Leland Cheuk Writes the Asian American Antihero We Always Needed
The author on comedy, illness, and how his latest novel "No Good, Very Bad Asian" breaks from “model minority” characters
Whenever the topic of Asian Americans in the entertainment industry comes up, for a few moments, I mentally include Sirius Lee. And then I remember that he is only a fictional standup comedian, the protagonist of Leland Cheuk’s intimate novel No Good, Very Bad Asian. It’s such a vivid and engrossing portrait of a lovable, modern-day schmuck—a character who feels immediately iconic, like Holden Caulfield—that I was almost disappointed when I learned that Cheuk is not at all like Sirius Lee, although he did perform standup in bars while researching for this novel.
While Sirius Lee finds fame as a teenager and struggles with the fallout from that, Cheuk’s fiction didn’t get picked up by publishers until he was in his late 30s. His debut novel, The Misadventures of Sulliver Pong, was published by the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography in 2015; a story collection, Letters From Dinosaurs, followed soon after in 2016 from Thought Catalog Books. Before all that had happened, Cheuk survived a life-threatening diagnosis of MDS, receiving chemotherapy and a bone marrow transplant. Over coffee in Brooklyn recently, Cheuk revealed how his manuscript-in-progress for No Good, Very Bad Asian took a different turn after his recovery. But it’s still funny as hell.
Cathy Erway: I don’t think I’ve encountered in literature an Asian American character who’s overweight, struggles with substance abuse, and is constantly screwing up in life. Have you?
Leland Cheuk: I was very conscious when I started out that I was trying to write a book that was about everything that a model minority isn’t. I consider myself reasonably well read but I don’t think I’ve read one. But the question is, why haven’t we seen someone like that sooner? Asian American literature has a long history dating back to the early 1800s and there’s been many books about men and the trials and tribulations they’ve gone through, so I’m sure there have been many characters like that, but maybe they just haven’t percolated up in the consciousness enough.
CE: So you wanted to write about someone who’s not a model minority—why?
LC: I think there are plenty of writers that are doing mainstream literature related to immigration, which is very top of mind with all the things going on in the news, or writing about the home country. And I just didn’t want to do it. I don’t like doing things that people expect me to do. Because that’s, like, my parents. Especially with art, you know, it’s so hard to succeed to begin with. So I feel like I might as well enjoy what I’m doing and 100% believe in what I’m doing and just have fun.
CE: Is there also some desire for you as an Asian American writer to help broaden the range of experiences we’re seeing in literature, and have more diverse characters?
LC: Yeah, I think that’s sort of the crux of Asian American literature, trying to prove that you’re human to a white audience, sadly. That’s kind of the underlying subtext no matter how different the book is, and I just wanted to write a book where the person is a human. Like, he’s got all kinds of problems makes all kinds of mistakes, or he just is. It’s a book about being Asian and the existential pros and cons of being a person of color in America, specifically a Chinese American.
CE: It’s funny because I don’t think there are too many white American novelists who are like, gosh, I really need to represent a person who’s a drug addict.
LC: With white narratives, there’s so many of them. They really span the gamut, so you don’t really ask why isn’t there a book about a white drug addict because there are plenty of books. But for Asian Americans, that’s a genre of itself. Mainly around the immigration narrative or around the vacation novel in the home country.
CE: Like Crazy Rich Asians?
LC: Right. Unfortunately there isn’t a huge span of novels about Asian Americans just being here, being American, and you know I’m kind of tired of the question: When do we get to be American? I hope that the book contributes to that broadening of point of view—rather than just Asians, it’s just people.
CE: How did you come up with this character? Were you interested in comedy?
LC: I was always into standup. As a fan I wanted to write about comedy. And then I started doing standup just to validate that track. I took a class and started doing open mics, when I moved to New York City. I went to clubs did that for 2.5 years. I enjoyed it, it was for research but I enjoyed the people I was around, and I never laughed so hard. This is before I got sick, and then I basically trailed off after getting sick.
CE: Did you write the book in full before you got sick?
LC: In 2010 I had a first draft. Now it’s 2019.
CE: Did it change a lot in light of your illness and recovery?
LC: It did; it was a bigger book. The comedy part was a sort of book within a book, it was a literary mystery about a private detective… It never worked. I could never find the ending. And then I basically had to scrap the whole frame around it. And then my illness had something to do with the way this novel ends.
CE: I love how [the finished novel] is framed as a letter to the protagonist’s daughter.
LC: That came up late as well. Once I scrapped the frame, I felt like I needed to do something to bring the reader closer to the character because he’s basically spewing all his misdeeds. There are also a lot of great standup memoirs that you can read, and I was thinking, well, why would someone read my fake standup memoir as opposed to reading just a great standup memoir? Some of which are listed in the acknowledgements. I’m not a huge fan of Artie Lange’s comedy, but his book Too Fat to Fish is amazing.
CE: A lot of people might think the author must be a lot like the character when it’s written in first person. Are you?
LC: I’ve more or less been clean—I mean, I had a phase in college. Drugs are not foreign to me. I actually borrowed Sirius’s background more from my wife than myself. I grew up privileged, went to Berkeley, my dad still works in tech in Silicon Valley and is pretty well off. Of course, they escaped from China and swam to Hong Kong, they did that all-night swim, they were one of the freedom swimmers back in the early ’70s and they’re very lucky to survive. My dad was 97 pounds when he immigrated. So yeah, they made this American life and became far more successful than they could ever imagine, and I grew up and went to the same high school as Steve Jobs and Wozniak in Cupertino [not at the same time], drove a Mercedes to school. I was very privileged. Since then I’ve since demonstrated how the son of immigrants can be downwardly economically mobile. My wife’s from Monterey Park in San Gabriel Valley, so I know that area well, it’s very Chinese. Great food. Working class. I was very conscious to create a person not like myself, but some of the incidents were real, like I did steal that Yoda toy, and my grandfather did give me a talking-to.
CE: Some people might be shocked about how unaffectionate the parents of the main character in No Good, Very Bad Asian are, and how unsupportive they are of him.
LC: That’s somewhat autobiographical. When you come from immigrant working-class background they don’t really understand why you would do something as non-lucrative as the creative arts or comedy, and when I tried to write novels and kept quitting my job for years on end to do it. But they’re not wrong. Now I realize, “oh, my mom was right.” But it is tough. I think it’s a cultural thing and it’s just another hurdle if you’re an Asian American; your family might not be as supportive of you, and you have to prove it more.
CE: Are your parents still around? Do they like the book?
LC: They don’t really read English. So I don’t know if they’re going to like the book. Maybe if it gets translated one day. My mom was at my book event in San Francisco recently, and she looked at the book’s title and was like, aren’t Asians gonna sue you for calling them bad? And after the reading she was like, why do you always have to write about parents? It’s like life imitating art.
CE: Do you feel like you wrote this book for any certain audience?
LC: I hope it’s a broad audience, but I have been getting a lot of fan mail from Asian American males… I do think that their point of view isn’t necessarily top of mind in our culture and I don’t think there’s any terrible desire in big publishing to share it — this book got rejected roundly by dozens of publishers so it’s from a small press. I can probably name 45 Asian American women novelists off the top of my head but you can really only name ten men… so I hope we see more.