A Unique Burden: Interview with Writer Leland Cheuk

by Julie Chibbaro

Some writers, even though they’re so different from you, make you want to be just like them. I think of Leland Cheuk, whom I met over fifteen years ago at the Squaw Valley Writers Conference, as one of those writers—despite our differences, I admire him so much.

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At Squaw Valley, Leland and I were at the same place in our careers: unpublished, with stars in our eyes. We stayed in touch and shared our work, trying to help one another. As I’ve read his stories over the years, I’ve found myself consistently impressed by his wry, biting humor, the (seeming) ease with which he deals with his difficult family, the way he straddles literary fiction and social commentary. He has also come through the tremendous experience of surviving leukemia, which he has written about for Salon. I’ve invited him to come talk to us at Get Lit Beacon in November, which he has graciously agreed to do. Before his visit, I grabbed him for a few questions about his formation as a writer:

GLB: A fierce awareness of identity comes through in so much of your work (sometimes satirically). Where does this awareness come from?

LC: If I could choose to be unaware of the questions of identity, I would! But it’s a unique burden artists of color carry. When I was doing standup comedy, I quickly found out that my first joke had to address the audience’s first impression, which was that I was of Asian descent. If I didn’t address it, the audience would be distracted, wondering why I didn’t address it. A white comic can just walk on the stage and the first thing people see is gender and age. It’s sadly the same thing for writers. That’s why I find all the back and forth about cultural appropriation amusing. When authors like Lionel Shriver bridle against being limited as an artist, I feel like shouting: try being an author of color for a day!

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If I didn’t have to write about identity to feed the expectations of readers, I wouldn’t. I’d just write weird George Saunders-inspired stories satirizing capitalism and social media all day. In some ways we’ve progressed, and in others we haven’t. Given these unfortunate limitations for authors of color, I just try to find original ways to approach identity issues.

GLB: You’ve started your own indie press. What inspired that?

LC: A little over four years ago, I had cancer and needed a lifesaving stem cell transplant. I’d been trying for almost two decades to publish my first book, and I was thinking: man, if this transplant doesn’t go well, I’ve really wasted my life. On the day the transplant engrafted (July 13), I got an acceptance email from an indie press for my first novel. Two years later on the same date, I got an acceptance email from an indie press for my story collection. If it wasn’t for the help of strangers like my donor and these indie press-runners, I wouldn’t be alive and I wouldn’t be an author. So I felt compelled to give back and start my own press: 7.13 Books, which publishes only first books of fiction.

GLB: You’ve had some heath issues in recent years. How did you manage to keep focused on writing, even while dealing with such intense pain and recovery?

LC: At first it was difficult. I had trouble sitting in front of a screen for more than thirty minutes without getting tired. But over time, it’s become a blessing. I’m lucky. I have a very supportive wife. Having a serious illness helps you focus on what’s important to your day. I kind of liken it to an aging athlete having to do all these extra things to prepare their body to play the game longer. I have to do all these things to make me feel good physically so I can focus and play the game of writing for a few hours each day.

Leland’s bio: A MacDowell Colony fellow, Leland Cheuk authored THE MISADVENTURES OF SULLIVER PONG (CCLaP, 2015), a novel, and LETTERS FROM DINOSAURS (Thought Catalog, 2016), stories. His next book, NO GOOD VERY BAD ASIAN, a novel, is forthcoming in 2019 from C&R Press. His work has been covered in VICE, Electric Literature, The Millions, and The Rumpus, and appears or is forthcoming in Salon, Catapult, Joyland Magazine, Kenyon Review, and elsewhere. He is the fiction editor at Newfound Journal and the founder of the indie press 7.13 Books. He lives in Brooklyn. You can follow him on Twitter @lcheuk and reach him at leland.cheuk at gmail.com.

Her Superpower: Interview with Author Lily Burana

by Julie Chibbaro

You’re alone in a room. There’s nothing around you that can distract you. No one needs you. You’ve made it this way. Because you have a priority, and that is to put down one word after another and make sense to someone other than yourself. You have to do this well, or no one will understand you. You have to do this every day till you’re done saying what you have to say.

Outside of that room is the world. You really want to go there, see your friends, lie in bed with your lover, or with a movie. Splash in the river. Garden.

But you cannot get out of the room until you finish what you’ve started, or you’ll have a lot of mental anguish.

To me, that’s what writing feels like.

Setting up the stakes, putting up the boundaries, getting it done so I can live with myself.

I look at other writers and marvel at how much they seem to be IN the world while writing about it. I think they have some superpower that I don’t. I thought that of Lily Burana, author of Strip City, Try, I Love A Man In Uniform, and her latest, Grace For Amateurs.

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It seemed like Lily (who was the featured guest at our very first Get Lit gathering) could write about anything, and still be active and involved in the world around her at the same time. When we talked, I asked Lily how she wrote so much and so well, who influences her, and how she can write about so many different topics, seemingly effortlessly. Her thoughtful and wide-ranging answers surprised me:

GLB: You are such a complex lady with an amazing scope to your writing. I am dying to know who your influences are or were. Feel free to take us through “a short history of Lily via the authors and books she has read.”

LILY: My first and biggest influence, as a teenager, was Sylvia Plath, because she was the first writer I ever read who so beautifully and pitilessly explored the modern female condition, the double standard for women as opposed to men, depression, artistic ambition, the conflict of pleasing your family versus pursuing your own goals. We take all those subjects for granted now as “fair game,” but to be writing about such things in the 1950s and 60s was truly astonishing, as those were the “Good Girl” days. Plus Plath was a poet, and the emotional and sensory depth that her poetic gift lent to her writing really set a high standard for me. I was a total Plathophile. My mother was a librarian, and she’d bring home any obscure Plath thing she could find, like Plath’s book of short stories, Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams. There was also Memories of Ariel, which was a short memoir by Nancy Hunter Steiner, the woman who was chosen to be Plath’s roommate after she returned to college following her breakdown.

