by Shoba Viswanathan
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.
Leland Cheuk: First of all, thanks for coming out to a reading in our post-book world! I joke. That’s how I cope. What’s happening is so outrageous that I’ve become a bit numb and I try to make myself and others laugh about it just so I’m not numb anymore. On Facebook, I post articles to the latest racist American outrage on Facebook and title them “Whitey Gone Wild, Season 241, Episode. [enter random number].” The gut-level hatred for people of color (as coded by the words “immigrant” or “terrorist”) in this country is so open and obvious that I find it hilarious that the only people who can’t see it or doubt what they see are white Americans.
As an artist in this country, I think you’re going to engage with politics whether or not you want to. If you’re writing about contemporary times, no matter who you’re writing about in America, you’ll be writing about people affected by the least popular, most openly racist administration in modern history. Your only burden as an artist—especially a literary one—is to make sure you’re making new commentary, because we’re so saturated by commentary on social media.
SV: If those questions address where you are now, I’d like to go back a little to where you’ve come from. Your journey and progression as a writer, carving a space out for yourself, is unique to you and yet there’s much there many of us can probably identify with. In your Salon essay “I Wanted to Publish a Book Before I Died” you talk about dealing with a myelodysplastic syndrome (MDS) diagnosis at age 37 and confronting the treatment, and you offer an amazing perspective on coping with literary rejection. Could you share a little of what kept you going with your fiction writing before and during this period?
LC: I don’t think I had a choice. I decided at an early age to “walk the road of literature,” borrowing a phrase from my grandfather, who was a political essayist in China who published 20 books. There were lots of reasons not to keep writing. Constant rejection and lack of money being the primary ones. But I think we writers are buoyed by the smallest positive developments. It could be getting a story accepted in a journal. It could be getting into a residency. It could be hearing your words resonate with a crowd at a reading. It could be sharing your work with your writing group and getting positive feedback. All those tiny developments can push you forward just a little bit longer. And if you hang in long enough, good things will happen.
For me, getting into the MacDowell Colony was the first big sign that I needed to take my literary life more seriously. I was working in tech, living in San Francisco, and I had never published anything. The next thing I knew I was in Peterborough and Michael Chabon, Heidi Julavits, and Sam Lipsyte are walking into breakfast. Six months after MacDowell, my wife and I moved to New York City. I didn’t want to leave any bullets in the chamber, so to speak. Over the years, I’d tried just about everything. I applied to Iowa twice. If folks said New York was the place to be for writers, I was going to find a way to be there. But there were many little signs before MacDowell. I’d get long rejections from big-time agents. For a long time, I hung my hat on that. Ultimately, as a writer, you can let the bad stuff get you down, or you can choose to see it as a sign that you’re still in the game.
SV: You’ve said in other interviews you’re tired of the stereotypical striving-immigrant stories. Your novel and short stories are definitely challenges to simplistic narratives of good Asian immigrants. I also liked that in some of the short stories the ethnic identity is almost incidental. Is there room yet for non-White writers to write without ethnic identity being a big factor of the story? Also, as you work at more complex portrayals of Asians, do you feel any internal tug-of-war about Representing?
LC: I’m generally more interested in the darker aspects of our psychologies than our better sides. I’m always dealing with the character likability issue in drafts. As far as the ethnicity of the characters in my work, I guess I’m trying to portray what it’s actually like to live as an American who happens to be Asian. You don’t wake up in the morning and say, “I’ve got to brush my Asian teeth.” My ethnicity is only part of my identity. There’s nothing wrong with stories that are primarily about race. I’ve certainly written them. But I think there are interesting things to say when race, gender, class, culture, and aesthetics intermingle.
As for Representing, I don’t feel the burden to represent my ethnicity at all. There are plenty of Asian Americans writing now, all doing their thing. It’s awesome. We’re really having a renaissance. I’m certainly not the only one tired of striver immigrant stories. Celeste Ng, Lisa Ko, Jenny Zhang, Jade Chang, Kevin Kwan, and others have all essentially said the same thing (if not explicitly, then in their work). I just read an interview in The Guardian about Celeste Ng’s new novel. Across the pond, they call her an American writer. Google calls her an American writer. It’s only in the 50 states that we get caught up on hyphens.
