For Today I Am a Boy

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Overview

Peter Huang and his sisters?elegant Adele, shrewd Helen, and Bonnie the bon vivant?grow up in a house of many secrets, then escape the confines of small-town Ontario and spread from Montreal to California to Berlin. Peter?s own journey is obstructed by playground bullies, masochistic lovers, Christian ex-gays, and the ever-present shadow of his Chinese father.

At birth, Peter had been given the Chinese name juan chaun, powerful king. The exalted only son in ...

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Overview

Peter Huang and his sisters—elegant Adele, shrewd Helen, and Bonnie the bon vivantgrow up in a house of many secrets, then escape the confines of small-town Ontario and spread from Montreal to California to Berlin. Peter’s own journey is obstructed by playground bullies, masochistic lovers, Christian ex-gays, and the ever-present shadow of his Chinese father.

At birth, Peter had been given the Chinese name juan chaun, powerful king. The exalted only son in the middle of three daughters, Peter was the one who would finally embody his immigrant father's ideal of power and masculinity. But Peter has different dreams: he is certain he is a girl.

Sensitive, witty, and stunningly assured, Kim Fu’s debut novel lays bare the costs of forsaking one’s own path in deference to one laid out by others. For Today I Am a Boy is a coming-of-age tale like no other, and marks the emergence of an astonishing new literary voice.

"A unique and mesmerizing story populated with characters who are fragile and strong all at once, who invite us to become them as they struggle with who they ultimately are. An important and rewarding read." — Steven Galloway, author of The Cellist of Sarajevo

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble

Peter Huang, the main character in this debut novel, grows up in small-town Ontario with three sisters and a deep yearning to be a woman. That deep-seated urge meets with varied responses from his beleaguered family and frequently bullying classmates and eventually leads him to search for a promised land in Montreal. Kim Fu's For Today I Am a Boy raises the bar on conventional coming-of-age novels, reminding us of the stakes that some men and women cannot avoid.

The New York Times Book Review - Jiayang Fan
…[Fu's] sensitively wrought…novel abounds in recognizable archetypes of the model minority—the striving civil servant; the silent, servile wife; the academic superstar—but the story itself contemplates something larger: how to define and defend one's identity against the clamoring voices of expectation, from both family and society…The story of dictatorial parents and subjugated children is not a new one, but Fu cleverly juxtaposes the narrative of the father's attempt at cultural acclimation with the son's search for a female form…For Today I Am a Boy is as much about the construction of self as the consequences of its unwitting destruction—and what happens when its acceptance seems as foreign as another country.
Publishers Weekly
09/16/2013
It’s a marker of how quickly things change that a novel detailing the thoughts, hopes, and fears of a boy who wishes he would have been born a girl feels like it covers familiar terrain. But even if some of the markers of Peter Huang’s trouble with his body—the experimentation with his sister’s makeup, for instance, or the fascination with women’s self-presentation—are things we’ve seen before, debut author Fu’s sharp eye and the book’s specificity of place (the Huangs live in small-town Canada, where Peter’s father does whatever it takes to fit in and the rest of his family lies to him) provide freshness. Peter grows up; watches his favorite sister go off to college; connives with Bonnie, the sister nearest to him in age (he cooks the meals she’s supposed to be making, while she learns to “wear heels” and “not look twelve”); gets a restaurant job; and plots his escape to Montreal, the city of possibility. Once there, he tries to find a way to have intimate relationships, and eventually, painfully, comes to see that he doesn’t have to be the thing he never was. Although the focus is always Peter, Fu is adept at depicting the shifting alliances between him and his sisters, and at revealing how being an outsider shapes Peter’s expectations and options, which adds another layer to the story. (Jan.)
From the Publisher
Longlisted for the 2014 Flaherty-Dunnan First Novel Prize
A Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers Selection for Spring 2014
A New York Times Book Review Editor's Choice

"Keep[s] you reading. Told in snatches of memory that hurt so much they have the ring of truth."
BUST Magazine

"In this impressive debut, Fu sensitively and poetically portrays Peter’s predicament so that readers feel his discomfort with his own body as well as his painful sense of yearning and the plight of his three sisters, who scatter in all directions to escape their unhappy home."
Library Journal

