March 22, 2022 § 3 Comments
If you are attending AWP this week, please drop by Flash (Nonfiction) to the Future: A Speculative Brevity Reading on Thursday morning at 10:35 am, in Room 124 of the Pennsylvania Convention Center.
Deesha Philyaw, Natalie Lima, Ander Monson and Ira Sukrungruang will discuss future possibilities for the flash nonfiction form and genre hybrids just now emerging, along with brief readings and audience discussion. Brevity’s founding editor Dinty W. Moore will moderate.
With the popularity of flash rocketing forward, it is a good time to explore what’s next for this incredibly rich genre, why it is so perfect for the classroom, how it helps us write about trauma and other difficult subjects, the overlap with poetry, and the growing body of memoirs in flash.
Following the panel/discussion, authors from The Best of Brevity anthology wll be signing copies of the book at the Rose Metal Press Table in the Bookfair, Table 550. The signing should start around noon (depending on how long it takes us to walk over.)
See you in Philly!
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.
November 16, 2020 § Leave a comment
This week, The Best of Brevity: Twenty Groundbreaking Years of Flash Nonfiction begins shipping from warehouses across the country (and becomes available at your local independent bookstore through curbside service or distanced browsing.) We are excited about early praise for the book, grateful to everyone who pre-ordered, and thrilled to hear from those of you who plan to give the book a test run in your writing classes next semester.
We also have two launch events this week, our West Coast Launch in Los Angeles and our East Coast Launch on the Three Rivers Coastline of Pittsburgh. We hope you will join us to celebrate!
Here are the particulars:
SKYLIGHT BOOKS, Los Angeles, Wednesday Nov. 18th at 6:30 pm PST (9:30 pm EST)
Best of Brevity co-editors Zoë Bossiere and Dinty W. Moore will be joined by authors Daisy Hernández, Nicole Walker, and Ira Sukrungruang. Following a reading of three brief (of course) essays from the anthology, there will be lively discussion about the flash nonfiction form and tips for those wanting to write, publish, and teach flash nonfiction. An audience Q&A will follow. You can pre-register here: https://www.crowdcast.io/e/skylit-best-of-brevity/register
WHITE WHALE BOOKSTORE, Pittsburgh, Thursday Nov. 19th at 7 pm EST
At this East Coast event, Zoë and Dinty will be joined by authors Julie Hakim Azzam, Lori Jakiela, and Deesha Philyaw. Following a reading of their three brief essays from the anthology, there will be lively discussion about the flash nonfiction form and tips for those wanting to write, publish, and teach flash nonfiction. An audience Q&A will follow. Preregister for the event here: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/east-coast-launch-for-the-best-of-brevity-registration-127005140795
And here’s more on the book:
Featuring examples of nonfiction forms such as memoir, narrative, lyric, braided, hermit crab, and hybrid, The Best of Brevity brings you 84 of the best-loved and most memorable reader favorites from the journal, collected in print for the first time. Compressed to their essence, these essays glint with drama, grief, love, and anger, as well as innumerable other lived intensities, resulting in an anthology that is as varied as it is unforgettable, leaving the reader transformed.
With contributions from Jenny Boully, Brian Doyle, Roxane Gay, Daisy Hernández, Michael Martone, Ander Monson, Patricia Park, Kristen Radtke, Diane Seuss, Abigail Thomas, Jia Tolentino, and many more.
“The Best of Brevity feels like the condensed energy of a coiled spring. A vibrant collection, dynamic in its exploration and celebration of the flash form.”
-Karen Babine, author of All the Wild Hungers
April 19, 2020 § Leave a comment
By Connor Beeman
New Ohio Review has extended its annual contest until April 22nd — that’s just three more days — and we’re happy to announce that Ira Sukrungruang is our nonfiction judge. Sukrungruang is the author of two memoirs, Southside Buddhist and Talk Thai: The Adventures of Buddhist Boy; a short story collection, The Melting Season; and a collection of poetry, In Thailand It Is Night, as well as the recent collection of essays, Buddha’s Dog & Other Meditations. He’s a Professor of Creative Writing at Kenyon College and the recipient of the 2015 American Book Award as well as several prominent fellowships.
