Monday, October 4, 2021

This Jade World Isn’t So Jaded: Emily Dillon on Ira Sukrungruang's THIS JADE WORLD

While packing up the house after his divorce, Ira Sukrungruang throws out or gives away much of his belongings. As he says, “If I were to start over, I would start over, like a fire that rebirths a forest.” 

Spoiler: He is admitting to more than just throwing away his t-shirts.

Sukrungruang’s new memoir, This Jade World, out this last week, chronicles the aftermath of his first marriage and, in a way, Sukrungruang chose to burn his life down. The first chapter, aptly titled “The First,” hits with a wallop. For one, it is compact like a fist; there is not a single paragraph break in three pages. For another, it narrates Sukrungruang’s first sexual encounter after his marriage ends, one in which he fucks a nameless woman from the internet. 

I use “fuck” deliberately here. As Sukrungruang says a few chapters later: “The body acted on the things it had wanted to do for years. To fuck and fuck and fuck. I was a body. A selfish body. A greedy body in movement.” Of course, sexual intimacy alone—even a lot of it with multiple partners—does not mean that Sukrungruang burned his life to the ground. It is not “fuck” here that collapsed his life into ashes, but “selfish” and “greedy.” In fact, he dips a toe into these adjectives even before he has sex with other women: before his marriage dissolved, he took his wedding ring off, went to a bar, and chatted with another woman, all without telling his wife. And when he does start having sex, afterward he doesn’t always answer the phone when his partners call him. Even in his interpretation of these memories on the page, selfishness sticks around: “This was a form of mourning. This was a form of healing.” Importantly, “this” is vague enough that we don’t know whether it was the sex that was healing, the ignoring of others, or both. 

Now, it may very well be that Sukrungruang believes selfishness is the root of the human condition and, in my pessimistic days, I might cheer him on. But I doubt that was his aim. After all, the final chapter of the book focuses on raising his son, ending with “Son, you can have anything.” No, I think Sukrungruang is onto something a bit more nuanced than selfishness: he wants to talk about exposure. 

Throughout This Jade World, Sukrungruang gives us his worst selves: the one where he treats sexual partners with callousness; the one where he rages and picks a fight with a man on the street; the one where he aims to hurt his ex-wife, spite sticking to his tongue with “you're not going to get anyone better than me”; the one where he manipulates women into caring for him while sick. He is direct about these failures, admitting, for example, that he “should have told her no” when a date made him soup during an illness. We could forgive the lapse in judgement during the illness (he was sick after all!) but it’s what comes after that’s a bit more unforgivable: he never replies to her texts, and he can’t remember her name.

This selfishness would certainly be more easily excusable in a memoir about the distant past, about a high-school boy or a college hook-up. For the most part, we all agree that we make mistakes, that we are greedy and selfish. But back then. Before we knew better.

But here in This Jade World, Sukrungruang is much older—he left undergrad over two decades ago—and some of his worst stories are only a few years behind him. The radical nature of this book is its immediacy. How soon after our failings can we admit to them? How soon after can we write about them?

These questions of exposure stand in stark contrast to the silence that choked his marriage. As he says, “Silence slithered into our lives and settled there until it was too late.” After a particularly nasty day in their marriage, he recounts, “We didn’t say anything after that. We didn’t say anything about the situation any time afterward either. We buried it, as if it never happened.” And so, This Jade World, in its whole being, exists to turn the tide by exposing everything, to admit to the hard things, the things we don’t want to talk about, the things we put off for the day when we think we will be better, or it will be easier. Let them go, it says, even if they’re still being discovered.

Now it would be an easy pivot here to assume that Sukrungruang is also challenging stereotypes of Asian culture, rooted as those stereotypes are in voicelessness or, kindlier, humility. But Sukrungruang doesn’t let this stereotype land. He fills his memoir with Thai people who are direct and unflinching. In particular, his mother and his aunt—two women whose lives fill his chapters with color and humor—are more open than most Western psychologists. His mother, for one, is quite direct about the ongoing political challenges in Thailand: “What does the other side want?” she offers up. “For the other side not to win,” she replies. Then, in one particularly funny scene, his Aunty Sue asks about his sexual relationship with his ex-wife: “did she climax?” So no, it is not Asian people specifically that he pushes to expose themselves, but anyone in a place where silence reigns supreme. At times this place is, in fact, Asian culture, but sometimes it’s not. Sometimes it is American culture; sometimes it is masculinity or broken relationships; and, most often, the silence is in the self wanting what it won’t admit.

For, in the end, much of the narrative arc of the book follows Sukrungruang discovering the silence within himself. Specifically, it is about him not admitting that he wanted a child. In a particularly grueling scene, one in which his ex-wife gets an elective hysterectomy, Sukrungruang works so hard to believe that he, too, does not want a child. The images keep looming (“you imagine a child, one you’ve created, one without a face, a child, your child, yours”) but he pushes them down because he loves his wife and wants what is best for her. And haven’t we all had these moments, the ones where we wanted one thing so badly that we didn’t admit we wanted another, almost entirely incompatible thing? 

For the record, it’s not immediately clear if This Jade World is a memoir or a collection of essays. It is likely both, for it has the best qualities of both: a narrative that pulls us from naivete to discovery and a layering of self-contained essays that recolor the world like light filters over a lit bulb. This structure serves him well, mirroring the way he lived through the divorce—one step at a time and also in circles. Or at least, that’s how he lives it until the final sections of the book. While the first seven sections all finish with a chapter titled “July 10th”—the date of his wedding anniversary—the final two sections close with the chapters “Goodbye” and “The Next Life.” In the end, he names his departure—exposes it—and then moves on.


Emily Dillon is a writer and educator from Maryland whose creative work ranges from nonfiction to poetry and all the lyrical places in-between. Ever an avid reader, she also publishes book reviews and teaching guides. Find her:

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