“Writing Was the Thing That Saved my Life”: On Being a Thai American Writer in Ohio

Ira Sukrungruang is a creative writing professor at Kenyon College and a prolific writer, having authored four nonfiction novels, a short story collection, a poetry collection and other standalone poems, essays, and fiction pieces. Sukrungruang recounted to Midstory his childhood growing up in the South Side of Chicago as the son of first-generation immigrants, discussing how those experiences transformed him into the writer, teacher and father he is today. Cover graphic by Ruth Chang and Drishti Bansal for Midstory.

This story is part of “Asian in Ohio,” an interactive gallery exploring the landscape of Ohio and the Asian and Asian American individuals who call it home through narratives, data, mapping and film.

One evening, I decided I wanted to become something I could never be, not in a million and a half years.


Born in Chicago to Thai immigrants, author and teacher Ira Sukrungruang spent much of his early life wrangling the divided aspects of his identity — one irrevocably tied to his birthplace and home in Oak Lawn, Illinois, and the other struggling to resonate with the culture, language and traditions of his family’s heritage.

“I think this has always been a constant negotiation. Before, when I was growing up, I think the biggest thing that I was trying to deal with was the separation between what was Thai and what was American,” Sukrungruang said. “And for a long time, I think I tried to keep those two spheres really separate, to the point where I think I didn’t want to be Thai.”

During his weekends and his summers, Sukrungruang learned Thai and Buddhism at the Wat Dhammaram Thai Buddhist Temple of Chicago, where Thai families from all over Chicago gathered. Many of the tighter-knit Thai communities came from affluent suburbs; in Sukrungruang’s own neighborhood, however, there were no other Thai people. Until college, he was one of the few Asian students who attended his school.

At Southern Illinois University Carbondale, Sukrungruang discovered his art when one of his teachers encouraged him to start writing nonfiction as a way to confront his internal dissonance.

“I just remember writing about childhood, and writing about those Sundays at Temple, and writing about those meals Auntie Sue cooked up that was half American, half Thai — but also really challenging and confronting notions of why my parents, especially my mother, were very unhappy,” he said. “And I think when you grew up in an immigrant family that wasn’t really happy, you inherit that. So I started trying to figure out, ‘What’s the nature of this thing? What have I inherited?’”

Sukrungruang has since grappled with these questions through both prose and poetry, nonfiction and fiction, novels and essays. He writes for his family, whose solitude in a foreign place engendered a deathly fear and silence. And he writes for his childhood community: the Southsiders and working-class people with whom he lived and grew up, who are a part of his life that he would never abandon.

Ira Sukrungruang in his home office in Delaware, Ohio in 2023. By Samuel Chang for Midstory.

As Sukrungruang raises his own son in a world where notions of Asian and American identity and representation are so fluid — both expansive and restrictive — he is navigating the contrast between his own parenthood and that of his first-generation mother while contemplating how to support his son’s engagement in Thai culture. 

“I think that’s part of the thing that I’m always curious about, too, as a son of immigrants — always the adjustment of want: that you have this certain idea and plan of what you want to do, but that never really happens that way,” he said.

As Richard L. Thomas Professor of Creative Writing at Kenyon College, Sukrungruang challenges his students — and continues to challenge himself — with topics that echo his childhood and adolescent dilemmas: marginalization, outsiderhood and, as he puts it, “universal grieving and belonging that transcends race in many ways.”  

“That’s the thing I always tell my students after they get out of my class: ‘You have to find the thing that saves your life.’ And writing was the thing that saved my life.”

You can read a selected transcript from Ira Sukrungruang’s interview here and explore other stories from this series here. “Asian in Ohio” is supported in part by Ohio Humanities, a state affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Equity & Access Initiative Fund of the Greater Toledo Community Foundation.


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