Sukrungruang’s writing often confronts his upbringing, and in particular deals with his Thai heritage, eastern religion, and life in America as the son of Thai immigrants. Buddhism plays a vital role in many of his works, as can been seen in essays from Buddha’s Dog. “The Animatronic Dog,” for instance, blends a vivid account of growing up Thai in Chicago with a story of Buddha befriending a dog. This story is told to Sukrungruang by his mother, who is herself an unforgettable figure throughout the book. Another essay, “The Dog Without a Bark,” finds a young Sukrungruang briefly befriending a local dog with cut vocal cords and finding an unexpected connection. Looking back on this moment, Sukrungruang writes, “I remember that Sheltie for the lessons I carry with me: you don’t need a voice to know what you want. You don’t need to sound like everyone else to make yourself heard.”
We’re excited to have Ira Sukrungruang—an inimitable voice in his own right and a wonderful writer and teacher—as our nonfiction judge, and we look forward to seeing the work that you share.
Connor Beeman is an Editorial Associate at New Ohio Review.
April 16, 2019 § 6 Comments
By Lorri McDole
When Talking Writing’s editor Martha Nichols asked if I’d be at AWP Portland to sign the Into Sanity anthology I’d contributed to, my first thoughts:
Too Damn Big. Too Much Anxious.
But second thoughts:
It’s only a 3-hour drive, and I’ll get the new experience of signing books at AWP. Plus, it’s only October! Surely, I’ll be in a better emotional space by March?
As soon as I registered, Dread moved in for real and unpacked his bags, which were legion: thousands (and thousands) of people…alone this time (I’d gone to AWP Seattle with a friend)…alone-Lyfting (was it safe?)…no MFA friends (because no MFA) to cower with. Etcetera.
On March 12th (verified by my journal), I started scheming about bowing out, because I hadn’t heard whether the anthology would, in fact, be published in time. On March 13th, Austin Kleon tweeted a page from Anne Boyer’s A Handbook of Disappointed Fate that, very loosely translated, read, “You can say no.” Permission! Relief.
Later that same day (really), Martha emailed, also loosely translated: The book is done, it’s beautiful!
Dammit all to hell.
If I had to go, I needed more than a how-to-kick-AWP’s-ass plan. I needed a finely-honed mission.
Beth Ann Fennelly
I discovered Beth Ann’s book, Heating and Cooling: 52 Micro-Memoirs, through The Writer, which ran a micro-memoir contest that Beth Ann judged. My story was published as a finalist, so I packed Heating and Cooling and my copy of The Writer (thinking I could just point in case I couldn’t squeak the words out). I got up super early for her Thursday morning panel, snagged a second-row seat, and watched her walk in: long red hair, skirt printed with rows of books, teal velvet crop top (!), multi-colored shoes. I don’t remember what she talked about (I have notes somewhere), but after all her University of Mississippi students, who also love her, made it through the line, I got to meet her. She wrote something lovely in my book and said, “I remember your story! It was so good!” Swoon.
Yi Shun Lai
Yi Shun, an editor at The Tahoma Review, is a passionate, no-nonsense speed talker. I knew she had another panel to run to, and I surprised myself by matching her fast talk when it was my turn, leaving out my notorious comma-speak: “I know you’re in a hurry but awhile back you gave me great feedback on a short piece that I then submitted for Beth Ann Fennelly’s contest at The Writer and they published it!”
“I love stories like that!” Yi Shun said, and she was off. Short, sweet, no time for awkwardness.
On Saturday, heading to lunch with fellow Talking Writing contributors, I saw Ira, the editor of Sweet, going up the escalator while I was going down. Time was diminishing (as I once misheard my husband say on the phone), so I threw my arm up and waved. “Hi Ira! You don’t really know me, but you published me a couple of years ago.”
“Hi!” he waved back. “Come by the booth later!”
I almost didn’t—I’d already said hi, what next?—but I also wanted to buy one of his books. He’d sold out, but I did snag a beautifully-designed chapbook Sweet had published. When I confessed that AWP made me nervous, Ira gave me some personal picks and tips for choosing a smaller nonfiction conference to attend. He was as generous as I imagined he would be.
There were things I didn’t accomplish. I didn’t see Liz Prato, with whom I originally workshopped the story that would make it into Talking Writing’s anthology and whose book, Baby’s on Fire, I carried the entire weekend, hoping to have her sign it. I didn’t visit the mentor booth (I’m probably too old to be mentored anyway, right?). And when Allison K. Williams called out before her panel started, “Hey, this is So-and-So (I’m sorry So-and-So, I didn’t catch your name), and he’s in the book Flash Nonfiction Funny,” why didn’t I stand up and call back, “Hey, I’m in that book, too!” I didn’t even get to meet Allison—who had rejected my story (positively!) for Brevity’s podcast—because I had to leave the panel early.
