Why I Write: By Ira Sukrungruang

The following is from the University of Nebraska Press Fall 2021 Newsletter, i.e.

Ira Sukrungruang is the author of five books, including Buddha’s Dog and Other Meditations, Southside Buddhist, an American Book Award winner, and Talk Thai: The Adventures of Buddhist Boy. He is the president of Sweet: A Literary Confection (sweetlit.com) and is the Richard L. Thomas Professor of Creative Writing at Kenyon College. His newest book is This Jade World (Nebraska, 2021).

When I was five or six, at a playground in south Chicago, an older white boy came up to me and said, “You don’t belong here.” I don’t remember much of what he looked like, but in this memory it is his hair I recall—brilliant blonde, so shiny in the sunlight. I was sitting in a sandbox doing what I usually do in sandboxes, grabbing handfuls of sand and letting it sift through my fingers. The boy didn’t seem malicious in any way. He said what he needed to say and went off toward the swings. I heeded his words though. I’d heard them before; my entire Thai immigrant family had. We heard them when racial slurs were hurled at us. We heard them every time our mailbox was hit off its post. We heard them when police officers didn’t come when we called to report a group
of teenagers were dancing in the wet cement of our newly paved driveway. You don’t belong here.

There were other spaces I didn’t belong in. I didn’t belong in school. I wasn’t supposed to go to college and get a degree, let alone two. I wasn’t supposed to be a writer or professor. I didn’t belong at the higher education institutions I’ve taught at. My kind—whatever that meant—were not meant to venture outside our predetermined lane. I believed this. I believed I didn’t belong anywhere.

The freest space I knew was the page. Here twined possibility and impossibility. Here I confronted the questions I had about the world and my place in it. I had so many questions. Endless questions. Here I voiced the things my family—who had been made voiceless—wanted to say. Here I ventured into spaces that were closed off, restricted. The page eliminated the artificial lines of boundaries and borders. There were no confines, whereas in the world I felt closed in, trapped. I felt, sometimes, as if I were being squeezed of all my breath. In the world I believed that
white boy on the playground. I didn’t belong, would never belong, could never belong. On the page I wrote myself into belonging, my loud announcement to those who believed otherwise. I wrote myself into a self.

Writing saved my life. It’s what I tell my students at the end of every semester. Find the thing that will save your life. I think a lot about the boy I was, playing in the sandbox, the boy who needed saving, the boy who needed to know that his existence on this planet matters, that his thoughts and ideas and fears matter. Why do I write? I write to tell that boy and others like him, You belong. Don’t let them tell you otherwise.

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