"Fu’s sharp eye and the book’s specificity of place (the Huangs live in small-town Canada, where Peter’s father does whatever it takes to fit in and the rest of his family lies to him) provide freshness. . . Although the focus is always Peter, Fu is adept at depicting the shifting alliances between him and his sisters, and at revealing how being an outsider shapes Peter’s expectations and options, which adds another layer to the story."
Publishers Weekly

"A young man [Peter] wrestles with gender expectations and his own gender identity in this quietly forceful debut...Peter’s search for a sense of normalcy—to finally become his female self—has a redemptive trajectory that feels fully earned. A study of transexuality that’s shot through with melancholy while capturing the bliss of discovering one’s sexual self."
Kirkus

“for readers seeking to better understand the trajectory of a young boy who knows he’s not like the other boys, this is a well-written and contemporary story.”
New York Journal of Books

"a heartbreaking tale of a guy certain he's a girl."
Cosmopolitan

"Overall Fu’s commentary is spot on, from her clear-eyed look at the repressive small town in which Peter grows up to her equally illusionless view of the urban, white, middle class LGBT activists Peter eventually encounters later in life. Yet her most remarkable achievement is in creating a quietly unforgettable character, one who is not meant to represent an 'average' or 'typical' trans life, but an individual one. This book brilliantly touches on many social issues, but it is also a story which shines all on its own. And Peter is a fully realized, fully unique character — one who will find his way into the hearts of readers everywhere."
—Bustle.com 

"For Today I Am a Boy is beautiful and captivating. Kim Fu reminds us that the human condition is one of change—of becoming, of overcoming—and this novel, in all its complexity, demonstrates how to do so with grace."
Justin Torres, author of We The Animals

 "A powerful first novel written with unwavering focus. Kim Fu explores the shape of gender and culture in a unique and mesmerizing story populated with characters who are fragile and strong all at once, who invite us to become them as they struggle with who they ultimately are. An important and rewarding read."
—Steven Galloway, Giller Award winning author of The Cellist of Sarajevo

"Fresh and pitch-perfect….A heart-searing twist on the coming-of-age tale…. Fu orchestrates a collision of culture, generation, gender and place, each crashing head on with her true observations and dark humor…. Immensely readable, and unquestionably human."
—Michael Christie, author of The Beggar’s Garden

"In For Today I Am a Boy Kim Fu gives us a memorable character trapped in the endless prism of identity. A thoroughly engrossing debut novel." 
—Hal Niedzviecki, author of Look Down, This Is Where It Must Have Happened

Kirkus Reviews
2013-10-06
A young man wrestles with gender expectations and his own gender identity in this quietly forceful debut from the Seattle-based author. Growing up in exurban Ontario, Peter was always the outlier, preferring his three sisters' girlish behavior over that of his rough-and-tumble male classmates. But his attempts to push his boyishness aside--cooking while wearing a much-loved apron, for instance--incur the wrath of his father, a conservative Chinese immigrant. As his sisters move away, Peter fends for himself in Montreal, taking odd restaurant jobs that give him a small supportive tribe and an opportunity to make sense of his sexuality. While the book has its share of clashes with bigotry, its strength is in its interiority: Fu subtly and poetically evokes the intensity of need her narrator feels to become female. ("What would turn me into them?" Peter thinks, watching a group of women at a nightclub. "Could I peel it all off their faces and bodies with a paint trowel and spread it over my surface?") Peter's gender anxiety inevitably leads him down frustrating paths, such as one affair with a middle-aged woman whose domination turns abusive and another with a woman who's futilely trying to submerge her lesbianism through an ex-gay ministry. Yet Fu is skilled at capturing feelings of rootlessness that go beyond gender, encompassing Peter's immigrant-son status and distance from his family. All of Peter's emotional baggage makes the novel tonally somber, but Peter's search for a sense of normalcy--to finally become his female self--has a redemptive trajectory that feels fully earned. A study of transexuality that's shot through with melancholy while capturing the bliss of discovering one's sexual self.
Library Journal
10/15/2013
Peter Huang is born to Chinese immigrant parents in small-town Ontario in 1979 as the long-awaited boy in a household of girls. His father, eager to shed all vestiges of Chinese language and culture, speaks his last words in Cantonese after Peter's birth, assigning his newborn son the unofficial moniker Juan Chuan, or "Powerful King." Peter's father holds to strictly traditional ideas about gender and is uncomfortable with his son's reluctance to embrace conventionally masculine pursuits as well as his close association with his sisters. For his part, Peter wants nothing more than to emulate his beautiful, alluring oldest sister, Adele. Emotionally stunted by the disapproval of both his father and society at large and growing up in a home where such things are never discussed, Peter is very slow to realize that his long-repressed dream is attainable. VERDICT In this impressive debut, Fu sensitively and poetically portrays Peter's predicament so that readers feel his discomfort with his own body as well as his painful sense of yearning and the plight of his three sisters, who scatter in all directions to escape their unhappy home. [See Prepub Alert, 7/8/13.]—Lauren Gilbert, Sachem P.L., Holbrook, NY
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780544034723
  • Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
  • Publication date: 1/14/2014
  • Pages: 256
  • Sales rank: 207,558
  • Product dimensions: 10.30 (w) x 6.80 (h) x 1.40 (d)

