THE WRITING LIFE ... Brian LEUNG
OF FATHERS AND SONS
JANET TAY speaks with novelist and short-story writer BRIAN LEUNG about his first novel, Lost Men, a heartfelt story about a father and son, separated for years, and their struggle to establish a connection
BRIAN LEUNG was born and raised in San Diego, California, a somewhat unlikely location given that his mother was born in Battleground, Washington, and his father escaped from China in 1949. For many years, Leung lived in Los Angeles, where he studied the city’s kinetic diversity and found his literary voice. The intersections of disparate lives are a hallmark of his fiction. His acclaimed story collection, World Famous Love Acts, shows a remarkable range of characters, each powerfully delineated. A testament to his storytelling, the collection won the Mary McCarthy Prize in Short Fiction and the Asian American Literary Award. Since 2000, Leung has taught in Cincinnati, Los Angeles, and now in Louisville, where he is an assistant professor of creative writing at the University of Louisville, Kentucky.
Here’s the complete interview:
Identity seems to be an important, if not the most important, theme in Lost Men. Westen Chan’s journey is obviously one in which he seeks to find his own identity—not just in a cultural sense through his father’s roots, but also his role as a son as well as discovering his own sexuality in the process. I’d like to explore this theme of identity from the cultural aspect. How important do you think a surname is in defining someone who is a product of an interethnic marriage? For example, would it make a great difference to a person who is half-Chinese and half-Caucasian whether his or her surname is American/English or Chinese? In your novel, Westen Chan is sometimes referred to as Westen Gray. Is there any significance in this interchangeable usage?
Perhaps a place to begin answering your questions would be to mention that it has become more and more common in the United States for newly married women to retain their maiden names, or to hyphenate the maiden name with their husband’s surname. So clearly, for many, the surname does hold some power in and of itself over the individual.
For me, certainly I have often reflected on my fortune, that as a male I carry my father’s Chinese surname, and so a signal is sent to those who encounter this name which seems to contradict my white appearance. So, part of the active claim I make over my cultural and ethnic heritage has always had a kind of stamp of legitimacy through my surname.
As for Westen, I’m not so sure his names are interchangeable. “Chan” is taken away from him as a child and replaced with “Gray.” He explicitly doesn’t have my advantage I have appreciated in having the surname Leung. Westen is rendered “blank” by the change of surname, or literally “gray,” leaving him in the position of having to fight for every scrap of his identities.
If you doubt the power of a surname, I invite you to change your surname to Hitler or Bin Laden.
Do you think American Chinese today are still finding it difficult to fit into American society, and if so, why, considering there are no longer language barriers and integration appears to be extensive? For example, the exchange between one traveller Hank and Westen:
“What I mean,” Hank says, “is that you got to be Chinese and look white.”I suspect that American Chinese in many ways follow the same trajectory as most American immigrants. That is, there is an initial period of cultural clustering when one first arrives in America. Think of New York’s famous Euro-ethnic neighbourhoods in the early to mid-20th century. Although these neighbourhoods still contain their essences, the children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren of those first arrivals have almost wholly assimilated and shaped the larger American culture.
[...] “And what exactly did that get me?”
“None of that prejudice shit. No Chinaman crap. I’ve had to put up with it for years. It ain’t what maybe the blacks got, but still.”
What Hank is referring to in the passage you quote is that he has Chinese features, while Westen does not, and it’s a benefit not to stand out. He admits that certainly African-Americans are more easily singled out and more often, but that a person with Asian features also stands out in a largely Anglo-looking society. This is no different than in almost every culture where the “other” is always a target.
Do you think children from interethnic marriages eventually become dominated by the culture of one parent over the other, or is there a middle ground, and if so, what or where is it?
This is a difficult question because in the U.S., it’s rare for a child to choose one parent’s “culture” over the other. The truth is, it’s more likely for that child to assimilate into the larger American culture, as I mentioned earlier. Right now, for example, I have a student of Chinese descent and another of Thai descent, and if you spoke to either of them on the phone you’d be hard pressed to identify their ethnic backgrounds. I might add here that Westen’s difficulty is that he was raised as Chinese in his early years, and then he never got a chance to pursue, adapt, or reject that life.
Westen’s father says, “What no one can see is that you are Chinese inside.” What does this mean exactly, the definition of what it means to be Chinese in this context?
Xin’s kindness in the moment you suggest is a hint that he understands that his son does not look Chinese to others. At the same time, he has raised Westen close to Chinese culture which is something someone holds inside. Upon reflection, I have to say that I love this moment because readers of the novel will note that this interaction may very well be one of Xin’s most generous and loving acts, and it goes unappreciated. Without spoiling the plot, weaker men might have given up a son like Westen.
“Improbably, I thought, China would fix everything.” How is a place linked to identity? This is especially in relation to Westen’s identity since he had never been to China and had no links to it at all other than his father.
As you might recall, Westen’s first reaction to his father’s offer of a trip to China is negative. But something inside him, some long forgotten flame, renews at the thought. There was a time when he thought of himself as a son and Chinese. Perhaps, he thinks, he can rediscover this on a trip with his father. Naïve, to say the least, to think it might be that easy.
