While a more traditional Buddhist might aspire to break the cycle of death and rebirth, writer Ira Sukrungruang wants to remember every moment of life, commenting, “It’s probably why I write. I want to live this life, my next lives, with the knowledge of it all.”
Winner of the Anita Claire Scharf Award, Sukrungruang’s debut poetry collection, In Thailand It Is Night, contemplates spiritual themes, from poems exploring the reincarnation of ancestors in the animal realm and the karma of cause and effect to the author’s daily practice. Stray dogs and captive birds appear throughout the work—sentient beings which bring out the capacity for human compassion. Like a Zen painter drawing a circle over and over again, Sukrungruang applies himself to the literary craft in poems finely attuned to longing, grief, and the open heart.
The speaker of Sukrungruang’s poems maintains a flexible identity, shuttling between Bangkok and the United Stated, living between his mother’s native country and his own land of birth. Longing and distance permeate poems like “In Thailand It Is Night”; “Ancestors”; and “On the phone we say only happy things.”
“The immigrant son is stuck between cultures,” Sukrungruang said. “He longs for the native land of his ancestors, but knows that native land occupies a completely different identity than the ones his parents spoke of and is part of.”
When Sukrungruang’s mother and aunt moved back to Thailand in 2006, he feared that he would lose “all that was Thai in me.” Without the opportunity to use the language, he struggled to maintain his fluency in Thai.
“When my mother calls from Thailand there is a moment of adjustment, where my brain is translating through filters of language,” Sukrungruang said. Writing then becomes the writer’s connection to Thailand and his path to negotiating the distance between cultures.
In Thailand It Is Night is loosely organized around the Ramakian, the Thai version of the Indian epic the Ramayana. “I didn’t write with this epic saga in mind,” Sukrungruang said. “But after 10 versions of the manuscript, the poems began to group themselves in ways that were related to the Ramakian’s characters.” It is the essence of these archetypal figures that are the organizing principle of the book.
Inundated with stories like Little Red Riding Hood, Goldilocks and the Three Bears, and The Three Little Pigs while growing up, Sukrungruang knew even at a young age that these tales belonged to another culture. “When I was a kid, I always asked my family for Thai bedtime tales,” Sukrungruang said.
His mother began telling Sukrungruang parts of the Ramakian. “Fantastical tales of Phra Narai, our forever hero, battling the evil demon lord, Thotsakan,” Sukrungruang said. “My mother was a fantastic storyteller. She blended what was Thai and what was American. Suddenly, Phra Narai possessed superhuman powers like Superman. Demons took the form of monkeys like in the Wizard of Oz.”
Many of Sukrungurang’s poems explore ideas and images that also appear within his nonfiction work. The poet is the author of one previously published memoir Talk Thai.
“I’m a writer who is haunted by images,” Sukrungruang said. “It is these images that I come back to, like bowling with my mother, or my obsession with drawing Buddha. The job of the writer is to take those obsessions and try to see them from different perspectives.”
As a writer working across both prose and poetry, Sukrungruang looks at revision through the lens of different genres.
“Writing a poem about an obsession yields a diverse look than if I had written it in a short story,” Sukrungruang said. “It allows me more time to evaluate and excavate that obsession, live with it a little longer, play with it.”
Sukrungruang, who teaches in City University Hong Kong’s low-residency MFA program and at the University of South Florida, tells his creative writing students, “You can’t control what you obsess about, so the job of the writer is to take those obsessions and try to see them from different perspectives.”
Sukrungruang’s versatility as a writer also extends to his editorial interests. The author has co-edited two anthologies related to body image—What Are You Looking At? and Scoot Over, Skinny.
“I was always the Fat Thai born to two parents who were no taller than 5’6”, and weighed no more than 150 pounds,” Sukrungruang said. “But here I was—a little over six feet tall, over 350. I was trying to wrestle with issues of identity and culture, but my size prevented me from fully embracing the Thai part of me. It prevented Thai people from embracing me. I began looking at the fat body as more than hefty presence. Began interrogating the separation—in me—in body and mind, and how to merge the two.”
As a publisher, Sukrungruang founded the small press Sweet with poet Katie Riegel. Over the past five years Sweet has grown to publish three issues of poetry and creative nonfiction a year and now limited-edition poetry and nonfiction chapbooks.
“With all this talk of the end of the book, I wanted to make the book not only a wonderful reading experience, but a piece of art,” Sukrungruang said. “In the end it’s the word that is beautiful, the combination of them that creates a poem or story.”
Ira Sukrungruang reads at the AWP Conference on February 27 at 1:30 p.m. for the South Dakota Review 50th Anniversary Reading Celebration. He participates in the panel “The Naked I: Nonfiction’s Exposed Voice” on March 1 at 1:30 p.m. Both events are free with AWP conference registration. The author will also read in a free off-site event sponsored by the magazine The Common, at McMenamins Six Arms Pub on February 27th at 5:30 p.m.