Meet the Author

KIM FU was born in 1987 and holds a master of fine arts degree from the University of British Columbia. She lives in Seattle.

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Read an Excerpt

1
Boy

We called the wooden bleachers the Big Steps. They overlooked a pit of dust and gravel, generously called the field. I sat on the Big Steps and watched as two boys in my grade rooted around the edge of the field as though searching for a lost ball.

They emerged, each holding a long strip of wild grass. Ollie, the smaller of the two, didn’t have all his permanent teeth yet, so he wouldn’t give more than an unnerving, close-mouthed smile. Roger Foher, tall, ugly, and hulking, had ruddy-brown hair and a crooked nose.

I skipped down the Big Steps with some of the other boys. Half hidden around the corner, the playground teacher smoked and dropped ashes onto her gray dress, trying to set herself on fire. We formed a circle around Roger and Ollie. Another boy shoved me out of the way to get in close. He cheered with his fists balled.

Roger struck first, backhanding the grass in the circular sweep of a swordsman. I could still hear, over the shouting, the grass slicing through the air. It left a red welt on the milky skin of Ollie’s calf.

Ollie raised the grass over his head like a lion tamer with a whip. He cracked it on the shoulder of Roger’s T-shirt. The sound—the impact—was muffled by the fabric, and Roger laughed. Ollie stayed grim and silent; the first boy to cry out or bleed lost the game.

Roger struck the same spot again, crossing the welt into an X. Ollie’s grass wrapped limply around Roger’s side. Roger turned the X into an asterisk. Ollie got one solid hit, on the fleshy part of Roger’s upper arm. Roger continued to crisscross the same spot on Ollie’s leg.

I could smell the teacher’s cigarette, see its muted red dot against the gray sky. The boy beside me stamped his feet, stirring up the dust around us, throwing gravel against the back of my legs.

It was Roger’s turn. He paused, expectant, like an animal when it hears movement in the brush. Squinting his eyes, he pointed at Ollie’s leg. The jagged ladder of skin peaked in a spot too bright to be just a mark.

Roger raised his arms and spun around. Champion of the world. The other boys were quiet. The strong had beaten the weak; there was nothing exciting about that. The boy who had shoved me went to walk Ollie off the field. Ollie shoved him away.

The boys dispersed. I stuck around. Roger noticed me. “You played before?” he said, gesturing with his strand of grass, green and impotent now. I shook my head. “You should try it. It’ll make a man out of you.”
 
Two years earlier, in the first grade, we did all of our assignments in a slim composition book to be collected at the end of the year. I couldn’t imagine consequences that far away. Maybe I’d be dead by then, or living on the moon.

One of our assignments was What I Want to Be When I Grow Up. Our teacher had written several suggestions on the board: doctor, astronaut, policeman, scientist, businessman, and Mommy. Mommy was the only one with a capital letter.

Working in studious silence, I drew myself as a Mommy. I thought of the mommies in magazine ads and picture books, always bending at the waist over their tied aprons with their breasts on display—serving pancakes, wrapping presents, patting the heads of puppies, vacuuming sparkling-clean floors. I drew myself with a stiff halo of hair, swaddled babies around my feet. A satisfied smile from ear to ear. “I want to be a Mommy.”

