When Tampa writer and professor Ira Sukrungruang expressed interest in writing a memoir, a literary agent asked, "Why? How fucked-up was your childhood?"
Beginning Talk Thai: The Adventures of Buddhist Boy, I too couldn’t help but try to predict who would commit suicide or start shooting heroin. Spoiler alert: none of the main characters dies and Sukrungruang doesn’t have an affair with a politician. The only tragedies are the standard American ones: divorce, bullies, and dying on Mario Brothers. Readers aren't subjected to the spiritual revelation of a washed-up child star or a recovering addict. Instead, we have a poet channeling his child’s voice to show us what it meant to grow up as a Suburban-American in the late ’80s.
Born to Thai immigrants, Ira was given a Jewish name in an attempt to make him sound more American. Just as his name tries to bridge a cultural gap, young Ira constantly walks the tightrope of hyphenated space between Thai and American, boy and man, love and hate. Thai and Buddhist teachings are qualified by TV and comic books. His inner Buddhist warrior who wins a football game is body-checked by bullies who strip the Thai players' Nerf ball. Religious classes are skipped so young Ira can seek enlightenment defeating samurais at the arcade or learn the Eastern philosophy of ass-kicking from Bruce Lee.
Instead of a linear, narrative-driven novel, Talk Thai follows Sukrungruang's synaptic connections. This is perhaps a result of the book being woven together from a series of personal essays, a fact I learned after taking a creative writing class from Sukrungruang. As such, the book circumvents the central flaw of memoirists who shape the past into a perfect story arc. His life is not subdivided into bland, individual servings. Sukrungruang mixes the various components of his life to resemble his favorite dish: jasmine rice and an Oscar Mayer wiener stir-fried with fish sauce. Talk Thai is a subtle fusion of American and Thai elements that complement each other surprisingly well. In fact, it's in this blending of cultures that much of the book’s humor, charm and insights emerge. Young Ira learns traditional Thai cooking by practicing flipping Star Wars action figures in a wok. He dresses up in his mother’s Thai dresses to perform Tiffany’s “I Think We’re Alone Now.”
In the absence of a shocking or confessional storyline, Talk Thai relies on brevity and the voice of a poet filtered through a child to engage readers. Just as the real power of the superheroes young Ira idolizes is their ability to blend in with average Joes, his strength as a writer is his restraint — his ability to deliver Buddhist insights through the voice of a child whose vernacular includes “poo,” “chicks” and “chilling.”
The cultural specifics of Sukrungruang's Thai household and Buddhist temple do spice up the story. But Talk Thai's real surprise is that this playfully honest memoir delivers a dead-on portrait of what it was like to grow up in the suburbs during the late ’80s. All of the story's Thai elements have a clear American counterpart. Instead of listening to tales of angels battling devils with horns and goat feet, young Ira hears myths of Buddha fighting monkey-faced demons. Instead of The Ten Commandments, he obeys The Five Perceptions. The memoir's everyday tragedies are those common to most American childhoods. His premature delusions of grandeur — that he’s secretly a warrior-king — are crushed on the schoolyard playground. He becomes disillusioned with a father who doesn't wrestle gorillas in the jungles, but rolls around with other women in bed. He longs to be something he is not, to be the white kids on sitcoms. He starts to believe “Jesus was a Mattel toy everyone had but” him. His attempts to walk with a swagger and readjust himself like a man are checked when his mother asks if he needs to go to the hospital because he's walking like a handicapped person. Young Ira's ultimate loss of innocence comes with the most American of actions: divorce. But with this shattering of his family's identity, the boy begins to come into his own as a man.
Talk Thai is a dash of Thai spice tossed into the mixing pot of America literature. While it has its own distinct flavor, it's an essential part of the whole, enhancing our appreciation of the American experience.
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