The Misadventures of Asian Americans, an interview at AAWW’s The Margins

Novelist YiShun Lai and I discuss our debut novels, dysfunctional families, and writing the Asian American antihero

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Novelist YiShun Lai and I met online when the Tahoma Literary Review, which she helps edit, accepted one of my short stories. My debut novel, The Misadventures of Sulliver Pong, was published in November 2015, and I soon discovered that YiShun’s own debut, entitled Not a Self-Help Book: The Misadventures of Marty Wu, was coming out in May 2016. I noticed the coincidental titular resemblance. Both our novels feature dysfunctional Asian American families and heroes who are gifted—at unintentionally setting fire to their lives and the lives of people who care for them.

Why misadventuring Asian Americans? Were we subconsciously pushing against the model minority myth? Were we just writing stories we wanted to read? Why did we both try to portray Asian Americans as self-destructive, morally challenged, even anti-heroic?

YiShun lives near Los Angeles, and I live in Brooklyn, so we conducted an e-mail conversation and discussed our fictional misadventures, difficult mothers, and our shared concerns about the state of Asian American literature.

Read the rest of our interview and excerpts from our novels over at Asian-American Writers Workshop’s literary journal The Margins.

An Excerpt from THE MISADVENTURES OF SULLIVER PONG is up at Fiction Advocate

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The Bordirtoun Pongs have long been known for being artists of denial. To be such an artist, one must be nearly developmentally disabled at heeding the advice and/or warnings of others. When Millmore’s co-workers repeatedly told him that bridge construction was in no way safer than building railroad tunnels, my great-great-granduncle simply nodded and went on his merry way. Probably because, by most accounts, he didn’t understand much English and was partially deaf thanks to his repeated exposure to dynamite blasts. When Parris Pong was told by his most loyal customers that he needed to stop bruising his prized prostitutes, he agreed and slapped them face-side instead. Before Francisco Pong was interned, members of his congregation had warned him that his own congregants were questioning his ethnicity. But he persisted, insisting that God saw no color, and all His children would be able to distinguish between Japanese-Americans and Chinese-Americans. Of course, Saul was warned numerous times by Nolan Bushnell himself to stay away from his wife, a warning left unheeded.

Since I’ve started writing these pages, I have found myself becoming attuned to the patterns of denial in my fellow inmates. There’s a wing of sex offenders at Bordirtoun Correctional who have pled not guilty, who spend group therapy sessions maintaining that they did not go over to that teen’s house with sexual intentions, never mind that they had condoms in their pockets.

What about my patterns of denial, you ask? Well, you will soon read that once I found myself in repose, in Bordirtoun, for an extended period, certain truths about my character began to assert themselves. Truths I had long ignored, and soon, I would find myself deeper, embedded. You will find that I am similarly skilled at this Pong-ian art of denial. After all, I was the one who came halfway around the world, assuming that my father was telling the truth, knowing full well that he was a world-class liar and cheat.

Read more at Fiction Advocate.

THE MISADVENTURES OF SULLIVER PONG coming out in October 2015

CCLaP 2015 Catalog
CCLaP 2015 Catalog

It’s a big fucking deal for me to announce that my first novel THE MISADVENTURES OF SULLIVER PONG is coming out this year in October with CCLaP Publishing. CCLaP is an indie press in Chicago that is just flat-out doing beautiful, super-cool books and I’m proud and a little bit shocked, frankly, to be a part of it this year.

As for SULLIVER PONG, the book has been on a long and wayward journey around the publishing world. I’m not even 100% sure anymore when I started or finished it. My best guess is I started it in 2004 and finished it in 2010. A bulk of the work happened in my MFA program at Lesley University, where I worked with novelists Laurie Foos and Michael Lowenthal. An excerpt of the manuscript got me into the MacDowell Colony and then shortly thereafter, the book found representation and I thought, here we go. This is going to happen. Like many good manuscripts, however, the novel didn’t sell, so I moved on to write the next book. And the next one. And now I’m working on yet another one. All the while, I would occasionally find the motivation to send it out to small presses with open calls for manuscripts, knowing that going that route was even more difficult than landing an agent.

I sent it out to a few places in 2012. Then a few more places in 2014, after I had been diagnosed with a rare bone marrow disease named MDS that would eventually require a stem cell transplant. Then while I was in the hospital, on the day the doctors came in and confirmed that my stem cell transplant had engrafted after a week of chemo and roughly a week of waiting while my blood counts slowly dwindled to what are typically life-threatening levels, I got the email saying that CCLaP wanted THE MISADVENTURES OF SULLIVER PONG.