Two days later, I found my notebook lying open on my bed. That page was ripped out. I asked Bonnie, my younger sister, if she’d done it. The evidence didn’t point to Bonnie: she could hardly have ripped so neatly, right from the staples, making it seem as though the page had never been there to begin with. There was no one else in the family I was willing to confront.
 
The year I became friends with Roger, we were asked again. I said fireman. A picture was optional. I worked furiously on mine. The fireman had an ax in one hand and a woman in the other, and his muscles were as bulbous as snow peas. Flames danced all around. I could imagine only being the woman, my arms around the thick neck of my savior, a high-heeled shoe dangling from my raised foot. I left my notebook open on the coffee table when I went to bed.

My father came into the room I shared with Bonnie after we were supposed to be asleep. I watched his shape swoop down like a bird to kiss Bonnie on the forehead. He stopped near my bed and saw the whites of my eyes. He patted me on the foot through the blanket. The door clicked shut. I stayed awake for a long time afterward, wiggling my warmed toes.
 
Ollie and I waited at the base of the Big Steps for Roger. I asked Ollie about his leg and he gave me a withering look, like I had asked something overly intimate. I tried to think of a topic that would interest him. I was used to talking with my sisters. “How did Roger break his nose?”

Ollie pointed to the end of the field, where Roger was jogging toward us. “One time, he said it was in a fight with his cousin, who lives across town. Another time, he said he tried to skateboard off his roof. Some girl asked him yesterday and he said he got struck by lightning.”

The boy who’d shoved me the day before came to join us. “Hey, Lester,” said Ollie. They nodded to each other.

“Hi, Peter,” Lester said. I gave him the same knowing nod and crossed my arms over my chest the way they did.

We didn’t speak until Roger arrived. “New game,” he said.

No fear crossed Ollie’s and Lester’s faces.

“I put three big rocks at the other end of the field,” Roger went on. “Last guy there gets them all thrown at him.”

Ollie and Lester nodded. I looked back. Behind us, I could see the yard teacher chastising a girl for chewing gum. There was no reason to bother with us. This was what boys did.

“Okay. Go!”

Ollie shot off immediately. Lester and Roger were close on his heels, and I followed. We broke right through some kids who were kicking a ball back and forth. Their shouts fell behind us.

My lungs seized up. I ran as fast as I could. The distance between me and their backs grew, became unbridgeable. As I watched Ollie crash into the fence with his arms out, and Lester and Roger slow to a stop, I considered turning and running the other way.

By the time I reached the end of the field, each of the boys held a stone in his hands. Roger tossed his back and forth between his palms. I doubled over, my hands on my thighs, and stared through my knees. I could hear a jump-rope rhyme coming from somewhere—musical voices, an even meter.

“Straighten up,” Roger said.

I tried to stand tall, but the moment they drew their arms back, I instinctively crouched and threw my hands over my face. With my eyes closed, I heard the stones hit: Thump. Thump. Thump.

They’d all missed.

Roger barked, “Peter! Stand still!”

They gathered up their stones again. Ollie caught my eye and quickly looked away. He was enjoying this—the victor at last, his fast, mousy frame good for something.

I couldn’t help myself. The stones left their hands and I dropped instantly down. The stones flew over my head.
 
“This isn’t working,” Lester said.

Roger’s even gaze told me I should have stood still. What happened next was my own fault. “Lie down on your stomach.”

Gravel dug into my face, my palms, my knees. The boys stood over me. I stared at Ollie’s white shoelaces, the hole at the toe of his sneaker. The dust stung my eyes. I closed them. The girls were still jumping rope somewhere, under the watchful gaze of the gray dress and the whistle. Singsong patterns.

I sank down. All my weight toward the center of the earth.

The first stone fell from above, like rain. It struck me high up on my back, just left of my spine. The second landed on the flat of my tailbone. The last one landed on the ground by my ear, loud as thunder. Someone had aimed for my head.

“You’re a good man, Peter,” Roger said.
 
One afternoon back when I was in first grade, my sisters and I came home from school and the house reeked of boiling sugar. My mother was making white-fungus soup. She said her mother used to make it.

