“I was born eleven days before the Bicentennial, in Chicago, during a time when the country was going ga-ga about being American,” Ira Sukrungruang writes in this memoir, a collection of essays really, about being raised Thai in America and about the anxieties and lusts of childhood and adolescence, from school to neighborhood bruisers, videogames to porn. Young Sukrungruang longs to be “Ricky from Silver Spoons,” not only because of Ricky’s privileges but because of what that fictional rich kid did not have to endure: “Ricky didn’t have to speak Thai, didn’t have to sing the Thai National Anthem every morning or have to go to temple for Sunday school.” Yet Sukrungruang also longed to be a warrior for Buddha, to manifest the courage and strength of Iyala, the white elephant of myth for which one of the temple monks nicknames him. Such conflicts lead, inevitably, to confusion about religion and resentment for being the outsider, the one picked upon. “The more I learned, the more confused I became,” Sukrungruang writes; the line speaks both to the appeal of his subject (the rapidly swirling, terrifyingly deep waters of childhood experience) and to the sort of prose that characterizes this book. As a writer, Sukrungruang puts one foot in front of the other; he tells his story, and it is not a story without interest, but he does so without flourish or flare and, more damagingly, with what reads like a flinching away from deep and honest probing of the emotions involved.
As a child, for instance, Sukrungruang rides in a car with his parents past “two dogs in the middle of the median.” “One dog lay dead, the other walked in circles around its companion.” This is the sort of memory from which a writer should craft a scene of real poignancy and emotional pull. Instead, Sukrungruang plods on, sentence by sentence, distancing himself (so it seems) from the power of this image. He ends the essay with some musing on heaven, on how heavenly it would be if his parents were together forever, “laughing and loving each other,” which, while foreshadowing future events, rings here almost platitudinous, lacking the spark needed for readers to engage, viscerally, with Sukrungruang’s interior world. Likewise with the family crisis that follows, and with the first flowerings of sexuality, and even with a climactic instance of fighting back against neighborhood thugs: there is something missing in this memoir.
Perhaps the author is, ultimately, too willing to embrace the “sage advice, so simple it was Buddhist” he’s given by a non-Thai friend when he tells him of his father’s infidelity and his parent’s marital collapse: “Fuck it.” This sort of adolescent shrug comes to replace the moments of rage or the tears that, as a child, Sukrungruang was told to outgrow, and in this book it replaces the vulnerability that must necessarily mark true intimacy. The stories we have here (of the lost father as a golfer, or the kindly monk dispensing life advice, of his aunt’s connection to cooking) are all slightly sterilized. We witness children bickering and trading insults, we hear about a boy’s first encounters with porn, but these stories feel already once removed. The writer who, in the wake of childhood traumas, sought catharsis by writing “for three nights straight…with vigor and passion, adjectives begetting adjectives, adverbs piled upon adverbs. Buckets of blood and vilifying violence and dastardly death,” has, with this book, written a bloodless recollection of a childhood marked by what must have been great sadness.
In one of the book’s best scenes, young Sukrungruang is telling his best friend about a story he’s writing, a love story, influenced equally by the hair-band Warrant and Homer’s Odyssey. A group of teenage boys is lured into a cattle field by the singing of girls from Iowa, but “When they reached the Iowan girls who had high hair-sprayed hair and wore G-string bikinis, the song ended and the girls disappeared.” His friend asks what happens next, what do the boys do, and Sukrungruang responds, “They kill themselves… That what I imagined brokenhearted people do.” This, in the end, is perhaps the most poignant moment Talk Thai has to offer, the most tearful this dry book will allow itself to become. After, of course, Sukrungruang experiences several sorts of true heartbreak, but in this book, at least, he doesn’t write in such a way as to communicate it.