But there were other things I experienced on the fly. An engaging conversation with Jennifer Jean, poet and Managing Editor of Talking Writing, about hybrid texts, how you can use dreams and suppositions and maybes in nonfiction stories if you clearly signal what you’re doing. The serendipity of sitting next to a guy in a panel who heard me fangirling over Beth Ann (again) and said, “Hey, I hired her at Mississippi.” Finding out that the company I was keeping in the new anthology (you never know, right?) was stellar.
I could have gotten a lot more out of AWP, but I also could have gotten a lot less. It’s been two weeks since I made the 5-hour trip down to AWP (an anxious girl has to stop more than most to use the bathroom), and this is what it still feels like: I brought the behemoth that is AWP down to my size, and I killed it.
Lorri McDole’s writing has been published in The Writer, Cleaver, Prime Number Magazine, Sweet, The Offing, and Brain, Child, as well as in several anthologies that include Into Sanity and Flash Nonfiction Funny. Her essay “Storms of the Circus World,” which was a finalist for the Talking Writing Prize for Personal Essay, was nominated for a 2017 Best of the Net award.
September 15, 2017 § 13 Comments
By Amy Monticello
All my life, I’ve been drawn to singular things. Returning from a trip to Italy in my twenties, I brought only one bottle of wine from a private vineyard I knew I’d never visit again. I love charcuterie boards with their assortment of tiny, ephemeral delights. I had one high school boyfriend, one college boyfriend, and one husband with whom I have an only daughter. As a young pianist, I once fell in love with a piece of sheet music called “Light Amethyst” in a practice book my teacher gave me. From its first notes in D-major, that melancholy scale, I felt possessed by the story I heard the music telling. I memorized the piece so well, I can still play some of it over two decades later. I played “Light Amethyst” to the detriment of other music—in some ways, it was the piece that undid me as a musician, a piece I loved so much that nothing could lure me away from it.
Over time, I’ve learned that singular love is merely representative of the world’s possibilities, that to love one thing is proof that I can love infinite others. But my affection for the small and self-contained remains. This is why, as an M.F.A. student, I became enamored of the flash essay. This is how I found Brevity.
“I’d like to see all of you write a piece that could be published in Brevity,” our workshop professor, Lee Martin, once told us. He was not the kind of teacher to issue publication challenges. He was not the kind of teacher who thought the drive to publish was particularly good for the practice of writing. What he meant by his wish was that each of us in that nonfiction workshop could eventually write a 750-word essay that could satisfy the reader just as much as some of the 20-page essays we’d discussed in class. To learn how an economy of language forces choices of essentiality. To reveal the emotional “turn” at the end of the essay, as Lee called it, without sacrificing complexity.
It was a challenge that took me six years to meet. My work was rejected from Brevity at least five times, but the essay finally accepted, “Shame,” is still the piece I send to people in my non-writing life when they ask to see something I’ve written.
Now a writing teacher myself, I can’t think of a class I’ve taught in the last eight years where I haven’t used a Brevity essay. They are inexhaustibly useful, providing wholly digestible examples of expository writing from personal narrative, to literary journalism, from lyric essay to imaginative forms of cultural analysis appropriate for both creative writing and first-year writing courses. They are short enough to read aloud in class so that we can feel the language in our mouths, track the moves of inquisition, and trace the spine of story. I’ve often begun class with a Brevity essay as though offering my students a piece of currency to spend however they wish that day.
Matthew Gavin Frank’s “A Brief Atmospheric Future” has become my go-to piece for introducing the braided essay in my creative nonfiction workshop. From the same Issue 51, I’ve taught Beth Ann Fennelly’s “Some Childhood Dreams Really Do Come True” to open discussions of genre—what is the difference between a flash essay and prose poem? What are the challenges and opportunities of creating in liminal spaces? Amy Butcher’s “Eight Quarters” shows the command an essayist needs of both situation and story—the situation of visiting a once-beloved friend in prison, and the story of fearing the monstrousness within our loved ones, within us all. And then there’s Jaquira Diaz’s “Beach City,” and the intimacy of its young characters trying to find permanence in a place of transience: “We were the faraway waves breaking, the music and the ocean and the heat rising rising rising, like a fever. We were bodies made of smoke and water.”
