Liquid Ink

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


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Reading in Oak Park, IL next week 

Next Thursday, Feb. 18, I’ll be reading at The Looking Glass Bookstore in lovely Oak Park, IL.  The Looking Glass is a gorgeous bookstore, only two years old, located less than a block from the Oak Park Avenue Blue Line station.

The details:

The Looking Glass, 823 S Oak Park Avenue, Oak Park, IL. 7:00. 

There are two quality pubs down the street, and I hope to join some friends and strangers for a beer afterwards. Hope to see 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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The Fugue is now available! 

Dear friends, my novel, The Fugue, is now available for worldwide purchase. I know that fans of Finding The Moon in Sugar will find The Fugue an engaging, challenging but also deeply rewarding read. If you’ve never read my work before, The Fugue is a great place to start. 

So…where can you get the book? 
If you’re in Chicago, I hope you’ll come to my book launch reading and gathering. It’s Dec 17th at 6:30 at City Lit Books. Click on the hyperlink for more details.

Of course, you can order it anywhere books are sold. I encourage readers to support their local indie bookstore. Also, know that The Book Table in Oak Park will be selling signed copies of The Fugue at a discounted price of under $15, AND they ship in the USA. 

The Book Table
1045 Lake Street
Oak Park, IL 60301
(001) 708.386.9800

Obviously, Amazon’s got it. If you do t live near an indie bookstore, or you’re outside the USA and don’t like reading books on Kindle or an iPad, these links will take you to the book.

Amazon USA

Amazon UK

Amazon Germany (Ships to Lithuania!) 

Amazon France

Amazon Japan

Thanks so much for your interest and support. 

  


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How I landed my book deal (in only 15 years)

I’m happy to announce that the pre-launch for my upcoming novel, The Fugue, is underway. You can find pre-order information here at the CCLaP website. I also encourage people to check out what kind words Jason Pettus, CCLaP’s owner, left on the novel’s Goodreads page. “This is the literary novel for those who love literary novels…”

The Fugue started out back in 2000 when I was a student in New York. One night I wrote a vignette titled “Juri’s Window”. Juri was a painter and sculptor living in Amsterdam, perhaps in the mid 90’s, where he collected unemployment benefits and sculpted from trash. The vignette was simple: a description of a window Juri put together out of glass bottles and the remains of a discarded fence. I looked at it as a writing exercise.

But this character pestered me, kept appearing in my work. Soon the name had changed to Yuri, and he had a family, a girlfriend. Later, I moved him from Amsterdam to my hometown of Cicero, and his family gained a complex history of flight and displacement. Eventually he’d been accused of arson and murder. I realized I had a novel.

I messed around with various drafts for years. But in the summer of 2006, at that time working in Bloomington, Indiana, I felt the book, clocking in at about 135,000 words, was finished, and I started trying to sell it, going about it in the traditional way, sending cold queries to strangers.

Mind you, obsessed with The Fugue, I had not published a single piece of short fiction at that point. I don’t know how many rejection letters I collected—for a while I had been assembling them in a scrapbook, but in time I had no place to put them, and far from motivating me, they were just trash mail, most of them the usual form rejections. What kept me writing queries were the nibbles. This Midtown agent asked for the first 50 pages; that Chelsea editor asked for the manuscript. Now another agent wanted the whole thing. After reading, she told me her colleague might be a better fit and forwarded the text along.

The people who read it in whole or part all said about the same thing: “You don’t have a platform, and this book’s too difficult to market.” I took to heart that they didn’t say, “Your writing is shit.” It left me enough to maintain the feeling that I could be a writer. But I hung up The Fugue as a failure and set it under the bed, so to speak.

In the summer of 2007, I started writing Finding the Moon in Sugar, a project that occupied the years leading up to my first child’s birth in 2009. And then I took on smaller writing assignments, including a stint with The Good Men Project.

