Our Conversation with Brian Leung
Brian Leung is the author of the novels Lost Men, Take Me Home, and Ivy vs Dogg: With a Cast of Thousands!. His short-story collection, World Famous Love Acts, won the Asian American Literary Award and the Mary McCarthy Prize in Short Fiction. Born and raised in San Diego County, he is a Professor of Creative Writing at Purdue University as well as Core faculty at Vermont College of Fine Arts. All I Should Not Tell will be published by C&R Press in fall of 2021.
How did you begin writing?
There are a couple stages in my life. I would say that it started in first grade. Ms. Rogers had us compose a sentence with a picture, and I drew her saying goodbye to her mom who had just visited her and was flying out of town. I wrote “Wait for me!” She was touched by that. Of all the things that a little kid could write about, I was thinking about her.
I remember that moment because I could see that she was affected by it. In fourth grade, I had a teacher who, on a regular basis, would share my writing with the rest of the class. Then, I had a sense of audience.
To leap forward, a key moment where it wasn’t just about getting affirmation was when I was an undergraduate at California State University Los Angeles. I was privileged to have a class— one of my very first creative writing classes— with Kate Braverman.
In a lightning bolt moment during a workshop, she convinced me that it wasn’t my job to entertain people. It was my job to give a fuck about what I was writing. Right up until that moment, though I was a good writer, I was really thinking about what the live reaction would be. That was my classroom experience. But Kate wasn’t having it. She basically called me out in class, said that it wasn’t my career, and made me so angry that I fumed about it for a couple days before the next class.
I then wrote an imitation of her work with an original story idea. Just a few pages.
She started the next class and before two words got out of her mouth, I said, “Wait a minute. I want to read something.” I started reading my imitation. I was basically saying, “This is what you sound like. This is how you write.” She had a very recognizable style.
When I got done, I slammed the paper down on the table. I looked at her— she was sitting directly opposite of me in the classroom. I said, “Is that what you mean? Is that what you want?”
She was very composed and quiet. She just said, “yes.”
Another writer or person might have taken that moment as her saying, “Yes, I want you to imitate me. I want you to write exactly like me.”
But strangely, I knew that’s not what she meant. I knew she meant, get angry. Care about what you’re writing. Screw the jokes and entertainment, and just go for it.
It was a very great moment for me and she was a great teacher for me. But I’ll be honest and say that her pedagogy was not sound, because had I not been the right student, she would not have nurtured me. She would’ve just cut me loose. I witnessed that happen for others. But for me, that moment is marked. What I wrote after that moment was leaps and bounds stronger within a month.
That doesn’t mean I became publishable overnight or anything, but the content was way more compelling. And I’m still a joyful person. I didn’t lose out on that part.
Did you find that your topics changed, or your writing style? Or both?
Not consciously, but what I had done up to that point was identify what people responded to in popular culture. I basically reproduced that content.
In the piece that she objected to that week, I’d written a scene set in a Los Angeles gay bar. I think I made a couple of metaphorical references to men like vampires. It was a simulacrum. I don’t know whether the writing itself was good or bad, but I do know that it was almost as if it had been market-tested. I intuitively knew what people liked, what people read, and what people thought was funny. I wanted that kind of affirmation.
After that moment in Kate’s class, I was more interested in my own advocacy and not in affirmation. That was the early ‘90s. I had not written legitimately about being gay or anything to do with AIDs, or anything about my Chinese heritage and being biracial. None of that stuff. By “legitimately,” I mean that I had gay characters, but none you would care about. None who would provoke you to think differently.
I can see how that would be such a shaping experience. In your bio, you talk about living in Los Angeles, and how you studied the city’s “kinetic diversity and found your literary voice.” Can you tell me a bit about that process?
I discovered that a lot of the fiction I was reading, and which I liked, was very mono. The narrator existed in a sphere that lacked diversity— the diversity that would’ve actually been present in the character’s real life. For example, a novel about a character living in Los Angeles that makes no reference to the fact that Los Angeles has over 180 languages spoken there. Not even a nod to the true diversity?
Previously, I lived in San Diego county as well. I discovered that what was authentic to me was trying to pull in voices that were present, even if I didn’t share the subject position. Looking at younger Brian, I overstepped on a couple of occasions. I was so eager about my mission that I fell into the trap of appropriating other voices. One story that I wrote and published in a tiny magazine in Montana was a really well-intentioned and well-written— but ill-advised— story called “Yardwork.”
In my real life in Los Angeles, I went to a Home Depot. Outside the gates were men who were day laborers looking for work. Liberal-hearted Brian in his 20’s thought, “I should write a story from their point of view.”
Today, we would never put up with that. I wrote what I intended to be a very compassionate story about a Mexican-American day laborer whose wife works on the West side of Los Angeles as a housekeeper. They have a daughter who they hope will go to college. My attempt was tragic because I don’t occupy any of those subject positions and because I was clearly using a cliché narrative.
