the meaning of democracy


This piece originally appeared in the Notes and Comment section of the July 3, 1943, issue of The New Yorker. “The 40s: The Story of a Decade,” an anthology of New Yorker articles, stories, and poems, will be released on Tuesday.

We received a letter from the Writers’ War Board the other day asking for a statement on “The Meaning of Democracy.” It presumably is our duty to comply with such a request, and it is certainly our pleasure.

Surely the Board knows what democracy is. It is the line that forms on the right. It is the don’t in don’t shove. It is the hole in the stuffed shirt through which the sawdust slowly trickles; it is the dent in the high hat. Democracy is the recurrent suspicion that more than half of the people are right more than half of the time. It is the feeling of privacy in the voting booths, the feeling of communion in the libraries, the feeling of vitality everywhere. Democracy is a letter to the editor. Democracy is the score at the beginning of the ninth. It is an idea which hasn’t been disproved yet, a song the words of which have not gone bad. It’s the mustard on the hot dog and the cream in the rationed coffee. Democracy is a request from a War Board, in the middle of a morning in the middle of a war, wanting to know what democracy is.

E. B. White

Author Interview with Leland Cheuk

A few years ago, the author, Leland Cheuk, joined my writing group. Except then he was the writer, Leland Cheuk. The personal statement part of his application described one novel, his writing sample was an excerpt of another, and once he was in our group, he shared with us countless short and very short stories. The overall impression was that this guy was prolific and that he also had a huge cache of finished work. Well I think first impressions were correct, and in short order it seemed Leland was constantly publishing his short stories. Then about a year after he joined us, following a routine blood test, Leland found out he had a very rare blood cancer and needed to undergo a bone marrow transplant, and live in semi-isolation for a long time. We didn’t see Leland for over a year. I bring this up because it became part of his journey of becoming a published author. On the same day Leland underwent his bone marrow transplant, he received an email from a publisher that they would like to publish his novel, The Misadventures of Sulliver Pong. And then two years later, on the same day, another publisher asked to publish his short story collection, Letters from Dinosaurs. I love Leland’s work and how utterly surprising and fresh it is. And I’ve always enjoyed his life stories too, told with dry humor and a good natured astuteness. So no surprise, I really enjoyed this recent author interview we had and hope you enjoy reading it too.

 RSG: I started The Misadventures of Sulliver Pong (TMOSP) before our election and after the results came in, I had to put it down for a week or so. The campaigning and election between father and son Pong was too disturbing and prescient, in light of the Presidential election unfolding here in America. What was your model for that campaign and those characters being in politics when you first conceived of and wrote TMOSP?

LC: Yeah, I wouldn’t want to read TMOSP either during that dumpster fire. Haha. The book is about the dark half of the American soul as embodied by the Pongs. Unfortunately, the 2016 presidential election was also an example of that American dark side. I’ve paid close attention to politics my whole life, and when a campaign gets negative (and this one was probably the most negative of my lifetime), voters tend to detach. I started TMOSP around 2005-2006 during the George W. Bush presidency, and I think even the most partisan Republican would agree those eight years did not go well. We really are still digging ourselves out of that hole. And yet, we re-elected Bush handily. In TMOSP, the Pong v. Pong election is supposed to be darkly humorous commentary on the willful ignorance and indifference of the American voter. We really take our democracy for granted. Less than half our population votes—absurdly low compared to newer democracies.

My drivers ed teacher used to have a catchphrase related to defensive driving. He said, “You want to be right, but you don’t want to be dead right.” That’s kind of the way I feel about the election in TMOSP and Donald Trump. I wish I wasn’t right, because chances are we’re going to be dead right.

RSG: What’s your family’s history of immigration to America? Anyone as colorful as your characters in your own family?

LC: My grandfather was a dissident, anti-Communist essayist who was forced to live in a rural re-education camp in South China during the Cultural Revolution. His banishment forced my dad and uncle to flee because there were no educational or economic opportunities for the children of those deemed disloyal to the Communists. My parents walked two weeks straight to the coast where they had to swim across a rocky channel to the Hong Kong customs station. They trained for months for this swim, wading in rivers with makeshift floating devices strapped to their waists and small edibles in their pockets so they wouldn’t starve. My dad was 5-7, 99 pounds, and he passed out from hypothermia on the way across. My mom dragged him unconscious onto shore. Their legs and feet were sliced up from the rocks. She was afraid that the Chinese would be shooting at them from the mainland, but she wasn’t strong enough to carry my dad to the customs station. They were saved by a friendly Hong Kong customs officer. Some of their cohort didn’t survive the swim because visibility was so bad that you could easily get swept out to sea.

Let’s just say their story makes me unable to empathize whatsoever with the rural white working class voter who’s upset that they can’t work in the same factory for 50 years. The day one of them risks their lives the way my parents did for a better life will be the first.

RSG: I know you made a shift from writing only novels to writing shorter and shorter fiction as well. Can you describe that journey as a writer?

