Leland Cheuk and YiShun Lai discuss their debut novels, dysfunctional families, and writing the Asian American antihero
July 20, 2016
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.
Tomorrow, July 21, come hear Leland Cheuk, YiShun Lai, and Hasanthika Sirisena in conversation with Jennifer Baker at Word Up Community Bookshop.
Leland Cheuk: So, why misadventures?
YiShun Lai: This is the word Marty would use to describe her own life, and I actually look at this as the title Marty would put on her own diary if we were indeed looking at a diary and not a novel.
We all just kind of bumble along in life until we find the things we’re meant for, and anything up until then could be labeled a misadventure. I think Marty sees her own life as one big mistake after another that she keeps on throwing herself into. She’s being a little dramatic, for sure.
Leland: My friend, the prolific fabulist author Kris Saknussemm, gave me my title. A quick dictionary search shows that the word “misadventure” means: an incident of bad fortune; a mishap. Given all the things that happen to Sulliver and the rest of the Pongs, it’s quite appropriate on all fronts. I also enjoyed the echoes the title had with one of my favorite books, The Adventures of Augie March, by Saul Bellow.
I just hadn’t read many morally compromised Asian American antiheroes in fiction. I did consider Justin Lin’s film Better Luck Tomorrow. I was really into Coen Brothers movies, Mad Men, Breaking Bad, novels by Martin Amis like Money and The Rachel Papers. It was a golden age for difficult white men. So I thought: why not have a character like that who’s Asian?
YiShun: We meet Sulliver Pong in a semi-okay state. He’s married to a beautiful wife; he’s managed to escape the mess that is his heritage in Bordirtoun—and yet, everything is not peachy. His working life is a mess; his marriage isn’t great, and his groin is…well, problematic. Why did you choose to introduce Sulliver in a dissatisfactory stage of his life?
Leland: The boring answer is that it was a necessity of plot and character development. Sully needed some sort of underlying dissatisfaction beneath the façade of his ideal life that would manifest itself later in the book to make it plausible that he would tear down his life in Copenhagen to return to the hometown he claims to hate so much.
But you are astute to bring up the point about pursuing aspirations and the sense of disappointment that one can feel when you achieve those aspirations. It’s probably a more common phenomenon among Asian Americans because many of us have been brought up with a lot of pressure to strive for someone else’s ideal of success without being allowed to ask ourselves what we truly want.
That’s Marty Wu’s dilemma. I like it how, in the beginning, she can barely contemplate what she actually wants without worrying about what her mom thinks. Did you ever feel any pressure (either external or internal) to make her less prone to self-sabotage?
YiShun: People who have their shit together are boring, don’t you think? Most of the people I love to hang around have some aspect in their past that’s broken. I wanted Marty to have a life beyond the brokenness, but I also wanted to see how she got there.
When I first started working on this book, I had beginner-novelist syndrome. Stuff would just—oops!—happen to Marty. But I got a lot of good advice that being a protagonist of a book actually means that person needs to do something, in, like, an active fashion. That goes for actively screwing up your own life, on a regular basis. That’s where I settled, and, maybe not so surprisingly, these are the actions that eventually felt right for her.
Leland: I feel like we need to talk about moms. Both Sully’s and Marty’s mom are incredibly harsh to their kids by Chinese, Taiwanese, American, even galactic standards. I feel like Marty’s mom and Sully’s mom would be friends, except they’d be so self-absorbed and misanthropic that they’d probably hate each other. Did you draw Marty from your mother?
YiShun: I drew some of what Marty experiences first-hand, and the rest of it from what I know of other immigrant experiences. But I also know what it feels like to be belittled and shamed, not necessarily at the hands of or by the mouth of my own parents. I know how it makes Marty feel, how it makes her view her tormentor, so I drew mostly from that.
Author Lee Child once said that, although he didn’t know what it felt like to have someone close to him be kidnapped, he did know what it felt like to lose a child in the grocery store. That acute despair is so universal and so specific, even if it’s fleeting. Our great challenge as writers is to recreate that feeling for the character on the page, while maintaining a solid connection to the reader.
Leland: Marty’s mom did a number of things that were just beyond the pale, like hitting Marty (multiple times, separate incidents!). The family secrets revealed late in the book don’t exactly make her look more human. I thought that was a lovely, uncompromising choice. Why did you resist giving her a backstory that would make the reader more empathetic to her?
YiShun: I don’t believe we can ever truly know anyone, even the folks who are purportedly closest to us, and Marty is just learning that. The way she sees her mother, and the way she eventually comes to her own understanding of what’s going on, reflects that theory.
Perhaps more importantly, Marty needs to be able to move on from whatever crap Mama has going on internally. Life is messy. Giving Mama a convenient, understandable, textbook problem—and worse, giving Marty an aha moment about it—would, I think, undermine what’s true about human beings and the way we interact with one another.
Without giving up too much about the ending of your book, I’d like to compliment you on Pong’s eventual denouement.
