Liquid Ink

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


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The implausibility of a Great American Wall

I tried posting this article on Facebook, but I felt it did not get the proper traction, so I’m going to share it here on Liquid Ink. Some colleagues and I were discussing this over lunch. Does anyone understand what kind of engineering feat it would be to build a wall between Mexico and the USA? In the damn desert? With this state of political gridlock?

An engineer, Ali Rhuzkan, has chimed in, and his explanation makes obvious just how absurd all this bravado is about a wall between our countries. What do people think, that the Mexico-US border is like a street between Charlottenburg and the rest of Berlin?

Here are some of the article’s highlights:

  • This wall would contain over three times the amount of concrete used to build the Hoover Dam.
  • It would be greater in volume than all six pyramids of the Giza Necropolis.
  • The rebar necessary to reinforce the concrete would equal about 5 billions pounds of steel, or more than is contained in 4 Nimitz-class aircraft carriers.

Read the rest of Ali Rhuzukan’s article here.

Here’s a wall for you:

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Decency amounted to naïveté: An interview with Leland Cheuk

Leland

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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What’s my heritage? (Links to essays)

The Summer Literary Seminars are in their fifth day—fourth day of classes and lectures and readings—and the event has been fantastic. It’s a privilege to attend once again (this time with my little girl).

I’ve noticed that a lot of traffic from the SLS website has found its way here to Liquid Ink, and students are perusing my photos and blog entries. Last night I got into conversations with some students who asked about my connection to Lithuania.

Here’s an essay I wrote about my grandparents’ flight from Lithuania in the 40’s. It’s titled Displacing Forces, and was originally published in Dialogo magazine out of DePaul University.

Here’s the blog post that has gotten the most traffic in the history of my blog. It also says something about my heritage. You will not need to remember what happened in the London summer Olympics to catch its drift.

Cheers.

Photo: Twilight in Vilnius

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Advice for Republicans

I wish I had beaten Bret Stephens of the Wall Street Journal to the ideas he expresses in this article. To those too lazy to read it, I’ll summarize: He’s asking conservatives to stop fretting over other people’s sex lives and their (bourgeois, ha!) demands for marriage rights. He suggests that the fuss over abortion has become extreme. He presents a good question: “What’s so awful about learning Spanish?” and points out that immigrants—specifically Spanish-speaking ones—show values most of us identify as American. That ringing you hear right now is the echo from my applause: he’d like future conservative presidential and congressional candidates to pass an exam of basic knowledge and take an IQ test. He defends himself, claiming it’s not flippant. I agree with him.

Here’s the question: Why can’t the intelligent, rational, pragmatic wing of the Republican Party become the party’s undisputed central voice? Why don’t those pragmatics take serious issue with the hysterics, the ones barely able to accept the president’s humanity? We are far away from the political environment necessary for a presidential candidate of either party to dismiss American Exceptionalism (although that day is inevitable, and should be welcome). But a Democrat does not need to pitch himself to quite the same group of fringe thinkers, to people who need reality distorted in order to feel “right”. If you’re among those claiming, “But the president is an extremist, a communist, an alien, a Muhammad, a Trotsky, a Stalin, a Hitler! He believes in holes in the sky!” realize that you’re part of the wing that’s causing the problem. Your voice has been exhausting from the start.

At the end of his piece, Stephens suggests Republicans had spent four years listening to echoes of themselves. He suggests they “change the channel for a while.” I have a more advanced suggestion. Isn’t it time to change the talking heads? Is it really a threat to the party to find some secular professor, a student of Smith, and put him on TV to host a show? Would Republicans refuse to coalese around a host who claimed, unabashedly, to be an intellectual or presented himself, at minimum, as a pragmatic thinker. Aren’t we past the point where we find loud-mouthed bullies either entertaining or quintessentially American?

If Republicans took Stephens’ advice and changed the channel (for a long time), they’d go away. But we must demand they be replaced by someone who isn’t going to distort reality, demonize anyone or blather on about rape. I hope this election has shown that each side of the political aisle and every layer in each coalition is sick of that stuff.