Liquid Ink

The official website of Gint Aras, Finalist 2016 CWA Book Award


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Talking on WGN tonight with Rick Kogan and Kate Wisel

Followers of Liquid Ink, no matter where they find themselves on the planet, can tune in to WGN today, November 10th, at 22:00 CST (GMT -6) to hear me on After Hours with (Chicago radio legend) Rick Kogan. WGN Radio is 720 AM local to Chicago, or you can live stream the station at this link.

I’ll be joined by Kate Wisel, author of Driving in Cars with Homeless Men, described on the book jacket as a love letter to women moving through violence. 

Driving in Cars with Homeless Men is available anywhere books are sold. If you happen to be in Chicago, City Lit Books in Logan Square currently has it on the shelf.

Given the topics of Relief by Execution (domestic violence, fascism, genocide and identity collapse) and Kate’s theme of violence against women, this should make for a provocative hour of radio.

Live stream here.

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Photo of Rick Kogan from the Chicago Help Initiative.

 

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The Heart is a Lonely Hunter

I wonder why I freeze up whenever I’m asked the question, “What books are your favorite?” It happened again the other day when a Lithuanian reporter wanted to know about my literary influences. My mind went blank for a few minutes. Oddly, I’ll often feel a sense of mild panic.

Perhaps it’s that the truth sounds cliché. “I love Dostoevsky.” I love the big books about universal ideas. I often wish I had something more creative or exotic to say than this. Perhaps it’s that, when I read the lists produced by other writers, I find so many titles that are new to me. I feel I don’t have new titles to share, only the ones that people already know.

Of course, that’s not true. It just seems true because my favorite books stay with me, permanent parts of my consciousness, invisible to me, in a way, as they shade the lens of my perception. Still, shouldn’t I be able to just rattle them off immediately, and with pride? And why is it that I remember books I love often hours, sometimes days after I’m asked, “What books do you love?”

The book I love about as much as any other but usually forget, like the child I know can do well enough on their own, is Carson McCullers’ The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. I first learned about this book in 1999 while teaching reading in Ann Arbor. I was struck by the title: a sentence, one I believed I understood immediately.

This book is perhaps the one that had the strongest influence on me in the years before I started writing The Fugue. For many years, I used it in college English classes, long before I had gathered that “fiction shouldn’t be used” (It should…read about that here!). In fact, The Fugue borrows (or…depending on your take…steals) McCullers’ episodic structure of vignettes that add up to a novel . Anyone who knows the book and reads The Fugue will sense further influence, no small homage to this unbelievable book.

The characters are so deep and interesting, so colorful yet also ordinary, obviously from the same town, one that’s thoroughly Southern but could exist in most parts of America. A deaf mute who works in a jewelry store. A young girl who aspires—her aspiration tragic from the get go—to be a classical musician. A roughneck who wants to organize labor but seems unable to work. An abusive Greek epicure. The owner of a diner, a finite observer with enormous emotional baggage. A black communist. His prophet-like daughter. Another woman obsessed with making her daughter into a Hollywood doll (a daughter eventually maimed by a boy with a gun). An overbearing wife harboring a tumor the size of an infant.

The themes? Poverty. Race. Suicide. Sexuality. Homosexuality (kinda) and asexuality (maybe) and hypersexuality (oddly). Femininity. Opulence. Self-aggrandizement. Masculinity. Codependence. Alcoholism. Western Civilization. Philosophy. Domestic violence. Identity (spiritual, cultural, national…pick a number). Communication. Silence. The Heart is a Lonely Hunter only appears to be a portrait of a community but is, in fact, a deep and ever-searching philosophical novel.

I’m writing this post to remember placing The Heart is a Lonely Hunter at the top of my list of favorite and influential books next time I speak to someone about it. Also, if you’ve never read it, here’s one to put on your list for 2016.