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The writers whose work I most admire—writing that manages to show the full emotional landscape and minute details of a life or a subculture or a setting—tend to be poets at heart: Dorothy Allison, Mary Karr, Plath, of course, plus newer writers like Patricia Lockwood. But I’ve also always loved social justice and political writing so I’ve been influenced by everything from punk ‘zine culture, to canonical LGBT authors like Audre Lorde, James Baldwin, Pat Califia, and Susie Bright, to progressive theologians like Nadia Bolz Weber. I enjoy fiction somewhat, but nonfiction is my true artistic engine. Everything I’m most moved by, and thus aspire to create, is organized around a central question: how do we, as artists, portray the lived experience in a vivid, unsparing, but hopeful way?

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I’ve never felt particularly pressured to limit myself to one “beat” or one particular subject. If it interests me enough to investigate it, I figure it’s fair game. I’m not a “write what you know” type. I’m a “write what obsesses you” type, because the more obsessed you are, the more you’ll get to know your topic, and the better the work will be. If you’re not passionate about a subject, you won’t have the steam to keep going. There’s too much fun stuff out in the world to distract you from anything that isn’t a near-consuming flame.

GLB: Again, the words “varied, complex, layered, deep” come to me when I think of your writing. From religious meditations to military-life musings to sex-worker woes, how do you manage to go so far out on so many limbs with your writing, and find the courage to then put the writing out there, despite the potential backlash to your ideas?

LILY: Please understand: I may summon up a lot of nerve to write into a number of difficult topics, but that’s only because that difficulty is counterbalanced by living a simple, and often solitary, life. You know me, so you know I’m not at all shy, but I am very self-protective. I’m not that brave, in terms of my ability to be able to deal with conflict or personal attack. If I were ever besieged by hordes of haters or trolls online, I might implode. God knows what kind of nervous breakdown I’d have if someone got in my face in person. I write the way that I write because I purposely and purposefully constructed for myself a very sedate, very quiet lifestyle: I spend a lot of time alone, thinking about what I’m going to write before I even get started. I tend to not write about something until I’m “finished” with it—that is, I have let it cool down enough in my mind and heart so I can observe it most clearly and honestly. I’m also able to write this way because I know I’ll always be a freelance schmo who doesn’t really need to worry about what Joe in Accounting thinks of me, or how I affect the image of the corporation or the congregation or the nurses on the fourth floor.

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As much as I put out there in writing, I keep a great deal to myself. Many writers are out and about a lot, and they have their family and their home all over Instagram, and I prefer not to. I’m much more reserved, much more guarded than is encouraged these days, when writers are expected to sort of be their own “lifestyle brand.” Readers want to know more about you, want to feel like they’re part of your circle, your family, your scene, but I don’t think I could be open with all of that and be as open as I am as a writer. I need a place to come back to that’s just mine and my family’s. The more protected I feel around the things I feel uneasy showing to the world, like my places of retreat (family, friends, home), the more daring I can be in what I do share with the world.

GLB: What sorts of things do you say to yourself when you’re getting ready to write? Do you have a schedule, a set rhythm, a series of mantras, or any affirmations to help you along in your process?

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LILY: I live and die by “all first drafts are shit.” If I didn’t have that drilled into my head, on a loop like a mantra, I’d never get anything done. That, and “you’ll go over it again later.” Like many writers, I have this negative fantasy that everyone else churns out these flawless pieces on the first try, when in fact, a good piece of writing, even a short one, can take years and years to perfect. Knowing that I can revise it until I’m satisfied gives me the courage to get started in the first place.

Reading Like A Writer: The Female Persuasion by Meg Wolitzer

By Kristen Holt Browning

My inaugural post for Get Lit Beacon is the first in a series I’m calling “Reading Like A Writer.” Each month, I’ll briefly discuss a book of fiction or poetry that I’ve just read—but rather than a traditional book review, I’ll share my thoughts on what I learned from this book as a writer myself.

So, on to Meg Wolitzer’s The Female Persuasion.

I admire Wolitzer for situating “women’s issues” as the central theme of a large, ambitious novel. Although, unlike Wolitzer, I write short works—stories, poems, essays—like her I’m primarily interested in writing stories about women. Even in a shorter work, I want the experiences of my female characters and subjects to be central, not secondary, and to resonate as big, essential narratives that speak to and reflect the world.

This novel covers feminism, ambition, idealism, money, sexuality, aging, death and grief, and generational divides. The story centers on Greer (a college freshman when we meet her, a celebrated 31-year-old author by the novel’s end). Wolitzer uses this focus character from which to dive deeply into the lives of Cory (Greer’s boyfriend, who suffers a massive tragedy that throws his life off its comfortable course), Zee (Greer’s best friend, who stumbles through jobs and a variety of activisms before she finds meaningful work), and Faith (a star of second-wave feminism who runs a foundation financed by a venture capitalist, and struggles to balance her activism with her funder’s bottom line).

As a writer, I’m impressed by Wolitzer’s ability to not only trace, but delve deeply into, the storylines of all of her characters, each of whom have full storylines of their own, beyond their relationships to the central character of Greer. Wolitzer clearly cares about all of her characters, and believes they each deserve a full story. And, she trusts herself to write a wide variety of characters: young and old, male and female, straight and queer.

We may write in different forms, but Meg Wolitzer provides an excellent roadmap for writing women’s stories as the complex, essential narratives they are.