We live in a culture that loves to simplify things. It is a culture that stands resolute on answers while never interrogating the question. It is a culture that seeks to fix rather than listen. It is a culture that doesn’t allow for the complexity of the human spirit because these complexities are hard to face, these complexities create an uncomfortable gray area in which to exist and live. This is the reason, I believe, some of us turn to the writing and reading of literature. Literature represents undefined areas. It does not claim an answer. It shows the lives of individuals; it shows various types of suffering whether it is physical, emotional, or existential. The Buddhist I am believes there is no hierarchy to suffering, though we are told how and why and when we should suffer all the time. Literature, good literature, enlightens, confuses, and never claims to be in the know. That’s the beauty of it. We enter with questions, and sometimes we leave with more questions. That’s okay. It is the reason we turn to literature in times of turmoil—like now, like throughout all of American history—because without it we are lonely in our heartbreak. Many of us feel alone when dealing with issues of inequality and violence and abuse. We feel stranded.
“Because, the Ferguson Verdict” began as a cathartic release of anger and frustration and so, so, so much sorrow. It was, at first, a self-serving exercise. It was meant for me and only me because I could not contain my myriad emotions when hearing that verdict rendered on November 24, 2014. There was no other outlet but the page. I scribbled as fast as I could everything that I was thinking. When you have experienced racism, when you have been hurt by the world, and when the world continually breaks your heart, what unfolds is an onslaught of memories—aggression and microaggressions enacted on the body. This is the “body” Ta-Nehisi Coates speaks of in his letter to his son, Between the World and Me: “You must always remember that the sociology, the history, the economics, the graphs, the charts, the regressions all land, with great violence, upon the body.” It was my body that hurt. It was my body that was angry. It was my body that wanted to throw rationality out the window because the world no longer responded to rationality. The world was irrational. The world had once again broken us, me, in an irreparable way.
So I let the writing go. I let it move without break. Without pause. One sentence bled into another sentence into another sentence. No paragraphs. And I noticed that each sentence, or most of the sentences, began with the same word: Because.
Because, defined: “For the reason that” or “To give reason or explanation.” Right after the verdict—after any injustice for that matter—I heard this word everywhere. Politicians, news pundits, people interviewed. Because, because, because. Because simplified. Every article I read during that time period contained the word because. Every article simplified race and racial violence.
Because, defined: conjunction, a cause and effect construct.
I hate the word because.
But it was there. In my own writing. Because. To give reason. To explain. Anyone who has ever experienced racism, there is someone always trying to explain what we experienced away. Someone is always saying racism does not exist. Someone is always saying we are too sensitive. If you read Claudia Rankine’s Citizen—please do—you’ll learn these acts of racism remain ingrained within the individual, and if we risk sharing it, we risk ridicule. But to us, these moments stick. They come back, again and again, they come back. Especially when we sit and watch the news of another Black person killed. Another school shooting. Another act of violence. They come back. Over and over. Because and because.
The thing I’ve been experimenting with is how the body responds when writing something that is close, that hurts. What shape does the writing take? What is the breath like when someone reads it? This essay is one thick paragraph because racism is one long, never ending history, yet our culture is one that forgets and skips and selects. To write this essay in breaks would be to adhere to how it is represented in our culture, to adhere to rules of grammar, rules that, in this essay, do not matter. The length and density of the essay is meant to overwhelm, meant to signify an oppressed and enraged state of mind. But this rage is controlled. It has to be. If it isn’t the writing loses meaning. Loses intent. In its density, I’ve tried to impose lyrical order—individual moments, all those moments in my life when I have been faced with hate; it unspools almost chronologically—though time does not matter—only moments. As the essay grows, the idea of race sharpens. It moves past the “I.” It moves toward a “we.” A collective breath held. A collective voice of what?
Because—damn this word!—after all my anger, I still retained hope.
If there is one thing about the word because I like it is this: Because is two syllables. A heartbeat.
IRA SUKRUNGRUANG is the author of the memoirs Southside Buddhist and Talk Thai: The Adventures of Buddhist Boy, the short story collection The Melting Season, and the poetry collection In Thailand It Is Night. He is the coeditor of 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. 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. His work has appeared in many literary journals, including Post Road, The Sun, and Creative Nonfiction. He is one of the founding editors of Sweet: A Literary Confection, and is the current Richard L. Thomas Chair and Professor of Creative Writing at Kenyon College.