Saturday, May 5, 2018

#AWP2018, Installment #3, Ira Sukrungruang

Buddha's Dog & Other Meditations
by Ira Sukrungruang

Living in the Tampa Bay area for some years now, aside from finally attending AAWP this year that was held in Tampa, I wanted to know what writers live around me.  Lo and behold, there is a prominent writer who is also Asian American. Thai-American to be exact and his name is Ira Sukrungruang and he is a creative writing professor at University of South Florida's MFA program. I have heard his name in certain circles before, but I searched University of Tampa's booth out at the writer's conference and got to meet Ira and purchase his latest collection of personal essays.

Let me tell you, what depth and breadth of his prose, though seemingly personable in diction, like listening to your best friend confessing his or her worries and fears, it is balanced with a great amount of humor and heartbreak.  Most of all, it is also interspersed with such lyricism and universal truths. 

Buddha's Dog & Other Meditations seemed at first to have a congruous timeline that starts off with a boy who felt out of place in the United States growing up in  Chicago suburbs and very anchored to his parent's past, his parent's baggage from the mother country. Sukrungruang wrote about his childhood trips to Thailand, "I forgot I was born in Chicago.  Forgot that I was American. Forgot English. My other life eight thousand miles away, like a dream. It didn't take long, a week really, suddenly I was Thai, the most Thai I'd ever felt.  My father would tell me to speak English, to show off my American tongue to his friends at the VW garage."

The narrator shows the parallel between Buddha and dogs--this theme is interwoven through the essays. He talks of the dogs he had in the past, the dog he knew in Thailand, and also speaks of literary dogs such as "The Lady with the Dog" by Chekhov. Dogs, of course, are depicted as humble and kind sentient beings with a Buddha's nature.  

This is more than a coming of age collection of stories with characters that stood out, characters that one can fall in love with, even with their flaws and all.  The narrator comes to terms with many setbacks: his parent's divorce, his struggle with body image and relationships with women.  The essays move from the 70s, and 80s and through his college days, to the near present with a few paintings from a renown contemporary visual artist, Trenton Doyle Hancock, and essays springing from them as narrative practices exploring the self and body.

In the correlating essay to the artist's painting entitled "Faster" the narrator opens, "It is aggravating--no?--the weight you carry. It is more than the weight of your physical self. It is the metaphorical weight, the fat the clogs the metaphorical heart, the fat that causes you to think in metaphors."

The strongest character that stood out the most, the person that has been present-center throughout his life: his mother.  She does not at times hold punches, providing the narrator with doses of realism and tender brevity.

There are many, many morsels that these essays contain--another writer I am so glad to have met.  This collection will linger, finely crafted, and full of wisdom.  

Thursday, May 3, 2018

In the Event of My Absence

This creative non-fiction piece of mine was published by Flagler Review in 2013


     Perhaps between heaven and hell typifies an experience outside the pain of childbirth, beyond the anguish of loss and the perpetuity of the arctic, hospital waiting room—where, like the airport, the masses wait anxiously for their arrivals and departures. Here is what I am writing about now.  A place where someone cannot absolve are the spaces where I cannot let go.  Therefore, ghosts still walk on my paper and step all over my canvas and pull my hair at night and I cannot remember where I stashed my poems—my paintings—destroyed in my brother's basement during one rainy season that I have not been able to hold a mordant gaze upon an original idea.  Assuredly, I told my brother, John, that if I die now, I would like him to oversee my writing and artwork.  I can see it in his expression—who the hell do you think you are?  People don't even know who you are.  But families of other artists have waged war over a poem or a painting, why can't mine?


     We have become a culture of speed and implacable pretentiousness that the viewing of flesh and violence are our main fondness, and its citizens are brain-washed to believe what is worse than death is living in a society of repressed sexuality.  What takes precedence is the numbing ignorance to anything beyond our frivolousness, and it is no wonder that sitting here for two hours now, I have not seen anyone take any of those writers magazines tucked away on the last rung of the magazine rack or take in the wonder of art.  How shallow our society is or just plain fraught with ill regard to anything cerebral.  How did I become a minority?  Why do I search for meanings of words or the grain of things, reveling in its weight and texture, allowing its meaning to marinate and roll in my mouth and simmer in the synapses of my brain?