Westen’s eagerness to speak Chinese as a child—is this about identity or is it just a boy who wanted his father’s approval? How does one weigh Westen’s identity crisis and need for love from his father, or are they inextricably linked?
Don’t you imagine that young Westen correlates language and love? This is what I find problematic about the mother’s silenced English. Perhaps you might reflect on your own childhood and a parent you felt close to. What wouldn’t you have done to secure his or her love? In Westen’s case, sadly, he experiences betrayal, so the desire to get his father’s approval are tainted, and more than dormant. The roles are reversed in this novel. It is Xin who must work to get Westen’s approval in order to reclaim his position as father.
I found it a bit strange that Westen and his father had gone on a group tour of China—my impression of group tours is that tourists only get to see the superficial parts of a country and not its real essence, its true spirit. Was this intentional, that Westen’s father had taken his son on a tour perhaps because he himself also didn’t know what China was anymore as he had been away from it for so long? How far do you think the landmarks that they had encountered were vital to help Westen understand his father’s roots, and in turn his own?
This makes me laugh for the truth of it. But we must first consider practicalities. China is an impossibly large country for one man to share with his son. Xin is from the Canton region, which is like me saying I’m from California in the U.S. If you visit me, I’m not qualified to give you a tour through the entirety of my country on my own.
On a deeper level, however, I believe you are sensing Xin’s tendency to find comfort in the formal. Certainly there is emotional safety for him in joining this group. The chances for confrontation are diminished. I don’t know if you have this phrase, but we sometimes use the term “crap shoot” as in the gambling game. Really, Xin is taking Westen on a trip that is a crap shoot, but at least the tour gives it form, or a container. This is a terrible comparison, but think about contacting an old boyfriend or girlfriend with whom you would like to renew a relationship. Would you invite them to meet you in a soybean field or in a restaurant?
Why did you use two narratives instead of one? How important is it for Westen’s father to also present his side of the story?
In the original drafts of the novel, there were actually three narratives. I’d included a kind of “god voice” which added random stories that had thematic resemblance to Xin and Westen’s interactions. Alas, even I had to admit I just wanted to slap that god voice and tell it to get back to the main story! However, you’ll be interested to note that the first and last sections are the grandchildren of that original god voice.
But as to your question, I felt like both Westen and his father had somewhat bitter or pathetic characteristics. If either one of them controlled the narrative alone, it’s likely most readers would dismiss their pain. But in these alternating first-person chapters, pettiness is somehow converted to sorrow, hardness becomes heartbreak, and so on. This is only possible because neither man “owns” the complete narrative. In fact, it is only complete if we hear them both simultaneously.
There is discussion of what a ‘real China’ or ‘real America’ is in the novel; what do those definitions mean to you personally?
I wouldn’t have written the novel if I knew the answer to this question! But, since I did write the novel, I will weigh in the best I can. When one travels abroad there’s often a preconceived notion of what the destination will offer. Then too, those destinations know the expectations of tourists, and they manufacture an experience to satisfy them. So much is about “production.” Westen isn’t really qualified to know what “real” or authentic China is, but he’s pretty sure it won’t be found in ancient temples and gardens or on shopping trips. An example of this dilemma is in Xian when he witnesses the awful stage production about the Silk Road and the Terracotta warriors. There are tourists who see the same production and think they’ve seen something culturally pure, whereas Westen feels like he’s just been served the equivalent of spoiled candy.
I suppose all this is to say, the only real experience one can have in any country is to avoid everything in the tourist guides, and instead, just live the life of a local for a couple of weeks. The best vacation, and most “authentic” experience I ever had was when I visited my cousin who lives in Barcelona. I basically just lived with her for a month, hung out with her friends, ate what they all ate, etc. No bullfights, no tour guides on buses. Maybe another way of thinking about this is to simply state that what makes a place real are the humans who occupy it.
Westen’s father says, “I did everything I could to forget rice fields and Hong Kong and Communism. I was going to construct myself as an American.” It does seem as if Chinese culture is something to be inherited, passed down from generation to generation, in this case from father to son, whereas an American identity is a construct. What are your views on that?
In the U.S., we always talk about assimilation. Each new immigrant group that has come here has assimilated into the culture, we like to think. But each of these groups has changed what we think of as American culture. So in this way, yes, American culture is a construct. It is malleable, obviously, and adapts. We are a young country, too, which allows for these kinds of subtle shifts. We might consider as well that there’s a belief, however accurate or inaccurate, that any person can be what they want here, and this encourages citizens to construct themselves.
In your opinion, what is it going to take for American culture or society to experience integration in the true sense of the word, for example, being able to dispel prejudices or preconceived ideas of a seemingly alien culture, although it can hardly be said to be alien anymore since American Chinese started to emigrate to America in the 19th century?
Like all animals, humans are competitive. I suppose that originally this competitiveness was merely about resources, like the way a pride of lions might share a zebra kill among themselves but not with another pride. And they wouldn’t let that pride intrude on their hunting grounds.
