by Andy Shi
“‘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?
Leland Cheuk: A lot of things that are funny on the page are not funny at all on stage. Written humor tends to be overwritten, not punchy enough, or too subtle for large crowds. If you’re getting your reader to smile while reading your funny writing, that same material will bomb hard on stage. A little joke-writing primer is in a scene in the novel; the setup is extremely important when you’re leading the audience’s expectations elsewhere, and then the punchline subverts those expectations.
AS: In the same interview with Lithub, you said you completed the first draft of your novel nine years ago but that only after performing standup did the novel become predominantly about race. Can you elaborate on the changes you made to both how you write comedy and the development of Hor’s character and his story arc?
LC: There was a period before I started doing standup when I was immersed in a lot of secondary research: reading standup memoirs, listening to every episode of every standup podcast I could find. It wasn’t until I started doing standup that I discovered that in order to kill, I almost always had to tell a joke about being Asian first, just to get it out of the way in the audience’s mind. If I didn’t tell some Asian jokes first, I’d do well, but I wouldn’t kill—it was like the audience was distracted and thinking, “When is he going to tell the Asian joke?” That experience became the crux of the book and Sirius’s life. If you watch a standup special now, that unfortunate characteristic of standup, where you’re being judged for how you look and what you say in relation to how you look, is very visible. I was just watching the latest Dave Chappelle special and he spends about a half-hour riffing poorly on topics like mental illness and LGBTQ issues and he does okay because he’s Chappelle, but when he does a bit on how he doesn’t care about poor white opioid addicts just like white people didn’t care about black crack addicts in the ‘80s, he just destroys. Even Chappelle has a lane he has to stay in.
AS: Your novel unleashes about every Asian stereotype there is, from the Chinese parents’ expectation that their children will remain obedient, put the interests of the family (usually meaning the parents and grandparents) first, and pursue the conventionally respectable and high-paying professions of doctor, lawyer, businessman, to the fetishizing of white women. It can be difficult at times to differentiate between what to take as genuine criticisms of Asian-American culture and what to interpret as satire of America’s racist beliefs about Asians and Asian-Americans. How would you recommend the reader approach the race-related issues in your story? Is there a primary target or are Asian-American attitudes and the rest of America’s attitudes toward Asian-Americans equally excoriated?
LC: I would say that I tried to portray a person who feels stuck between two cultures, one he doesn’t feel born into, and the one that he’s born into but never fully accepts him. He doesn’t get the Western expressions of filial love that he expects being an American-born Chinese. And of course, because he’s Chinese, he’s never seen as a real American by white people and American pop culture, which is dominated by whites. With regards to Sirius’s lifelong existential crisis with race, I just tried to create a character that felt true and human to me. A famous standup comedian’s targets are going to be everything and anything to get a laugh.
AS: Hor is the Chinese name of your protagonist, one he sheds in both a symbolic and professional capacity to pursue comedy. However, the adoption of his performance name, Sirius, and the disavowal of his heritage leaves him self-alienated. Has Hor’s experience paralleled your own relationship with your ethnicity and family, particularly as you pursued writing?
LC: Luckily no. After I published a book and particularly after I was diagnosed with cancer and had a lifesaving bone marrow transplant, my family eased up on me. But before that, there was nearly 20 years of their resistance to my creative pursuits. My first novel was translated and published in China, and I was invited to Guangzhou by the local party officials to the book launch and my entire family went back with me to celebrate and visit the ancestral homeland. So, sadly for Sirius, my personal experience has been quite the opposite. While my parents don’t really understand what I do, they more or less support it.
AS: I want to avoid spoiling the ending for readers, but to what degree, if any, do you think race deterministically limited Hor’s ability to achieve both personal and professional success?
LC: I think ultimately Sirius concludes that race plays a large role in keeping him from getting what he wants. But he’s also honest about his personal mistakes that have very little to do with race. Like anyone’s life, his is shaped by external forces as well as his individual choices.
AS: In a brief episode in the story, an aspiring Chinese-American comedian named Leland asks Hor for his opinion on his performance and is told the world does not want him to perform because of his ethnicity. It can be no coincidence that you two share the same name. Is this episode based on your personal experience of comedy or publishing toward Asian-American comedians and writers? Why, as Hor jokes, are Asians the least important minority? Do you think Asian-Americans writers have gained less visibility than other minorities, and if so, why?
LC: Those are big questions! I don’t think I have the answers. The scene is not based on personal experience. It refers to the generally well-known real-life dynamic between Richard Pryor and Eddie Murphy when Murphy was starting to become a star, as well as the dynamic between Bill Cosby and Eddie Murphy. Pryor and Cosby were less than welcoming to Murphy because they felt like they occupied the only spots for successful black comedians. I just thought it’d be funny to have someone with my name in the book, certainly not a new trick as many other authors have used it.
As for Hor’s joke, I’ve always thought it said something about our country that politicians would list identity groups in their speeches, clearly in order of importance to them. Asian Americans, as a group, rarely make those lists. There are a whole host of reasons that have been well documented in Asian Studies classes. Some of those reasons are related to white American racist constructs and some of them are related to individual choices. I, for instance, made the choice to, unlike Sirius, go to a good college, and then become a well-paid businessperson instead of someone more visible in our culture. My group of Asian American guy friends from high school all became doctors, except one—he’s a CFO.
AS: Let’s talk about the transition from studying business administration in college and working in marketing to returning to school for your MFA. What finally pushed you to pursue your writing ambitions, and what obstacles did your heritage and family pose? Has your success as a writer changed the minds of friends or family who had reservations about your ambitions being inappropriate for an Asian American?
LC: I was always working on some novel, even when I was working in marketing. The financial limitations of pursuing a writing life are very real. I’d like to say that I had the courage to pursue my dreams and mine is an inspirational story, but I don’t really see it that way. I see it as a constant battle to summon the courage to continue in the face of all kinds of obstacles, like health, finances, self-doubt and so on.
Like I mentioned, my parents weren’t supportive for a long time and their lack of support was a source of anger for me. Whenever I’d quit a job to work on a novel, my mom would call me up every 2-3 days to rip me a new one. When I did the MFA, I chose a low-residency program so I could keep my job and pay it off, knowing they wouldn’t support me. When I graduated, I didn’t invite my parents to graduation. It was a long, winding journey to get to this point where they’re not on my back anymore. We’re all older and I think we’re all in agreement that there’s no upside to spending the years we have left together angry at each other.
AS: I want to mention your role as founder of 7.13 Books, an independent press that looks for manuscripts from first-time authors which the major publishing houses have overlooked, born from your own frustrating experiences with publishing. What advice do you wish you had been given when you were looking for a publisher and that would be helpful for other emerging writers to hear?
LC: I would say, make sure your book is 100% done before sending it out. Don’t rush. It’s pretty common for a book to take 10 years or more. Play the long game and try not to let the outside world get you down on your writing. It’s healthiest to view writing as a lifelong practice like yoga rather than the way a lot of young writers view it, which is that one’s book defines you as a person and if it doesn’t get published, you’re not a full person. Be hard on your work, but don’t beat yourself up too much.
AS: Any idea yet what you will be working on next?
LC: I’m working on a couple of novels and a collection of genre-bending stories, most of which have been published in the last 2-3 years. One of the novels is comedy about Silicon Valley, where I’m from. The other is a corporate satire based on my time working at a very large multinational in Lower Manhattan. Only time will tell whether any of them will sell!
Andy Shi is a recent graduate from the Columbia University-London School of Economics dual MA/MSc program in International and World History.