But if I had to single out one lesson that Brevity has allowed me to create, it would be the lesson on using a collective voice in creative nonfiction. Fittingly, the person whose work inspired this lesson is the same person who introduced me to the journal: Lee Martin. His genre-defiant essay “Talk Big,” from Issue 41, speaks in the “we” voice of working-class men living in downtrodden conditions. “We know who we are—the lowlifes, the no-accounts, the pissants, the stumblebums,” Martin writes. “All liquored up. Ten foot tall and bulletproof in a going-nowhere-fast town in southeastern Illinois.” As the essay tells us the story of a second-degree murder that takes place outside a rough-and-tumble bar in that “going-nowhere-fast” town, it uses the voice of the place to describe both the men’s desperation to survive, and their resistance to admitting “how close we are to dwindling down to nothing.”
“Talk Big” opens up possibilities for new points of view in creative nonfiction besides the veritable “I.” It relies on the fact that an essay’s narrator is often representative, speaking on behalf of the groups to which that narrator belongs, and thus uses a group voice instead of an individual one, right down to the language: “So we keep talking. Pissed off—bat shit crazy—talking big, big, big to tell ourselves we’re alive, to convince ourselves we’re still whole.”
I like to pair this essay with another Brevity masterpiece, Ira Sukrungruang’s “The Cruelty We Delivered: An Apology,” published in Issue 44. Sukrungruang’s essay, too, describes a group experience. A clique of Thai-American boys, to which the narrator belonged as a child, ostracizes another Thai-American boy who wishes to be part of the group. “You were a boy after all. So were we,” Sukrungruang writes. “But boys are cruel with neglect, crueler than the violence our hands are capable of.” The essay builds on Martin’s use of the collective voice—Sukrungruang’s narrator retains an “I” point of view, but positions himself as part of the group of boys with the heavy use of “we.” Even more interesting, the piece itself is an epistle: It’s written to the ostracized boy, who, the narrator learns, eventually hanged himself many years later. I love the fluctuation of “I,” “we,” and “you” that explores our constantly shifting positionality—our relationships to others, to our cultures, and to ourselves.
In short (but not quite Brevity short, for this post already exceeds the maximum length for an essay in the journal), I carry Brevity essays into the classroom like pennies in my pocket. They are all worth the same, but the variation astounds: some are brassy, some glisten with the high sheen of newness, some have the build-up of history on their faces, and some have been manipulated by other forces—run over by trains, fingered into metal-softness, grown over with a lattice of dirt or rust. Each of them a singular accomplishment, and yet all sharing the same constraints. Each of them individually powerful and instructive, but all part of a single journal’s unforgettable vision.
‘Teaching Brevity‘ is a special blog series celebrating the magazine’s 20th Anniversary, edited by Sarah Einstein. Read the other teaching posts here (we’ll update the links as we post the other entries over the next two weeks: 2, 3, 4, 5, 6
Amy Monticello is the author of the nonfiction chapbook Close Quarters (Sweet Publications). Her forthcoming collection, How to Euthanize a Horse, won the 2016 Arcadia Press Chapbook Prize in Nonfiction. Her essays have appeared or are forthcoming in Brevity, The Iron Horse Literary Review, The Rumpus, Brain, Child Magazine, Hotel Amerika, and elsewhere. She is an assistant professor at Suffolk University in Boston, MA, and a regular contributor at Role/Reboot.
March 15, 2016 § 7 Comments
Brevity is excited to announce a special issue to be focused on experiences of race, racialization, and racism. For our 53rd issue, we are looking for work that considers all aspects of race: what it is, what it means, how our understanding of it is changing. We want essays that explore how race is learned during childhood, lived over the entire course of a life, and how our changing understanding of race shapes the way we experience ourselves and others.
We are looking for flash essays (750 words or fewer) that explore the lived experience of race, racialization, and racism, show the reader a new way to look at the familiar, or give voice to under-represented experiences. Submissions will be open from March 15th- May 31st and the issue will be published in mid-September.
In concert with this special issue, we are announcing our first-ever student writing contest. Students enrolled at the graduate or undergraduate level will be invited to flash essays on the theme through their writing programs, and the winner will receive a $200.00 prize and publication in the issue. (Don’t send yet. There will be more details on this contest released soon.)
The guest editors for this special issue will be Ira Sukrungruang and Joy Castro.
