Midwestern Gothic staffer Stephanie Mezzanatto talked with author Ira Sukrungruang about the wildlife of Florida, the interconnectedness of teaching and writing, growing up Thai-American in Chicago, and more.
Stephanie Mezzanatto: What’s your connection to the Midwest?
Ira Sukrungruang: I’m a Chicago boy. I’m a southside Chicago boy. Which means I come from working class roots. I come from a world of factory workers. A world of Polish and Irish, and neighborhoods of immigrant families. I come from a world of concrete and commerce, from a world of fierce loyalty, and leaving the southside of Chicago often times comes with a heap of guilt. Because to leave Chicago is seen as to leave behind. To leave means you aren’t stuck. Means, somehow, you have abandoned all that has shaped you.
So that is the Midwest to me. A city. A language. A rhythm.
I usually feel a bit overwhelmed in big cities, like New York, or LA, or Hong Kong. But not in Chicago. Every time I’m there, my walk lightens. There’s a skip, a swagger, in my step. A Chicago swagger. My language changes. The guttural Chic-ahhh-gah comes out. Chicago is part of my genetic makeup, the way Thailand is part of me. I feel like I have two rivers in me, the Chaopaya in Thailand and the Chicago River that greens during Saint Paddy’s Day.
But my life with the Midwest has extended beyond city limits.
I’ve grown to love the prairies. The long, long flat. I’ve grown to love the stillness of rural life. Last fall, I took a 2-month road trip and drove and wrote from Florida to Wyoming. I felt so in tune with what people usually call the “fly-over” states. I loved Illinois, Kentucky, Missouri, Kansas, Nebraska. I loved the sun that crested the horizon in the mornings and dropped under for the stars to alight. Even the flat is in my genetic makeup. As an immigrant son, I absorb place because I think in many ways, an immigrant is in a constant state of placelessness.
SM: How does it feel to be a Midwesterner living in Florida? What of the Midwest do you bring to Florida, and how has Florida influenced your work?
IS: Most people from Florida are not from Florida. Most people from Florida are from Illinois or New York or various parts of the world. Because of this, we are all in the same boat. There is a comfort I find here, a merger of two worlds I feel at home with. The weather reminds me of Thailand—heat and humidity and afternoon thunderstorms. The diversity in cities reminds me of Chicago.
Plus, the wildlife. I’m enchanted by it. Only here can you see a family of sandhill cranes in the medians of busy highways. Or cattle egrets on cars parked at the Walmart. Florida is, to me, a wild place. It’s my belief that if everyone left the state for two days—only two days—nature would swallow Florida back.
As a writer, I’ve brought my Thai/Midwest writer’s vision to this place. For a while, Florida was the other. And because of that, my writings about Florida, initially, were not as strong. Vivian Gornick spoke of this in her amazing book, Situation and the Story. She tried to write about Egypt when she first arrived and it was an enormously difficult task because Egypt was causing a storm in her brain. The problem is when you feel that a place is an “other,” you tend to exoticize it because everything is new and testing your sense of normality, whatever “normality” means. This was the major fault with the first forms of travel writing during British colonialism. The Brits conquered lands in the name of the queen and wrote long narratives about how “primitive” these other cultures were. There’s judgment. There’s a sense you are apart from place. It’s a thing I tell my students to avoid at all cost because you begin to stereotype place and people. At first, I wanted to capture how weird Florida was. But I was the weird one. I was the foreigner. In Florida, Florida is the norm. After living here for six years, I’m beginning to see this. My writing has changed. Now, sandhill cranes in medians aren’t so much the spotlight of a poem, not the exoticness of difference, but only a detail of life here. Like ospreys that nest on top of street lights, or the anhingas that sun on the back of gators, or the silvery web of a banana spider that glint in the right light.
SM: How has your time as a teacher of creative nonfiction affected your writing? Do you often draw inspiration from the work of your students?
IS: If I did not teach, I would not write. Simple. The two go hand-in-hand for me.
I’m a strange writer. Most writers wait till the summer to write. I vegetate during the summers. I play video games and watch endless hours of Parks and Recreation or New Girl. I write during the school year because my students energize me. There is no bigger rush then teaching a really good class. It’s a high I carry with me for days, weeks, months. And my students—they are hungry. The hunger is infectious. I’m swept away by it. I’m in a constant state of thinking and talking about writing. I’m in a constant mode of construction, and because of that my writer’s brain is ready and prepared. I see my flaws because I’m looking for them the way I look at the holes in my student writings. But I also see what is working, because I’m looking for those things in my students’ writings as well. Writing and teaching are the ying and yang of my teaching core.
SM: In your most recent work, Southside Buddhist, you continue your exploration of life growing up as a Thai-American child in Chicago and Illinois that you began in your previous memoir, Talk Thai: The Adventures of Buddhist Boy, and you focus specifically on your struggles with your weight and body image. What do you hope your words will bring to the lives of your readers who may be experiencing similar struggles in their own lives?
