The following interview took place via Zoom and has been edited for clarity.

A MacDowell and Hawthornden Castle Fellow, Leland Cheuk is an award-winning author of three books of fiction, most recently the novel NO GOOD VERY BAD ASIAN (2019). Cheuk’s work has been covered in BuzzfeedThe Paris Review, VICESan Francisco Chronicle, and elsewhere, and has appeared or is forthcoming in publications such as NPRThe Washington PostSan Francisco ChronicleSalon, among other outlets. He is the founder of the indie press 7.13 Books. You can follow him on Twitter @lcheuk and at

You can buy Leland Cheuk’s books at his Bookshop!

Berkeley Fiction Review: In one of your most recent texts, No Good Very Bad Asian, what themes or thoughts in particular were really important for you, personally, to examine in your piece?

Leland Cheuk: The main character is a stand-up comedian, and I just wanted to explore identity through an art form. In stand-up comedy, identity is everything when you hit the stage. The first thing that people see and expect out of you from the crowd is: they look at you and you’re Asian. You’re Asian first. So they expect you to tell the Asian joke, which I thought was interesting from an artistic perspective because it’s not the same when you’re writing books. 

My name is somewhat Asian, I guess. If people know that it is, then they would expect something out of me, but I don’t feel this weight of expectation with regards to race that you would if you’re on the screen. I’m sure this is true for actors as well. You can’t just be anything, you can’t do anything, and you can’t tell just any joke when you first get up on stage. It’s like you have to jump over that hurdle of identity, and I thought that was kind of fascinating to explore. In the novel there are a lot of familiar conflicts: his parents are not very supportive of him pursuing an art form, but he does it anyway. That was true for me, personally. I definitely had a long time of conflict with my parents with regards to my aspirations to write, so this was something I could really connect to on an individual level. I wanted to explore both race and identity, and then also these cultural aspects of “you can’t just do anything you want” within your own culture. Those are the two things that really drove the book.

BFR: Yeah. Many authors have mentioned the struggle to ensure that a character’s identity isn’t erased or overwhelmed by larger literary structures like race. According to many of your readers and many reviews, you’ve done an extraordinary job in distinguishing Sirius from the racial problems that he faces. Would you have any advice for any aspiring authors out there, who want to write about their cultural background or history but struggle to balance the story’s focus on their characters and large structures?  

Leland Cheuk: Yeah, there’s certainly a lot of talk about larger structures in academia right now. I would say that we talked about it back when I was in college as well, [but] in slightly different terms. Part of creating Sirius was that I really wanted him to stand out as an individual. He had his own sense of humor, which is different from a lot of people’s sense of humor: it’s kind of harsh. And in parts of the book, it’s very much like he’s got the internalized racism thing going, but he’s a stand-up comedian, so his job is to just process that on stage and say things that probably would get him canceled these days. I think [that authors need to keep] in mind that you are more than the structures, and this is something I’m still writing about now—I’m working on a collection of stories that talk about how structures impact the individual. Keep in mind that you are kind of an amalgam of all these things: you take pieces of the structure, they become part of you as an individual person, and you have an individual identity as well. That’s separate and part of the structures. As a critic, I read a lot of books that are by people of color and dealing with identity, and I feel like a lot of them kind of ignore that aspect of it. They forget to create the individual. And I wanted—in my book—to create a really distinct individual who is both part of and separate from the structures at hand.

BFR: Yeah. Going off that: stories about different cultures, or stories written by people of color, are very important and also necessary for society today. Being a part of Berkeley Fiction Review, I’ve read a lot of different short stories that portray different cultures or different minority communities. It really opened my eyes to becoming more aware and learning about these different cultures and what kind of environment—whether it’s positive or negative—that these communities can develop. Would you mind telling us a little bit about your experience of being an Asian-American writer or a Chinese-American writer?

Leland Cheuk: Yeah, it’s been a long journey—that’s for sure. I’ve been doing it for 25 years, which is kind of insane when I think about it. I’ve been doing it longer than you’ve been alive [laughing], which is really weird to me. My writing life could be my own child [laughing]. I don’t know if that’s good or bad, but it was a long journey. The first 10-15 years, you know, I thought, “This is what makes me special.” As a person, it kind of does, but there are a lot of people who want to write. I feel like I neglected that part: where I didn’t exactly know why—other than wanting to establish my individual identity—I wanted to write so badly. 

