“All you can do is be aware that what a zombie sees isn’t real.”
So observes Sirius Lee, the narrator of No Good Very Bad Asian, a full-throttle, hilarious, bittersweet, and often poignant romp through the world of stand-up comedy and Asian American family dysfunction. With this particular chunk of wisdom, author Leland Cheuk’s protagonist takes aim at “the mindless way we look upon each other,” observing that “some call it racism. Or sexism. Or classism. I call it zombie-ism.”
Calling it like it is—no matter how taboo—and getting a laugh in the process becomes Sirius Lee’s craft, profession, and passion. Named Hor Luk Lee (yes, he says: “My Chinese name is pronounced ‘whore’”) by his argumentative parents, owners of a round-the-clock liquor store, he fully embraces his stage name, Sirius Lee, dreamed up by Johnny Razzmatazz, a reality TV celebrity and flawed father figure. Written in the form of a book-length letter to his daughter, No Good Very Bad Asian recounts Sirius Lee’s rollercoaster life as a comedian and actor.
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“One of the most common premises in recent Asian American fiction is the young American seeking truth and connection from absent parents. From Ocean Vuong’s “On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous” to Lisa Ko’s “The Leavers,” these books speak to the metaphysical and literal family separation inherent to the immigrant experience for many.
The latest addition to this category is Meng Jin’s debut novel “Little Gods,” which begins in arresting fashion when Su Lan, an ambitious physicist, gives birth in a Beijing hospital on June 4, 1989, the date of the Tiananmen Square massacre. Moments after her girl is born, the hospital transforms from a place that ushers in new life to one overflowing with death.”
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“Earlier this year I started writing an essay that includes references to Maman, the towering spider sculptures by Louise Bourgeois that I’d seen in Tokyo and Ottawa and that were at the time being exhibited at SFMoMA. I discovered that my Writers Grotto colleague Bridget Quinn had a chapter on Bourgeois in her book Broad Strokes so I pulled it out of my TBR. In her introduction, Quinn describes falling in love with art history as an undergraduate at U.C. Santa Barbara while having a nagging feeling that something was missing: Where were the women artists? In the massive textbook by H.W. Janson that we all used in college, the first female artist (Artemisia Gentileschi) didn’t appear until page 500, and only 16 made the cut in 800+ pages.
Broad Strokes is an engaging and necessary step toward correcting this imbalance, with 15 essays on artists ranging from famous to obscure, and from the 17th century to today. While not a focus of her book, Quinn also addresses the erasure of nonwhite artists by including chapters on Ana Mendieta, Ruth Asawa and Kara Walker. Quinn seamlessly weaves together biography, art history, memoir, and incredible storytelling, such as in the chapter on Edmonia Lewis and the rediscovery of her long-lost sculpture The Death of Cleopatra. Her writing is intimate and unstuffy, and it makes learning about important and overlooked artists feel like having a conversation with a smart, badass friend.
I went to AWP for the first time this year and it was exciting, enriching and… so overwhelming. It’s essentially two months’ worth of readings and socializing (and book shopping!) packed into three days. One of highlights was the chance to reconnect with Grace Talusan and to pick up her utterly incredible memoir-in-essays The Body Papers.”
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“LELAND CHEUK’S SECOND NOVEL, No Good Very Bad Asian, was published by C&R Press in November 2019. The title comes from the protagonist Sirius Lee’s comedy special, as if the book itself is such, a narrative out of a tragic life told with unrelenting sarcasm. Lee’s success is bittersweet. He left his family and has made a career joking about his own ethnic identity. Leland Cheuk and I sat down to discuss comedy, identity, and whether today’s representations of diversity in the comedy and writing worlds are authentic.
IAN ROSS SINGLETON: What made you choose to write about a stand-up comedian?”
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“‘Show business is like fine dining,’ he said. ‘You start with a white plate. You put the protein on it, and the protein is the black people, but at a fine dining restaurant, you barely get any meat, and it’s on a very, very big white plate. Occasionally, you have a garnish or a drizzle of sauce, and that’s your Chinese, your Japanese, your Koreans, your Southeast Asians, your Indians, your Arabs or whatever. What’s important is that the plate is white and the meat is black.’” So one network executive tells Hor Lee, the protagonist and narrator of Leland Cheuk’s newest novel, No Good Very Bad Asian.
Cheuk’s latest literary comedic set tells the story of Hor and his rise to fame as a Chinese-American comedian under the stage name Sirius. Hampering the fruition of his talents are the racist attitudes of show-business and Hor’s drug-fueled narcissism that grows with his success. Hor’s alienation from his heritage and traditional parents and grandparents likewise stymies his ability to find happiness.
No Good Very Bad Asian is Cheuk’s third book and follows his well-received debut novel, The Misadventures of Sulliver Pong and his collection of short stories, Letter from Dinosaurs. Cheuk graduated from Lesley University’s MFA program in 2011 after transitioning from a career in marketing. He now teaches at The Writing Institute at Sarah Lawrence College and serves as an editor at 7.13 Books, the independent press he founded.
Hor Lee is acerbic, honest, and frustrated. His narration is as un-PC as any set from Dave Chappelle or Bill Burr, but his scathing jokes assumes a supportive role behind his heartfelt efforts to remake himself and reconnect with his family. No Good Very Bad Asian balances the touching with the irreverent, but beware, as Hor warns the reader: You’ll be getting him live and uncensored.
Andy Shi: According to your interview with Lithub, to write No Good Very Bad Asian you spent three years doing standup comedy. What are the differences between delivering comedy on stage and in written form?
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