 

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Decency amounted to naïveté: An interview with Leland Cheuk

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Leland Cheuk has titled his novel The Misadventures of Sulliver Pong perhaps in jest. The novel is a faux prison memoir composed by Sulliver, or Sully, documenting four generations of mis-adventuring Pong men: Chinese-American migrants and their offspring. They work mines and railroads, invent video games, run brothels, casinos and—in the case of Saul Pong, Sulliver’s narcissist father—an entire town.

Most of the action takes place in the fictitious (hilariously named) Bordirtoun, population 157,000. Bordirtoun is surrounded by mountains, crossed by two rivers, and sits right on the Mexican border.

Sulliver is at once tragic and comic. His self-awareness allows him self-deprecation, but he can’t avoid his ancestors’ misadventures. A gargantuan loser, he’s unable to communicate, have sex without injury, find stable employment or play a good card. Tragically, Sully seeks, not to be present anywhere, but to be absent from Bordirtoun, something he can’t achieve even by marrying a Danish woman and living in Copenhagen.

The novel is multi-layered, at once satirical and historical, concerned with male identity and the Chinese-American experience. Among Cheuk’s many achievements is the portrait of a narcissist father, an asshole so insufferable that it hurt my stomach to read about him.

I had a chance to talk to Cheuk about the book.

Your novel is a critique of American capitalism, a system where a local politician can also be tycoon and pimp, and few people see any contradiction. To me, Bordirtoun resembled the world of a dictator, Saul’s portraits and statues everyplace, including the airport. Why did you choose to make Saul so malignant in his self-absorption?

I was inspired by Coen Brothers’s films like Fargo and No Country For Old Men, in which larger-than-life villains threaten to overwhelm the innocent, virtuous, and/or inept (in the case of Sulliver). Sully’s dad, Saul, is an absurdist amalgam of my father, the President of Turkmenistan (Saparmurat Niyazov, and his golden statue that rotates with the sun), and P.T. Barnum. A more recent analog, of course, is Donald Trump. Saul grew out of the novel’s aesthetic: part-absurdism, part-realism.

My father is very much like Saul. He risked his life to come to America with nothing when he was 29. By his mid-40s, he was a self-taught engineer working at a big Silicon Valley telecom company, and he owned a real estate firm. As a toddler, I remember mom working at Taco Bell and in sweatshops. By the time I was a teen, we lived in a 3,000 square-foot house in the suburbs, and it seemed like dad bought a new Mercedes every year. He liked to show off his wealth in gauche ways, like a lot of immigrants who come from nothing.

Like Saul, dad was chronically unfaithful to my mother. Like Saul, he won all the fights with her with his fists. I have no recollections of him teaching me to be decent. Like Saul, he often claimed that decency amounted to naïveté, and to survive and thrive, you had to cheat. He would threaten to send me back to China, said I’d have to use my wits to survive there.

I’m the son of displaced persons, and grew up in an enclave, so your narrative’s really familiar. But I can’t say I’ve encountered it very often in Asian-American novels.

I think the dark side of the Asian-American immigrant experience is underwritten or underpublished. It seems like “diaspora” writers feel compelled to write about the complicated but well-intentioned person of color. With Saul and Sulliver, I wanted to go a different direction and stay true to my lived experience.

For my parents’s generation, domestic violence and philandering are accepted. Casual racism, sexism and homophobia are accepted. To me, that’s not okay. I didn’t want to gloss over any of those truths with an “Oh, they’re hard-scrabble immigrants…” or “Oh, it’s just the Asian culture…” subtext. An asshole is an asshole in any culture, methinks.

Are my dad and Saul assholes because of…or in spite of…becoming American? Did they misinterpret or distill and absorb America’s capitalistic values? Those questions interest me as a writer. I’m pretty sure I’ll spend the rest of my life trying to answer them.

Sully also has narcissistic traits, not least of which is his inability to communicate his feelings to those he cares about. Do you feel there’s an antidote to narcissism for the sons of narcissists, or are they doomed in a way?