But at that moment, that was part of my learning process. I was trying to do the good work of not segregating and ignoring the reality of what it means to live in a multicultural city. I was young and stupid. It was not highlighted for me by anybody that doing that kind of work was inappropriate.
Today, if you wrote that piece, it would be almost impossible to take a class where your classmates and instructor would not say, “Your sentences are beautiful, but you can’t do this.”
I was just talking to author Blair Hurley the other day, and we were chatting about the limitations of fiction. Do you have any current thoughts about the importance of representation and where people overstep?
One of the questions you have to ask yourself is why? Why do you want to do the work? Is it performative? Is it a stunt? If those two things are true, then you’re not coming from the right place.
I think that writing as, writing in front of, or writing for, are not appropriate. It would be inauthentic and exclusionary for me to not represent the diversity I live in. In my own family, my dad is from mainland China, my sister is full Chinese, I have two nephews who are both Chinese-American, I have two nephews who are African-American. I have Mormon family, and my mom is Catholic. It would be inauthentic for me not to represent that. It would also be an insult, really.
But should I be writing a story through the point of view of my Black nephew? No. And in the cases where major characters are outside my subject position, I should ask people who identify with that subject position to read that work and see where I’ve gone astray. That’s all important.
When I push for this work in my pedagogy, I have to think about my own vocabulary. A few years ago, I realized that at some points it sounded like I was advocating for writing as or writing for, and I don’t. I care about this. Sometimes, I find myself reading fiction where I’m certainly offended when there’s not diversity represented in the work, just as it offends me when people overstep the line.
Absolutely. And, like you said, I imagine there’s an extra responsibility as a professor to notice those things in students’ writing.
I’m also an uncle. My nephews and nieces are going to be reading my work, and that matters to me.
That’s so important. Thank you for mentioning that. And speaking of subject positions, you wrote Take Me Home, which deals with a lot of history, especially the Rock Springs Massacre. There’s some history in Lost Men as well. I’m curious— do you feel any sense of responsibility when writing about historical characters and capturing another time period?
Take Me Home is set in 1885, Wyoming territory. Talk about writing outside of a subject position. My two main characters are a Chinese coal camp cook and a seventeen year old woman from Kentucky. I don’t occupy those subject positions, and I don’t occupy that time period.
The deeper I got into the historical research about Rock Springs, the ethical questions became about the real lives that had been there. I started feeling very nervous about putting words in peoples’ mouths. They were real people. It’s a lot about racism and tension between white labor and immigrant labor, when the immigrants are people of color. But, a huge portion of the white laborers in Rock Springs were also immigrants.
When I started seeing those complexities, I felt like creating dialogue from real historical figures was a dangerous thing to do. If I did a good job writing, people reading the fiction would make assumptions about the veracity of that dialogue.
That’s why I moved the narrative to Dire. There is no Dire. It’s modeled after one of the smaller coal camps outside of Rock Springs. By creating this place and these original characters, I felt more comfortable about having them speak. During the couple of occasions when some real historical figures come into the novel, I purposefully have them say benign things.
Another hurdle was writing about the tension in 1885 without explicitly overlaying our current racial politics. I think the politics of that moment and the discrimination speaks for itself. People can see the parallels without me trying to put my finger on the scale.
I decided to just rely on the true history. I don’t think there’s anything in that novel that I changed for the convenience of my political point of view. It is what it is.
There’s a fidelity to the truth of the period. I may have taken a little bit of liberty with the minor romance that happens with Addie and Wing Lee, but that’s all covert so maybe they got away with it.
That’s always been very difficult for me as well when writing historical fiction— putting words in peoples’ mouths, and wanting to be ethical and notice what things are problematic, but not make the time period itself seem foreign. Things do repeat themselves throughout history.
When I went to Wyoming to do archival research, I went to Rock Springs. I contacted the historical society there in advance and met with their president. He drove me around town even though there’s nothing much recognizable about Rock Springs from that time period.
At one location, he said, “Right over there is the old opening of Mine #1.” I had a rental car, so after we did our drive, I went back and looked for it. I climbed over the bank that was sitting in front of it. And I was crestfallen. It wasn’t the entrance to an old mine. It was just part of a water drainage system.
He wasn’t lying to me. He himself had never climbed up there. Just by lore, someone likely told him the same thing. That was really important to me. I had to remind myself that everything I read about the events of 1885 are not necessarily true. They are all accounts.
I read a lot of newspapers and as you might imagine, they were mostly pro white miner. They were a journalism of sorts, but when they quoted people, it was just an account. It wasn’t science.
It’s going to be interesting fifty years from now. When people are writing historical fiction, they’ll look back to an era where the archives are video. That’s different. The receipts are there, and they’re real.