Leland: Thanks for saying that! I struggled like hell with that ending. I was always pleased with the climax and the way all the characters came together to inadvertently blow up their lives. But after that, I was like, uh, what now? My original inclination was to go for the darkest ending possible, but I decided to leave room for some hope that Sully will do better next time.
YiShun: What do you think comprises a “happy” ending?
Leland: I do love endings that go big, as opposed to the quiet epiphany or imagistic ending. I love Wong Kar-Wai, but I’m not going Wong Kar-Wai in any of my work. You shouldn’t be able to return to the beginning and write the same novel with the same character again. Everything needs to have changed irrevocably, and all the plot bombs you’ve been planting along the way should be fully detonated.
YiShun: Sulliver is a very funny guy, although many times, he really doesn’t mean to be. You walk a fine line between satire and slapstick (Sulliver’s repeatedly ending up in the hospital; the “pranks” Saul plays on him; the laugh-out-loud mishaps that befall his ancestors). Can you tell us how you view humor as a writer, and how it works it way into this narrative?
Leland: My mom read some of the reviews for Pong and said, “People say you’re funny. How come you never make me laugh?” Even when she’s sort of proud of me, she has to get the dagger in there. The book is a bit of a comedy buffet. There are times when Sulliver makes jokes. There are times when I’m putting Sulliver in comic situations. There are purely absurdist constructions like the Mao-like cult of personality that Sulliver’s father has erected in his hometown. Some reviews have called the novel a satire, but I don’t think it’s a pure satire. In pure satire, you can’t really take the interpersonal relationships completely seriously. Scenes like the one where Sulliver’s mom gets beaten up by Sulliver’s dad would feel misplaced in a pure satire because the situation is taken totally seriously.
YiShun: You have to handle that kind of thing so carefully, don’t you? There’s a very fine line to be walked, because domestic violence does exist, and is, in some circles, condoned, whether the violence is corporal punishment, emotional abuse, or spousal abuse.
Leland: The trickiest part about humor is when to deploy it, because your authorial choices alter the tone of the book. It’s like pitching in baseball. For me, humor has always been my best pitch, and when I started writing, every paragraph had to be funny. But if you always throw your best pitch, its effectiveness diminishes.
YiShun: There are so many “ethnic” narratives out there that center around multiple generations. But yours is unique. You draw upon many different influences and methods to tell the stories of the Pongs, eventually leading up to present day. How did you decide to approach these backstories and how it would inform Sulliver’s life?
Leland: The book wasn’t multigenerational at first. My agent at the time suggested the addition of the historical chapters from the perspectives of the other Pongs. I’m glad I did it because it gave the novel greater scope, and each of those characters contained one of Sully’s character flaws so the pages came out very naturally. The historical chapters are about 60 pages, and I wrote them in two months. The other 260 pages took five years.
I’m also glad the novel is still very much Sulliver’s story set in contemporary times, and the chapters in the past are just pickles on the burger, so to speak.
YiShun: Sulliver chooses a job that’s not “normal” for Asians, and his wife, while also not what the stereotypical Chinese family would want for their son, is very much a stereotypical pipe dream—tall, blonde, can-do. You address stereotypes in such interesting ways in this book, from the bad spelling to the ostentatiousness of wealth. In what ways do you think addressing these stereotypes head-on can inform the way we read and learn about other cultures?
Leland: When I’m writing a novel, I really want to create something I’ve never read before. Just the fact that I have to deal with stereotypical notions at all is annoying. If I could write freely without knowing that someone somewhere might read something as a stereotype, I would, but the reality is: you can’t. As an author, you have to consider every possible angle from which your prose can be read.
I’m American-born, and I view the world through an American prism. Reverence has never been my strength. I try to be an equal opportunity offender. So all of the absurd references to stereotypes are kind of a “fuck you” to having to deal with stereotypes at all. It’s actually because the stereotypes exist that they’re plausible in Pong because they’re deployed in a completely absurd context.
I liked how Marty Wu was so fluid between the American and Taiwanese cultures. The book starts in New York and moves to a small town in Taiwan, and ALL the characters have traits that we typically associate with New Yorkers or American urbanites: they’re creative, they eat cool food, they make snarky comments, and they’re really good-looking. Was it a conscious choice of yours to emphasize cultural similarities between Taiwan and America instead of the differences?
YiShun: I’d like to think that, although this book is multicultural or ethnic or whatever, it tells a story we can all identify with. There are similar urbanites in all countries, right? Actually, I guess these aren’t people you’d ordinarily find in small-town Taiwan, at least, not on the surface. So maybe I was trying to encourage people to look beyond the surface.
We’ve both written books that attempt to broaden Asian American literature. Where do you think writers can go from here in order to further broaden the appeal of marginalized voices?
Leland: There’s always been a spectrum in literature of all types: the particular versus the universal. And right now, I think being hyper-particular or having a strong subtext around identity is en vogue. But honestly, I’m much more into universality. Pong is at its heart a family novel and a morality tale. It asks the questions: “what kind of person am I? Am I good or bad or somewhere in between?” It doesn’t really ask: “am I Chinese or am I American?” Being an American, and a marginalized one at that, is presumed.