Born in Miami, Joy Castro is the author of The Truth Book: A Memoir, the New Orleans literary thrillers Hell or High Water and Nearer Home, the essay collection Island of Bones, and the short fiction collection How Winter Began. Recipient of an International Latino Book Award and the Nebraska Book Award and finalist for the PEN Center USA Literary Award, she edited the collection Family Trouble: Memoirists on the Hazards and Rewards of Revealing Family, and serves as the series editor of Machete: The Ohio State Series in Literary Nonfiction. Her work has appeared in anthologies and in journals including Salon, Seneca Review, Fourth Genre, North American Review, Brevity, Afro-Hispanic Review, and The New York Times Magazine. She teaches creative writing, literature, and Latino studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, where she directs the Institute for Ethnic Studies.
Ira Sukrungruang is the author of the memoirs Southside Buddhist and Talk Thai: The Adventures of Buddhist Boy, the short story collection The Melting Season, and the poetry collection In Thailand It Is Night. He is the coeditor of two anthologies on the topic of obesity: What Are You Looking At? The First Fat Fiction Anthology and Scoot Over, Skinny: The Fat Nonfiction Anthology. He is the recipient of the 2015 American Book Award, New York Foundation for the Arts Fellowship in Nonfiction Literature, an Arts and Letters Fellowship, and the Emerging Writer Fellowship. His work has appeared in many literary journals, including Post Road, The Sun, and Creative Nonfiction. He is one of the founding editors of Sweet: A Literary Confection, and teaches in the MFA program at University of South Florida.
Because we are committed to showcasing a variety of lived experiences in this issue, we want to be certain that everyone is able to submit their work. If Brevity’s small submission fee of $3.00 would keep you from submitting, you may submit your work to email@example.com without paying the fee. (Should you take this option, however, you need to send a word doc. not a PDF for complex technical reasons too boring to describe here.)
Submissions begin today on our Submittable page.
February 11, 2016 § Leave a comment
We’re here because we love essays, memoir, creative nonfiction. They’re not always easy to find on the shelf, and the Amazon browsing process can be…flawed. (Inspired by your shopping trends, this print of Iron Man. Yep, got it in one.)
Over at Essay Daily, notable nonfictioneers including Ander Monson, Maya Kapoor, Brian Doyle and Jill Talbot have listed some of their favorite essay collections, including our own Dinty W. Moore’s Dear Mr. Essay Writer Guy and Southside Buddhist by Ira Sukrungruang, and also mentions of individual essays, including several at Brevity.
The booklist is itself a catalog essay of sorts, with the editorial comments from the recommenders as charming as tracking down the essays they adore. From Aurvi Sharma:
Eliot Weinberger’s ‘An Elemental Thing’
I read this collection of essays pretty much entirely on the NYC subway and often wanted to grab the person sitting next to me and say, ‘Read this!’ Apparently Eliot Weinberger is not that well known the the States. Must be rectified.
Sei Shonagon’s The Pillow Book Are these essays? Poems? Journal entries? Fiction? We don’t know but Sei Shonagon’s late 10th century words make us question our assumptions of what makes what, and that’s a good enough feature of nonfiction in my book.
Go check out the list…and choose a book for your Valentine.
July 23, 2015 § 2 Comments
Congratulations to Ira Sukrungruang whose memoir in essays, Southside Buddhist, has been named a winner of the 36th Annual Before Columbus Foundation American Book Awards.
Two essays previously published in Brevity appear in the book: “Chop Suey” and “The Cruelty We Delivered: An Apology.” We would have been happy for Ira in any case, but the appearance of these two excellent Brevity essays in the book make us both happy and proud.
The American Book Awards were created to provide recognition for outstanding literary achievement from the entire spectrum of America’s diverse literary community, which is a darned good thing.
May 6, 2015 § 6 Comments
Ira Sukrungruang writes today on his reactions to the #savecityumfa campaign and the dwindling support for arts and humanities on many fronts:
I was taught to always keep my emotions in check, to not speak out, to watch but not act. I was taught to blend. This, my Thai mother said, would keep me safe. This, she said, would help me go far in the world. Keep quiet. Keep level-headed.
But the last few weeks have made it hard for me to heed my mother’s advice. Hard to stand and watch and not say anything. I find myself with an urge to scream at this world that has let me and my friends down. This world that has broken its promises. This world with its racial injustices and its devaluation of the arts.
To this I say: What the fuck?
It’s all I can say.
I am robbed of any ounce of intelligence. Any ounce of patience. I have found myself out of rationality. I am tired—I’m sorry, Mother—of watching.
