Leland Cheuk on the comic
novel, stereotype and optimism
Leland Cheuk is the award-winning author of The Misadventures of Sulliver Pong (2015) and a short story collection, Letters from Dinosaurs (2016). He is the founder of the indie press 7.13 Books and teaches at the Sarah Lawrence College Writing Institute.
I spoke to Leland about his newest novel No Good Very Bad Asian (2019) and his experience of belonging to the so-called ‘model minority’ in COVID-19 America.
A cross between Paul Beatty’s The Sellout and Jade Chang’s The Wangs Vs. The World, No Good Very Bad Asian follows Sirius Lee, a Chinese American stand-up comedian. Sirius refuses to become the CEO/lawyer/doctor his parents so desperately want him to be — all he wants to do is make people laugh. From a poor, suffocating upbringing in the immigrant enclaves of Los Angeles, Sirius reaches the lofty heights of stardom, but 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.
Which comic writer would you say had the most influence on No Good Very Bad Asian?
I’d say Artie Lange, whose memoir Too Fat to Fish really moved me and inspired Sirius Lee. Lange’s not my favourite comedian, but his life story of growing up in a working class family, rising to success, and then falling prey to the excesses that a comedian’s life offers transcended the typical celebrity memoir. As a reader, you really feel that psychic and emotional void he can’t fill no matter how many laughs he gets, no matter how famous he becomes. That’s what I tried to get at with Sirius.
It’s been said that some countries, like Italy and Germany, don’t really recognise the genre of the comic novel. Would you say it’s harder to publish comic novels in America?
Is that right? I’m no expert on Italian or German novels but Gabrielle Tergit’s novel Käsebier Takes Berlin was quite hilarious to me. Any character named Cheese Beer is going to make me laugh. I also find wit in Ferrante’s and Starnone’s novels. I’d say it’s hard to publish any novel in America, and if one wanted to, they could point to almost any type of novel and find it hard to publish. That said, comedic novels are often seen as less literary than their dour counterparts.
Do you believe that novelistic humour based on national or ethnic stereotypes has a future in the context of political correctness?
Saying a joke isn’t politically correct is really just another way of saying a joke is hackneyed. It’s just a challenge sent from the audience to the comedian to come up with a new way to address differences between nations and ethnicities. Some comedians don’t want that challenge. They just want to be able to tell any joke, even old ones that bore the audience, to get any laugh. There are plenty of young comedians who are up to that challenge.
Do you ever find yourself engaging in self-censorship during the writing process? Does the current trend of cancel culture in America have any effect on what you write?
There’s a fine line between editing and self-censorship. Working with my agent through a couple of rounds of edits, there were definitely edgier jokes that I took out either to ensure the book would resonate with a broad audience or to make the tone of the book more consistent. The ideal of being able to write every last thing that comes into your head and having 100% of that initial spurt of creativity in early drafts make it into your final one never comes to pass. I tend to evaluate riskier jokes in terms of upside. Like I mentioned before, most politically incorrect jokes are just politically incorrect because they’ve been told too many times in the same way. But there are riskier jokes that are new and make the audience view the premise anew.
Do you find that the comic novel has its limitations? Do you ever feel constrained by the genre you have chosen?
I personally don’t think so. A novel can be many things. Just because a novel is labelled a comic novel doesn’t mean that it can’t touch you or make you think along the way. I feel the same way about people saying ‘satire is dead’ in our chaotic times. One can satirise anything. Certainly politics, but also the workplace, marriages, families, etc. There are endless possibilities. All satire needs for it to work is an agreement between the reader and the author about what ‘better’ human behaviour is, because what characters do in a satire is in contrast to that ideal or normal behaviour. As long as we have some agreement on what it means to love, live, work, and exist well, satire will never be dead, just as there will always be comedy.
I love the title of your book. I was reading No Good Very Bad Asian just before the coronavirus outbreak. Could you comment on the way Chinese Americans are perceived in America at the moment in the context of COVID-19 and the alt-right’s reaction to China?
