“People call me a Whitener. It’s just a nickname. I don’t like it much. Inaccurate and reductive. My job is cultural—national, even—civic, perhaps. Definitely not racial.
My official title is Foreignness Engineer of the City Council of Commerce. I inspect newly opened businesses and provide their proprietors Customer Experience Recommendations (CERs) that ensure the correct balance between our citizens’ natural desire for foreignness and an experience native to what we all have come to expect from living in America.
Ever notice that, in The City, the most successful high-end restaurants have white servers and maître d’s even when the cuisine is ethnic? I started that. Ten years ago. There was a Vietnamese noodle shop run by Chinese immigrants, and I recommended that they hire whites to serve their customers and increase prices by eighty percent, and it quickly became one of the most popular restaurants in The City, even winning a Michelin star. Diners want to feel like they’re included in the familiar and dominant culture, and most importantly, they will pay for that feeling. Thanks to my little innovation, the CCC made it a standard CER to issue small fines to restaurateurs failing to hire Caucasians for at least 75% of their staff.
Back before it became an official city function, it was called gentrification.”
“Sated is the hottest new restaurant in The City, currying rave reviews from influential food publications and diners alike, not just for its food, which is personally prepared by internationally renowned chef and television host Juan Maures of the three Michelin-starred Maurade in San Sebastian, but also for its philanthropy. Sated donates one percent of each $2,500 reservation to Bread for Bairns, the UK-based humanitarian organization that dates back to the late-1800s when it was a Rhodesian division of the British South Africa Company. But Sated takes its dining experience even a step further. While eating, the diner can choose to watch his/her/their beneficiary dine live on a tablet.
“I was lucky enough to experience this myself (on The City Times company dime, of course), and for ten courses of Maures’s exquisite signature dishes such as duck confit a la orange, quail eggs that taste like salmon roe, and the sustainable and organic lemur en gelee, I watched Mebane, a seven-year-old boy from Dhaka eat a bowl of rice pudding, which he told me was his first meal of the week and was so plentiful that he almost immediately darted off-screen to use what appeared to be an outhouse.”
“Last year, Leland Cheuk, one of the editors of Newfound, wrote to me accepting one my short stories for publication. My story is dedicated to the New York Mills Art Cultural Center where I was an artist in residence in 2014. There, Leland was also an artist in residence in 2011. It was merely a beautiful coincidence. I was curious about my editor: I checked his website, read some of his interviews and I saw his picture. Leland lives in Brooklyn so do I. Another coincidence, I thought. Then, after I read Letters from Dinosaurs, his latest book I concluded with certainty, ‘this guy has a lot more in common with me than I thought.’ It was beyond my short story; it was beyond his experience at the NYM Cultural Center. Maybe, it is his keen observations and his characters in odd painful, situations that resembles my life. Sometimes, I feel that the opening story, ‘A Letter from a Dinosaur,’ is signed by my own brother to one of his children, or even worse I’m both the writer and the recipient. Leland, thank you for putting together this collection, and let me tell, you sometimes in the subway I looked around for you and I have probably seen you more than once in all of us.”
“Independent presses are a lifeline in the publishing world. At a time when large publishing houses are merging into even larger conglomerates, writers may feel like finding a home for their work requires a very specific, and at times corporate, mindset. But indies show that there’s another way. Via contests, open calls for submissions (for agented and unagented writers), and targeted requests, independent presses provide an alternate arena, making publishing more of a reality for marginalized artists and those with unique voices and writing styles. Plus, they’re getting more and more recognition. This year Graywolf Press had several titles as finalists or longlisted for the National Book Award. Paul Harding’s Pulitzer winning book Tinkers was published by a university aligned press (Bellevue Literary).
Rosalie Morales Kearns, Leland Cheuk, and Laura Stanfill are indie publishers seeking to add to the publishing landscape in unique ways that speak to their own experiences and beliefs. I spoke with them about the missions of their presses, the challenges they face, and what authors and publishers should take into account about the business.
Jennifer Baker: In a world full of presses, why did you decide to create yours and what stands out about it that you saw lacking in the marketplace?”
“I was introduced to Leland Cheuk’s writing when I heard him read from his essay, “A Grandfather’s Guide to the Resistance” at Sarah Lawrence College’s Wrexham Road Reading Series. The piece, which had appeared in SalonZine, offered some telling parallels between Cheuk’s grandfather’s experiences in Mao’s China and contemporary American politics. Here was writing that was straddling the personal and the political; raising questions and suggesting potential paths forward. The rest of Cheuk’s work lived up to this promise. His first novel The Misadventures of Sulliver Pong, (2015, CCLaP Publishing) is about a dysfunctional and morally dubious family that truly stretches the immigrant-novel box. The short stories in Letters from Dinosaurs (2016, Thought Catalog Books) offer insights into imperfect human beings in complicated relationships. In his fictional work and his essays, here’s a writer zeroed in on keeping it real.
Cheuk is also founding publisher and editor of a micropress, 7.13 Books, which focuses exclusively on debut literary fiction.
It seemed fitting that when I approached Leland Cheuk about interviewing him for Bloom, he said, “I’ll pretty much answer any question as honestly as possible.” His literary philosophy reflects this openness to all questions and a willingness to tackle the difficult answers.
Leland Cheuk’s responses in this email Q&A offer us valuable insights into the reality of being a writer, a published contemporary writer. In covering topics from the personal to the political, we get a glimpse into the thoughtful and fully engaged artist methodically pushing boundaries.
Shoba Viswanathan: I heard you first when you read at the Democracy and Education panel at Sarah Lawrence. Given that context, I’d like to start off with asking what you see as the role of the artist and writer in the times we live. There is so much to care about, rage against, that sometimes preoccupation with a turn of phrase or character motivation can seem trivial.”