After graduating from his MFA program at Lesley University, Leland Cheuk was diagnosed with Myelodysplastic Syndrome, or MDS, a type of bone marrow cancer. In February, he wrote for Salon that his experience with cancer closely paralleled his experience with writing fiction, noting, “My wife and I faced what was ahead, not one day at a time, but one hour, one task, until those tasks formed a routine. We didn’t know what results this routine would yield. It was just like writing fiction.” His book The Misadventures of Sulliver Pong was published in May 2015 and it is a darkly, hilarious story that turns the immigrant sage on its head.
I spoke with Cheuk about dark comedies, Donald Trump, and mothers. With Leland Cheuk, nothing is sacred: not his identity, his cancer, or even his mom. And with that honesty and dark humor, Cheuk manages to imagine twisted, hilarious worlds that seem to ring with a prescient knowledge of our time and our culture.
The Rumpus: The story of the Pongs very much feels like the Snopes—evil people made good, who eventually fall out of pride and corruption. And in a way that flies in the face of many immigrant stories, which are about good people making good. Why did this story line appeal to you?
Leland Cheuk: Wow, did you just drop a Faulkner reference in relation to me? I knew there was a reason we became friends, Lyz. One of my favorite movies is Bad Santa. Really any movie with a title that starts with the word “bad.” Bad Lieutenant. Bad Grandpa. Bad Moms. Michael Jackson’s “Bad.” Bad Immigrant. Okay, that’s not a movie.
The striving-immigrant-gone-bad storyline appealed to me mainly because I hadn’t read many books by authors of color that approached its characters that way. As a reader, stories with good people overcoming obstacles bore me. I can appreciate them on the level of craft and language, but they just don’t stay with me like stories about characters with dark sides. That’s probably because my experience with my family hasn’t been ice cream and cookies.
Immigrant stories are in the process of graduating or evolving. The Sympathizer by Viet Nguyen is a good example of a book driven by a character with lots of duality. As a Chinese-American, I’m weary of having to 1) educate white folks about my culture and 2) justify my existence by being good all the time.
Rumpus: There is a lot of wicked humor in your novel that pushes the boundaries on assumptions about race and gender. Were there jokes you edited out because they crossed a line? And how did you determine how far a joke should go? (PS: I don’t think any of your jokes went too far; I’m just curious about the process!)
Cheuk: I just tried to stick with what I thought was funny. I did stand-up comedy for a few years. I’m a big comedy fan, a big reader of the most scabrous of fiction writers. Especially Martin Amis. I rarely think a joke crosses the line. Though as I grow older, I find that making fun of the disenfranchised (the disabled or impoverished, for instance) isn’t funny. I also have silly comedic subjectivities, like I don’t think wordplay is ever funny while incorrectly used English is hilarious to me.
Rumpus: I love that you mention Amis because I’ve been thinking about him a lot lately in reference to his book Koba the Dread. In Koba, Amis criticizes his father and other prominent socialists for looking the other way while Stalin committed genocide. And to paraphrase, Amis argues that they made jokes instead of paying attention. Which I see as a parallel to what happened with Donald Trump. So much of his power comes from the fact that people laughed him off for so long. What do you think is the dark side of laughter?
Cheuk: I haven’t read Koba the Dread, but I need to. I’ve read most of Martin Amis’s fiction, and appreciate that he’s gone from doing adolescent sex comedies (The Rachel Papers, Money, Success) to tackling Nazism and fascism (Time’s Arrow, The Zone of Interest). I love all his work and I love most of Kingsley Amis’s novels as well, but I have read the interviews where Martin criticizes his father’s drift hard right towards anti-immigrant sentiments and xenophobia. In The Zone of Interest, one of Amis’s protagonists is a middling German soldier at a concentration camp who’s more interested in getting laid than he is in anything going on between the Germans and the Jews. Then over the course of the novel, he can’t ignore the moral seriousness of the situation anymore.
I didn’t intend for Pong to specifically allude to Trump, but The Donald reflects the dark side of The American Dream. His parents were immigrants who made good, gave their son every opportunity to make his own version of good, and Donald decided to kick old ladies out of homes, open up a scholarly institution with no scholars, and run for president as an immigrant-hater. His American Dream happens to be our nightmare. Dark, dark comedy is my favorite literary device. It’s what I love to read and what I love to write. I don’t watch Hollywood comedies because they’re too light. If a joke isn’t pointing an accusatory finger at some aspect of the human condition, it often doesn’t make me laugh.
Rumpus: You wrote this book while you were undergoing treatment for MDS, is that correct? You also wrote an essay for Salon that said in part that publishing a book before you died was your biggest goal. How did illness change the way you approached your work?
Cheuk: I wrote the book way before I was diagnosed with cancer and had more or less given it up for dead by the time I went in for my lifesaving bone marrow transplant. The illness has made me approach every work like it could be my last. There’s more urgency now. If I eventually get in the clear, I fantasize about writing only when the muse strikes and spending more time with my wife and learning new languages. For now, I have a few books I want to get published, and I’m going to need a lot of help to make it happen. My future, both as a published author and as a cancer survivor, is uncertain, but generally looking bright.
Rumpus: How are you feeling these days?