Now that I’m older, I feel like I better understand the context of my drive to do the thing that I did. My grandfather was a writer; he lived in our house and helped raise us. My dad and my mom were working all the time like a lot of immigrant families. They were very driven and striving for material success, but they weren’t particularly happy in their marriage. That affected me greatly, I think. I always looked to my grandpa, who was just sitting at our dining room table, writing and researching. He was an essayist, and he wrote for Chinese language newspapers and stuff. He was always calm, never lost his temper. And I looked up to that—looked up to that person. I looked up to what he did. I didn’t know what he was writing, obviously, but he was a role model—the person who I wanted to be. I think that was part of why I wanted to write so badly. 

Then, as I’ve gotten older, I realized that part of why I wanted to write was to be part of this community—was to be around other writers, and be around other artists. That in itself is so much of what drives me to keep doing it day-in and day-out. I now know all these people who are also trying to do the same thing and are at various levels of success. Some people are very successful, and some people are still striving. We’re all kind of in the same boat. Just being on the playing field—among those players—makes me feel very warm and happy to be getting up at seven in the morning to actually keep doing this thing. But those are the two things: community and family.

BFR: I’m sure you’ve been asked this question many times already before, but how do you know when you’ve gone “too far” as an author—especially one who is writing comedy? As a Berkeley student, I know that many people believe we do need a certain level of “self-censorship” or “political correctness” even in comedy, as some jokes could unknowingly perpetuate toxic cycles of dismissing homophobia, continuing stereotypes, etc. Your novel seems to bring up this issue when Sirius resorts to making rather stereotypical jokes during his low points. 

Leland Cheuk: Yeah, he goes to the lowest common denominator. I did stand up comedy for three years to research for the book, and I was a very different type of comic than Sirius was. A couple of jokes—my jokes—do make it into the book, but I imagined Sirius as more of a working class comic. I’m not. I’ve worked in tech for many years. I came from privilege. My dad worked in tech—very white-collar family. Sirius was more of a blue-collar guy, and I wanted his comedy to reflect that—which could be more coarse, could be more straightforward, could be more fodder for cancellation. [His jokes] were more stereotypical, more of the easy laugh. I personally wasn’t that type of comic; I liked to be a little more nerdy about it—nerdy about joke writing. 

I’ve always thought that people tend to overthink the whole “self-censorship” piece. I think what’s generally going on is that jokes go out of style. Back in the ’90s, when you watched comedy, every comic had a rape joke. First, now, it’s offensive, but more than that, the offensive piece has become cliche. It’s been told too many times, and it doesn’t make people laugh anymore. People told it for shock value, and you got the shock laugh out of it; that only lasted for so long. Now, you got to find something else, and that’s the comic’s job. The comedian’s job is to find the next thing that will make people laugh. People can look at it as “self-censorship”; I just look at it as part of the comedian’s job to keep looking, keep searching, keep studying, keep finding what’s going to “hit” with the audience based on new societal standards.

BFR: One of the reasons we are so excited to have you as a guest judge for this year’s Sudden Fiction contest is that some of your own work fits into the Flash Fiction category. Despite the fact that you are probably more well-known for writing such intricate, reflective novels, you have also written a collection of short stories called Letters from Dinosaurs. These short stories, though, have a similarly startling level of racial and identity reflection. In your experience, what is the difference between writing novels and short stories? What is harder or easier to write? Do you have one that you prefer to write over the other? 

Leland Cheuk: I started out as a novelist and just writing novels, probably to my detriment. I feel like it’s good to bounce from form to form and practice different things. I kind of look at short stories and novels like in baseball. Novels are home runs, and short stories are singles and doubles—not to diminish the form in itself, because great short stories can do incredible things as well. But from a writer/career perspective, publishing in various journals—which I’ve done quite a bit now, been lucky enough to have a lot of stories placed—those are like hitting singles and doubles. Then, when you publish a novel, it’s a home run. You get the book tour, or you get the book events; you’re filling up bookstores, your friends are coming out, you’re signing books. 

