Monday, May 16, 2016

Ira Sukrungruang: The Soap Box

Ira Sukrungruang and Joy Castro are the guest editors for Brevity Magazine's upcoming special issue on Race/Racism/Racialization. Brevity is 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. This issue, which includes new work by the anchor authors Roxane Gay and Claudia Rankine is accepting submissions through May 31st.. For submission guidelines, please visit Brevity's submission page.

The Soap Box

It is two days after the Michael Brown verdict, a day before Thanksgiving. On the first day I sat on the couch and did not move. I became the couch. I became a thing on a couch. I became the thing on the couch that began to dissolve into the couch.

Today, I busy myself with cleaning. My partner and her two girls are on vacation, and I stayed behind to tend to the dogs and cats and bird and guinea pig. I sit and pick grass seeds out of Keita, the Chihuahua/pom mix, this five-pound wonder who moans and groans like a creaky old man. I feed the guinea pig the detritus from my leftover salad. I feed the cats, though I do not clean their litter boxes. There are lines I do not cross, after all.

And then the purge.

I gather months and months of my partner’s crochet magazines, unread and packaged in plastic, and toss them in the recycler. I stuff pens and pencils and hair bands and tiny rubber bands for braces and shove them into a box of miscellaneous things. The house is filled with expired coupons, which I dispose of. I vacuum and rearrange furniture. I shelve books with the ferocity of a mad librarian. Where I see clutter, I attack. Where I see the white of paper, I crumple it into a fist. It is all I could do from inflicting my own violence that is revving in me.  

Violence. It is all I can think of.

In the kitchen, lines of ants crawl all over the counters, invading every crack of our Florida home. Autumn has brought an onslaught of them. I do not know where they are coming from or where they are going. Nor do I care. I simply terminate. I smack them flat into the kitchen countertops, black constellations on a white Formica sky, grunting with sadistic pleasure. “Take that, motherfuckers.” This rage scares me. This rage takes over my Buddhist being. It is the rage of the uncontrollable, the inconsolable. A fury enacted on the weak, the powerless. But I can’t stop. The Pennysaver is my weapon. A coupon for tailored dresses gapes at me, a cartoon drawing of a woman in a Patty Duke day dress, her fingers raised in high society elegance. How utterly impervious she is to the troubles of the world. How clueless. Her cluelessness lights the wick of my rage. Thwap. Such a satisfying sound the Pennysaver makes. Thwap. Thwap, thwap, thwap. I know I have sealed my fate in the next life, that what my Thai mother told me would come true. I will be reincarnated as an ant, small and helpless, forever fearing a giant world come crashing down.

I avoid speaking about race. I don’t like to. But I feel it. I’ve been feeling it for most of my life because of what I’ve experienced, what is happening in the country and the world. When one raises his voice about racism a soap box gets created, and suddenly, no matter how logical, rational, or intelligent, no matter what sense one makes, no matter what is uttered, it will fall on deaf ears. The soap box makes it so. The soap box means someone is standing above you dictating what our world should be like, what our culture should be like, what our people should be like. And then, “our” gets lost, and we become an, I, divided by difference. 

So I remain silent. I am not the only one. Silence has slithered into our lives. It is a silence that eats at us. This silence circulates through the pores of our skin. A beating happens; we swallow it. A murder; we swallow it. Another and another and another. The news, social media, is endless with violence, racial and otherwise. Years go by. Decades. Centuries. We swallow it until we are bloated. Nothing is as filling as hate. Hate is like the overly processed cake snacks we devour by the dozens. Hate, we binge on it. Week after week, month after month, year after year. And one day we wake up and all that we’ve swallowed, all that we’ve squashed down, begins to tighten the muscles in our face, begins to tighten our shoulders and neck. Our voice is tight, too, like the expressionless line of our lips. And then, a crack forms. And then it doesn’t take long. Hate will seethe out. And this hate will want nothing more than to hurt, to maim, to sever. We will think, in terms of race and hate, we haven’t come far from the riots that raged Harlem those many decades ago, those riots that made James Baldwin contemplate whether the relationship between whites and blacks in our country was like gangrene or amputation, whether it was better to deteriorate away slowly or be completely severed, whether as the speaker in Tim Seibles’ satirical poem “Welcome Home” was right to ship whites onto a planet of their own. And though the poem is a satire, we realize our hate has reached satirical proportions, that our country is one big satire. Satire is the world we live in.

Here we are.


That goddamn soap box.

Please plug your ears.

What do I have to say about anything anyways?

Me in this ivory tower of academia.

Me, who is neither black nor white, but yellow.

Like the fat of chicken,

like a dandelion in full bloom,

like the jaundice this country suffers from.