I would say the book’s plot leans toward the latter, but in reality every moment is an opportunity to change, and every generation evolves. I would bet on Sully changing, even as he continually claims to be doomed to repeat his family’s mistakes.

Personally, I’ve considered it a great life achievement to have avoided my father’s bad deeds. I’ve tried to live free of empire-building, its emotional toll on relationships. I have tried what Saul suggests: learn only from my father’s good traits. But his behaviors have probably seeped into mine in ways I’m not conscious of.

For much of the novel, Sully is running against this father in a race for mayor. He’s not really motivated to win the race for himself but simply to topple his father’s empire, expose him as a fraud. In your view, is that a flaw in his character or a strength? 

It’s most certainly a flaw. They call it government service for a reason. Any politician should be serving the people and be willing to sacrifice for his/her constituents.

Sulliver is in way over his head. At the risk of being topical, I liken Sulliver’s motivations during the mayoral race to him being seduced by The Dark Side of The Force. If we wanted to be a Jedi, Sully would have had to run for mayor with the intent of being a better mayor than his father. Instead—excuse another contemporary reference—Sully broke bad.

I get that, but there’s a greater mission in the mayoral race: If Sully wins, he can foil his father’s plan to displace Bordirtoun’s poor. Sully needs to overcome himself just to run, because he seems overwhelmed by most any situation. An old lady steals his bike. Sex injures him. In a way, he gets past some portion of his complacency, even if the race leads to his own demise. I guess I’m wondering if you think Sully has a redeeming quality that isn’t ironic. Doesn’t he?

I definitely identify closely with Sully, and I would say that his most redeeming quality is his awareness of right and wrong. At the highest level, for the most part, he intends to do to the right thing. But as the cliché goes, God is in the details. Sully’s not so good with those.

 

Photo provided  by Leland Cheuk.


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No more NFL for me

This past weekend I watched my last NFL game. The game has been bothering me for a long time, but I always stopped short of shutting off the tube, deluding myself that it was enough to be mindful of the game’s flaws. Being a fan has provided me with wonderful experiences and memories, even friendships. But I can no longer associate myself with this culture.

I am not a former high school player. I don’t see how it matters. Yes, I buy the arguments about how football builds character and responsibility. But plenty of cultures (er…all except Canada?) do not play American football, and plenty of American children never put on pads. You can’t possibly believe the vast majority of human beings  are irresponsible and lack character.

Gardening builds character. So do chess, meditation and swimming. Ballet teaches responsibility, discipline, body control, focus, determination, fitness, respect for one’s body, healthy expression of oneself, and ballet dancers perform through pain. Those lessons and that kind of perseverance are common to many activities, especially when performed by someone serious about them. American football, as a culture and society, offers no unique or superior lesson. Those football players I knew in high school and college who felt superior were sadly, tragically deluded.

Yes, most athletes, whatever the sport, are decent people. Some are less than angelic. We should look up to them with caution, and deifying them is foolish. Make your arguments about hockey thugs and footballer (I mean soccer) goons, many full of themselves. If you love American football so much that you’re willing to look past this latest cover up, to rationalize it away, or even to blow it off as unimportant, your certainty should not motivate you to argue with a guy who’s stepping away from consuming the sport. Neither you nor the game will miss me. My absence will have no effect.

And that’s exactly the point. If we’re angry and offended but continue to watch, it’s hard to convince anyone we’re all that angry or offended. If we keep the game on, our offense, large as it might be, will still remain smaller than whatever positives we believe football provides.

As a fan of the sport and long-time supporter of this league, therefore a participant in its culture, often a consumer of its advertised goods, I’m being asked to define the positives. Are they available in no other community or space? Is there no way to disassociate myself from an organization that pooh-poohs domestic violence? That question is inescapable, and the answer is obvious.

They won’t care about our protests or any noise we make. They will only care when the cost of a Super Bowl ad skydives. This year, even in the aftermath of the recent scandal, I predict the price will have risen since last February. And that will show what we truly value.