During the epidemic I picked up reading fiction. Thanks to the racial commentary in the news I decided to read about my race. The relatively thin novels (fewer than 230 pages) reflect the vast diversity of the Asian experience; both protagonists are under thirty, both are drug addicts, and both strive to live a good life with hope, racial descrimination, and bad decisions.
I learned about Jade Sharma’s Problems after reading about her death at age 39. As soon as I started reading her novel Problems I could not stop, the text was addictive. The protagonist is a twenty-something Indian American living in New York City. She battles with addiction to drugs and cigarettes while working at a bookstore, having dropped out of a graduate writing program. I identify with the hope in her; she says I can come clean tomorrow, I say I will get more done tomorrow. By the end of the book she was dumped by her young husband, still hasn’t kicked it the habit, and her new job is not entirely legal.
Leland Cheuk’s novel, No Good Very Bad Asian, has a male protagonist who is almost as hopeful. He tells his rags to riches story while hoping for his daughter to forgive him for his mistakes. Which mistakes? As a successful asian comic with $10 million in net worth, he cheated on his wife and lost custody of the daughter. He too, like Sharma’s protagonist, turned to drugs throughout his life. Unlike Sharma’s protagonist his career ended on an entertaining note, being featured on an episode of his ex-girlfriend’s reality TV show. Read the book to find more about this entertaining and flawed human. He dishes with the hope that the reader will empathize and forgive him for his mistakes.
Race, Gender, and Family Ties
Sharma’s protagonist, being female, suspects her older lover is banging a white chick instead. There is the subtext that non-white women are perceived as less attractive than white women, which continues in her new line of work. As for gender, the book is filled with commentary such as age is meaner than death, and whether women disappear when men stop wanting to have sex with them. As for family, she came from a single mother home, and was highly attracted to how tightly knit her husband’s family was. This was before her complaints about the marriage led to a divorce.
Cheuk’s male protagonist was typecast into ethnic roles in the entertainment industry, limiting his reach and net worth. I loved the description of the entertainment industry as fine dining: start with a white plate since by default everything is White. Occasionally there is protein; that is Black. Finally if there’s any sauce or drizzle, that’s Asian. The protagonist worked hard and kept showing up as a standup comedian and actor, building up to $10 million net worth. His career is a success, but his family ties are weak. His parents expected him to take over his dad’s grocery business, so as a teenager he ran away to tour with a white comic. He expected the comic to adopt him but the comic didn’t. He fell for the comic’s blonde daughter, who dated him because he wouldn’t hurt her. Years later he broke up his family after cheating on his wife. As for his biological parents they remained bitter even after he bought them a house. These negative family ties contributed to his downfall.
Bad decisions leads to better ones
Sharma’s protagonist had poor choice of friends, surrounding herself with drug addicts, giving free room to one so he would get drugs for her. Her husband divorced her after hearing one complaint too many about him, directed not to him but to an acquaintance. She made positive changes towards the end of the book by renting out a room to a guy who has his life together; he embodies the new normal, a normal free from drugs. The book ends on hope, where she realizes the waves of sadness are just that, passing waves.
Cheuk’s protagonist goes through two parallel journeys: his career ends on a high note and his family ends on a hopeful note. Starting his comedy career as an insecure teen, he acquired a drug habit to match his mentor. Both the insecurity and drugs continue in adulthood; they were more consistent than his performance stints. His worst decision was when the blonde ex propositioned a rendezvous, and he took his daughter to the rendezvous. Bad parent? Yes. He still is not clean by the end of the book but time runs out, and he wrote a memorable book to address his daughter, who hopefully will forgive him for not being there.
Both Jade Sharma’s Problems and Leland Cheuk’s No Good Very Bad Asian are wonderful works of fiction showcasing the diverse nature of Asian characters. Both protagonists are fully formed and relatable. These works remind us we can work towards a better life, there’s always hope, and as a last resort, we can write an entertainig story about our lives.