So that is we humans, too, one cooperative tribe wanting a bit more land or access to water or crop land (or oil) and trying to seize it from another tribe. But how do we justify this? History shows us that we turn our enemies into the “other” and inflate our own tribe’s innate superiority. Hitler did it. The Confederacy did it when it started the American Civil War, which in itself was largely about one tribe seizing another. I speak here of African slaves, of course. Though one can’t avoid noting that Europeans sent ships and armies to North and South America and wiped out dozens of millions of indigenous peoples in search of treasure. And look now at how a number of Europeans are being openly hostile about the presence of Muslims in their respective countries. Japan invaded China. China is altering Tibetan culture and has massive prejudices against such minority populations.
So, really, what you speak of isn’t an American problem so much as a human one. In the U.S. perhaps it crops up more prominently because the U.S. is literally built and defined by immigrants. At times it is ugly, but if perfect harmony is at all possible, it will have to first come with the acknowledgement from our citizens that the U.S. is not meant to be a white Christian nation. And then maybe we can dispense with the idea that there must be a pecking order. Because the prejudices you suggest aren’t just white against minorities, they are reversed, too, and even minority against minority.
A more realistic view is that all of humankind can only address prejudice by putting out each fire when it begins to rise, understanding that there will always, always be flames ready to burst.
How different is this first novel from your collection of short stories, World Famous Love Acts, in terms of themes that you’d dealt with in both books?
It’s interesting that this question follows the previous, because the project of the collection was to create a polyphonic experience. That is, the stories are populated with voices belonging to males, females, heterosexuals and homosexuals, older voices, younger ones, a porn actress, an African-American boy, a Chinese egg rancher, a man with AIDS, etc. There is no “other” in that book, which is kind of the point. We’re all “other” and we all occupy multiple subject positions.
With the novel, I focus on a character who isn’t able to embrace any identity. For him, Westen, being “other” would be a step up. So his mission is to rediscover what it means to be Chinese, as he is half, and what it means to be a son, as his father abandoned him when he was young. And then, too, the history of his emotional life includes a relationship with a woman, and later, with a man, neither of which are consummated nor permanent. The Father, Xin, arrived in the U.S. and specifically tried to wipe away his Chineseness in favour of becoming Americanised, but then he wants to raise Westen, their son, as Chinese as possible. The contradictions are clear. After his wife dies, Xin makes the mistake of thinking his son would be better off being raised by his white relatives. Twenty-five years later, he must try to be a father again, and in one last grand gesture, show Westen China.
I guess the first book, in total, is about being, whereas the novel is about becoming.
You are an Assistant Professor at the University of Louisville in Kentucky and also teach Asian-American writing. Who do you regard as the most important influences on Asian-American writing and ones you would recommend to and teach your students?
There is really such an explosion of fine Asian-American writing it’s hard to pin down firm recommendations without feeling like I’m leaving important people out. For me, a good starting place is Jessica Hagedorn’s Charlie Chan is Dead: An Anthology of Contemporary Asian American Fiction. For American writers it gives a really excellent perspective on the Asian stereotypes that thrived in the 20th century and the possibilities of moving beyond them. There is the wonderful poet Li-Young Lee, and Ha Jin, and the touchstone feminist Maxine Hong Kingston. Rattawut Lapcharoensap’s Sightseeing is an amazing book. Lan Samantha Chang is important, as is Susan Choi. I should mention here that I also recommend that Asian-American writers become familiar with the programming of the Asian-American Workshop in New York. Their programming is amazing.
The inevitable question—which authors do you read when you take a break from writing?
I mainly read short fiction, to be honest, because I think stories are much more satisfying and varied than long forms. However, to list some names, Annie Dillard, Junot Díaz, Kate Braverman, Brock Clarke, Scott Russell Sanders, Ursula K. Le Guin, ZZ Packer, Li-Young Lee, Cormac McCarthy and Annie Proulx. This is not a complete list by any means. And because I grew up in Southern California, you might understand that I watch one or two films a week.
Any chance you can talk about your next novel or project that you’re working on?
We spoke of American prejudices, etc., earlier, and I responded with a more global interpretation. But it’s interesting for me to tell you that my current novel project is due to my editor in the spring of 2009 and it centres around an actual event in 1885. Twenty-eight Chinese miners were massacred in Wyoming by an angry mob caught up in the anti-Chinese labour sentiments of the time. I’ve had to do a lot of primary archival research in Wyoming, San Francisco and Los Angeles. I’m not so much writing about the event, but how one young woman and one young man are affected by it. She’s white and he’s Chinese and one of them dies.
JANET TAY is a litigation lawyer by training, but decided to leave the legal profession to pursue her first love—books and writing. She is now a book editor at MPH Group Publishing in Kuala Lumpur. She is also working towards a Master’s degree in English Literature at Universiti Malaya, Kuala Lumpur. She is the co-editor of Urban Odysseys: KL Stories (MPH Group Publishing, 2009).