Until we see books by Asian American authors being taught in American Lit classes alongside Hemingway and Fitzgerald, there will still be more broadening to do. When I started writing, my hope was that Asian American lit would be absorbed into the American canon like Jewish American literature, like Saul Bellow, like Bernard Malamud. But clearly that hasn’t happened. And it hasn’t happened primarily because Saul Bellow looked more like Hemingway than we do.
But before Asian American lit can fully enter the canon, we have to write A LOT more books and LOTS of Americans (black, white, Mexican, LGBT, etc.) have to read them. I think Viet Nguyen winning the Pulitzer is huge. The successes of Celeste Ng and Alexander Chee are also huge. We have to be like Viet Nguyen and be honest enough to say: hey, I’m going to write a novel Graham Greene would have been proud of, and I don’t care if he happens to be a white guy or not. Most of the talk about diverse voices not being included in literature revolves around what the white-dominated publishing industry isn’t doing. I’m personally way more concerned that our parents’ generation actively discourages artistic pursuits, and that tomorrow’s Asian American writers are being pressured into becoming doctors, lawyers, and bankers instead. If Asian Americans wanted to dominate the literary arts like we dominate hospitals, it’d happen in a hot second.
YiShun: After every reading, I expect at least one girl of Asian descent to approach me and ask what my parents said when I told them I wanted to be a writer.
It’s not a uniquely Asian problem. So many people who have read my book aren’t Asian, and so many of them have said that they heard one of the messages Marty gets in the book, which is that the arts aren’t a “real” profession.
But I am so tired of it being such a thing in our culture. And I am shocked that the same arguments I had with my parents are repeating themselves in families today. I had real hopes, when I was younger, that this was a generational thing. Surely it would get better. Surely I’d see more and more Asians pursue the arts and get support from the previous generation for it. I’m only seeing part of that happening, though. I’m seeing more Asians in the arts. But it’d be so easy for parents to support that, instead of making it so damn hard for kids who show interest in these fields.
Prestige is measured in lots of different ways. but the day we can just call it “American literature” instead of “Asian American literature” is the day I’ll stop being concerned.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
From THE MISADVENTURES OF SULLIVER PONG
I told them I was a spawn of mediocre Bordirtoun, a corrupt America, and a morally bereft Chinaman named Saul. I saw blinking all around. Even Dr. Darrell was looking out the window, quietly giggling at the cheering that had erupted around a fight that had moments before been a prison badminton tourney.
One inmate, however, was rapt. I would come to know him as Manny (he would move into my cell after my first mate broke his neck trying to do a headstand because he insisted that “all Chinese liked acrobats”).
“Can’t blame anyone but yourself for your actions, cabron,” he said.
Sure, I told him to fuck himself, and yes, I paid for it dearly (ruptured spleen). But after my recovery and given the time to reflect, I have a better understanding of who I am penning this for. Not just for the parole board. Not just for wronged Chinese people, not for racist whites, not for my prison therapy group, not for Manny or Jaynuss, not for Momma, not for my once-again estranged father, not even for Lene (though I hope and, in weaker moments, pray she will read this one day), but for others, like myself. Those who lack foresight. Those often overwhelmed by the present. Those ignorant of and indifferent to the past. Those whose worst qualities come to the surface when tested. Those who are fertile ground for dubious moral judgment. Those who feel, in some mysterious but common sense, unmoored.
From NOT A SELF-HELP BOOK: THE MISADVENTURES OF MARTY WU
Eldest Cousin picked us up from the airport today. He said he happened to be “in town,” but Taipei is a four-hour drive from Rueitai, so I’m skeptical. Still, he looked happy to see Mama, and surprised—duh—to see me.
Mama answered the question fast: “Had to drag her home. She’s running away from New York,” she said, before he could even say hello to me.
Eldest Cousin lifted his eyebrows at me. He has perfectly shaped eyebrows, au naturel, and when he uses them to make remarks, his expressions are oddly deliberate, as if they were complete sentences.
I opened my mouth, but Mama cut me off.
“You don’t need to hear it from her, she’ll just lie to you like she does to everyone.”
Eldest Cousin turned red. For me, presumably. “Now, Auntie, I don’t think that’s right.”
“I’ll tell you the truth. She got drunk, tried to sleep her way to the top, and screwed up so badly that they never want to see her face in New York again. I had to pay for to come here with me. She doesn’t have any money, anyway.”
Eldest Cousin said, “Ha?” and blinked, really fast. If we were in a sitcom, one of the other people waiting for their luggage would have leaned into frame and said, “Awkward!”
You know, at some point during the flight I could have sworn that Mama came to see me after I had finally fallen asleep. I thought maybe she brushed the hair from my eyes, like she did when I was a little girl and I hadn’t yet done too much wrong. But I must have dreamed it.
I try to hang on to these tender moments. Listening to her now, though, I wasn’t even sure I could call it the same woman. How can she be so different from one hour to the next?