LC: It’s liberating. As a society, we’re moving toward briefer and briefer forms of communication. From Twitter to text, the future is bright for profound concision. Writing shorter also requires you to unlearn all those craft tricks you might have learned in MFA programs or writing workshops. You don’t have the space or time for large containers like scenes and chapters. You really only have the sentence and the word. I also feel like I learned a lot from reading epigrams and aphorisms and doing standup comedy where jokes have to land every ten seconds, or roughly every two sentences.

RSG: Where do you hope your writing leads you and your readers?

LC: Wow, this one is a tough one. Some writers write to show beauty in the messiness of life. Some writers write to highlight injustice. Some writers write to share their lives. I’m not sure I do any of those things. I think I’m trying, through comedy, to raise serious questions about the way we live and what we value as a contemporary society.

RSG: You’ve recently stepped into the role of publisher as well! Can you tell us about that?

LC: Yes! I’m very excited about it. My life was saved on July 13, 2014 by a successful bone marrow transplant. On that same day, an indie press asked to publish TMOSP. Then two years later, also on July 13th, another indie press asked to publish my story collection LETTERS FROM DINOSAURS. So to pay it forward, in November, I started 7.13 Books, a small press for debut literary fiction for adults.

After going bookless for almost twenty years (and nearly dying bookless), I realized that I (and most writers) go about the publishing business all wrong. We get caught up and beaten down by the need for approval from agents and editors at the big houses. As a young, aspiring writer, I feel like no one told me that you can be the best writer you can be and still, it’s very possible—highly likely, in fact—that no one will pay attention. And not only that, New York publishing has zero intention of paying more than a few dozen literary authors each year a living wage for their work. If I knew that earlier, I wouldn’t have waited twenty years for that precious approval from people who view our work no differently than apparel at Banana Republic. The author, for the most part, is just the kid in Bangladesh making a sweater for $50 a month.

Every author should go through the traditional process, if only because it’s basically your only chance of making more than coffee money for your book. But if you’re rebuffed, you shouldn’t spend decades trying to break into the big houses without publishing on small presses and in journals. Having an agent should 100% be a nice-to-have, not a must-have. Authors should take their fate in their own hands and get their work out there when they honestly feel it’s ready, different and additive to literature as a whole.

Another thing no one talks about is that to publish a book is to risk losing money. Before you complain about a press not doing enough publicity for your book, you should realize that the publisher is volunteering to lose hundreds, maybe thousands of dollars for your book to exist at all. I’m happy to lose a little time and money to help other writers experience what I’ve experienced as an author.


Here we are, you and me.

Both of us in disbelief.

I can’t subscribe to #notmypresident. Not because I don’t feel that way. Because it sounds too much like not my problem. Assuming you do become our president, you will be my president and my problem.

I didn’t actually follow that you led the birther movement.

I don’t watch reality TV, I’ve never seen yours. ‘You’re fired’ only distantly rang a bell to me.

When you came on the scene as a candidate in the primaries, I was confused. Him, the hotel guy?

I never laughed at or mocked your candidacy though. Not because I’m above that. Because I was so confused, because I didn’t understand where you came from, your ascent. The disorientation I felt over you just wasn’t funny.

I feel a little responsible for your winning, for your not losing. I think a lot of us do. I regret I didn’t volunteer enough for Hillary. Didn’t send more than one small check. Didn’t stop being for Bernie.

But even more deeply, I feel there was something dangerous in how I turned my eyes away from the growth of my nation. The growth of the Apprentice. And a movement which surged with self-righteousness, insisting that President Barack Obama might not be a citizen. Why? Have you ever said why he might not be a citizen? I was too busy celebrating our advances and living my life to look at you. And maybe not looking at you caused you, the President Elect(oral College) to happen.

But, ultimately I reject the notion of my personal responsibility for you.

You will have an impact on my existence, but I did not and will not have an impact on your existence.

You’re very little. And this part is reassuring. There’s a universe and galaxies. There was a Big Bang, even if you deny it. There are black holes that stretch our solar system away from us into the mysterious abyss. There is a time and space continuum to contend with. Do you know how small you are in the universe? The District of Columbia itself is miniature, a few ugly Legos tacked together. The United States of America is like a plastic toy cowboy or businessman.

But you, President Elect(oral College), are an ant.

And yes, while ants can trail along with their friends, carrying 20 times their own weight, they just as often find themselves squashed under a toddler’s pointer finger, or drowned in a droplet of their spittle.

go vote. I’ll send you a book of your choice.

