day before he got married. Third person lets me isolate the moments of joy, of young love and youth. And the same can be said when the third person represents darkness.
It’s a trick that I often tell my students to do because a lot of times it can be hard to claim the first-person pronoun, the “I.” Move into the third person where you can disconnect and really see yourself as a vulnerable character.
SR: And in these sections, why did you choose “Thai Boy” as your persona?
IS: Thai Boy was a nickname I had when I was growing up. A lot of my friends in Chicago called me it from the start.
SR: Did you always feel proud to carry that nickname? Or was this book an attempt to reclaim what it means to be a “Thai Boy”? I ask because I can imagine perceiving that nickname as an act of aggression.
IS: I think it was aggressive, but I don’t think I was reclaiming the name. It was always there. We never lose our old selves. We may become different people. We may age. Mature. We may go on to get married, divorced, married again, have a kid. But that person you were—that Thai Boy—is always there. And it can come back at surprising times. Make us nostalgic. Make us cringe. Often, both.
SR: The “White Woman” to your “Thai Boy,” part of how you characterize your ex-wife Katie is through her whiteness. The descriptions are often playful—describing her inability to stomach fish sauce, for instance—but they nevertheless make clear distinctions between your positions in the world. How did you go about writing about the race of someone so close to you? What did you hope to convey? Why?
IS: When I started writing about my relationship with Katie, it started with writing my relationship with the world. When you are seen as an other, and that other is via your skin color, it has a big impact on how people think of you. White writers never have to identify their white characters because that’s just expected. Of course, they’re white. Marilynne Robinson never states that the Reverend in Gilead is white because it’s a given. But in This Jade World, I wanted to treat all color as simply a characteristic of who we were. I humorize it a little bit—when I call her “White Woman,” it’s with love—but I also wanted to set up how our culture thinks of interracial relationships. There’s that white woman and that Black man. There’s that white man and that Hispanic woman.
Part of what the book addresses are the different worlds Katie and I come from. I’m an urban boy born in a Thai family. She’s a Central Illinois white farm girl. I didn’t understand mashed potatoes because I really liked rice. She didn’t understand my need for Thai or Asian food all the time. And so, to write her truthfully was to confront the differences in our cultures and those start with skin color. Not to say skin color was the reason for the divorce. It wasn’t. It was just part of who we were.
SR: And yet, when you describe your next relationship with Deedra, another white woman, there isn’t the same emphasis placed on race. Why is that? Is that change in your memoir indicative of a change you experienced with your relationship to the world?
IS: That’s a great question. I need to think about it a little bit because there’s a lot to it, and I hadn’t much thought about it before. I know that when Deedra and I got together, we talked about race very openly. She might be one of the first people that I’ve had a frank discussion with on what it means to be a Thai American.
Maybe that’s why race didn’t figure as much into the sections with Deedra: we were talking about it in real life.
SR: In addition to your personal relationships, This Jade World explores the boundaries you have with your body. One might assume such a relationship to be more insular, and yet, it also feels defined by those around you: we read the most about your larger size when you share a room with your smaller Thai relatives. Does your environment often affect how you feel and write about your body? If so, how does it change when you are in Thailand versus when you are in the United States?
IS: For me, the body can be viewed in the simplest ways. Which is to say, when I’m in America, I’m not seen as an American because of the color of my skin. When I am in Thailand, I’m not seen as Thai because of how big I am. That always plays a role in the issues I have with identity.
My body is different among family. It’s different with my wife. It’s different among friends. How we exist is shaped by our relationships. We are always adapting to fit whatever community we are in, and that’s not just behavioral, that’s physical. It’s the physical space we occupy. Sometimes we look in the mirror, and it seems like we’re heavier because there’s a metaphorical weight on us. A lot of this book was me trying to understand that metaphorical weight. To see if we can shut it off at times.
SR: What about when you write? Is your relationship with your body different on the page than it is in your day-to-day life?
IS: In my writing, I have more power. I’m aware of my body, and because I’m aware, I can pick and choose which body to represent in a given essay, chapter, poem, or short story. The beauty of writing is that you have that wide angle view of your life, and you have choice over who and what to put forth. You have more power on the page than you do in the walking-and-talking world.
