Leo Chao Was Not A Good Man

In “The Family Chao,” Lan Samantha Chang gives Asian American characters permission to misbehave

Three white dim sum in a wooden bowl
Photo by charlesdeluvio on Unsplash

From the opening sentences of Lan Samantha Chang’s novel, The Family Chao, we learn that Leo Chao, the patriarch, was not a good man. He was aggressive and domineering, and an unfettered capitalist. He carried many desires, and he satiated each of them, all while owning and operating a restaurant that capitalized on feeding the hunger, often excessive, of its patrons in a small Wisconsin town.

When Leo Chao’s body is discovered in a meat freezer, his sons are forced to cope with their father’s well-kept secrets, while trying to solve the mystery of his death. From there, the Chao men continue to defy expectations—both those that they encounter as Asian American men in a very white, American context, and those that readers might bring to the novel.

The Family Chao, long-awaited and highly-praised, is a novel that was written to be subversive. It hinges on hunger, appetite, and desire—all of which are qualities that are rarely attributed to Asian men, and rarely written about in immigrant literature. During her book tour, Lan Samantha Chang and I spoke over the phone, where we talked about the pressure faced by writers of color to write likable characters, the limited characterizations of Asian American men in contemporary literary fiction, and her work as Director of the Iowa Writers Workshop.

Denne Michele Norris: I’m obsessed with learning the origin stories of books that I love. How did The Family Chao come to exist? What were the initial ideas or questions that pulled you into this project?

Lan Samantha Chang: My discovery of the pleasures of writing in present tense got me going. Back in 2005, and as an instructor, I’d always told my students not to write in the present tense. “It doesn’t exist! It’s not an actual representation of any kind of time.” But then I started writing in it, and I realized that it’s very attuned to oral language. You know, if you’re going to tell a story about something that happened to you at the store, one often slips into this present tense. “So I’m going to the store and I see a guy.” Anyway, I wrote 100 pages about a dysfunctional family with this powerful patriarchal figure who was reminiscent of my own father, and I realized I didn’t know where the story was going. And then I got this job at Iowa. I moved, I had a child, life intervened. I wrote a different novel.

And then a few years later, I was in my office chatting with a student, a very smart guy, and he was showing me his thesis, telling me that he always writes with another novel in mind. His thesis was an homage to The Good Soldier by Ford Maddox Ford. And I was sitting there thinking that my present tense discovery would pair well—if I wrote a novel that was steeped in another literary work—with The Brothers Karamazov. The reason I thought this might be a successful pairing is that The Brothers Karamazov uses time in such an interesting way. Time unfolds very slowly, and with great detail, and you spend probably five or six hundred pages in maybe 3-4 days. And I thought, “I’d be interested in trying to create that feeling of surprise that happens as you read this particular novel, in my own novel.” Everything I write appears—at this point—to be an exploration of the human experience of time, which I’m now learning is non-linear, and non-human: for some reason we are stuck moving forward in it while time itself does not exist in that same linear way. In this book I was interested in trying to describe a surprise that sort of blooms out, in many directions, from the present moment.

Everything I write appears—at this point—to be an exploration of the human experience of time.

DMN: Time is probably my favorite craft conundrum. And you’re right about it, too: as humans, we move forward in time in a linear way, but time itself doesn’t operate in that same way. It’s non-linear, and storytelling can explode linear time, correcting that error. This sounds like a very fertile way to set up a novel that features many people, a big novel about a big family. I was aware of all of the comparisons to The Brothers Karamazov, but one of my original questions I wanted to ask was how intentional were those similarities?

LSC: I didn’t realize that my project could be in any way related to it for seven or eight years. I did write another book during that time, but mostly I was living my life—which was quite time consuming. Once I understood that I could connect my project as an homage to The Brothers Karamazov, I became very conscious of the choices I was making, the similarities and the incongruities. Attempting to write an homage to something great has major moments of fear, self-consciousness, doubt, and shame. I think The Brothers Karamazov is one of the greatest books ever written and so trying to write in their minds was an act of hubris. And yet I was so attached to the book that it had taken up permanent residence in my mind, and I felt in a way, that I was having a conversation with it. I wanted to know what would happen if the characters were characters I would’ve grown up with, or known—Chinese American second-generation kids.

DMN: That’s the perfect segue, actually, because we need to talk about Leo Chao. He’s such a complex character, and there are many ways in which he bucks the societal expectations we’ve placed around Asian American men. What were you trying to do, with him, as a character, by placing him at the center of this story, and what was it like writing a character who reminded you of your father in these ways?