Father lifted the pot from the stove, went outside without his shoes, and dumped it on the lawn. It wasn’t because of the smell. The sweet broth sank into the earth, leaving behind a heap of frilly white.
 
On the first day, it looked like a girl had stripped off her nightgown and abandoned it there. On the second day, like a pile of bleached bones.

The next night, she made split-pea soup with ham. The six members of my family crowded around our table meant for four, and my sisters worked dutifully through the sludge. I put a spoonful in my mouth and retched. The soup ran out the sides of my mouth and back into the bowl.

My father stood up and came over to me. His head blocked the overhead light, like an eclipse. He took my hands in his. He shaped them into an upturned bowl, as though I were begging.

He looked at my sisters and my mother. I followed his gaze. Adele, Helen, and Bonnie: the same black eyes, so dark that the iris blended into the pupil. My father put my soup bowl in my hands. “Drink.”

My own saliva pooled clear on top of the dense slime.

“Drink, or eat nothing tomorrow,” he said. No anger in his voice.

Trying to make the soup skip my tongue, I inhaled it like air, straight into the back of my mouth. It left a slug’s trail down my throat. Fleshy, pink chunks remained at the bottom of my bowl. My father sat down again.

He turned to my mother, lifting his spoonful of ham. “It’s good.”
 
We followed Roger farther and farther from the playground. We had to sprint back to class when the bell rang, while Roger just sauntered in tardy. I wasn’t in his class. He claimed to have flipped off his teacher when she called him out for being late.

Ollie had to explain the gesture to me. Lester, Ollie, Roger, and I sat in the grass ditch for the field’s rain runoff, below the sightline of the playground. A long drought had dried out the ground. The grass the boys used to whip each other was starting to yellow and sprout. “It’s like swearing.”

“But why?”

“Because it looks like a dick, I think.”

Lester and I stuck up our middle fingers to examine them.

“Not really,” I said.

Lester said, “It’s more like, ‘Stick this finger up your bum!’”

“That does sound rude,” I agreed.

“But why is that an insult?” Ollie said. “Isn’t that worse for the person who says it, since he has his finger up someone’s ass?”

“Well, it doesn’t look like a dick,” Lester said, defending his theory.

“Sure it does. Your other two fingers are the balls, see?” Ollie held out his fist with the finger sticking up.

“Don’t point that at me.”

Roger hadn’t spoken in a while. He lay on his back staring up at the sky, the wheels turning in his head. He batted the empty juice bottle from his lunch against his stomach. His mind was somewhere beyond us. It was like being caged with a sleeping lion.

“New game,” he said.

Ollie didn’t react. “Come on, man. Lunch is almost over.”

Roger stood up. “New. Game,” he repeated. He used the juice bottle to grind a hole in the dirt the size of the bottle’s base so the bottle stood upright on its own. “Stand three steps back and try to piss in the bottle. Whoever can’t do it has to drink from the bottle.”

I felt a wave of panic. I never peed standing up. When I had to, I thought of my body as a machine, a robot that did my bidding. A combination of arms and legs and heart and lungs. It had nothing to do with me. My real body was somewhere else, waiting for me. It looked like my sisters’
bodies.

Lester and Ollie were still sitting down. “Come on,” Roger ordered. “You guys chicken?”

Ollie pushed himself up. Roger had said the magic word. “Not chicken,” Ollie said. He went over to the bottle and counted his steps backward. “One, two, three.” He unbuttoned his corduroys. Boys were ugly and foreign, like another species. Like baboons. I was not one of them. The evidence was right there, all the time, tucked into my tight underwear, but I still didn’t believe it. I didn’t have one of those things, that little-boy tab of flesh.

The bottle tipped in the dirt as it got struck. Ollie managed to get some inside, filling up about a finger’s worth of yellow. Roger went next. Lester nudged me. “Let me go last,” he said.

I shook my head. “No. I want to go last.” Maybe the bell would ring first. Would that be enough? Would Roger let us go? Probably not. His games trumped class. There’d be no leaving until it was over.

Roger couldn’t do it. His stream arched downward before it reached the bottle. He kept trying until it petered out entirely. Ollie hooted. “Ha! You have to drink it!”