That doesn’t really happen when you’re publishing in journals. When you’re publishing in journals, it’s like, “Ooh, you know. I’ll post about it on social, and that’s about it.” And you hope people read it. So I think doing all the things is important. I don’t know if there’s a difference. It’s just like you find an instinct where when you’re writing a novel, it’s got to be a novel-sized idea. When you’re writing a short story, it’s got to be a smaller idea—a smaller canvas. I often talk about a story in Letters From Dinosaurs, where it’s just an email thread in a fantasy baseball league. You would not be able to turn that into a novel, right? It’s just such a small premise. It’s such a small form that you would not be able to extend that over 250-300 pages. Its rightful place is a 10 page, 15 page form. I think, as you write more, you develop that instinct of what is the small idea and what is the big idea.

BFR: Wow, yeah. I know that you said earlier that you research for your novels. You mentioned for No Good Very Bad Asian that you did stand up comedy for three years. Was that solely for the novel—to prepare for it? Or was that just because you were always interested in comedy?

Leland Cheuk: I was interested in comedy more as a fan. I remember even in junior high, I was big into comedy. I remember writing an essay about humor [and] the healing power of laughter or something totally banal like that. I’ve always been interested in humor; it was a way for me to get girls to pay attention to me. I knew they wouldn’t be paying attention to me if I was just like any other person. So I was the class clown in the back, making snide comments, making girls laugh. 

Then I was in New York, and I realized very quickly that you could get into stand-up comedy very easily. In New York, there were a million places to perform, a gazillion open mics, and I just started getting into that scene—going out 2-3 nights, sometimes 4 nights a week and trying out material. I took a class as well to get started, and I got to know some people in the community. Some of them have gone on to do some pretty big things—appear on late night talk shows and stuff like that—but [for me] it was all for research. I think [doing so] actually helped because I didn’t have this consuming drive to make a career out of stand-up comedy. I didn’t really care if I had a bad night. The audience smells fear. If you have a stake in the game and stakes in your performance from night to night, people know you’re nervous. But if you just let it fly, you’re trying out jokes, you’re trying to do your best, and you don’t have that stake in the game, sometimes it can be beneficial just to relax the audience. And they’re more likely to listen to your stuff.

BFR: For your other work, did you do anything specific for research? Is there a process that you do to research or to set a foundation for what you’re gonna be writing about?

Leland Cheuk: During the time when I’m working on a book, I’m getting immersed. My first novel was very much like an extension of my family—a kind of an absurd version of my family. In The Misadventures of Sulliver Pong, there’s a Pong family. The dad is kind of like this corrupt Trump-like figure while the son is sort of like this kind of feckless, ineffective [person] who thinks he’s a good guy, but just isn’t very good at actually being a good guy, [laughing] which is kind of the way I saw my family and myself at the time. 

But now, I’m working on a grandpa novel, [about a grandpa] reflecting back on his life. The premise is sort of like Kindred, where we would switch places in time. A person like me would go back to pre-Cultural Revolution, and my grandpa spent time in a labor camp. He was designated a Rightist in 1957 and ended up going to a labor camp; my whole family ended up being connected [to] Rightists, which meant they were second-class citizens—which is why my parents ended up escaping China. But [in the novel] we would switch places: my grandpa in his 30s would show up in Brooklyn in 2016, and I would show up in the 1950s and end up in a labor camp. 

So [I had to do] a lot of research to get a pre-Cultural Revolution world right. I actually read a lot of what my grandfather would read. I have like 200 pages of his memoir translated from Chinese, which I paid a graduate student to do a few years ago. So I have a sense of his writing voice: what books he enjoyed reading and what inspired him. Then, of course, [I also have] his experience inside that camp. I have to supplement that by reading all kinds of books about that period. So there was this immersive reading period when I was drafting the novel, where I was reading everything my grandpa was inspired by—like Ba Jin’s The Family, and he really liked the Russians because they were also Communists. So, I was reading the Russians to get into his head a little bit more, to understand his reference points. So it’s just trying to do everything that you can to inhabit that person as much as possible.

BFR: That seems like [laughing] a LOT of work. 

Leland Cheuk: It is, it’s insane. I mean, not everybody would be like, “Oh, I’m writing a book about stand-up comedy. I’m gonna want to do it for three years.” For me, when it comes to art, I want to leave nothing on the table. I don’t want to think after the book comes out, “oh, I should have done that.” And unfortunately, you know, writing a book and getting it published is so hard that if you take a shortcut, one, it’s going to show and, two, it might affect whether or not it gets published. So you kind of have to go to that next level.

