Interviews

Leland Cheuk On Comedy And Writing

An interview with Leland Cheuk about his recent novel, "No Good Very Bad Asian."

Leland Cheuk’s latest novel, No Good Very Bad Asianbalances humor with political urgency. The novel follows the life of comedian Sirius Lee as he comes of age in New York City among some of the city’s most talented standup comedians. Cheuk’s novel is often laugh-out-loud funny, but it’s also incredibly poignant in how it presents its protagonist and his family dealing with issues of race, home, and class.

No Good Very Bad Asian is a comedy novel for our times.

Cheuk and I spoke via email about standup comedy, epistolary novels, and, of course, No Good Very Bad Asian.

Bradley Sides

With it being summer, I’m watching, with what seems like everybody else, all the hero-centric movies. Several of the recent novels I’ve read have been about heroic characters, too. As I was reading No Good Very Bad Asian, I started thinking that maybe Sirius Lee, the protagonist, is a hero. His journey does follow Joseph Campbell’s version of the monomyth fairly closely. Do you think of Sirius as a hero?  

Leland Cheuk

That’s an interesting take. I don’t think I set out to write Sirius’s life as a hero’s journey. I think of him as human — well intentioned for the most part, but flawed as we all are. We’re kind of in a time in contemporary lit where we’ve forgotten about character flaws a little bit. With tectonic shifts in society, the economy, and the planet, protagonists seem more well-behaved to me, as they try to navigate larger forces working against the modern individual.

I do see the elements that follow Campbell’s hero’s quest: the young person finds a mentor, leaves home, develops his skills, surpasses his mentor, etc. But Sirius also hurts people and people hurt him and he makes decisions out of both selfishness and good-heartedness as people do. Let’s just put it this way: I’m not sure Sirius behaves well enough to qualify as a Luke Skywalker.

Bradley Sides

With you having a background in standup comedy in NYC and Sirius being a standup comic himself in the same city, I imagine there are some similarities in experiences between the two of you, right?

Leland Cheuk

Well, I didn’t become famous as Sirius does! I did standup just to make sure I was getting the world and the people in it right, and I enjoyed it so much I kept doing it. I only stopped after I was diagnosed with cancer and needed a bone marrow transplant. I miss standup and still write jokes. The Village Z Comedy Club is based on the Al Martin clubs in New York City — Broadway, New York, and Greenwich Village Comedy Clubs. The standup subculture has been well covered in TV shows like “Louie” and “Crashing” and podcasts like “WTF with Marc Maron” and “The Nerdist.” I hope I brought a different take to the portrayal — specifically one from the point of view of a comedian of color.

It wasn’t until I started performing that I experienced firsthand the role that race played in an audience’s expectations of a comedian. I basically couldn’t do a set without referring to my Asian-ness. If I did, I wouldn’t get big laughs. The audience was always waiting for the Asian joke. You see that in famous comics whether you’re Chris Rock or Ali Wong. They can’t just talk about dating or marriage like a white comic. They have to talk about brown dating and marriage. Meanwhile, John Mulaney can just talk about dating and marriage.

Bradley Sides

Was it more difficult having this background since you knew what was true and what wasn’t? Or did it make telling Sirius’ story easier in ways? 

Leland Cheuk

The writing of it was definitely tricky. I essentially tried to create this alternate pop culture reality that existed alongside pop culture that was real. Village Z exists down the street from Comedy Cellar and “SNL” exists next to “Live On Air,” the sketch show Sirius is on. There was a draft in which Sirius was actually on “Saturday Night Live.” I realized that wasn’t going to work pretty late in the process.

Bradley Sides

No Good Very Bad Asian is epistolary in its form, with Sirius writing to his daughter, Maryann. When you set out to write this novel, did you know you’d be using a more non-traditional approach in telling the story?

Leland Cheuk

I wish I thought the epistolary form was non-traditional! There’s a long history of classic epistolary novels and many recent ones that have done quite well. Some of my favorites include Dear Committee Members by Julie Schumacher, Herzog by Saul Bellow, and my publisher said my book reminded him of Gilead by Marianne Robinson. It was bewildering and disappointing to me, as the book was submitted to the big houses, to find that all these well-read editors believed the epistolary form to be some sort of wild, anti-commercial experiment.