Let’s not kid ourselves. It was not about Michael Brown. It was not about Ferguson or Birmingham or Harlem. It was not about Emmitt Till or Rodney King or Vincent Chin or Kuanchang Kao, who police officers shot because they feared his martial arts moves. It is not about the history we carry within us, a history, no matter how much we want to deny, is part of the genetic make-up of our being. We carry all these histories, heavy and burdened. It is this body of history we share, which joins—never separates—us. Here, in my palms, are all of the social and political unjust enacted on our planet. Here, under my fingernail, is the debris from centuries of war. Here, on the tip of each hair follicle, are the names of the deceased, slayed because race or gender or sexual orientation. Here, inside the cavity of my ear, are tears shed. Here, in my heart, is our heart, beating.

            Let’s not kid ourselves: it’s not about the body either. Though it is the body that pays. It is the body that gets buried. It is the body that gets beaten. It is the body that occupies space. That speaks of our existence and right to be in this world. That is tired, so, so tired.

We are tired, but fear sleep.

            Let’s not kid ourselves: it’s not about a gun. Though, I pulled the trigger of a loaded one a few months ago, in the swampy part of Georgia, guided by a well-trained professional. I shot at a target stapled to a tree, felt the recoil, the power that kicked back through my finger to my hands to my body and then to my brain. I was/am eternally in fear of guns, flinching when a toy one is pointed at me, flinching when someone makes a gun with fingers. This is not about a gun. Though guns have filtered illegally into the poorest neighborhoods in the country. Guns have found their way into the hands of the young who do not actually know what power they hold in their hands. A police officer goes into Ferguson, Baltimore, Chicago, Detroit, the crumbling extensions of cities, with full knowledge someone has a gun. They have a gun. But it isn’t about that.    

Let’s not kid ourselves.



Because. A conjunction. A word meant to signify cause and effect. The simplest of sentences to rationalize action. The baby cried because he was hungry. The dog barked because he wanted to be let in. The professor hit his head against a wall because his students still do not understand what a comma splice is. The police officer pulled the trigger because of Michael Brown, because he was black, because of Ferguson, because of racial tension, because of slavery, because of gun control, because, because, because, because….

            Because, a word of blame. Because, a word in search of responsibility. Because, a word.

Fill in the blank: We have a race problem because _____________________.

Thanksgiving afternoon, I can’t still myself. That afternoon, seconds bleed, thick and viscous. In a few hours, I will zoom across the bay to have Thanksgiving with friends and forget the ugly business of race, an impossibility. But now I can’t stop my knee from bouncing up and down. I can’t stop from chewing my cheeks until they bleed. I can’t stop snapping my fingers. The gym at the Y is empty save for one other gentleman. The man is black. He is a regular at the gym, like I am. He usually wears bandanas; today, dark blue. He’s all muscle, with a handle bar mustache. Every time we see each other we nod, say hello, ask what body part we plan on working on today. “Do it up,” he’d say and high-five me, but this time he looks through me, and I keep my head down.

            The TV in the gym broadcast the news. The anchor, this man who looks like his toupee is about to tip off his head, talks of the “turbulence” in Ferguson after the grand jury’s verdict. The screen flashes footage of the protestors, angry faces and tear-streaked disbelief. The anchor’s voice carries a singsong cadence, as if he is reading a Shel Silverstein poem instead of reporting on the country on the brink of implosion. (But haven’t we imploded before? Are we not in constant state of implosion?)

The man, in between bench press sets, watches the television, too. His face is wet with perspiration. His mouth a tight line. He clenches and unclenches his fists, the way a boxer does before a fight. When he goes back to lifting, he grunts. He then adds more plates to the bar. More and more and more. At his max, his arms tremble, thick branches holding on in heavy gusts. I think I will have to save him from all the weight that may come crashing down on his chest.  But he powers through, releases the bar back onto its resting place with a clatter of metal. He jolts back up. His body heaves in heavy breaths.   

Without missing a beat the newscaster transitions from Ferguson to the next most important news of the day: secret shopping strategies on Black Friday.

It is easy to make metaphor out of this. This black man under all this weight will continue to lift, will continue to go above and beyond what he is capable of. Will continue to rise above. He puts on more weight. I watch him. His fingers grip and re-grip the bar. His legs bounce with adrenaline. He takes three deep breaths and lifts the bar up, his arms trembling before the descent towards his chest.

Here is where metaphor fails. Metaphor makes the possible impossible. But what makes the impossible possible? What metaphors do we possess to change thought and minds, and language and action? What can words really do? What can voice? What can a poem, an essay, a story? Where is the poet with power, crafting a metaphor of hope, a metaphor of change.

“Let the combination of morality and inhumanity begin,” writes the poet Amiri Baraka. And so it has. We are here. We are deep in it. We are so deep we can no longer see light.   

The man shakes, his face reddening, his teeth gritted in exertion. This is our country. These are our citizens. Gritted teeth. Frustrations like plumes of smoke. We have not begun to burn. We have been burning. And I believe this man at the Y will not be able to do it this time. I believe he will fail. I believe that one can only hold so much.


I want to see.

I want to bear witness.

You see, I believe in the impossible.

I believe under the greatest of calamities we are capable.


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 RoadThe 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..

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