BFR: Going off of that, considering that you have so much to do—whether it’s academic research, memoir research, or even just researching stand-up comedy yourself—what does your day to day writing schedule look like? Do you have certain times allotted in the day to write?

Leland Cheuk: I get up at seven, I’m usually at it by 7:30. I usually get about an hour and a half before I have to go to work. I work in tech. I’m in marketing, I manage a team. That’s a solid, probably 50 hour week job. Balancing everything else that I do, like running my small publishing company, and reviewing books for The Washington Post, and NPR, and San Francisco Chronicle, and then the component with my own writing, I’m working all the time these days. 

So that said, for many years, I wasn’t working in jobs, just writing full time. That was great, too. There’s no real right way to do it. I feel like it’s whatever way that you can manage within your life; I don’t necessarily believe that writers should need to be a starving artist or need to do it all the time. I feel like people should go out and live their lives, and then you know, incorporate that into their writing—with discipline or with routine, you can get that stuff on paper and get quality work done.

BFR: I’m sure that you’ve had a writer’s block, considering that you are a professional author. I know that a lot of my friends—even when they’re just writing essays—struggle with writer’s block, and people who write short stories have also mentioned writer’s block before. Do you have any personal tricks to do to get through that kind of writer’s block?

Leland Cheuk: Yeah, you know, I sit every day and do it. Have I been hit with long periods of writer’s block? Probably not. It’s really more like, some days, you just don’t feel like doing it. Because some days you don’t—for whatever project you’re on—you just do not feel excited about it, or just don’t feel like you can get your mind into it. There are a couple of ways to deal with it. You can work on other projects that you do feel more excited about that day. Or you just start writing. I often have that particularly around book reviews. Sometimes I’ll read a book that I don’t love. I don’t even know what to say about it. I gotta write 800 words. It’s due in a few days, what do I say? And invariably, I just end up writing—just end up spewing thoughts and trying to shape it into something. I think a lot of writer’s block comes from your critical mind coming in. You have to give yourself the freedom to be bad—to be just like spewing things, to put things on a page whether it’s good or not. I feel like people get blocked when they start thinking, “Is this good? Or not good?” And then they stop. If you were just to write things that were good from the get-go, you probably wouldn’t ever write anything or you’d never finish anything.

BFR: That sounds about right, yes. Now, finally, we’ve reached the inevitable question that many of our readers are probably looking for. What makes a good flash fiction story for you? Is there anything in particular that you’ll be looking for in the entries that you’ll be reading?

Leland Cheuk: Yeah, I mean, like with any story, you want to be taken into a world that you haven’t been before—taken into a consciousness, into the mind of a person you’re unfamiliar with. That’s probably what I’m going to be looking for; that’s what I look for when I’m reading. Everybody, when they read a story or they read a book, on some level wants to be changed—for their lives to be changed, their perspective to be changed by that story. I feel like Flash [Fiction] in particular has the real ability to do that in a short amount of time. You dive right into it; you’re like, “holy cow, this is totally different. This is totally weird, and it totally works. It’s about a thing that I totally don’t know anything about.” I think that’s what I’m going to be looking for. You know you can’t waste time in Flash. The first couple of lines, they’ve got to hook and get you into that world right away, because you only have 1,000 words… But yeah, it’s gonna be getting the reader into that world that is unfamiliar to myself. Obviously, I read a lot, so there’s a lot of things that I’m too familiar with. So, I want to be surprised.

BFR: Last question, how can our readers stay up to date about what you’re doing? 

Leland Cheuk: You know, follow me on Twitter—that evil platform. Or just follow my website, which I don’t post on too often. Twice a year, I’ll pop in, and I’ll do a roundup of my publications. It’s Or just follow me on Twitter @lcheuk. 

Submit your under-1000-word story to the Berkeley Fiction Review for our 2023 Sudden Fiction contest! First, second, and third place finalists are published in the journal and receive prize money up to $150. Honorable mentions are published alongside the placed winners in the journal. There is a submission fee of $5.

To find out more about our 2023 Sudden Fiction Contest, head over hereThis Sunday, March 5, is the last day to submit!

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