|Courtesy Leland Cheuk|
Reading a book that hits hard but also keeps you rolling around in laughter is, to quote Seneca, a res severa est verum gaudium, a "serious joy." I'm delighted to host Leland Cheuk in the Contemporary Voices column. He's funny in his interview, just as he is in his book, and (writing a funny book is no easy peasy lemon squeezy, lemme tell you)...damn, he's just naturally funny!
Welcome Leland Cheuk.
Bio: Leland Cheuk is the author of three books of fiction, including the novels THE MISADVENTURES OF SULLIVER PONG and most recently, NO GOOD VERY BAD ASIAN, forthcoming from C&R Press in November 2019. His work has appeared in Salon, Catapult, Joyland Magazine, Literary Hub, among other outlets. He has been awarded fellowships at The MacDowell Colony, Hawthornden Castle, Djerassi, and elsewhere. He runs the indie press 7.13 Books and lives in Brooklyn.You can follow him on Twitter @lcheuk and at lelandcheuk.com.
|Courtesy Leland Cheuk|
Meet Sirius Lee, a fictive famous Chinese American comedian. He is a no good, very bad Asian. He is not good at math (or any other subject, really). He has no interest in finding a “good Chinese girlfriend.” And he refuses to put any effort into becoming the CEO/Lawyer/Doctor his parents so desperately want him to be. All he wants to do is make people laugh.
A cross between Paul Beatty's The Sellout and Jade Chang's The Wangs Vs. The World, NO GOOD VERY BAD ASIAN follows Sirius’s life from his poor, suffocating upbringing in the immigrant enclaves of Los Angeles to the loftiest heights of stardom as he struggles with substance abuse and the prejudice he faces despite his fame. Ultimately, when he becomes a father himself, he must come to terms with who he is, where he came from, and the legacy he'll leave behind.
EC: Your most recent novel, No Good Very Bad Asian, is wickedly funny. For example, the wordplay on your Main Character’s name, “Hor Luk Lee”, shortened to ‘hor’. Was your previous novel, The Misadventures of Sulliver Pong, funny too?
LC: First of all, thanks for taking the time with the book and for the kind words. It’s always gratifying when you spend years and years on a book to see early readers enjoy it. My first novel was also a comedy, probably darker in comparison. It’s about a dysfunctional family that has endured every major injustice in Asian-American history, but can’t endure each other. It’s got a little Coen Brothers in it, a little bit of Succession, the HBO show. It culminates in a mayoral election between the incumbent, the morally vacuous patriarch a lá Donald Trump, and the challenger, his son, the well-meaning, but feckless titular character. Someone wins, but no one wins. The book came out in 2015, so I like to think that it predicted the future a little bit.
EC: Despite its trenchant humour, I would also bill NGVBA as a ‘political’ novel, because it takes on that BIG ELEPHANT: racism in America. Did you set out to write a ‘political’ novel?
LC: I consider myself fairly opinionated politically, but I don’t think I set out to write a political novel. I usually set out to write a funny novel, and often it slips into the political, because politics are absurd. That said, in these very polarized times in America, it feels like every novel is in some way a political novel because the extremity of the policies (particularly against the less fortunate) are so difficult to ignore.
EC: What inspired you to feature a comedian?
LC: I’ve long been a fan of stand-up comedy, and I think I intuited that an art form where a person is constantly watched and judged was a good milieu for exploring identity issues. The importance of race in the book didn’t really occur to me until a few years into the writing.
EC: Amongst the many minority writers, who were your biggest influences?
LC: Oh jeez, there are so many. Chang-Rae Lee, Don Lee, Paul Beatty, Mat Johnson, and Charles Yu immediately come to mind. Some books that wowed me recently were Xuan Juliana Wang’s Home Remedies, Krys Lee’s Drifting House, and Wayetu Moore’s She Would Be King. I’m interested in any author of color playing with audience expectations of our narratives.
EC: I read in NGVBA’s Acknowledgements and your article in LitHub about ‘method acting’ that you did three years’ of stand-up as research for the book. Respect! What’s the process of doing stand-up like, and which is harder: writing books or doing stand-up?
LC: Parts of it are terrible, like finding places to get meaningful stage time or begging your friends to come to your shows and pay for the cover and two overpriced drinks. Parts of it are addictive and wonderful, like getting a huge laugh or walking off stage knowing you’ve killed. Just being around other funny people is awesome. In those three years, I never laughed more or so hard in my life. I really liked writing jokes. It’s a little like learning to write epigrams, which can be quite refreshing after being used to spending years pounding out 90,000 words.