Roger zipped up his pants. His dead stare was frightening. Ollie kept pressing. “That’s what you said! Whoever can’t do it has to drink it!” He shoved Lester. “Come on. It’s your turn. Then Peter. Then Roger has to drink it!”

The bell rang. The distance made it sound low and benign. “Bell,” Roger said.

“Screw the bell,” Ollie said. “We’ll finish it.”

“Bell,” Roger repeated.

“You have to drink it! That’s what you said. Those are the rules! Don’t be such a chicken!”

Roger punched Ollie in the ear. Ollie toppled into the ditch next to me and Lester. “Fuck you!” he shouted.

Roger stood over us, casting a shadow into the grassy pit. I had a sudden vision of him pouring dirt over the ditch and burying us there. He probably had the same idea. “The bell means it’s over,” he said.
 
“I make the rules, not you.”
 
Bonnie and I, five and six years old, sat on the floor outside of Adele and Helen’s bedroom. I pressed my ear to the door. Whitney Houston came out muffled, more beat than melody. Bonnie tried to shove me out of the way. We both tumbled through their door. “Hi!” Bonnie said, flat on her back. “Can we do the hair thing?”

“I have to study,” Helen said. The corkboard above her desk threatened to crush her, overloaded with medals and awards.

Adele was reading a magazine, lying on top of her made bed. “Sure. Close the door.”

Even inside their room, the radio was barely audible. Bonnie sat cross-legged on the floor. Adele sat behind her and ran a comb through her hair. I sat behind Adele and combed her hair, handling it like bone china.

Helen shut her history textbook and sat down behind me, grabbing a brush from the basket on the table between their beds. She always tugged a little too hard, leaving my scalp raw.

We all looked alike then. The same eyes in our unmolded faces, the same blue-black hair, even though Adele’s fell straight and limp and Helen’s frizzed in a thick heap like an animal pelt. Bonnie and I had matching haircuts from our mother, two button mushrooms. Sitting in a line, connected by hairbrushes and raking fingers, the perfumed air of the room settling over all of us, nothing that split me apart.

A knock at the door.

We rolled to the side, out of position. I grabbed all the brushes and combs and stuffed them back into the basket. Adele threw some paper and pencils at me and Bonnie. Bonnie started writing out numbers. Helen sat down at her desk and tossed a textbook to Adele as she turned off the radio.

“Come in,” Adele said.

The door swung open. Half of my father was visible. An arm, a shoulder, a waning moon of face.

“Ba-ba.” Adele had memories I couldn’t imagine. “Father,” she corrected. “We were just studying.”

Father nodded. “This door stays open.” None of us were looking directly at our father, our necks curved forward like sickles. “Send Peter when you’re finished.”

He disappeared into the shadows of the hallway. I stopped holding my breath. “I don’t think Father likes you spending so much time with us,” Adele said.

“Why?” I asked. I wanted to hear it said out loud, in real words. I wanted to understand it, not just sense it in my gut.

“He wants to spend time with you,” Adele said. Her smile was so kind, it bordered on pity.

“Why?” I asked again. I focused on Adele’s gentle, reluctant face and avoided Helen’s shrewd eyes, her eyebrows that sloped to a point.

“Because he wants you to be like him,” Helen said.

Adele added, “Big and strong like him.”

“But I want to be like you,” I said, grabbing Adele’s knee. “I want to have hair like you. I want to be pretty like you.” Her sad, saintly expression frightened me.

“You can’t.” Helen had turned in her chair. Adele glared at her. “What?” Helen said. “He can’t. You can’t, Peter. You can be handsome, like Father or Bruce Lee.” She pointed at a poster of theirs, one that Father disapproved of: dot-pixelated like a comic book, a shirtless Bruce Lee posed in fighting stance, his body warped wide with muscle. I stared at the poster in horror. I started to cry.

“You’re a boy.” Helen said it like she thought it would be comforting.

“I am not! I am not!”

Bonnie was always delighted when someone older than her cried. She started poking me in the side. “A boy! A boy! A boy!”

Adele knelt down. “Peter, there’s nothing wrong with being a boy. There’re a lot of great things about being a boy. Sometimes I wish I were one.”

I started to wail, a bland, continuous cry, not pausing to take a breath. I felt out of control. A boy! A boy! A boy!