I’m still trying to make sense of it all. The book’s journey. My journey. As for most people crazy enough to do art without knowing whether it will ever see an audience, the book’s journey and mine are one and the same.

Here is a link to the CCLaP 2015 catalog, where there are many very cool books coming out this year, including ones from Curbside Splendor’s Ben Tanzer and Douglas Light, who wrote the novel and screenplay for the indie film Trouble With Bliss. Also, here’s a teaser about my book.

October 12th: The Misadventures of Sulliver Pong, Leland Cheuk. At its heart a very sober look at all the injustices that Asian-Americans have had to endure over the years (from the railroad days of the Victorian Age to the forced camps of World War Two), but cleverly told through the darkly comedic filter of one particular family who lived through it all, each new generation’s patriarch either corrupt and benefiting from the atrocities or cartoonishly inept and punished for it. A laugh-out-loud yet highly literary story of dysfunctional families, perfect for existing fans of Jonathan Franzen.

“Pyramid Schemes” in the Winter Issue of Valparaiso Fiction Review

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My story “Pyramid Schemes” is in the Winter Issue of Valparaiso Fiction Review today. Big thanks to Jonathan Bull, Edward Byrne, and Doretta Kurzinski and the VFR team. Here is the beginning:

1. Dim Sum

The day my father revealed what he had done, we were scheduled for one of our dim sum lunches. For us, dim sum equaled a progress report on how I was doing in school: first year of pre-law at Columbia.

He asked to meet at his office so we could carpool to the restaurant. The sky over South San Francisco was mottled with chromy clouds that so transfixed me I shot through a red light and into an intersection, screeching to a belated halt. Luckily, it was a Saturday, and there were no moving cars within miles of the many office parks in that area. Easing off the brake, I felt pushed forth as if by a strong wind.

The tower was empty of white-collar workers, but the janitors, doormen, and uniformed building security always worked weekends. The superintendent and I exchanged glances as he ascended a ladder to change a recessed halogen. He had worked in the building since I was a child. We recognized each other, but had never exchanged a word. I didn’t know his name.

I told the thick-necked fellow at the front desk that I was here to see my father – the man whose last name was on the side of the building – Eldridge Leong.

“Sure, dude, all the way up,” he said.

I was wearing a t-shirt, khaki shorts, and flip-flops. I did not resemble someone who deserved to be called Sir.

I’d been all the way up to the fifty-fifth floor only a few times. Like a good executive, my father didn’t spend many days behind a desk—he was usually out selling. When he was in his office, he seemed simultaneously lost and captive, unable to find pens and papers, spinning and expecting to topple some pricey accessory. The room was decorated by someone with taste (i.e. not my father). The walls were deep mahogany. The floors were glossy parquet, and the hanging light fixtures resembled golden gyroscopes. When I walked into my father’s suite, the lights were flashing on and off.

“Not that one,” he muttered. He was searching for the right button.

My father’s suit jacket was buttoned up so that he looked corseted around the ribs. Some salesman had convinced him this look – appropriate for a much younger man – was a good idea.

“What are you trying to do?” I asked.

He pointed skyward. “The whiteboard.”

“Want me to try?”

“I’ve got it.”

I reclined on the low-backed couch, which made all its backrest sitters look lazy and its edge sitters appear hyper-attentive. I kicked off my flip-flops and ran my toes through the pearl-white shaggy rug. It felt good. I was feeling good, hoping to get through the dim sum as quickly as possible, to unload my prepared, expedient lies.

My father finally found the right switch, and the whiteboard lowered. He then shut the blinds and dialed up the lighting. We were closed-off to the outside. With a dry-erase marker, he drew a pyramid on the board. He wrote, “The Company” over the apex, “Real Estate Investment Trust (REIT)” beside one corner, and “The Investor” below the other.

To the right of the pyramid, my father wrote, “Us.”

I don’t recall how long he spoke. Felt like only a few minutes. I didn’t fully understand everything he told me. I’ve never been particularly business-smart. But after all the lines were drawn, dotted, and labeled with dollar signs, even I could see that my father was describing conflicts of interest, fraud on a massive scale, undiscovered.

Read the rest here.