I’m okay with the fact that I’ve been distracted for months. Mildly to wildly distracted by American election politics and these particular candidates. This close to this unprecedented, flabbergasting election, I don’t care that I can’t concentrate at work, can’t write and that 80% of what I discuss with my husband, 15% of what I discuss with my 6 year-old, and about 95% of what I discuss with strangers is the election. So be it. It’s almost Tuesday. I’m losing my mind, I’m obsessing, I am wringing my hands, I’m making phone calls and you can be damn sure, I’m voting. One detail of voting that only occasionally crosses my mind is the fact that many people have to wait on line for hours to vote in an American presidential election. Do you? Where do you live? I live in a very populated neighborhood in Brooklyn. I vote at my local elementary school. Whether its morning or night, I’ve never waited more than thirty minutes to vote. I’m really impressed by voters who wait for hours to cast their vote, to have their voice heard; and very often, it’s in jurisdictions that really matter. We really don’t have a choice if we want that voice, but still, it’s a very hard thing to do to wait for hours to vote. While you’re on line, what do you read, or look at, or think about? Are your kids stuck on line too? If you read this, and you are one of the many people who wait 2 plus hours to vote, comment me here with a book title you’d like to read, and I’ll mail it to you. Thank you for waiting. Thank you for voting. Everyone, please – go vote. VOTE.

the orenda

the-orendaI recently read about 50 pages of detailed description of torture. Three quarters of the way through Joseph Boyden’s novel, The Orenda, I realized, Hey, I’m willingly reading a lot of torture. It would be a grave error to describe The Orenda primarily through its Native Canadian tribe-on-tribe torture, and the more gratifying torture of the French colonists who settled in Canada, but I’d have to say that for me, as a reader, that was the type of writing in this book that is most unusual for me to read. Joseph is a beautiful lyrical-prose literary fiction writer, and so even the torture is gorgeously described, words that caress, just as the Native Canadians called their torture “caresses.” There is so much nuance within the physical descriptions of broken and removed fingers, stabbings, bludgeoning, burns, amputations, cauterized wounds, boiling water and pitch, burning- interspersed with lovingly nursing the victim to keep them alive for more. There is respect in every page of this novel. Respect for the Huron, Wendat and Haudenosaunee Native peoples of Canada, respect for the land, trees, animals, water, canoes, children, sexuality, culture, dreams, colonists, religion and yes, for the torture. Joseph Boyden depicts a world, seventeenth century Canada, called New France by the colonists, that he doesn’t simplify or condemn. He opens the world for the reader to be there and to bear witness and to learn.

I few weeks ago I wrote here about wanting to read the books of several friends which I hadn’t read yet. I started with The Orenda, and I’m so glad I did. One reason I’m glad is that it turned out I had a spontaneous trip to New Orleans in the last few weeks and I read a lot of The Orenda in New Orleans. I know Joseph Boyden through New Orleans and he mostly lives there, and I loved reading his book in the city where it was primarily written, lying outside by a pool in the French Quarter, turning the pages, drinking coffee at Café DuMonde dog-earing my spot, toting it with me to Louis Armstrong Park, and on the streetcar up to the Audubon Zoo or in a flat-bottomed swamp boat. I’m tempted to post a photo of my copy of The Orenda- it’s water-logged, dog-eared, and coffee stained.

I didn’t get to see Joseph while in New Orleans; he was travelling himself. But I felt so close to my friend while I read his book, and yet I didn’t think about him. The Wendat chief Bird, and his closest friend Fox, his kidnapped, adopted daughter Snow Falls, and the French Jesuit priest Cristophe Crow, the dreams, the tamed raccoon, the battles and torture, the newborn babies, the hunting, the disease, the spiritual healer Gosling, were all I thought about, just as Joseph intended.

The shorter the better


This week my friend Leland Cheuk published a craft piece in SmokeLong Quarterly about how he began to write shorter and shorter fiction and why that’s working well for him. Like Leland, I spent many years only writing novels. For some writers, and readers, the novel is the ultimate form. I revere novels, I love reading them, I’m conditioned to that length and expanse and the long, slow arc that occurs within two hundred plus pages. But, this penultimate form not only takes years to complete, but more and more rarely are novels actually published. The bulls-eye has gotten smaller for what publishers want to publish, what will make them even a few dollars. Another writer friend of mine recently said to me, us literary fiction writers are the poets of thirty years ago. I understood right away that she meant we’re fringe weirdos. Leland embraced short and flash fiction a couple of years ago, and he found that his intelligent, humorous and very creative work was much more readily accepted for publication in literary journals, and now he’s published a collection of short stories, Letters From Dinosaurs, some of them very short. I would believe that if a dinosaur sat down to write a letter, it would short and to the point. I met Leland after he’d turned to shorter fiction (as well as his novels) when he joined my writing group, and I’m lucky to have read many of the stories in his new collection while they were still in development.

I’m trailing far behind Leland in my forays into shorter fiction. I’ve written about five short stories in the last two years, which is five more than I’d written in twenty years, but they’re not very short. I still fall into the old-school tradition of writing say a sixteen page short story. Leland has inspired me try something much more new and different for me, to go for the 2,000 word (four page) story. To pack action and character and theme into sentences that work triple time. To make a beginning, middle and an end occur in a tight, complete, satisfying arc that readers actually have the time to read, and journals actually have the space to print.

I know myself well enough to know that I won’t stop trying to write novels, and I probably won’t stop writing a 16 page short story when that story bids for my attention. But reading Leland’s article about his stories, one that takes the form of a letter, one all in bullet points, one that is a group email exchange, was a welcome reminder- have some effing fun with your writing- do strange new things with it, and you just might find more of it appearing in print while you’re experimenting. Life and writing are change, after all.

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