LSC: Well, Leo Chao just walked into my mind in 2005. The scene in which he appeared to me is included in the novel. He comes up the stairs with footsteps that are the footsteps of a much larger man. He is, as one of the characters describes him, the consummate American Id—a narcissist who wants to screw everyone. And it’s interesting that I say he reminds me of my father because my father is nothing like this. My father was an erudite and complex, but imaginative and loving man who just happened to have a larger than life personality, a deep baritone, a serious tempter, and extraordinary verbal ability. He could make jokes in two languages and didn’t come to the United States until he was 30. He was a really witty, multi-talented person who just happened to have four daughters and feel the need to, to an extent, control our lives because he was concerned that something dangerous would happen to us here, in the United States, living in this tiny town in Wisconsin, where we were the only Chinese girls. He had a very complex, adventurous life before he came to this country, much of which was mysterious to us. He did not talk about it, so of course he looms large in my mind, and when I started writing this book, this character just appeared to me, and reminded me of my dad.

One of the problems of trying to write about my Dad is that he does not appear in immigrant literature.

But the fact is, one of the problems of trying to write about my Dad is that he does not appear in immigrant literature. You do not read the immigrant story about a man who was like my father or about a family that was as loud and verbal as my family. Phillip Roth was a big influence on this novel because Phillip Roth books are filled with loud immigrants, loud unhappy families—people living lives of noisy desperation. Leo Chao is grasping. He is inconsiderate. He is a philanderer. In some ways, it wasn’t difficult to write him because the most concentrated spurts of writing this novel happened during the Trump presidency. I felt a little worried people might think Leo was my father, but so far nobody has thought that because he’s such a huge character that it’s hard to believe people like him exist. I mostly just had a really good time with his character, to be honest.

DMN: Sometimes those blustery big characters are the most fun to write because they take up so much space and give us so much to work with, as writers. I think it’s interesting, though, that you were just saying that no one has misconstrued Leo Chao as your father because it’s hard to imagine a character like him existing, while simultaneously, you’re also saying that he was easy to write because you had a great example in the White House when you were writing the novel. A really interesting facet of this novel is that we don’t associate that kind of character, and that kind of behavior, with men who are not white, and men who are immigrants.

LSC: Exactly. Exactly! I was consciously aware when I was writing the book that I wanted to write about Asian American male characters that I have not seen in contemporary literature. I wanted the men in the book to have robust romantic lives, I wanted the father to be confident in his masculinity and power, and I wanted the characters to have inner lives and the freedom to do things that are outside the normal script.

DMN: Are people reading The Family Chao in this way? Are they understanding that intention?

LSC: No. I don’t think most readers are reading it in this way. Some of my Asian American male students have noticed it in there, and have been hugely supportive of the book. Some readers are concerned that the book has profanity in it, and they don’t understand why I’m writing characters that are unrelatable—which really means unlikable. They complain, “Leo is so unlikable.” Well, I’m sort of handicapped in that way because I love all the characters, even Leo. Anyway, I loved writing all of them and I also don’t believe a book has to have likable characters to be enjoyable and readable.

DMN: I’m reminded of the days when I was just starting out, that first year or so when my only training was the books that I was reading. And I was reading a lot of Jhumpa Lahiri, and Olive Kitteridge had just won the Pulitzer Prize. It felt like my entire reading world was filled with unlikeable characters, and that, to me, was the joy of writing, and of reading—that I could be so wildly in love with such flawed characters. The idea that you—Sam Chang!—are being told you need to write likable characters makes me think back to all times I read reviews and interviews of Olive Kitteridge when people would say how unlikable she was as a character, and then how delicious it was that she was so unlikable. And it makes me wonder about the pressure for writers of color to make our characters as likable as possible.

I have been told that as an Asian writer, I should write about sympathetic Asian characters, and that if I don’t do this, then I’m doing a disservice to Asian American people.

LSC: I have been told that as an Asian writer, I should write about sympathetic Asian characters, and that if I don’t do this, then I’m doing a disservice to Asian American people. And I do understand this. When I was a kid, whenever we went to a strange city, my Dad would always overtip the cab driver because he didn’t want these people to think that Asians are cheap. He felt like he was representing all Asians in his every action, especially when we stepped out of our own town, because everyone knew us there. So I sympathize with that feeling, but I believe it’s basically just buying into the model minority myth. The dominant culture has pitted Asians against other groups by claiming that we are better behaved. People feel the need to live up to that, even though it was imposed by another, outside gaze. I just want to make it clear that Asian American characters have the permission to behave as badly as they want.

