In Chinese-Canadian author Kim Fu’s debut novel, For Today I am a Boy, the Asian-American experience enters a new social milieu of the modern family. Fu unhinges a palpable and courageous conversation on gender and transgender identity with her protagonist Peter Huang, and weaves it in seamlessly with whispers of the immigration experience and American dream from Peter’s second-generation perspective.
We first meet Peter as a young child and observer—the only boy among four siblings—preferring dress-up to G.I. Joe’s. But he innocently and dutifully plays along, following the rites and rituals that define young masculinity on the playground. At home, this means being a good son, which involves fulfilling the legacy of his given name, Juan Chaun, meaning “powerful king.” The experiences are visceral and familiar. The imagery and dialogue are spot-on—so real that you can feel the indelible punches of childhood bullies and silent glares from disapproving family members when pieces of truth come to light.
Fu sets the backdrop of Peter’s formative experiences in small-town Ontario. Without circumventing or evading questions of race in a predominately white town, she avoids throwing in the typical racist monikers elicited at recess. She does much more by showing readers the dual pride of assimilation (as exemplified by Peter’s father who enforces the silent rule of “no more speaking Cantonese”) and holding onto the old world and past with pride (as Peter’s mother later honors with an ancestor-worshipping ritual).
Fu adds layers of interest with Peter’s blooming identity as a boy turning into the woman he was meant to be among a diverse cast of sisters: Adele, the eldest, a romantic, Audrey Hepburn-like beauty living freely in Berlin; Helen, the severe lawyer bent on keeping her siblings in line; and Bonnie, Peter’s slightly younger female counterpart, who grows up to be the Bohemian bon vivant of her parents’ disapproval.
In his early years, Peter is an outsider looking in—both observing what it means to be a girl and what it means to be a boy, but never really belonging to either rigid gender camp. A parallel is drawn to Peter’s Chinese family trying to settle in yet remain separate from their White suburban neighborhood. Peter forms the muscle memory of family loyalty that practices the virtue of sacrificing or concealing one’s own desires and truths to serve cultural expectations.
But as Peter gets farther away from home and closer to who he is in Montreal, the values of sisterhood, authenticity, and community supersede living up to any repressive ideal.
The International Examiner recently sat down with Fu, now a Seattle resident anticipating a grand release of her book in January. She reflected on some of her process in creating the Huang family and the process of writing her first novel.
International Examiner: The characters in your novel are so relatable, yet each possesses such distinctive qualities we all recognize. Where did the inspiration come in creating each of your characters and drawing each of their fates?
Kim Fu: The family relationships and dynamics came to me first and ultimately decided everything else, from what year each person is born to the trajectory of their lives. Everything else felt inevitable. Those relationships define them and haunt them long after they’ve moved out and apart.
IE: When the vast majority of American literature and media still depicting Asian American families as affluent, you’ve chosen to make the Huang family and Peter rising from a working-class background. What effect do you think this has?
KF: The Huangs’ working-class background is a direct result of their father’s personality. He’s arrogant in a particular way, with a particular vision for himself—as a leader, as a winner—in a culture that will always see his ethnicity and hear his accent first, and see submissiveness in one and hear incompetence in the other. An affluent Asian-American of his generation has done one of two things: made his money in Asia and brought it over, or learned to navigate and overcome those expectations. His character wouldn’t be able to do the latter. He eventually achieves modest success as a civil servant, within a bureaucracy that specifically seeks out minorities—an undeserved win in his view.
IE: I have to ask: What does your family think of the book?
KF: None of them have read it yet. My two sisters are excited to get their copies—and a little worried that Peter’s sisters might be based on them (they’re not!). My father passed away shortly after the manuscript first sold. My mom knows what it’s about, but I don’t think she’ll read it. I think she’d sort of rather not know.
IE: Growing up, were you encouraged to be a writer? Did you ever think you would end up writing a novel?
KF: I’ve been writing stories and poems since I was a little kid. Nobody encouraged it. Theirdiscouragement was subtle. My eldest sister impressed upon me the difference between a career and a hobby, and how bills get paid, and my mom used to ask if I was writing for school or “writing garbage.” After I graduated from high school, I gave up writing and started an undergraduate degree in chemical engineering.
I only lasted a year. When it came to that point—when I was a miserable engineering student anticipating a miserable future as an engineer—my family was understanding and supportive.
IE: What was the most surprising thing you learned about yourself and in general in the process of writing this book?
KF: This goes back to your previous question. Publishing a book goes against my personality and all of my natural instincts. Especially now, with the Internet, it feels like offering yourself up to the whole world for judgment. It seems arrogant. I’ve wanted to be a published author for so long, but now that it’s actually happening, the attention makes me feel anxious and exposed.
Getting into Peter’s voice also forced me to mine the depths of my own gender identity, to regard it as an open question. That’s been a surprising process.
IE: Your first novel is rich with cinematic detail and film potential. What do you think about it becoming a film?
KF: I’d love it, of course.
IE: If you could choose a director and actor to play each of your characters, who would they be?
KF: Justin Lin comes to mind, but if we’re aiming big, I think Wong Kar-Wai would be amazing with the episodic, elliptical relationship with time in the book—that the book covers a whole life in small scenes and details; Tony Leung Chiu-Wai for the father (he’s great as men who see themselves as large but are small in the world, and getting to the humanity of unsympathetic characters).
I actually had a young Maggie Cheung in mind when I was writing Adele, though I’m not sure who would be the right actress now. Brenda Song would make an interesting Bonnie. She has the right kind of energy—brassy and independent, a little dangerous. Peter’s tricky. It would have to be someone very young, very vulnerable and fresh. An unknown.
IE: What do you think we can all learn from Peter Huang?
KF: The joy of self-knowledge. Peter’s inclination is away from introspection, towards passivity and meeting expectations; he’d rather suffer than disappoint. When he stops to consider who he really is, what he really wants, the world opens up beautifully. Navigating the space between who we are, what we owe to the people we love, and what the world expects from us—we all go through that.
IE: Through your work at This Magazine, you’ve written and edited some great political commentaries and made impressive journalistic contributions. Is more non-fiction in your future?
KF: Sure. I’m focused on writing a second novel and promoting this one right now, but I’m still doing some journalistic writing on the side. I don’t think I’ll be writing a nonfiction book anytime soon, though. Doing it right requires skills I don’t yet have and a level of personal sacrifice I’m not quite ready for.
IE: What drew you to Seattle?
KF: Well, my husband got a job at Amazon. I really like Seattle, though. It’s a little too early to tell, but I think my next novel will be set here.
Kim Fu will be holding a reading and launch party “For Today I am a Boy” at Elliot Bay Book Company on Tuesday, January 14 at 7:00 p.m. Learn more about it and Kim Fu at http://kimfu.ca.