Antihero, Comic Hero, American Hero:
An Interview with Leland Cheuk
by Karin Cecile Davidson
Leland Cheuk—novelist, author, writer, survivor, stand-up comic—has contributed to the immigrant tale with an antihero for the ages. In his novel, “The Misadventures of Sulliver Pong,” an uproarious and rarefied version of antihero has planted his feet firmly on the crisscrossing roads of American literature. Sulliver Pong, our (anti)hero, while sitting out the final eighteen months of a four-year sentence in Bordirtoun Correctional, tells his story from the very beginning, reaching back through generations of family history, “once and for all.” Chinese-American history, from illegal opium-smuggling, imperial times in the port city of Guangzhou, China through the immigrant experience of building railroads, bridges, and towns in the American West to the political corruption of contemporary Pongs, is carved from Cheuk’s sensibilities of combining identity and a particular kind of dark humor with character—yes, our (anti)hero, Sully—and the trainload of trouble thrown Sully’s way. The narrative that arises from this combination of historical and hysterical elements proclaims a modern take on the character-driven novel, one that questions all that is familial and decides a new fate. With barely a month since the publication of his short story collection, “Letters from Dinosaurs,” Cheuk considers the novel that was his first publication, one of great attention and praise.
KARIN CECILE DAVIDSON: Sully’s story is interspersed with stories of past-generation Pongs—from the passage from China to America to the creation and corruption of Bordirtoun. Millmore of transcontinental railroad fame, Parris the ill-fated brothel owner, Francisco the politically nearsighted pastor wrongly interned in a camp with Japanese-Americans during WWII, Robinson the painter who succeeded in love and art beyond Bordirtoun, and Saul the parody of political corruption.
Leland, how did you decide on the particulars of these characters, from pinpointing their historical time frame to the attributes they share with Sully?
LELAND CHEUK: When I started the novel, I was probably overenthusiastic, maybe a little cocky. I wanted to write the Asian-American novel to end all Asian-American novels, and that’s why I traveled so deeply and ridiculously far into the family tree. I suppose I could have just written a story about a second-generation protagonist struggling with his first-generation parents, but I just wanted to do more. I did research on the stories of Chinese-American men from 1850 to the present and noticed a certain level of underworld sleaze about their environment due to their indentured servitude on the frontier and their marginalized status in American life throughout most of the 20th century. I had to work around that annoying Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, a hundred years of even-more-annoying anti-miscegenation laws, and seventy-five years where it was nearly impossible to emigrate to the U.S. from China. Mainly, I wanted to push the boundaries of plausibility for all the Pongs to give the novel its comic aesthetic.
I was also wondering about my own family history. My relationship with my family isn’t such that I can just ask them to tell me everything about the previous generations of Pongs. So I just started making up an absurdist version of my family history.
Bordirtoun, population 157,000. My birthplace, the safest rest stop for the dubious intentions and the miserable legacy of the Pong family.
DAVIDSON: The details of your research and intention of pushing “boundaries of plausibility” really succeeded in charging the novel with humor. Another way of thinking of the storylines leads to a follow-up to that last question, one on the novel’s structure. Along with an introductory chapter—Chapter 0—there are eight chapters delivered by Sully in first person. He tells us, “Eight is a lucky number in Chinese culture … but not a lucky number for the Pong family.” Add to those the five multigenerational chapters that slice into and inform Sully’s story, reveal family history, and attempt an understanding of the Pongs’ unluckiness. Not only do the dialogue and insanely wild scenes create humor, but also the framework. So impressive!
What came to mind when thinking initially of the novel’s architecture? And eventually, how did you realize this was the right framework?
CHEUK: Playing with structure is a big part of what writing a novel is all about. In my earlier tries at novels, I always screwed around with structure and “Pong” is probably the first time I kept it simple and in line with the novel’s aesthetic and the character’s state of mind. I’ve found it’s best to align all your authorial choices as much as possible. I knew there was inherent risk in a lot of my choices. The first chapter heading is 0 and the first word of 88,000 is misspelled. That gives the reader pretty clear signals from the start what kind of novel they’re going to be reading (I hope).
Sully, if we went to the bank and tried to deposit truth, they wouldn’t take it.