IS: The body is a complex thing, but we are force-fed simplicity. Lose weight quickly! Use our diet. Be the body you dreamt of. Surgery for cheap. Because we live in America, and because America is the ultimate consumer culture, the body has been made into a product, and because it has been made into a product, it ceases to be ours. Which is strange, isn’t it? This vessel of ours is not ours. Though we feed it, though we dress it. The body, our body, is public. For public consumption. I’ve battled with this for so long. I’ve been detached from my body. Have viewed it as other. I’m trying to negotiate this in my writing. I’m trying to reclaim my body, the way scholars try to reclaim words. I’m trying to make the body, our body, the complex organism it truly is, that the body and all these outside influences does not control us. I want my readers to see and understand the complexities of their own body, the miracles of it, the way it constantly shocks and stuns and surprises. This semester, I taught a Body class, and my graduate students and I evaluated the body from a variety of perspectives: sex, sport, violence, race, landscape. The body is ever-present in all aspects of life. It occupies both a physical and emotional space. It acts and is acted upon. It is in a constant state of change. My writing about my body is an invitation to others to engage in this discussion.
SM: In Southside Buddhist, you explain that one of the lessons you learned as a younger man was “you have to love what you watch.” Have you sought out that which you love to watch, or have you instead learned to love that which you have available in your life to watch and draw inspiration from?
IS: I think it’s is the latter. One of the things I’ve tried to do in my life is to be receptive to all things. To watch. To see art everywhere. Not just a bird or a mountain, but the smaller things. The microscopic things that surprise us, that take our breath away, that engage our brain to question. If we seek to watch one thing, we close the door to opportunity.
I’ve carried this philosophy to my writing. I’m in a constant state of experimenting. It is the reason I write poetry, fiction, and creative nonfiction. It’s the reason, I play with voice and structure, why I try my hand at narrative and fragmented writing, or formal poetry or free-verse. I do not want to limit myself as a writer. I want to surf every avenue of the writing arts. To do what “essai” means in its Latin root, “to try.” I want to feel as if I am a constant student in the writing arts, ever learning, ever evolving. I advocate this to my students, especially the younger ones. Be receptive to everything. Try everything. Find art everywhere.
SM: When you first began writing, did you know you wanted write mostly nonfiction? What do you know now about writing that you would tell your younger self?
IS: I began as a horrendous fiction writer. I was young and dumb and writing about things I had no idea about—god when I was Buddhist, aliens that resembled fat Asians, war when I’ve never fired a gun. When I took a creative nonfiction class, my eyes opened. I read Maxine Hong Kingston, Nancy Mairs, Bill Bryson, Annie Dillard, and Ian Frazier. I saw in their work this depth of understanding, this intimate connection with the world that was missing in my work. And I realized this: I did not know myself. I did not know my family. My culture. I did not know anything about this world. So, I started writing about my life. I started small. I wrote about my family’s obsession with the lottery. I wrote about the Chicago Thai temple. I wrote about my mother’s unhappiness and father’s dream of sculpting me into a golfing star. I started questioning my life. I started interrogating the things in my life. I was a child that constantly asked why? Why? Why? Why? This questioning carried over later to my fiction and poetry. This questioning is what drives me. I’m a writer motivated by questions. Not answers. Questions. My philosophy: it’s better to ask then to answer.
This is the pedagogy I use with my students. Questioning. Having them ask. Having them ask the right ones. Having them ask the hard ones.
What would I tell my younger self? “Don’t be such a vain little shit. MC Hammer pants do not look good on you. Don’t wear them ever. You are a writer not because of publication but because of self-fulfillment and the need to communicate, because this is how you engage with the world.”
SM: When you sit down to write a piece, how do you prepare yourself, and after you have written, how do you know when a piece is ready to be shown to others?
IS: I don’t prepare myself. There isn’t any preparation. Because if I make writing ritualistic, I won’t write. I write everywhere, anywhere, anytime. I write in the five minutes between my student conferences. I write at the dining room table, in coffeehouses and restaurants, in planes and trains and cabs. I’ve discovered that I’m a sprinter and not a marathon runner when I write. I write in short and fast spurts. The long day scares me. The long day makes me think about doubt and all the other insecurities a writer goes through. This way the only thing that matters is the writing, not the writer.
I look at my writing as layering. First: Let everything out without shape of form. Let the subconscious take over. Let the writing surprise you. Second: Find structure and shape. Third: Let go. Let go of those precious sentences that detract Let go of the clutter. Fourth: Landscaping. Tighten up sentences. Color within the lines. Fifth: Paint and repaint and repaint, which means read out loud over and over and over. Because English is a secondary language, I need this. I need to hear it. Sixth: Repeat everything until there is nothing more to do. When I achieve that state I show it.
Though, I’ll let you in on a secret: sometimes, if I’m really into my writing, I need to have something over my head. Like a hoodie, or a blanket, or if I’m home, I pull my shirt over my head and look at the screen though the head hole. Don’t mess with me then. The outside world is white noise. My brain is on the page.
SM: What’s next for you?
IS: I have a short story collection, Happy Ends, coming out in a year, and I’m finishing two memoirs. One about my time as a Thai Buddhist monk, and the other one about being divorced and single after fifteen years of marriage. In between those projects, I write poems, essays, stories and whatever I find interest in. I keep busy. I love this life. I love what I do. To be engaged in the life of the mind. To play with words. To teach. What more can I ask for?
Ira Sukrungruang is the author of the memoirs Southside Buddhist and Talk Thai: The Adventures of Buddhist Boy, 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 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 (sweetlit.com), and teaches in the MFA program at University of South Florida and the low-residency MFA program at City University in Hong Kong. For more information about him, please visit: www.buddhistboy.com.