Following my review of Talk Thai: Adventures of Buddhist Boy, I emailed some questions to its author. Ira Sukrungruang responded with uncommonly helpful answers. He’s only thirty-four, but maybe that’s why: he’s been writing seriously since he was a senior in college and is still close enough to what he’s learned, his big breakthroughs, to help illuminate writing’s craft. Here are my questions and his answers:
On your blog you call your memoir The Book that Took Too Long to Write. Could you discuss its evolution? What did you learn about writing in the process?
You can say I started writing this book as soon as I began writing seriously. I was an undergraduate at Southern Illinois University, discovering creative nonfiction for the first time because of an autobiography class taught by nature writer Lisa Knopp. I found my material. I began writing essay after essay about my childhood, about my confusions as an immigrant son. I originally thought about writing a collection of essays because I didn’t think I had a memoir in me. Not yet. Not when I was twenty-two. Not when I was in the midst of self-discovery and though that discovery was revelatory, it was also difficult to sift through at the time. I took a few years more to see my life as a memoir. I needed those years to mature, to process, to understand. Time also helped me back away and write the exposition that was needed in the memoir. I didn’t have that yet. Everything was still really close. Also, for the longest time I labored over the essays, trying to write the bridges to connect them. I was driving myself nuts. It wasn’t working. Finally, I thought, “Screw it. Write the whole thing over.” I felt liberated. I felt I could write the book I wanted to write.
One of the things that is awfully complicated about using the “I” pronoun in nonfiction is that it continually evolves. The writer I am now is not the writer I was then. What was frustrating in revising those old essays was that I was trying to revise an older version of me, instead of writing a new book entirely. That was the biggest lesson I learned when writing Talk Thai.
Talk Thai opens with your enrollment in first grade and proceeds to high school. The book appears to be a straight, narrative-driven chronology, but that impression may be misleading in the sense that, while it feels complete, it’s concise and much must be left out. How did you work out the memoir’s form?
I always go by Bill Roorbach’s example of creative nonfiction in his textbook Contemporary Creative Nonfiction: The Art of Truth. Roorbach compares creative nonfiction to food styling. On the cover of cooking magazines, one sees the perfect turkey, perfectly brown, without the burnt parts. That perfect brown is motor oil. Real turkey doesn’t look appealing. Real turkey cooks unevenly, the skin pale in spots. Here, for example, is a picture of the turkey my wife and I had this Thanksgiving, cooked by a couple of friends while we were camping in Florida.
This turkey was delicious. That really dark spot was an explosion of flavor. Under the pale skin was the moistest turkey I have ever tasted. But by looking at it, you wouldn’t know. Real life is like this turkey; though good, showing it as it is doesn’t quite work.
When I began writing Talk Thai I needed to find the dramatic thrust of the book. The main questions that arose were how could I find myself in this Thai immigrant family, in America, in school, in temple, in anything? There are so many instances I wanted to put in the book, but some of them represented the same thing, and some of them slowed down the momentum of the book. Part of writing a chronological narrative is the art of sifting through all that is in a life, sifting through all the memories to get at what best represents what you want to illustrate. The book started off at five hundred pages, but a lot had to be cut and a lot had to be added until it finally found its final version. (Though, I must admit, I loved some of the cut sections, so on my website, I included a few omitted sections and a different ending. )
Speaking of endings, before I wrote the book I had to decide on a beginning and an ending of the book. I needed to have the ending point. I needed to know I was working toward something, shaping something. And the beginning—the natural beginning was my entry into the first grade. It’s when the world opened up to me. It’s when I was faced with America and all its confusion.
I enjoyed your narrative, an unfolding of events interwoven with reflection, because it conveys experience so well, but wonder if you were tempted to write more essayistic set-pieces about growing up Thai in America? The latter seems more popular in academic literary journals, while book publishers crave good stories.
A good story is good, but a memoir has to be more than a good story. It needs those thinking and reflective moments that you get in a good personal essay. I didn’t write Talk Thai because I had a good story. In fact, nothing truly traumatic happens in my life. I’m also not one to think being Thai or ethnic is reason enough to write a memoir. The story is secondary. A good memoir is about how one understands life, not the life itself. I turn to what Vivian Gornick says in The Situation and the Story: “Every work of literature has both a situation and a story. The situation is the context or circumstance, sometimes the plot; the story is the emotional experience that preoccupies the writer: the insight, the wisdom, the thing one has come to say.”
This is why I read memoir.
A note on book publishers: The best memoirs are coming out of independent and university presses. I love the memoirs that are coming out of University of Nebraska Press, the ones from University of Iowa Press, from Graywolf and Sarabande. These books are not only about the good story. A good story is forgettable if there isn’t anything else to cling to.
How and when did you end up getting an MFA after your undergraduate years? Since so many people of all ages are now pursuing MFAs, do you have any advice for prospective or current students about making the most of the experience?
I was student teaching at a high school in Illinois and I realized I wasn’t writing anymore, and at the time, that’s all I wanted to do. I decided to abandon my career path as a high school teacher and get an MFA. It was the best decision I ever made. And hardest. You don’t get an MFA because you want a job. I got an MFA because I wanted to learn more about the craft of writing and be around others who share the same passion. My advice: because you will be saturated in the writing world—reading, writing, teaching—you need to have an outlet. I needed to have one or two days out of the week where I did something else, like play tennis or work out. That was essential during my three years in the MFA program. My students who have gone on to MFA programs also played hockey or poker or something other than writing. It’s healthy sometimes to step away.