A Review of Ira Sukrungruang’s This Jade World
November 1, 2021 § 3 Comments
By Debbie Hagan
Several years ago, at a writer’s conference, I stood next to Ira Sukrungruang at a makeshift bar in the conference director’s kitchen, engaging in loose chitchat. For reasons that escape me now, Sukrungruang told me, he’d gotten divorced because he wanted a child. After this, our host shooed us outside to roast marshmallows, and, thus, I didn’t hear the rest of this story.
The next morning, I couldn’t stop thinking about this yearn for a child, but not being able to have one…for whatever reason. Then, I saw Sukrungruang and his young son, Bodhi, running across the college lawn. He grabbed the boy, wrestled him to the ground, their faces glowed, their laughter ricocheted off the campus buildings, and I thought what a lucky boy to have such a father.
This Jade World is a collection of forty-five short essays (two of which have appeared in Brevity). Sukrungruang (who sometimes refers to himself as Thai Boy) describes growing up in Chicago, born to Thailand immigrants, struggling with body image and self-confidence.
At twenty-one, a college student, Sukrungruang meets poet Katie Riegel. “To friends, she was known as Teacher, a poet who was nine years older and taught at the university Thai Boy was a student at,” he writes in his essay “In 1997.” “He idolized her. Saw her as his guide in life. Someone who would lead him on the right path.”
Riegel invites him to her poetry reading, and Thai Boy falls into a “swoon that saturated him in a blushing warmth.” The relationship grows quickly. Riegel sees this and warns Sukrungruang on their fourth or fifth day: “You don’t have to be married to be in love. It’s just a paper, a fuckin’ paper. And then what happens? Domestication.” Riegel not only seems adverse to marriage, but seemingly rejects the traditional roles of wife and mother. Yet, young and naïve, Sukrungruang nods along…wanting whatever Riegel wants.
“When you meet someone at twenty-one, someone nine years older and wiser, you learn the world through her eyes,” he writes. “You are a blank slate, a boy who hasn’t lost enough. You adopt what she wants and her views on life.”
Sukrungruang wants to show Riegel how much he loves her and stages a romantic outing, which he writes about in heartbreaking detail in “Mount Crested Butte.” On a chairlift, climbing up the mountain, he pulls a ring from his pocket, but doesn’t place it on Riegel’s finger. He’s afraid he might drop it. So, he hands it to her.
“She opened and closed her fist,” he writes. “Then she slipped it onto her index finger,” but says nothing.
Back in town, Sukrungruang stops at the library. He pauses before entering, turns around and sees Riegel in the car, staring at the diamond, prisms flashing across the ceiling. He believes this is the happiest day of his life: “This woman loves me. Loves the ring. Wants to be my wife.”
Older and wiser, he looks back and sees these scenes differently. On the chairlift, after Riegel slides the ring on her finger, her “face is windburned, cheeks and forehead red. She wears a baseball hat that sits awkwardly in the tangles of her hair. Her face wears no expression. Not a smile. Not a frown. The boy doesn’t see the nothingness on her face.”
Maybe it’s like the snowball rolling downhill, going faster and faster. There’s no way to stop this marriage. They exchange vows in Thailand, in front of Sukrungruang’s family with “a white string—mong kol—twined around their heads joining them.” Guests “pour holy water over the couple’s hands, wishing them the best in their future together.”
Riegel undergoes a hysterectomy, and the string that supposedly tethers them begins to unravel. In “After the Hysterectomy,” Sukrungruang writes in second person as if his wiser self needs to have a talk with young Thai boy: “Because of her you don’t want children, complain of their noise and ruckus on planes, the way they can’t control the yarn of drool dripping from their toothless mouths.” By the end of this essay, he realizes, “This would be the end, though you did not know it then. The end. The end.”
On the couple’s twelfth anniversary, Riegel sends Sukrungruang a note. She wants a divorce. Sukrungruang is shocked, heartbroken, and sees only a bleak future. He’s so distraught, he considers suicide.
The book opens with a dark, slightly surreal piece, “The First.” In it, Sukrungruang leaves his warm, loving, and happy relationship to have robotic sex with an online stranger in a cheap motel.
All of the essays are thematically connected, each one self-contained. They do jump back and forth in time, which might disorient a few readers. For me, though, it was like watching an artist paint a picture. First come the random brushstrokes, then bits of color, then shape. Eventually the complete image emerges and what a thrill to have been there to see it evolve. While these essays circle around the topics of love and divorce, they’re also about renewal, finding love again, and, of course, the joy of fatherhood.
Debbie Hagan is book reviews editor for Brevity and teaches writing at Massachusetts College of Art and Design. Her writing has appeared in Harvard Review, Hyperallergic, Critical Read, River Teeth, Superstition Review, Pleiades, and elsewhere. Her essays have appeared in various anthologies, including Fearless: Women’s Journeys to Self-Empowerment.