DAVIDSON: Sulliver’s father, Saul, is a complex character, or perhaps he’s a one-dimensional character made to seem complex. From his political and financial philandering to domestic abuse and infidelity, he cuts through the novel, as self-absorbed, materialistic, manipulative, cruel, and cunning as can be, with a cult-of-personality superego leading the way.
Would you like to add a few thoughts of Saul, especially regarding “truth” and his relationship with Sully?
CHEUK: When I was writing Saul, I didn’t intend for him to so closely resemble Donald Trump. But I do think that for every virtue in American lore, there’s an equal and opposite vice. George Washington did all these great things, but he also happened to own slaves. There’s a version of the “truth” we’re taught in school and then there’s the actual truth, which is usually far less savory. The truth is: for all the aspects of the upwardly mobile, hardworking immigrant we admire, there’s also often a less admirable underbelly we choose to omit in the traditional immigrant narrative. Saul Pong is a highly exaggerated version of my own father. He’s achieved and sacrificed and has done so much that he should be proud of, but he’s also done things that I doubt anyone can be proud of. My dad worked two jobs and made good money, but at the cost of his relationship with his wife and kids. When Saul says to Sully, “learn only my good things, not the bad,” that’s essentially what our politicians are saying to us. Which is perfectly comforting, but it’s not the truth.
As mistakes go, where would I mount this mistake in the pantheon of Pong mistakes?
DAVIDSON: What do you think of family legacy when staring down the Pongs?
CHEUK: I think more about personal legacies than family ones. I do empathize with those who feel like their family legacy is a burden. When I started writing “Pong,” I was definitely in a phase where I was wondering whether I would become like my father. I was in business like my father, traveling the world, facing temptations to be selfish at every turn. Ultimately, I believe you have to be able to look yourself in the mirror late at night and be able to be satisfied with the way you’ve comported yourself during your short time on Earth.
Didn’t my life at least resemble an American dream, even if the dream wasn’t mine? Yes, it was only Bordirtoun, but could a man of my limited stature expect more?
DAVIDSON: Sulliver Pong. Asian-American character. Antihero. Victim of his own transgressions. He’s run as far as possible—Copenhagen—and he’s even married a Danish woman. Nonetheless, once pulled back into the Pong family drama, he falls prey to his own worst demons. By story’s end, he understands all this, and the last lines offer a glimmer of hope that Sully will succeed outside Bordirtoun’s confines.
How would you describe Sulliver Pong to readers who haven’t met him? Especially in terms of comic behavior, identity, and past literary characters who share similarities with him.
CHEUK: When the book was getting rejected by New York publishers, the most common refrain I heard was “I don’t connect with this character.” The feedback confounded me and my agent at the time. I see Sulliver as an everyman, capable of both good decisions and terrible ones. I started the book during the George W. Bush presidency, and he’s a pretty darn good example. I have a feeling that W’s American dream never included the White House. He certainly didn’t behave as if he wanted to be president in his twenties. But forces larger than you, like family legacies, often define the array of choices you have to make.
I’m not sure which literary characters resemble Sulliver, but I was thinking about Bellow’s “The Adventures of Augie March” and Martin Amis’ “Money” when I started the book. If I had to choose, I’d say Sulliver has Augie March’s allergy to commitment and John Self’s penchant for embarrassing debaucheries.
DAVIDSON: “Allergy to commitment … and … penchant for embarrassing debaucheries” –oh, Sulliver! And then there’s the hospital motif. Poor Sully lands in hospital rooms several times: for a “grade-three groin strain,” a “fractured … coccyx,” and “compound fractures of the tibia.”
Is this patterning another way of examining Sulliver’s character, or is it simply a portrayal of his bad luck?
CHEUK: It’s a portrayal of comic misfortune. His delicate groin is an allusion to the small penis stereotype of the Asian male. I was definitely aware of the risk of overdoing it with slapstick, especially when the third injury hits, but in the end, I decided that the injuries aren’t even close to the craziest things that happen in the book.
The Bordirtoun Pongs have long been known for being artists of denial. To be such an artist, one must be nearly developmentally disabled at heeding the advice and/or warnings of others.
DAVIDSON: Dysfunction, denial, and deceit seem inherent traits throughout the generations of Pongs. One might add disillusion to the mix, especially when thinking of Millmore, Robinson, and Sully.
