In this deeply personal and honest memoir, This Jade World, Ira Sukrungruang holds up a mirror to himself and the world around him. There are moments in the book where the mirror appears fractured and what we see is a kaleidoscope of reflections: an unquestionable love for Thailand from which the writer shows close family ties and the country’s beauty and rich culture; the unsuspected depths of brutal and conflicting emotions of a man; confessions of sexual encounters and a revealing insight into the vast experience of pleasure. Other times the mirror is as steady as a rock, and we are not distracted in observing a man meditate on his own existence. Sukrungruang draws us in with his language of truth as he steers through a self that is wounded from self-sabotage, experiences that have broken and shaped him, people that have touched and healed him, and an unimaginable weight of love and rage that settles heavily in this autobiography.
The book is written in sharp fragments and brief chapters about incidents, memories, old conversations, and snippets of his life before and after his divorce. There’s little sense that Sukrungruang is telling you the story of his life as there is the realization that he is revealing that something happened to him, and it changed him. It is a specificity that allows him to narrow down on the end of a 12-year marriage (he received a letter asking for the divorce on his twelfth anniversary) and what he believed could save it—a body transformation. Throughout his account, we find simultaneously a recurring theme of hatred for how one looks and a forceful yearning for a new body. It is not merely the idea of vanity but a loud and foaming hatred that stands out, and when Sukrungruang reflects on this, he does so with clarity and an unrelenting candor:
“I had created a distorted story of the body, a story of hatred. I hated my body. I believed others hated it, too. I felt their hate in their stares, their judgment, their ridicule, their thoughts of my lack of self-control. My body said everyone hated me because who could love a fat body like mine. My body was writing itself. I was a tragic character in its story.”
What is interesting about this is the writer’s strong awareness of this troubled relationship. He knows it is his “delusional mind” at work, that he’s imagining such disdain from others, and yet, once he is at a point where he is utterly consumed by rage, nothing stops him from clenching his fist and making a threat of everyone around him. There’s the question of rationality and the impulse of men to inflict pain because they are so full of it, so terrified of it. Sukrungruang gives no answers, instead, he relies on his unique ability to show us the conditions of the heart—the flooding of fear, the urge to stave off sorrow with pain, and the need for control because sometimes the earth is a rickety swing bridge about to heave you over the edge.
A place that is most alive in Sukrungruang’s experience is Thailand—a home that comes with its chaotic and enigmatic comfort. Although born in Chicago, Sukrungruang writes about his homeland in captivating, tender ways when he describes the taste of food, the nature of Thai men, its wild vines, swaying rice fields, and cultural identity. When we are placed at the center of this country, it is closest to two women, Sukrungruang’s mother and Aunty Sue, whose friendship of thick love and shared strength point toward the kind of arms that have held and nursed the writer in different stages of his life. Side by side to this affection is the vicious anger of a mother who was cheated on and the passiveness of a father who wouldn’t fight to save anything. It is a home of service and sacrifice, and it is also a home of internalized grief and an unwillingness to forgive. In revealing the world of his upbringing, Sukrungruang creates in the reader a strong impression of how his own witnessing has greatly shaped the man he has become.
A distinguishing attribute of Sukrungruang’s writing on identity is the connection he establishes between the body and landscape. This intimacy works perfectly to illustrate his ties to Thailand as well as the pervasive sense of (not) belonging anywhere as an Asian man in America.
“Thailand is my mother’s home. While growing up, I never knew the intensity of this love. I never understood her devotion, her longing. I thought it was food and family she missed. But to love a place is to love the physical-ness of the place, too. To love a place is to know how it feels under the soles of your feet. . . . There is a lyrical understanding of how to interact with landscape, and it starts, I believe, in the body, which for the longest time, I hated.”
This is a memoir with the kind of descriptive prose that is vibrant in its imagery, clear and precise in its language, and intensely personal in the emotions it evokes. By incorporating sensory detail and valuable insight, Sukrungruang succeeds in sustaining a style that adds to rather than distracts from the narrative. A striking example is when moments of unconsciousness or dysfunction are captured. Readers may gain the impression of moving through a haze; the experience feels as though one were crawling into a memory or a dream, leaning forward and peering into a lopsided world with Sukrungruang leading and barely making out the path.
“Thank you for finding me,” Sukrungruang writes when he talks about his new lady, Deedra. No matter how hard he protects himself from love, at the end of the memoir is a sweet offering. It is an exhale from having held our breaths for so long from watching a man suffer from delusion and heartache, and the reader may wish for more in the ending than a single chapter. The memoir ends with the portrait of a wife and a son and there’s little in the way of this new joy. It is narrated with considerable brevity and although it does not appear out of place, it does seem to take a sharp turn from the pace of the book. While it does not strike me as a rushed ending, it gets one thinking of ways to bridge the gap between the welter of sensation built all through the work and the small ending moments infused with hope and wondrous possibilities.
Beyond presenting the facts that autobiography demands, This Jade World bears a degree of imagination and artistry that lends Sukrungruang’s writing a voice that readily elicits responses for its emotional truth. There’s courage in opening up and telling the untold and Sukrungruang does this and more—we see the nakedness of one’s life and yearnings for what they are and if we’re honest with ourselves, we may see ours too.
This Jade World
By Ira Sukrungruang
University of Nebraska Press
Published October 1, 2021