Because I love this world. Because I breathe this air. Because the hurt of many is my hurt. I absorb it like a sponge. I carry it in this fleshy body. This body that feels every punch, every rock, every fire, every charged word of hate, every pronouncement that what I do, what I care about has no value in this new world we live in, this new world that cares more for numbers and commerce, forsaking the very thing that makes us feel.
Art. Voice. Expression.
We have become an unfeeling culture. We have become a finger-pointing culture. We have become a culture of moral judgement, as if there is one and only one way to be in this world. There is not. There are so many wonderful ways of being. It is what makes this world beautiful. A man marries a man. A woman, a woman. A single parent raises a child. A man becomes a woman. A woman, a man. A boy chooses to be a writer, a painter, a singer, instead of a scientist, a doctor, a CEO. When my mother first came to America, she remarked on the open spaces everywhere in this country. “America is so big,” she said. “There is room for the world here.” There is. There should be.
And yet, I find myself always defending my place in this world. I see colleges close doors to the arts. I see severe cuts in the humanities. I see English Department budgets shrink. I see businessmen decide what is right for education. A colleague at the English Department I work at in Florida said the other day, “This won’t change. They don’t care about us.” And then it happened. The feeling I got when I was a child, when I was being bullied for being Thai and fat, the feeling of helplessness that numbs the entirety of me. The feeling of picking at a scab until it bleeds. That same feeling is happening now. This feeling of being undervalued and unnecessary and unwanted. Bullied.
When I voice my concerns, I am placated. I am given a generous nod. An of course, of course. A sentence in the passive voice that claims no ownership. Your concerns are being looked at. A thank you for bringing this issue to light. And then nothing. And then I feel, as soon as the door is closed, that they are saying, Here is another minority bemoaning fairness. Here he is playing the race card. Here is another writer fighting for uselessness. Here he goes again with art matters.
This is what the powerless feel. Placated. When the courts rule unjustly. When university humanities programs get cut.
So we rage. So we fight.
So we say, Don’t placate me. Don’t placate us.
This last week, among all the other going-ons in the world, among riots and earthquakes, a small international low-residency MFA program in Hong Kong got axed for incomprehensible reasons–City University HK MFA. This was a program like no other, producing writing like no other. It was not only shaping literature in Asia but also adding diversity to the western cannon. The faculty, which I’m lucky to be part of, are truly stellar writers and teachers. They care. They believe the willed word can fill the fractures of the earth. They believe wholeheartedly that the writer matters still in this world, that her voice can affect change. Story. Poem. Essay. It’s what we teach. It’s what we do. These students, these writers, are vital to the life of global literature. This program bridges the East and West. These students are impassioned. They want. The program’s closure is reprehensible. Short-sighted. Unwarranted. Just plain stupid.
But here is the thing: Has it stopped the students from writing? Has it stopped the students from raising their voices? Has the administration stifled these young and loud cries?
They sing loud.
They write louder.
We are writers! they say
We matter! they say.
Give us back our program! they say.
I admire them. Applaud them. Love them. It’s one of the proudest moments I’ve had as a teacher. It’s not about publication. Not about accolades. It’s about being heard. Damn it, it’s beautiful.
Their heart is my heart. Their voice is my voice. I raise it with them. I stand with them, though I am 8000 miles away. I’m here. In every respect.
I we—don’t ask for much. We ask to be listened to. We ask to be included in the conversation. We ask that you care for what we do and what we’ve added to the community. We ask that you do not placate us.
Most of all, we ask for fairness.
We ask for fairness here, too. In America. In Ferguson. In Baltimore. In the places and communities many have forgotten. We ask for justice. It seems obvious, a no-brainer. We ask you to listen.
I’m tired of stifling my voice. I’m tired of remaining quiet when everything I love is evaporating. A program. A country. People. Art.
I owe my life to this country. This country gave my immigrant parents jobs. This country provided a suburban home in the Southside of Chicago. This country offered me an exemplary education. For this I am indebted. It’s hard not to echo the sentiments of James Baldwin in moments like this. “I love America more than any other country in the world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.”
I was born on June 23, a couple of weeks before America’s bicentennial, when the country celebrated its break from a ruthless and unjust monarchy. When the citizens of this country sought to be heard. When a document read: We the people… We. We. We. We must become the we again because we live in a world of separation, where power is decided by color and wealth and greed. My criticism is not aimed at America. It’s aimed at humanity. Because we are part of it. I am part of it. I can’t go on without voice.
So hear me. So hear all of us. Our voices—interlaced, interwoven—are powerful.
With so much love,