     Faith.  Though, I, with no assurance, believe in it, believe it or not.  I see it in the rising of the sun as I go over Bayside Bridge through Clearwater, driving to my menial government job.  I hunt for its arrival each day.  It's a true wonderment.  What will it be like this morning?  

     Sometimes it peeks through like a piece of sliced orange, and when the darkness forces the sun down into the water, refusing it air, I often wonder in this world of stop-and-go, and the many man-made contraptions that obstruct the perfect vista of the sun, I might have just found my way out or at least had a better reception for the time being. 

     Yet, I still plead for a sign—the same sign that came to Van Gogh's starry nights, Jackson Pollock's pretentious splatter, Sylvia Plath's tulips, and Virginia Woolf's freedom room.  I'd like to be there cross-legged in a sweat lodge finding a passage carved deep in the snow for me , just over the hills where my ancestors summon. I see my Native American ancestors, my lost heritage that died with my biological father, whom I lost to the Vietnam War.  No, he didn't die there.  I just did not exist to him.

     These are the ghosts that speak to me.


     Even when I arrived at the scene the year I was born in this prostitute town, naked among the blaring horn of jeepneys and tricycles and bright, flashing lights of discos and cabarets brimming with prostitutes and GIs, I perhaps might still slip unknowingly out of here like a brief scuttle through the water.  I believe my friends and family would describe as intense, vague, and downcast.  Yet I still managed to smile, dance and sing in between sadness.


     Maybe the reasons why I write and create is to say I have existed; even if, say, a nuclear war occurred and nothing left was standing, would it matter? Even if my children didn't have my eyes or hair, my gait or artist sensibilities, would it matter?  I am the first to say that you matter.  Just like the ladybug dangling on a leaf ready to be taken by the wind matters.  It's no wonder that I often dream what it would feel like to have a direct line with the Divine like when Pastor at church says to his congregation, God spoke to me about this; God told me that...I ask, can someone please pass me the phone number, the email, the ketchup—something?

      Certain fathers, mothers, and siblings have been known to keep their distance, and friends can disappear forever—no one ever really anchored to any port.  They only visit when they are dead.  I guess I'm no different than my mother.  I talk to dead people also—the living and the dead.  But I also write poems to the living as if I can bring them back now.


     People flock to the beaches of Florida to escape their life—here, in this postcard, images of fossilized sunsets.  Though once curious, you are more concerned with the texture of paper/curious about the rain in Seattle, I wrote in one poem.  I've lost my place so I read the passage over, got lost again, closed the book and went to sleep.

     In the event of my absence, please don't feel lost.  Dinner is thawing in the sink, the car keys are on the table, my love letters are in the decorative file box on my closet shelf.  In the morning, I will wake again.  I will get into my car and witness the founding of another day as I drive over the short bridge to work.  I will continue in this state of menial jobs, earthly chores, the commute, watching cars drive up or drive away.  If I were Gauguin, I would just pack up and leave for Tahiti where I am comfortable among the natives. But then again, I would just go back to a time where I climbed guava trees as a child.


     Perhaps the reasons why I write and create are my only way to pray, hope, wish and weep competently.  My poems are my beatitudes—my paintings, my Hail Mary's for the times I curse for misplacing things.  I look up to people who can just be without admission of guilt no matter what they did, but then again, I wouldn't have a heart.


     But sometimes it's not enough to say you're sorry—the offense occurred—so you write it down, draw it in your notebook, might even transfer it to canvas and frame it.   What is the shape of love, the color of miracles?  You ruminate.  It's just over to the left as you go over Bayside Bridge or somewhere where someone cannot absolve; these are the spaces where I cannot let go; that's where I see it, love.