I have to credit my agent with the title. Apparently there is a Mandarin or Taiwanese phrase that closely resembles ‘no good, very bad’. The original title was Born Sirius, which I still like for its echo of Steve Martin’s memoir Born Standing Up. It’s obviously a fraught time to be of Chinese descent in America. Just a few miles away from where I live in Brooklyn, a Chinese man was stabbed twelve times in Sunset Park by a guy wearing a surgical mask. All of it was caught on video. I personally haven’t experienced any racism related to COVID-19, but that’s probably because we’re at home all the time. I’m guessing these China haters haven’t noticed that many of the doctors and nurses on the frontlines of fighting the virus are Chinese Americans. All of which is to say: we all might need a good Asian one day.
One of the characters in your novel claims that ‘America is not very interested in people like you. Do you see a lot of Chinese on TV? We deliver food. This is not our country.’ Do you feel culturally marginalised in America because of ethnicity?
I personally feel like I’ve been able to have a pretty good life in America, but I often feel the minority’s acceptance in American society has always been conditional on the skills they bring to the labor force. Back in the 19th century, it was Chinese Americans building the cross-country railroads. Now, it’s Chinese Americans working in IT, becoming doctors and nurses, working in restaurants, and so on, basically doing jobs that white Americans don’t want to do or, in the case of higher skilled work, jobs they can’t seem to handle.
In America, a lot of stereotypes surrounding Asians revolve around the idea of the model minority or “the good Asian.” The good Asian is a high-achieving professional who doesn’t make waves, is largely apolitical, and a reliable worker, so much so that they’re last to be promoted into leadership positions because you need them to work. We just had Andrew Yang, a son of Taiwanese immigrants, run for the Democratic nomination for President, and he cracked jokes during debates about being good at math and knowing lots of doctors, pandering to some of those hackneyed stereotypes that Sirius comments upon in the novel.
Where do you think this perceived lack of interest in Asian-American perspectives comes from?
Asians make up just six percent of the American population. The country is 60-65 percent white, roughly sixteen percent black, and another seventeen percent Latino. So like the joke Sirius tells in the book, Asians are the fifth Beatle of minority groups in America. On detective shows, the cast typically reflects this order of importance. There’s usually an Asian analyst who has three lines in an hour and they all start with: “Come look at this, Chief,” and the Chief is usually white, with perhaps a black sidekick. Asians are the smallest group and the average American can only be interested in so many things.
The father figure in the novel wonders hilariously about his son, saying ‘I can’t figure out if you’re like a son to me or a second asshole.’ How does humour speak to this feeling of marginalisation within a larger indifferent culture?
That joke is meant to be flippant while cutting to the core of the relationship between Sirius, who’s Chinese American, and his mentor Johnny Razzmatazz, who’s white. Race, despite their lifelong friendship, is unfortunately a permanent barrier between them. Sirius wants so badly for Johnny to actually be a father to him, but that’s something that Johnny just cannot envision. Their relationship is a microcosm of the larger assertion in the book: that racial, cultural, and class disparities are permanent no matter how close two people might believe themselves to be.
Would you say you’re a pessimist or an optimist?
On a personal level, I’m an optimist. I’ve had a lot of good fortune in my life, and generally feel like I’m in a good place, and can achieve the things I want to achieve. On a political level, I’m not particularly optimistic about the future we’ve left for the younger generations. Many of the racial and cultural issues in this book have barely moved at all since I was a teenager and first becoming articulate about them. That’s twenty-five years of very little progress. If anything, it appears we’ve gone backward.
What are you working on at the moment?
I’m working on a few book projects. There’s a novel about a group of millennial friends in Silicon Valley, where I was raised. I’ve noticed that a lot of the books about America’s tech centre are written by outsiders, people who come from New York or elsewhere to ogle at the Apple, Google, and Facebook campuses. Being from there, I feel like there’s more to the story than that. I’m also working on a novel set within a giant corporation based on my decade-plus working at big public companies. A lot of the most challenging problems we face in our society start there.
Interview by Erik Martiny.
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