Ira Sukrungruang is the author of Talk Thai: The Adventures of Buddhist Boy. His work has appeared in numerous magazines, including The Sun, Creative Nonfiction, and North American Review. He is the co-founder of Sweet: A Literary Confection and teaches in the MFA program at University of South Florida.
My initial email reached you in Thailand. How often do you visit and how does that country nourish your spirit?
I’ve been going to Thailand every other year since I was three. My family wanted to instill in me this other part of my life. Yes, I was born in America, but I am the product of two proud Thai parents. It’s funny that you asked about how my visit “nourishes” my spirit. It really does. In America, when I’ve been away from Thailand for a long time, I have these moments of yearning, moments of wanting to be in Thailand. These moments are not so much about the spirit, as it has to do with missing family. Since my mother and aunt moved back to Thailand after 36 years working as nurses in Chicago, I don’t have blood relatives in the states. So this time in Thailand is to connect with my mother and aunt and all the cousins and uncles and nephew and nieces. It’s also about learning or relearning another rhythm and pace of life.
You decided to be a Buddhist monk for a month during one of your visits. What did you learn from that experience?
I’ve always had questions about Buddhism. I was born Buddhist, and because of that Buddhism was more connected to family than to religion. As I got older, I realized I hadn’t a clue about what it meant to be Buddhist. I knew the prayers and the precepts and the noble truths, but I didn’t know the meanings behind them. For years, my mother has been urging me to become a monk. All Thai males have this obligation. It’s for the family, for good karma. I’ve been hesitant because I was a vain bugger, and the thought of losing my hair and eyebrows filled me with dread. Since my mother retired in Thailand, I decided why not do it Thailand. Why not be a monk and really try to answer some of my lingering questions?
The funny thing about my month as a monk was by the end I had more questions, questions I’m still trying to sift through even now. I feel closer to my religion, yes, but there are still things I wonder about. I’ve tried writing about it, but too many things enter my pieces. I remember reading Vivian Gornick’s The Situation and the Story, remember how hard a time she had writing about her visit to Egypt. In many ways, I’m still too close to the subject. I need to sit with it a bit, ruminate, meditate on it.
I think I’ll always have questions. It’s the reason I write about religion so often. It’s a pursuit to understand, to make sense of.
Are you planning something as bold on this visit?
No, I think the boldest thing I’m doing on this visit is hanging with my seventy-six year old mother and her funny family. I had a few weeks this time, so I really wanted to saturate myself with family. Plus, my wife joins me later on the trip, and we got married here ten years ago, so
we’re planning an anniversary vacation. I think bold for two writers and teachers who are always working is sitting still and doing nothing. Kinda Buddhist if you think about it.
Tell me about Sweet: A Literary Confection, an online journal for creative nonfiction and poetry. What motivated you to be a co-founder? What have you discovered since its inception?
Sweet is a project my wife Katie Riegel and I decided to venture into. We are now in our fourth year, publishing three online issues a year, and also, we are now publishing handmade chapbooks. When Katie and I got married, we also married two genres: creative nonfiction and poetry. Sweet wants to explore the conversation between these two genres. There’s great
conversation to be had there, better than the fact vs. fiction one that seems to always trail creative nonfiction.
I think what I find most surprising about editing a magazine is how many good writers there are out there. We receive so many submissions, and a lot of them are extremely good. The decision to publish something becomes very subjective. Sweet does not want to overwhelm readers, so we try to keep our issues small. Sometimes the reason we have to pass on a piece is because of space.
There’s been an explosion of MFA programs in the last few decades. What are the pros and cons of this reality?
To be honest, I don’t find anything wrong with having more MFA programs if you are realistic about your expectations as a writer. Don’t expect to be published. Don’t expect a teaching job. Expect three years of writing and reading and learning, and living a writer’s life, a thinker’s life. I am proof that writing can be taught. English is a second language for me, so without great professors guiding me in craft and technique and introducing me to writers that have changed and shaped my life, I wouldn’t be here. The MFA program was a selfish time for me to be an artist without other distractions. I was around others passionate about the art, others striving to write a good sentence. These writers made me want to get better, made me want to perfect my craft.
The MFA program was that first step, for me, as a writer. I’m always thinking of myself as a student of writing. I’m still learning. I’m still challenging myself. I still want every piece I write to be better than the last. I love language, the sound of it. I love the infinite ways one can write a sentence. This keeps writing fresh. This keeps me motivated.
And again, more honesty here, teaching in an MFA program and a strong undergrad program also keeps things exciting. I love my students. I feed off them. They come whole heartedly to learn. Seeing them progress as writers makes me want to do the same. Moreover, we are all in it together. Part of the same tribe. It makes me feel not as alone in the world.
You write creative nonfiction, fiction, poetry, and memoir. Which one challenges you the most? Which one feels most comfortable to you?
Creative nonfiction opened the doors to other genres. I had to learn about myself, my life. I needed to mature before I could even start writing fiction and poetry. To me all writing, regardless of genre, is about understanding the complexities of the human condition. Writing at the core is about communication. I had to believe what I was putting down on the page was worthwhile. If there isn’t anything at stake for me, then there isn’t anything at stake for the reader.
In terms of comfort, each genre presents its own difficulties. Because of this, I can’t write two genres at the same time. I have to write one genre, be done with it, rest my brain for a bit, before switching gears. It’s a completely different mindset.
Your memoir Talk Thai is infused with humor and poignancy. How do you manage to blend the two?
There are two things I tell my students when they are attempting to write humor:
1) What is the serious behind the laugh? Writing effective humor is about locating the source of the serious. The serious becomes the foundation, becomes what readers will remember most. Without a foundation, your story becomes a bar joke, easily forgettable. One of my favorite comics is Whoopi Goldberg. When she first came on scene, she did a routine that was utterly stunning. She did persona pieces—the crack addict, the abused child—and all I remember was how silent the theater was until she delivered the punch line. The audience erupted. They needed to. They were taken on such a sobering and solemn journey that the need to laugh was essential.
2) We possess different types of laughs. The quiet laugh. The laugh out loud. The obnoxious laugh. Watch a good comic at work, and he or she knows this. The trick is knowing what laugh to pull out at what time. It becomes about timing and execution.
You are a writer, educator, and editor. How do you know when you’re having a good day?
When I can’t sleep. When I’m left energized. Writing a good sentence. Teaching a good class. Finding an incredible essay. All of this feeds me. It makes me feel like I can run a marathon. Makes me feel like this artist’s life is worth it. There is no better feeling, I assure you.
—Interviewed by Ann Marie Byrd