Ira Sukrungruang, one of the four authors visiting Ball State for the In-Print Festival of First Books in March 2023, is a poetry, non-fiction, and short story writer whom has published books like This Jade World (2021), Buddha’s Dog & Other Meditations (2018), Southside Buddhist (2014) and Talk Thai: The Adventures of Buddhist Boy (2010), the short story collection The Melting Season (2016), and the poetry collection In Thailand It Is Night (2013). He is currently on the Advisory Board of Machete, an imprint of the Ohio State University Press dedicated to innovating nonfiction by authors who have been historically marginalized.
With titles such as “Buddha’s Dog & Other Meditations and This Jade World, how do you feel your Thai heritage has affected your non-fiction and creative works?
As a person of color, as a Thai American, who I am is reflected in everything facet of my art and my day-to-day living. I think most writers would say the same about how they think about their writing, even if it is high fantasy–that they are drawing from a world they know to create a world for readers. Being Thai, however, is not what makes me a writer. I don’t write because I have “good material” as someone long ago once said. My “good material” is not my heritage, ethnicity, or race. These are only components of who I am, characteristics. Sometimes being Thai is central to the work. Sometimes not. All the time, however, being human and living and breathing and suffering and loving is what I always grapple with. To communicate a commonality in a diverse world.
With co-editor Donnel Jarrell, how did the anthologies What Are You Looking At? The First Fat Fiction Anthology and Scoot Over Skinny: The Fat Nonfiction Anthology come to be and what inspired those works?
Over twenty years ago, in grad school, I started writing essays and poems and fiction about the body, my body, and the space it takes up and the sense of visibility and invisibility I often felt. The body, the big body, has been talked about to death in our culture. How to rid the big body. How to be a better person by shedding pounds. My friend Donna and I were so tired of this. We wanted to explore the big body in more complicated ways. Literature does that. Literature sees beyond the simple and marketable. So, for over two years Donna and I scoured libraries looking for poems, stories, and essays about the body. We had so much that we decided to put together the anthologies.
In your interview with Flock Lit, you mentioned that you decided to become a Buddhist monk for a month during one of your visits to Thailand. After all this time, have the questions about your religion gathered during this time been answered? Do you think they’ll always sit with you?
Nope. It’s been almost 20 years since I was a monk, and I can tell you that I don’t have any more clarity about Buddhism and life as I did then as I do now. I probably have more questions. Major life things happened. Death, Divorce Marriage, Birth. The thing about being a writer is that it becomes what I wrestle with on the page. The thing about being human is that we are always in a constant state of evolution…. our minds are never static.
Mentioned in your interview with Fiction Writers’ Review, you mentioned that one of your favorite authors is Haruki Murakami. This author mostly leaning on magical realism and fiction, how does this author influence your work if any?
I think in my nonfiction, I’ve been writing imagined narratives. Things I think about and create. Weird shit. I think the older you get you spend more time in that headspace, which is a bizarre and fantastical realm. I think the fictions we create tell us more about want and desire than our walking and talking life. In my fiction–I made a vow not to write anything realism again. I want to go back to the authors I loved. I want to write the things the young Ira read and craved and needed. And these stories–grounded in real human emotion–made incredible fantastical and imaginary leaps. So, Murakami is a writer I enjoy visiting, but there are so many more now: Carmen Maria Machado, George Saunders, Victor LaValle. I eat those writers up. I envy their imaginations.
Many students (especially English majors) look to further their education after their bachelor’s degree and apply to MFA programs. As an academic, writer, and overall creative person, how do you think the time you spent in your MFA affected your life within and outside your work?
My MFA time was a selfish time. I went into it with the idea that these 3 years I will do the thing I love–read and write and hang out with readers and writers. That’s what I did–day in, day out. That MFA life was essential for me. I didn’t go, I wouldn’t be here. That’s the truth. I would have gone back to Chicago and worked at the lumberyard. So the MFA program was my chance to give this writing life a go. I had incredible mentors. Incredible teachers and classmates. The MFA program was not without its flaws, but it taught me how-to (and not-to) formulate a literary community, how-to cultivate spaces for self-expression. So, I went into it being selfish, but I think I came out a better person, teacher, reader, writer and citizen.