Cheuk: I feel great. I’m coming up on two years in July and haven’t had complications since the six-month mark. I felt great before I was diagnosed, so I’m not sure how much solace I can take in feeling great. But that’s the same for every cancer survivor. You never really know if or when it’ll come back. It’s also like every healthy person. You never know if you’ll be hit by a car or go down in a plane. Cancer is just more specific.
Rumpus: I watched my father-in-law die from cancer several years ago and there were moments where my in-laws and I found ourselves laughing so hard at the worst things—like my father-in-law delirious from morphine accusing my brother-in-law of stealing his shoes. It’s one of those moments of just pure black laughter that I feel springs up from a place of sadness and sheer ridiculousness. There are a lot of moments like this in your book—moments that rely on darkness, pain, and the bizarre. It’s the very Soviet idea of laughter through tears. But that kind of humor often makes people uncomfortable. I am curious about how you think laughter-through-tears works and why it’s an important topic to explore in literature.
Cheuk: If I decide to do stand-up again, I have a stack of cancer jokes waiting. The best type of humor jolts you into looking at life differently. It’s exhausting to take life seriously all the time. It requires you to constantly realize your predicament. I’m a big believer in the healing power of laughter. Sometimes you can only laugh at the absurdity of being in a bad situation. Were your father-in-law and your brother-in-law even the same shoe size?
Rumpus: No, but of course that occurred to no one at the time.
Another Russian word that came to mind when I was reading your book was the term poshlost, which is hard to translate, but has to do with triviality, vulgarity, and sexuality. It’s this dual idea of the obviously trashy and falsely important. So to call something poshlost is to pass a moral judgment and the Pong’s are very poshlost in this sense. Do you see this as a theme in your book? Was it something you were trying to explore? (It’s weird to use Russian terms on a book about Chinese-American immigrants, maybe it’s the dark humor, but I felt like there were a lot of parallels.)
Cheuk: Poshlost. I like it! Infinite wordplay possibilities. If only I liked wordplay. The Trump-esque embrace of the tawdry was definitely something I wanted to explore as a commentary on the materialism of nouveau riche immigrants. They spend on ridiculous things like big, brassy lion ornaments and want to have “high-class” things, no matter how garish. They’re essentially trying to recreate their perception of the life of a rich American, and in the process, they become the personification of a knockoff. I tried to extend that idea into all aspects (including the sexual) of the Pongs’ lives. The fictional town in Pong is a cross between El Paso and Las Vegas, and what’s more poshlost than Vegas?
Rumpus: You published your book with a small press and have had to do a lot of hustling for the book yourself. Which is a reality a lot of writers at big houses and small houses are facing. What have you learned from this process of promotion?
Cheuk: I had a good starting point because I have a marketing background and I’ve been an active book reviewer for years. It can be tough sledding if you’re not inclined to marketing or publicity, because the biggest difference between publishing with an indie press and publishing at a Big Five is scale. If you’re lucky with a Big Five, you have a bunch of smart people working on your book and if you decide to stop hustling and work on your next book, readers will still find your book because of great distribution. When you’re with an indie press, when you stop doing readings and getting ink, sales stop.
Given my illness, I was really focused on enjoying the experience of having a book out. I feel like I’ve gotten to touch and feel most of what an author with a Big Five would experience. I’ve done readings to full houses and have seen my book stocked at great bookstores. I’m getting interviewed by Lyz Lenz! Short of getting a review in the New York Times and being on Fresh Air, I don’t feel like I’ve missed out on much and I’ll hold the memories close for a long time.
Rumpus: Your mother, I hear, is quite the book reviewer. What have her responses been to your book?
Cheuk: LOL. Her responses have not been positive. Her English reading comprehension is fairly compromised, so she was combing through my prose with a dictionary in hand and criticizing the jokes. There’s one about the Pongs lowering the average IQ of Chinese-American immigrants on the West Coast. And she mom-splained that “a lot of immigrants have their own businesses and make more money than you.” Did she have to stick it to me about my income level? Writers don’t make very much! Jeez.
She googled me and read all the interviews I’ve done for the book. She really objected to what I said about our dysfunctional family. Then when I posted a screencap of her texts on Facebook, she found that too, and got really upset. She called me up and just started screaming at me for ten minutes straight, barely taking a breath. I couldn’t get a word in. I couldn’t even apologize before she hung up on me. Oh well. If I’m going to be open about cancer in my writing, I might as well be open about being unfairly ensnarled in my parents’ marital problems. I don’t feel like there’s any upside to hiding as a writer. My mom obviously disagrees. She’s like a lot of less progressive Chinese people. She doesn’t believe people should question or antagonize the powers-at-be. She thinks writers should “make happy story, not sad story” and “keep family secret.”
Rumpus: I think a family member throwing a fit about a book is a writer’s biggest fear next to certain rejection and death. Which are also fears you managed to handle while writing this book. So, how did you handle them?
Cheuk: Her reaction was very surprising to me. I would never have thought in a million years that she would read my book and go all James Wood on me. It definitely stung, not because I care what she thinks about my writing, but because I hurt her feelings. Her rage was fair since I chose to speak so openly about my family being the inspiration for the Pongs.
My favorite criticism from my mother was when she texted that “I read online somebody said you are genius and how you can make the people laugh. I never saw you make me laugh.” Tough crowd.