Part of the reason I self-published Finding the Moon in Sugar was to get my name out there. I wanted to have something gripping but fun to read from during events, and I thought the best way to learn how to market a book—a work of literary fiction, to the point—was to get out there and try to do it.

Last autumn, 2014, I was reading from Finding the Moon at RUI, a reading series here in Chicago. I hoped, at best, to sell a couple of copies, maybe learn about some new writers. At the bar, Sheffield’s, I ended up sitting next to a man, Jason, who had a lot to say about selling books. Turned out he had a publishing house. After my reading—I read the scene when Andy hears opera music for the first time—Jason asked me if I had any short stories. Sure, I said. I have plenty. But when I checked out his website, I figured, what the hell. Maybe I’ll tell him about The Fugue.

This holiday season, the book that started out as a vignette will hit the shelves and e-readers. In anticipation, have a look at the cover. It’s gorgeous:

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Another blurb for The Fugue

The advanced reading copy of The Fugue is almost done. While anticipating how it will look, I received this humbling blurb from Alan Ziegler.

A character in The Fugue describes the eponymous musical form as having melodies “weave together like braids or plaits, then split up and come back together again.” One of Gint Aras’s many achievements in this constantly compelling novel is to propel the reader back and forth in time, encountering several generations of characters (mostly congregants and clergy at St. Anthony’s in Cicero) in various permutations with each other and in relationship to a house fire, the central act of violence (and many subsidiary affronts) that bind and break them. 
 
Set in the Lithuanian community during the decades following World War II, The Fugue is partly a “whodunit,” but is more concerned with the steps leading up to and fallout from what’s been done. Aras is a master with dialogue (especially when characters are inarticulate with each other) and details. We vicariously experience such acts as converting beer bottles “into a crude stained glass,” writing with an antique fountain pen, eating, playing and composing music, and sculpting from scrap metal, seemingly innocuous details Aras exploits to accentuate evil and surprise us with good. Aras doesn’t sugar-coat the agonies—great and small—endured and perpetuated by his cast; rather, he spices them in such a way that you feel the bite on your tongue and remain hungry for more. Amidst shattered lives, it is still possible for broken pieces to find each other and make something beautiful.
 
The Fugue is scheduled for release on December 7th, 2015.
A view of the Lithuanian wayside cross beside St. Anthony's Parish School, Cicero, Illinois.

A view of the Lithuanian wayside cross beside St. Anthony’s Parish School, Cicero, Illinois.


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Five months from book launch

I’m unable to take it for granted. Each time I tell people, “I have a novel coming out in December,” I get a little buzzed up.

I reread the book one more time over the last two weeks of July, cutting a phrase here and adding a word there. When I completed it, I went out to water the garden. Dazed, I was transported back to my small room in New York City, right on the corner of Broadway and 113th, where I originally penned the first sentences of a short story—Yuri’s Window—that would eventually become The Fugue. The novel, all 120,000 words, set (mostly) in Cicero, Illinois and handling a cast of over a dozen characters, started out as a short story about a sculptor living in Amsterdam who made his own window frames and stained glass out of shattered beer bottles and pieces of fences. The first words were put to paper in late 2000.

The short story became a novel on the advice of several classmates at Columbia. Really, it was at the insistence of my teacher, David Plante, whose feedback saw me change the setting, that I started realizing I really did have a novel. Fifteen years later, that novel is going to be published.

I’ll be telling the story of how I wrote the book and what sort of ideas I played with, how long it took me to develop them. The story of how The Fugue was written is almost as interesting as the story the book tells: a sculptor is sentenced to prison for murdering his parents, and upon release returns to his hometown to convalesce and sift through memories, shattered narratives and the ongoing psychological effects of a World War. Over the span of the novel, the plot moves from a nondescript field in Western Ukraine, through the landscape of Chicagoland, eventually to extinguish itself at the back window of a bungalow, only seconds before the home’s conflagration.

There will be time to explore all that stuff.

In this post, I want to cut a question off at the pass. I know someone will ask: Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?

Yes. Don’t ever give up.

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