SR: You have more control, and yet, you still choose to put forth aspects of your body that you are not totally comfortable with. Do you think creative nonfiction requires a writer to push against their discomfort?
IS: Of course. If you didn’t, why would you write creative nonfiction? Why would you write memoir? Memoir is a genre of vulnerability. To write it, you have to rip the Band-Aid off and to see the wound for what it is. To see there’s something ugly and painful and beautiful, too.
It’s one of the most beautiful art forms because it goes against what our culture wants us to do. We are not supposed to be weak or vulnerable, and to be seen as such in our everyday world is to risk being ostracized or exiled. But in memoir, it is vulnerability that creates connection between us and others who might share those same weaknesses. And that creates community.
SR: In your teaching and writing, you pay a lot of attention to the body, which is not considered a traditionally masculine topic. Earlier, you mentioned that you wanted to deconstruct gender, and I’m curious if you view your work on the body as a deliberate move to challenge gender norms?
IS: I feel like I’ve always been challenging these constructs when I write about the body. When I finished This Jade World, I had an editor reject it and say “I can’t sell chick lit written by a dude,” and that right there tells you what he perceived the public wanted. What he thought men should write about.
I addressed these issues early on in my career because there was a lack of writing by men who spoke about their bodies without protection. Without hubris. At the time, the only piece that I had encountered was Phillip Lopate’s “Portrait of My Body.” It’s a wonderful piece that describes the aging body, but it’s grounded in what it is to be male, and I wanted to show that the body is for everyone. It’s our passport. It’s the first thing we see of each other. It’s the most public thing we possess. It’s also the most private.
I wanted to write about that without any kind of veil. I wanted to address obesity and fat and talk about the stigmas that follow big people. It’s the reason why I edited two anthologies about obesity. More than any other artistic medium, literature has the ability to look at the fat experience in a much more inclusive and diverse way. It can provide a counternarrative to what we see in magazines and on TV. And literature does that because it looks at the gray. It’s never the black-and-white our mainstream popular culture likes to create.
SR: Why is that gray important when it comes to nonfiction? What can a personal narrative offer a reader that a critical text cannot?
IS: About fifteen years ago, a student and I were talking about veracity and nonfiction. I remember the student saying how she believes a memoir before she believes the news, that she believes someone’s experience before she believes the facts someone is spouting out. And I think there’s something to that. I keep going back to Annie Dillard’s anthology Modern American Memoirs and how she talks about memoir being our form of minor histories. I love, love, love that. Because we collect all these minor histories, and I think that tells us a truer story of our nation than what a poll or politician has to say.
I always find it so disheartening when people try to devalue or make light of lived experience. There are people who will say racism does not exist, that it’s something people of color have made up. I remember hearing a campus preacher say that, and what it told me is that my story and my experiences with racism are not valued here. But a well-written personal narrative or memoir gives access to emotions that are in many ways absent from the news where there is either no emotion or polarizing emotions. Extreme sadness or extreme anger. A memoir looks at the levels of sadness or anger that one feels, and so when I read something like Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me, I’m getting something that is intimate. I’m getting something that a father wouldn’t say about race out loud, but he will say in this book, in this letter to his son. The same way when you look at, say, Kiese Laymon’s Heavy, you get to see this Black man making his way through the South, and the egregious history that follows. I learn more from these books that show us the tug and pull of the heart than I do from any other art form.
SR: How do you encourage students to value such lived experiences, particularly in workshop? Mathew Salesses’ Craft in the Real World gave voice to many of the inequities embedded within the traditional Iowa model; has your stance on it changed at all over the years? What about your pedagogical approaches to teaching craft and writing?
IS: I think Craft in the Real World by Matthew Salesses and The Anti-Racist Writing Workshop by Felicia Chavez have been long needed in creative writing pedagogy. We have relied so much on the Iowa method, and as a student, I remember how detrimental I felt that was, but at the time, no one knew there was an alternative. We just followed along. We silenced. But for the past seven years, I have been rethinking what I want my workshops to do, and in the end, I want them to be conversations. Dialogues. I want them to be free of statements of judgment. To be rid of the notion of what is good, and what is bad. To be rid of the gatekeeping that is ever present in art because the power of the workshop is not with the teacher. It’s not with the student. The power in the workshop should always be with the writer because when that person leaves the class, they’re the one who’s going to have to think about the choices they’ve made on the page, and what they want to do with them.