SV: After the political and the social, let’s go to the personal space. You seem fearless in laying out the messy reality of relationships in your work. I’m thinking in particular about your Catapult piece, “‘Let Me Pass Away’: When Your Mother Blames You for Your Cancer Diagnosis”. Have you always had this honesty as a writer? Have you worked at developing it?
LC: I’ve always thought the whole point of writing was to be unflinching. If I wanted to tell half-truths all day, I’d just have stayed in my corporate marketing career. I’ve definitely suffered backlash from family members not being happy with what I’ve written. I hear all the time from writers who say they can’t write about so-and-so until he/she/they pass because they’re afraid of what so-and-so will say when he/she/they read their work. I think: well, what if you’re not around to write it? What you write can help someone going through a similar situation today. You can’t assume you’ll have 80 years to do your work. After cancer, I certainly don’t presume I have decades to spin out my oeuvre.
SV: It’ll be good to hear what took you into publishing. You have expressed strong feelings about the homogeneity of mainstream literary publishing in some of your work. Is your venture into publishing with 7.13 Books an effort to address this? And how did you arrive on 7.13 as your name?
LC: I don’t know if the homogeneity bothers me as much as the small number of literary works being published. When you’re in an MFA program, no one tells you exactly how these big publishers truly make their money. You just kind of assume that they’re pumping out one Colson Whitehead, Michael Cunningham, and Junot Diaz after another because that’s their business. Totally untrue. Norton, for instance, makes the bulk of their profits on textbooks. Every big house makes huge sales and marketing bets on just a handful of titles. Where’s Hachette without James Patterson? Books are low-margin products and publishing is a volume business. The big houses are paying huge multimillion advances to celebrities with big platforms in a desperate chase for sales volume. Their business is not to buy the next great American novel. That’s for the PR and fancy awards ceremonies. Their business is to publish lots and lots of Hillary Clinton and Amy Schumer and Megyn Kelly.
The future of literature is probably independent and non-profit. 7.13 Books publishes only first books of literary fiction for adults. I’m doing 2-5 books a year. Mainly, I’m trying to hoist a few writers onto the lifeboat of authorhood. The waters are cold out there. You shouldn’t have to wait until you’re on your deathbed like I did to see your novel published.
7.13 is for July 13th, the date my stem cell transplant engrafted, giving me a second life. That same day, a small press picked up my first novel. Two years later to the day, another small press picked up my story collection. I wouldn’t be living an author’s life without my stem cell donor and without small, independent presses like 7.13 Books, that donate their time to put promising authors out into the world.
SV: I like the way you see this publishing enterprise as a chance to pull more writers into the lifeboat. So, what do you look for in a manuscript, when you’re reading for 7.13? Also, are you running that operation by yourself and how do you manage that?
LC: I read the manuscripts myself. Usually by 50-100 pgs in, I have a pretty good idea whether I’m interested or not. I look for a unique voice and premise. And I look for the book to be structurally sound, meaning there’s development and a satisfying climax and denouement. My tastes are also almost exclusively contemporary, and for adults. I don’t think I’m the best editor for historical fiction or YA.
I do the editing and the layout, hire the cover designer, send out galleys to the trades and encourage my authors to hire a publicist. I also tell them what worked and didn’t work for me when my books came out.
SV: And I guess now we move to the mandatory final question. What would you share as important lessons learned, if asked to give advice to debut novelists or late-blooming writers?
LC: My advice would be to try to enjoy the whole process, from the writing to the publishing to the sharing your work with readers. If you don’t gain intrinsic satisfaction and meaning from writing, why do it? The reason definitely won’t be the money!
Shoba Viswanathan is a writer and editor based in NY. Her long-standing philosophy of understanding the Other Side, has developed a new urgency these days. She can be found on Twitter @shobavish.