I hadn’t even thought about that. That’s fascinating. For your story in Story, “The Fish is Gone. But that Cake is Here,” did you visit Slovenia?
That story was generated because of a trip to Slovenia where I was teaching in a summer residency for Vermont College of Fine Arts. We went to the Alps there. We ate a late lunch at the fish camp described in the story. We had a host who was a poet. He very much resembles the character who orders for everybody. He did say at one point, “Well, the fish is gone, but the cake is here.”
I called out to the whole group— fifteen or sixteen of us— and said, “The first person who writes a story or poem with the title ‘The Fish is Gone. But the Cake is Here,’ wins a prize.”
I guess I won the prize.
It’s interesting because you and I just spoke about historical fiction, where it’s impossible for me to be present for any of the conditions of the 1885 Wyoming territory. You just can’t duplicate that. I took my little rental car out into the boonies and climbed on Pilot Butte, which makes an appearance in the novel. But I had a rental car. I didn’t ride a horse out there.
In the story that appeared in Story, I guess I could’ve made up my own fish restaurant. But as I wrote that story, I thought, “This sucks because I can’t make up the details.” This is not like creating Dire where I can create my own little coal camp. It would be a lie if I described this setting in any other way than what it is.
If you set your books or stories in other places, do you often go to those places for research?
I don’t think that I’ve ever written a story where the location was central that I hadn’t actually visited. Lost Men started out as a short story. As a kid, my dad took me to Los Angeles Chinatown many times. We would go with family for a Cantonese dinner. When I wrote Lost Men, I realized that I pictured Chinatown as it was when I was a kid. I wondered, What is it like now?
I was living in Los Angeles at the time, so I just drove there and walked around for three or four hours. It was interesting. I remembered so much of it from being a kid, but now I was a journalist, in many ways.
With travel restrictions and everything else it brings, have you found that the pandemic affects your writing process?
I have a novel coming out in September which was already planned. I just need to finish the last editor revisions, so I’ve been attending to that. I had another novel project— a follow-up to Take Me Home. It follows Muuk and his youth in upstate Michigan, and how he finds his way through Wisconsin to the Wyoming territory.
I did initial archival research, and then I had a sabbatical last fall that was supposed to be the semester when I would do more travel and research. Well, that all got killed. This university wouldn’t pay for any travel and I wouldn’t have travelled anyway. My sabbatical was wasted in that sense. That project has stalled, because the momentum for it was a little bit killed.
But what I did end up doing, strangely, was write a lot of flash fiction. I also published poetry for the first time in a number of years. I don’t know if it was conscious, but I think it was an impulse for my artist brain. Even though I didn’t have a big project, it wanted me to keep the muscle memory.
Going into the summer, I’m not sure if I want to return to the novel. I have a novella that needs revision. It’s been a palate cleanser, really. The next natural thing was that follow-up novel, but it may become a short story. I think all the energy I had for it got leached out.
In an interview with Split Lip Magazine, you said that your husband doesn’t really know what you’re writing about until he reads the published book. What is that experience like? Do you find that you’re bursting to share during the writing process?
No, not at all. That writer I talked about at the very beginning, Kate Braverman, used to tell us, “Don’t share your writing with your sweeties. Don’t share your writing with your mom, your dad, your cousins. Don’t share any of it until you publish it.”
I’m not promoting that idea, I’m just repeating it. Her reasons were that all of those loved ones are going to innately want to see themselves and find themselves in your work. Most often, they will perceive the negative traits of your characters as a replication of their own negative traits.
Kate also said that if you’re a serious, thoughtful writer, these people that you love won’t fully get you. They know you on a friendly, personal, lively basis. You’re not brooding all the time. You’re not talking out loud and thinking deeply all the time. So they won’t get it. When they read your stuff before it’s published, they’re either going to just say, “Oh, it’s good,” or they’re going to fret that you’ve exposed them in some fashion.
While I don’t subscribe to that extreme, I don’t go to my husband’s chiropractic office and observe him adjusting patients. When I need an adjustment, I go and he gives me an adjustment. I don’t need to know the preamble of all the patients he’s adjusted before me. I feel like my published work is that same exchange. Him opening my book is the same as me going into his office. That’s the place where we experience each other professionally.
But I do know successful writer couples who share each other’s work. This is just what works for me. I have a couple of readers who read my work in advance. I actually enjoy when my husband gets to read the published, polished version rather than the version I’m uncertain about. There’s a pleasure in being able to give the gift that’s complete.
Maybe it’s the difference between giving someone a gift card to a really nice restaurant, and actually taking them out to dinner, or no, preparing a meal for them.
[Laughs] But if the readers of this interview want to send me gift cards to really nice restaurants, I will totally honor the spirit of that.
Sarah Hume is a student at Denison University, where she studies International Studies and Narrative Journalism. Photo courtesy of Pedro Szekely; view more of their work on Flickr.