I didn’t really come to the epistolary form until later on in the revision process. I felt like the book needed to be more than just a life story; it needed an emotional hook. I worried that asking the reader to care about someone who makes as many mistakes as Sirius does was going to be asking a lot if I didn’t move the reader closer to the main character — which the epistolary form accomplishes because the reader essentially becomes Sirius’ daughter.

Bradley Sides

No Good Very Bad Asian quite affectingly explores Sirius’ exploration of finding home. Do you mind talking about what drew you to explore this theme within the novel?

Leland Cheuk

I think a lot of American-born offspring of immigrants grow up with this feeling that their home within the confines of their ethnic culture doesn’t feel like home, while the place that they want to feel home is the country they’re in, the world outside the home one’s parents provide. It’s an age-old story: the children of immigrants wanting to be accepted as American. Trump’s election made it clear that people of color in this country, whether they’re immigrants or descendants of immigrants, whether they’re citizens or not, simply aren’t Americans because of the color of their skin. I don’t feel at home in the nation where I was born anymore. I feel like an expatriate with voting rights. Sirius’ feelings on the topic mirror my own.

Bradley Sides

No Good Very Bad Asian doesn’t shy away from the current political turmoil in the US. It discusses racism and looks at issues of class. It’s very timely. This paragraph is one I keep returning to: “That’s America. Talking our trash behind each other’s backs and pretending not to hate on another. I hope and even sometimes pray (yes, that’s right!) that you won’t grow up in that Chopstuck America. I hope you’ll grow up in a country where we can actually look each other in the eye and say what we truly think…before we decide that we’re hopeless.” 

People are often nice and cordial in person, but some of them have Internet personalities that display such rage-filled toxicity and hate. Why do you think we’ve seen such a rise in cowardice?

Leland Cheuk

It’s just more convenient to be dishonest. And technology, particularly social media, has conflated convenience with betterment. The tech giants say they’re making the world a better place, but they’re really make the world a more convenient place. They call them convenience apps for a reason. It’s convenient to spew your worst thoughts online, feel that release, and then hide behind a username so you don’t have to face any consequences. It’s convenient to choose between two political parties — the left chopstick or the right chopstick. What’s more inconvenient than having an honest face-to-face disagreement with your neighbor? Nuance is inconvenient.

Bradley Sides

Your novel has a lot to say about artists and the importance of creating for the benefit of themselves. Artists often talk about how the art they create gives them meaning in a way that little else can. Sirius admits many times how comedy gives him purpose. In one of his most direct lines on the subject, he says, “Comedy saved me.” Stepping out of the novel for a second and turning to you as the creator, do you consider being a writer an integral part of your identity?

Leland Cheuk

I do identify as a writer, just like I identify as a cishet Chinese American male and a husband, brother, and son. For myself and a lot of creatives I know, our art kept us from being self-destructive or destructive to others. Like Sirius, I’ll probably be doing my art until the end.

Bradley Sides

Before I let you go, I have to ask about 7.13 Books, which has put out some truly wonderful books over the past few years. How has being the founder of an indie press impacted your own writing?

Leland Cheuk

Thanks for the kind words about 7.13 Books. I, of course, agree that my authors wrote wonderful, inspiring books. 7.13 really started in Chicago. Jason Pettus and Chicago Center of Literature and Photography published my first novel. He was one of the people I talked to and learned from before starting the press. I also talked to Jerry Brennan of Tortoise Books and Ben Tanzer, who used to work at Curbside Splendor. Chicago’s rich indie press scene was an inspiration.

Running a press has made me a better editor of my own writing for sure. It’s so tough to publish these days. There are so many fine writers. The difference between a published manuscript and finely crafted, highly creative manuscript that hangs around unpublished for years is the level of intentionality behind the editing, sweating the little things like commas and hyphens. There’s less editing in today’s faster-paced publishing world, both in the indie scene and among the Big Five. Agents and editors expect your manuscripts to be ready to sell from the get-go.

FICTION
No Good Very Bad Asian
By Leland Cheuk
C&R Press
Published March 15, 2019

Bradley Sides is a writer and English instructor. His work appears and is forthcoming at Chicago Review of Books, Electric Literature, Los Angeles Review of Books, The Millions, The Rumpus, and elsewhere. He lives in Florence, Alabama, with his wife, and he recently completed his debut collection of short stories. For more, visit bradley-sides.com

0 comments on “Leland Cheuk On Comedy And Writing

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: