I’m happy to present the second in our series of interviews about being a misplaced writer. Ira Sukrungruang writes about place, and all that means, with humor, passion, and disarming beauty. If he were an ancient god, he’d have three heads–one for nonfiction, one for fiction, and one for poetry, all of which Ira writes. I believe that god is called Unfair.
1) Where do you come from, originally?
I’m a Chicagoan. But if I were in Chicago I’d have to say a Southsider, and I’d have to do it with a sneer and say it with a voice that comes deep from the gut. I might even have to throw in a swear or two just to prove the point. I might have to call you Sally because everyone’s a Sally, which is to say the Chicago I grew up in is a working class Chicago, a concrete and steel Chicago, a Chicago that does not know political correctness.
If you asked my mother, however, she would tell you I come from Thailand. That Thailand was in my blood, no matter what country I was born in. She would say being born does not indicate who you are. Being born is a moment, and a moment is not genetic make-up, does not account for my ancestry, and all the ghosts that has followed her to this country, and the ghost she left for me when she retired and returned to Thailand in 2004.
2) What geographical area would you say defines you as a person and maybe also as a writer? This can be a specific place (New York, Cleveland) or a geographical element (mountains, prairies, ocean). How has this place or element defined your work, if it all?
I’m trying to understand this as an immigrant son and writer. For the longest time, the city defined me, like how the city defined my immigrant family. We felt safe in the city, despite what crimes the TV news reported each evening, despite the gangs, and racism we experienced in the early 80s. The city was about the crowd. There was comfort in a crowd. In a crowd, we could see what dangers were coming towards us. In a crowd, we could blend because in a city there were other immigrants like us, feeling the same way. There were so many hiding places in a city. Our family vacations were always to ultra touristy cities with a lot of artificial sounds. Those sounds were so much more comforting than the sounds of birds or the silence of nature.
Now, however, I’m beginning to see the country as something not to fear. I married a poet, after all, who is in love with the prairie. This has forced me to confront my fears of landscape. And these fears are about trust. My immigrant family never trusted America. Being in the country forces you bond with the land in ways a city never requires. To live in the country, to make a home in the country, there must be a love for the land, but what is also underneath the land. It is also a love of space and solitude. To love a city is to love the assault to the senses that a city represents. Is to love pace. Is to love the music of artificiality.
And then there is the Motherland, Thailand, and stories I have grown up with about Thailand, and vacations to Thailand.Thailand is both mythical and real. Thailand is like the temples that dot the countryside, something otherworldly, some jeweled fantasy land, among the modern high rises of Bangkok, or the rice fields of the central plains.
These three dynamics are what’s in play when I write, whether it be fiction, nonfiction, or poetry. It is a topic I constantly come back to.
3) Describe where you are now–describe a few things you’ve learned about this new place that have surprised/frightened/frustrated you?
I’m in Tampa, FL, now. There’s something wild about Florida. I love when I walk and lizards scurry away from my steps. There is something Jurassic Park about it. I love the birds. I can’t get over them. To see sandhill cranes chillin’ in the medians of busy streets or ospreys nesting on electric poles or pelicans and great blue herons waiting for fishermen scraps. I’m astonished by how the color green seeks to devour everything in the summer. Florida is the south, but a different kind of south. South with a latin beat. South that is diverse in culture. South filled with Northerners. It’s pretty awesome really.
4) How has your current location filtered into your work or your writing life?
I was at literary panel my graduate students were doing at a Florida writers conference, and one of the panelists said something like, we write about the places we’ve been at the place we are. I think this is true. Much of my writing is about Chicago, central Illinois, Thailand, upstate New York. I don’t think I will stop writing about those places. But I’ve noticed that small parts of the natural world in Florida has made into my writing. It’s like the cute little geckos here. They come in without you noticing and leave. Subconsciously, Florida is invading, like a vine that wants devour a house. I think Florida is so different from the other places I’ve been that it will naturally become part of my literary landscape. As a writer, we catalogue the details of setting, and the details of that setting becomes part our lexicon.
About the Author
Ira Sukrungruang is the author of the memoir Talk Thai: The Adventures of Buddhist Boy and 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. His poetry collection, In Thailand It Is Night, was awarded the Anita Claire Schraf Award, and forthcoming from University of Tampa Press. 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.sukrungruang.com.