When reaching into the issues that define family, did you pull from literary families, newsworthy personalities, or the deepest, most sensitive places of memory and imagination?
CHEUK: I pulled from my own family. Like a lot of dysfunctional families, growing up, I struggled to understand why the adults treated each other so horribly. There was philandering and domestic abuse. There was casual racism, sexism, and homophobia. There were secrets and lies that no one dared to talk about. All of it still goes on to this day in varying degrees. It’s hard not to be disillusioned by it all when you’re trying to decide the person you want to be. I think my family suffered from failures of empathy and decency that they’re trying to make up for now later in life. For all our sakes, I hope they succeed.
“Your wife I’ve never even met!” Momma shouted. “All my life I waited for you to get married. I dreamed that you’d get married in a church or on a cruise ship. I waited and dreamed, and you got married and didn’t even invite us.”
DAVIDSON: Laughing out loud is a continuous occurrence when reading “The Misadventures of Sullliver Pong.” And at the same time, a cringe, a gasp of surprise, or an “oh, no” might follow the laughter. The complicated blending of sardonic wit and the conveyance of a thick maternal layer of guilt make for such an instance of laughter and surprise.
Would you speak about Sulliver and his mother, their relationship in the scheme of the novel’s surrounding relationships—Sully and his wife Lene, Sully’s mother and Saul, Saul and Sully—and in the broader world of husbands, wives, sons, mothers, fathers?
CHEUK: Like Sulliver, my relationship with my mother is similarly complicated. It’s hard to weed through all the terrible and nonsensical things she says to find a way to connect with her on a mother/son/human level. Like Sully, I want to be emotionally supportive of my mother, but I’m often at a loss as to how to help, and then I feel guilty.
Sully’s difficult relationship with his mother bleeds into all of his other relationships. Instead of appreciating his relationship with his wife, he begins to look elsewhere like Saul did. Sully emulates Saul’s not-so-latent view of the wife as a commodity, a thing he can roll out on wheels for a photo op, a totem that’ll help him look more like a good person and prop his polling numbers up. One of the central themes of the novel and a central truth about Chinese families is ownership. Sully is Saul’s son and Saul believes he’s free to manipulate him like property. Sully acquires Lene to make himself feel like he’s escaped his mediocre origins. Sully’s mother needs Sully to serve a function for her: she dreams of being a happy mother of the groom at her son’s wedding, but is unwilling to try in any way to understand her son as a human being. All of the characters’ failure to see their family members as actual flesh-and-blood people is the root of most of the black humor in the book.
DAVIDSON: From Guangzhou, China to Bordirtoun, USA to Copenhagen, Denmark and far beyond, the Pongs have made their way across the world, each leaving a mark of transformation. In keeping with the 8+1 structure of “The Misadventures of Sulliver Pong,” let’s end with a +1 question on PLACE in terms of the immigrant story, one that you have spun and given dynamic and new meaning.
Where do you think we are in American literature with the immigrant story? And where do you see Sully ending up, or is that left to the reader’s imagination?
CHEUK: With regard to the immigrant story in American literature, I think we’re in a great place that’s getting better, and I think the Big Five publishers, the publicity leviathan that serves the Big Five publishers, and the highest literary awards are struggling to catch up. We’re making progress, and now the challenge is to make that progress lasting. When Junot Díaz won the Pulitzer in 2008, people thought: Well, here it is. We’re crossing the chasm. Here comes the wave of new immigrant stories to the mainstream. And then the next seven Pulitzers were awarded to white authors. Now that Viet Nguyen has won the Pulitzer, are we going to see more balance going forward? That’s just one data point.
As an active book reviewer, I personally think the most exciting novels right now are being written by African-Americans: Colson Whitehead, Kaitlyn Greenidge, Yaa Gyasi, Angela Flournoy, James Hannaham, Paul Beatty, Mat Johnson. The list goes on and on. It’s a super-exciting time for African-American literature, and all of us (Asian, white, Latino, LGBTQ, etc.) have our work cut out for us to put out books that are as exciting in terms of dramatic significance and aesthetic innovation.
As for Sully, I think the act of penning his manuscript helps him learn from the harsh lessons of his misadventures and gives him a puncher’s chance to do better going forward.
Karin C. Davidson, Interviews Editor