I don’t want to make other Iras, which happens in workshop. I don’t want to support the groupthink mentality that happens in workshop. I want the writer to come in with questions to ask the class, and I want to help guide them toward the piece they want to write. They should leave not as though they’ve been hung up as a punching bag, but with momentum and motivation to keep working on their piece. I know with the old model, most of the pieces I brought in never went anywhere. They stopped at workshop. And it’s because I got taken down so much or the piece was spoken about in a way that it no longer felt like my piece. It wasn’t urgent anymore for me.
SR: Is the workshop to you as much about learning how to be a good reader as it is learning how to write?
IS: It’s funny because the workshop—even the Iowa method—was developed to be for the whole class. It was supposed to teach you how to be a deep reader and a better editor. But it somehow it turned into, Oh, we need to fix this person’s piece without any thought of how to reciprocate that in our own work. So yes, I think with the new models that Felicia Chavez and Matthew Salesses talk about in their books, everyone has a stake and everyone has a voice.
SR: Last question: Creative nonfiction is still a relatively new genre, and it frequently experiments with different narrative conventions and structures. Where would you like to see the genre go next? What will make a piece of nonfiction stand out to you as you read for the Creative Nonfiction Award at CRAFT?
IS: What I’m always looking for are new ways to tell a story. Not new stories. I think that is the fallacy that we all have as writers: we think we have to write something new. And that’s impossible, especially in nonfiction. I mean, I’m writing about divorce. I’m writing about masculinity. I’m writing about the body. These are not new things. It’s the “how” that I’m interested in. What language is the writer using to tell their story? What form?
At a Claudia Rankine reading I attended, one of the students asked a similar question, which was, where is poetry headed? Or where is writing headed? Are you hopeful? And she said she’s enormously hopeful because the generation behind us has a new set of vocabulary. The language we are still trying to learn is already in their system. And that’s what excites me about judging these contests. I get to see new ways to tell a story. New ways to see our world.
SR: Thank you for taking the time to talk about your memoir with CRAFT and for agreeing to judge the Creative Nonfiction Award. I’m excited to see what new sights you discover.
IRA SUKRUNGRUANG was born in Chicago to Thai immigrants. He earned his BA in English from Southern Illinois University Carbondale, and his MFA from The Ohio State University. He is the author of four nonfiction books—This Jade World (2021), Buddha’s Dog & Other Meditations (2018), Southside Buddhist (2014), and Talk Thai: The Adventures of Buddhist Boy (2010), the short story collection The Melting Season (2016), and the poetry collection In Thailand It Is Night (2013). With friend Donna Jarrell, he co-edited two anthologies that examine the fat experience through a literary lens—What Are You Looking At? The First Fat Fiction Anthology (2003) and Scoot Over, Skinny: The Fat Nonfiction Anthology (2005). He is a former member of the Board of Trustees for the Association of Writers and Writing Program (AWP) and current member of the Advisory Board of Machete, an imprint of The Ohio State University Press dedicated to publishing innovative nonfiction by authors who have been historically marginalized.
Sukrungruang is the recipient of the 2015 American Book Award for Southside Buddhist, a New York Foundation for the Arts Fellowship in Nonfiction Literature, an Arts and Letters Fellowship, and the Anita Claire Scharf Award in Poetry. His work has appeared in many literary journals, including The Rumpus, American Poetry Review, The Sun, and Creative Nonfiction. He is the president of Sweet: A Literary Confection, a literary nonprofit organization, and the Richard L. Thomas Professor of Creative Writing at Kenyon College.
SAM RISAK is CRAFT’s Editorial Assistant for Interviews and Art & Marketing as well as a reader/reviewer for TAB: The Journal in Poetry & Poetics. She received her MFA in Creative Writing and MA in English at Chapman University, and she has work published or forthcoming in Writer’s Digest, Lit Hub, AWP’s The Writer’s Chronicle, Terrain.org, Los Angeles Review of Books, Entropy, Barrelhouse, and Crab Orchard Review.