Bunkong Tuon is a writer, critic, and professor at Union College. He has published scholarly articles in Comparative Literature Studies, MELUS, Mosaic, Children’s Literature Quarterly, among others. His creative work has appeared or is forthcoming in Poetry Quarterly, Ray’s Road Review, The Massachusetts Review, New York Quarterly, Paterson Literary Review, Chiron Review, The Más Tequila Review, Nerve Cowboy, Misfit, among others. His first full-length collection, Gruel, was published by NYQ Books in 2015.
Geosi Gyasi: Tell me how you started out as a writer?
Bunkong Tuon: In the early 90s I found myself one morning in a public library in Long Beach, California, and I picked up a book by Charles Bukowski. I was moved by what I read; then I picked up another book by the author. Once I exhausted Bukowski, I turned to other authors. Writing, for me, began with reading and, then, a desire to make sense of my experiences and tell my own stories.
Geosi Gyasi: Sorry to bring back memories. Tell me about the time you lived in refugee camps in Thailand?
Bunkong Tuon: I was too young to understand anything. All I remember was the freedom of roaming around the refugee camps, while my uncles and aunts were busy worrying about our next meal, finding work, and getting sponsorship to the U.S. or any place that would take us. It was fun for me, but most likely hell for the adults. One evening, I remember, I was returning from playing outside when I found my grandmother weeping while tending to the bruises on my uncle’s body. He was caught by the guards for leaving camp to go fishing at night, so that he could supplement the meager food ration for our family.
Geosi Gyasi: Do you write about your personal experiences?
Bunkong Tuon: Yes, my writing is based on personal experiences. But, I would argue that even the most fantastic, absurd, surreal work is, in one way or another, autobiographical. For example, Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis” is quite personal, psychologically honest, and very autobiographical.
Geosi Gyasi: How would you differentiate teaching from writing?
Bunkong Tuon: Teaching is working through an idea with other people. Writing is working through an idea by myself.
Geosi Gyasi: Where do you write best?
Bunkong Tuon: I write best at home, usually early in the morning or late in evening (i.e. when my daughter sleeps), with a good cup of coffee and a silence so strong you can hear the grass breathing.
Geosi Gyasi: What was the main underlying purpose for why you wrote, “Bukowski Would Never Do This”?
Bunkong Tuon: The message is to write from the heart. No matter what happens, write about things that matter to you and that keep you awake at night. Forget the critics, other writers, and readers. Write what moves you and nothing else.
Geosi Gyasi: How did you come to write, ‘Gruel”?
Bunkong Tuon: I completed an autobiography called “Under the Tamarind Tree” one summer in graduate school. It got rejected by a university press, but I did get a section of it called “Cambodia: Memory and Desire” published in the Massachusetts Review. After that experience, I turned to writing a series of poems based on that autobiography. “Gruel” is simply an autobiography in free verse.
Geosi Gyasi: What was the response of “Gruel” when it first came out?
Bunkong Tuon: The reviews have been favorable so far, but nothing that will put me on the map of American poetic landscape. What’s important to me is that I finally got to say what I had wanted to say for such a long time. There was this big sigh of relief running through me after publishing that book.
Geosi Gyasi: How long did it take you to complete, “Gruel”?
Bunkong Tuon: “Gruel” is about my life, so it took me a lifetime to have the materials for that book. The writing took me about a decade.
Geosi Gyasi: What are some of the most challenging themes you’ve ever written?
Bunkong Tuon: Any work that explores parent-child relationship is difficult for me to write, teach, and read in public. For example, poems about my parents and grandmother, as well as poems about the suffering of the Khmer people, are very painful to me.
Geosi Gyasi: Tell me about the term abroad studies in which you bring your US students to study in Viet Nam?
Bunkong Tuon: In fall 2015, I led a group of students from Union College and Hobart and William Smith College to Viet Nam. We went everywhere—from the Mekong Delta in the south to the Hmong villages in the north. It was such a wonderful learning experience for all of us.
Geosi Gyasi: Could you comment on these lines from your poem, “Gruel”?
“All my life I told myself I never knew
suffering under the regime, only love.
This is still true.”
Bunkong Tuon: For me, it’s all about a specific love—the love of a grandmother who shielded her grandson from the atrocity of the Khmer Rouge and how that love continues to shine through to the present and future. I wouldn’t be here—alive and doing well with my life, being a father, husband, and professor—without that grandmotherly love.
Geosi Gyasi: What have you been up to in recent times? Are there any future projects in the pipeline?
Bunkong Tuon: I’m working on a collection of poems based on my experiences leading a term abroad in Viet Nam. It has three narrative strands: (1) visiting my father’s village for the first time; (2) taking care of my students and missing my daughter and transferring some of that paternal feelings to students; (3) exploring the relationship between the tourist and the local people.