There are definitely aspects to book-writing and doing stand-up that are similar. It takes seven to ten years to get decent at stand-up. It takes at least as long to get good at writing books. The lifestyle of a serious stand-up comic is much more challenging that the lifestyle of a serious writer. Being in bars and clubs on most nights make it very difficult to sustain a relationship with a life partner, for example. You can’t go on regular dates. You’re surrounded by night-time temptations like drugs and alcohol. Often it seems like you’re paying for stage time with every drink you purchase. For a set at a club, you might be paid $10, $20, or nothing. If you’re working a lot on the road, that means you don’t really have much of a home base. I often joke that I don’t do stand-up anymore because I want to stay married. And that’s not because my wife wasn’t supportive. It’s just a reality that the lifestyle isn’t really conducive to good physical and mental health.
EC: One aspect your book brings out so well, through Sirius’ fraught relationship with his parents, is the expectations Asian parents have of their children. It seems that in 2019, we’re still grappling with the idea that the only acceptable career paths for Asian kids are doctor, lawyer, CEO! Writing jokes for a living is definitely NOT Asian!
Would you unpack for us why these cultural expectations are so embedded, and what do you see is changing (or is it changing?) with the recent spate of Asian-focused movies, stories etc.?
LC: Well, it really depends on the parents and the generation from which they came. I have Asian friends whose parents are quite supportive of their creative goals. Mine were not. They are more supportive now. It took me publishing some books and nearly dying from cancer for them to finally let their expectations go. My parents came of age in China during the Cultural Revolution and they knew that they’d have to provide for their parents eventually—it’s pretty much an unquestioned truth. I was talking to a white author and when I relived how obstructive my parents were, he just shook his head and said, “I can’t even imagine. I literally can’t imagine not having my parents’ support.” When I quit a good paying job to write a novel in my late twenties, my mom called 2-3 times a week to scream at me about it until I finally got back to work. I do think more Asian parents are seeing that it’s counterproductive to be so harsh on your children. I’m more worried now about economic forces dissuading young people from even considering being a creative. I should give credit where credit is due: my mom was absolutely right! There’s very little remuneration for literary efforts for the vast majority of authors. As Sirius says in the book, who doesn’t hate it when their mother is right?
EC: Well, when I was growing up, it was always, "Listen to your father. Your father is right."
Chinese cultural markers such as fortune cookies, Chinese feng-shui masters, Buddhist altars are deployed in the book for their comic potential, and your book raises this aspect as a point of ambivalence or dilemma as well. Minority comedians especially draw on their individual cultures for material. Can you expand more on your thoughts about how cultural comedy is sometimes a two-edged sword – as Asian writers we work towards familiarizing dominant culture about Asian culture while at the same time making allowances for it not to be treated too seriously (you can laugh at it!)
LC: It’s tough to be reverent and funny at the same time. And the way I approached those cultural markers was to be honest about the way I see them. I was born in America, secular, and I’m not a fan of the taste of mooncakes. Sorry! I don’t really subscribe to feng shui, but my mom sends me some fortune-fortifying trinket to place in a new direction in my apartment seemingly every year. To me, it’s silly, but if it makes her feel better, fine, I’ll place some gold bull facing north so I don’t get hit by a car or whatever. I’m not a fan of italicizing too many cultural markers, like when I saw the legion of obvious cultural references footnoted in Crazy Rich Asians (the book), it drove me crazy. The reality is smart people can figure that stuff out in context without the writer banging the fetish gong, because there are analogues across cultures. Just think of all the absurd rituals and superstitions in Christianity and Judaism.
EC: “Fetish gong” – that’s hilarious. I love how raw and honest NGVBA was; it’s the Asian version of Chris Rock’s Bigger and Blacker that perhaps can be named ‘Chubbier and Yellower’. Some very tough truths are delivered in the book. For example, one of Sirius’ jokes: “Asians are the fifth Beatle of minorities, then they list the minorities in order of importance. Women, blacks, whites, Latinos, gays! Energy efficient cars! They mention Asians right after the service animals.”
It made me wonder how much and what sorts of resistance you might get when told outside of the framework of stand-up? Do you feel this is something we can discuss freely in American literary and cultural forums for example?