DMN: I think that’s so important, especially in this time of really visible anti-Asian sentiment.

LSC: Yes, exactly. These people who are being stalked and killed and beaten and stabbed are not misbehaving. They are going about their lives walking down the street. So if people think that getting characters in literature to be likable and perfect and well-behaved and quiet is going to help anything, I think they’re wrong.

DMN: I feel like we’ve been having this exact same conversation in the Black community forever, around respectability politics. You can be as professional and appropriate and respectable as you want to be, but it’s not going to protect you from racism.

LSC: The Central Park birding situation is a perfect example.

DMN: Exactly! So then, it’s like why? Why should our art be manipulated to function in service of these stereotypes, this aspirational perfection that would fail to protect us?

LSC: I couldn’t agree with you more. Honestly, nobody has asked me these questions so I’m really grateful to you for giving me the opportunity to talk about it.

DMN: That’s a little bit shocking to me because it was basically all I could think about as I was reading The Family Chao. I didn’t do a ton of research because I didn’t want to be overly influenced by other discourse about the book, but I did read a few interviews and I thought, “They’re talking about desire and hunger, and those themes are important, but how is no one asking about Asian American masculinity and how this book completely destroys that trope?”

It’s meant to be subversive. I try to signal to readers that its not going to be a quiet immigrant book.

LSC: You’re exploding the way people read the book. I think it has something to do with my previous books or perhaps people just expected a quiet immigrant trauma novel. And so some people are upset that it isn’t that. Well, too bad! It’s meant to be subversive. I try to signal to readers that its not going to be a quiet immigrant book. There’s a scene very close to the beginning of the book when James masturbates in a bathroom. I give my editor credit because she didn’t think I should take it out, but some of my very early readers did think I should take it out. And I decided to leave it in because I wanted him to have strong sexual desires.

DMN: Desire is really present in this book. Appetite, both literal and metaphorical is really present in this book. Leo and James both have so many desires that they talk about openly, Dagou has a lot of hunger, and ambition, and in this book, it feels like, desire, appetite, yearning—that this need for more is the blood through which this story runs.

LSC: The strong desires and ambitions these characters have are what propelled them to this country and through this country. So every one of the characters has outsized desire in one way or another. Dagou wants to be the partner of Brenda and this great chef, and at times in the book he literally can’t stop eating. Leo wants to be a success in a different way. He also wants to spread his seed. He says, “that’s why we come to America: to colonize it, to spread our seed.” Ming wants more conventional success, American success. And James has a desire to be an ordinary person. By the end of the novel it’s clear to me that his life will be anything but ordinary. I think he’s going to leave the town, go out into the world, and be a Chao of the world. The problem of course is that these desires backfire in various ways, particularly for Ming and Dagou, but even James, to an extent. You could say the whole novel is about the consequences of the father, and the father’s strong desires. One of the things about being in a country that allows a fair amount of personal choice is that one can act upon their desires in a very open way. And it was pleasurable for me to give the characters a setting in which they could do that.

DMN: I want to ask you about your job at Iowa. You’ve really changed the program in huge ways. There’s so much diversity there, so many people of color and queer people, and I think the identity of American letters has really evolved in the last 10-15 years. And when you talk to so many of these important writers, if they’re graduates of Iowa, they always mention one name: Sam Chang. First, I want to thank you, because so many of my mentors got their start with you—and I didn’t go to Iowa, which tells me that the impact you’ve made is felt far and wide. But second, I’m wondering about your vision for the program when you started running it: did you know immediately that it needed to change, and were you hoping it would, over time, affect change within the larger American literary landscape?

LSC: As a student of the 90s, I remember attending a program that was almost all white and heavily male, but most significantly, I remember that the content of our work was encouraged along certain lines. For example, I remember that Frank Conroy didn’t think I should write about Asian American characters. And his motive was compassionate. He worried I would be pigeonholed as an Asian writer, and that that wouldn’t be good for my career. He was simply describing the realities of the day. Only certain kinds of writing were valued at the time, and he knew I would be in for a hard life if I chose the path I eventually chose, so I understand why he said that. As the director of the workshop, I thought it would be really wonderful to expand the aesthetic range of the work that was encouraged at the program. I wanted people to feel like they could apply to the program, and over time it’s led to a larger community of students of color. And the truth is that I was thinking of the larger literary landscape. I understood the significant role that the Iowa Writers Workshop holds in American letters, and I knew that if I could change the program, the entire landscape would become more open.

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