LC: Thank you for highlighting one of the jokes I actually used to do on stage! Another joke I used to do was to point out that there have been more Hollywood movies starring dogs than Asians. For the love of Airbud and Beethoven, come on now! I wish we were more free to talk about some of these absurdities, but unfortunately, people want to hear some truths more than others. As a writer, I’m attracted to these aspects of everyday life that no one wants to talks about, even in this social-media-saturated age when everyone thinks they’re revealing everything online. I’m probably more attracted to those gaps in our cultural discourse than the horrors in the news headlines. I feel like there are plenty of people writing about those tragedies.
|Leland Cheuk, doing stand-up. Youtube screenshot. Courtesy Leland Cheuk|
EC: Another aspect of the book that struck me was Sirius’ perpetual lack of self-worth, embodying, in fact, what W.E.B. Dubois had long ago written about double consciousness and measuring oneself with the tape given by others. Franz Fanon also delved into the psychological toil and toll of being dark-skinned, which applies, to be honest, to all shades other than white.
For me, not only is there a keen bone-deep sense of identification with Sirius, I also feel it’s not talked about enough at a societal level, in terms of its link to mental well-being. Do you think there is enough dialogue about this, and how might one begin to structure those cultural/political discussions in a more open, less fraught, manner?
LC: It’s definitely tough to talk about, a topic probably best reserved for one’s therapist. There are so many things that white people take for granted that people of color can’t in America. For example, those celebrity lookalike apps. Almost every white person can say they look like a some random celebrity. I would look like…no one. Take dating apps in the U.S.: we all know now that Asian men and black women are consistently rated less desirable than other demographics. What is it like to exist while looking like no one in popular culture and never feeling desired? Very few people can relate. Perhaps the disabled or the morbidly obese? Even that comparison gives you an idea of a certain existential bleakness as a person of color in America.
EC: You’re also the founder of indie press 7.13 Books and based in Brooklyn. Tell us more about how this endeavour got started.
LC: 7.13 stands for July 13th, the day my bone marrow transplant engrafted, the date two of my books were accepted for publication by independent presses. (Part of the reason I stopped doing stand-up was my cancer diagnosis.) I just felt like after having my life saved by a stranger and having my manuscripts be saved by indie publishers, I had to give back, so I started a press to publish debut literary fiction, hoping to save some manuscripts like mine were saved. People always say that if you keep writing, eventually you’ll find the right agent or publisher and you will publish that book. I’ve found that to be patently untrue. In 2021, I’m publishing an author who died of cancer and his manuscript came to me from his surviving partner. Another one just survived cancer for a second time and is in her sixties and has been writing all of her life. It shouldn’t be so difficult to publish a stupid book and find a small audience.
EC: I’m sorry to hear. But also very glad that you are better now healthwise and going on to do such big, bad things! How do you juggle these various hats, and what is your daily writing routine?
LC: I usually write first thing in the morning over coffee and then after grocery shopping, I work on the press in the afternoon or perhaps a little more on my writing. I’m most generative early in the day. I try to put myself first, before the press. That’s one of the first things I tell my authors.
I also teach classes on independent publishing and editing. I’m occasionally invited to writers conferences to speak to aspiring writers. It still boggles my mind that I would be invited to anything literary related. I don’t feel like that big of a deal.
EC: Tell us a little about the authors you are publishing under your imprint, and what your criterion of selection are.
LC: I’m excited about all our authors. The only real criteria is that the writer must be a first-time author. Even then there are exceptions. I’m excited about our fall title, Kansastan by Farooq Ahmed. He writes like Cormac McCarthy but in conversation with Islamic texts rather than biblical. Next year we’re publishing New York Times bestseller Beth Lisick’s first novel Edie on the Green Screen. She’s an indie storytelling icon, in my mind. As a young aspiring writer in San Francisco in the late ‘90s and early 2000s, the indie lit scene was the late, great Justin Chin, Michelle Tea, and Beth Lisick, who was some combination of David Sedaris and Liz Phair. It’s been such a dream come true to work with her.
EC: Thank you for highlighting for us some authors under the 7.13 umbrella. Finally, what do you do to relax, aside from (or in spite of 😂) doing stand-up?
LC: I need to relax more, I think. I play video games, spend time with my wife—we’re taking tennis lessons. I just downloaded a meditation app. Like a lot of folks who aren’t working 9-5 jobs in an office, I feel like I’m working all the time.
EC: You and me both, dude.
NB: No Good Very Bad Asian will be published by C&R Books in November and is available for preorder her at crpress.org. (crpress.org/shop/no-good-very-bad-asian/) and Amazon.