Helen turned a page in her textbook. “Father’s going to hear him and we’re all going to catch shit.”

Adele nodded. She pulled me into the closet and shut the door behind us. The seam of the hinge let in the only light, and my heaving breaths seemed louder in the tight space. I felt Adele’s thin arms close around me.

Bonnie pounded on the door, angry at being excluded. The sound was distant and unimportant. Adele whispered close to my ear, “You can be pretty. You can be pretty.”

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Interviews & Essays

A Conversation with Kim Fu, Author of For Today I Am a Boy

The Huang family is unusually disconnected from their Chinese heritage. The father disavows his emigrant past, and the children seem disinterested. Why did you choose to write characters so detached from their roots?

In my first, most tentative drafts of the novel, the Huang father was something of a monster, an unknowable authoritarian figure. As the book developed, though, I came to have a certain sympathy for him, and his misguided attempts to make his children's lives easier than his own. He bans his native language from their house, forbidding his wife and eldest daughter from speaking Chinese (the younger daughters, including Peter, never learn any), as well as Chinese foods and traditions. He wonders if they should change their last name. He imagines himself as a white man in the mirror, and molds his children to integrate better and more fully than he can. Unlike their mother, who loses a huge part of her identity, the Huang kids don't initially feel a sense of loss—their father took away something they never really had.

Growing up, I believed way longer than most people in the fantasy of post-racial, color-blind America. That you don't have to let the color of your skin define you. The Huang father takes that ideal to an extreme, and he fails. He can erase all the superficially "Asian" things in their lives, but he can't untangle which of his values and beliefs are "Asian" and which are purely his own, or control how other people perceive and react. You can't detach from your roots. It's also an obvious parallel with Peter's struggle. Peter tries so desperately to be a boy, to find some way of being a boy that fits, denying a much more obvious truth: Peter is a girl. Just as the Huangs are ethnically Chinese, no matter how many boiled potatoes and ham roasts they eat.

There's a great Justin Lin film, Better Luck Tomorrow, about a group of Asian-American teenagers in Orange County who use their high grades and extracurricular achievements as a cover for increasingly serious crime. Lin funded the production himself with credit cards. He claimed that plenty of investors were interested in the script and offered up to seven figures, but only if he changed the ethnicity of the cast. I saw reviews that explicitly asked why the characters were Asian, as though non-white actors/characters must be explained and can't be incidental.

Lin was willing to go wildly into debt to keep his characters Asian. And even though the movie isn't about being Asian-American, if the leads weren't manipulating the quiet, high-achieving stereotype to their advantage, it would be an entirely different movie. I feel the same away about my book. Peter and his sisters know almost nothing their parents' homeland, and it still affects them deeply, across their entire lives. That's so interesting to me.

Peter has a curious relationship with the young new friends he makes in Montreal — he seems to regard them with a mix of contempt, bewilderment, and admiration. What drives these feelings? Is it a generational difference?

Peter is actually only around ten years older than those friends, but it's a crucial decade, and differences in background make the gap seem wider. He grew up with an immigrant ethos: make the best of things, keep your head down, honor and respect your elders. The Montreal kids are the children of the baby boomers, children of divorce and reinvention, not suffering in silence. They grew up in an era where everyone is expected to self-define and express themselves on the internet, where labels expand and proliferate. (Tabatha Southey recently wrote that the contemporary equivalent of the phrase "politically correct" is "not being a jackass," which I love.) They feel entitled to meaning, acceptance, equality, and happiness. They seem smug and self-obsessed to Peter, but enviable. And they see right through Peter, an experience that's equal parts exhilarating and terrifying.

As you're not transgender, did you worry about portraying the experience accurately?

I don't think there's one trans narrative or core feeling to capture. The stories of people I've known, and the stories I've read, are diverse and complex; the journey takes many forms. I hope Peter's story reads as authentic, true to itself, true to Peter—a specific character living in a specific time and place, within a particular family, constrained by race. To me, it's mostly a story about family, and the divide between what you want—what you need—for yourself, and what others expect from you. People you love and respect, and the world at large. We all go through that.

The book was originally your MFA thesis. Did that affect how it came together?

MFAs have been getting a lot of flak lately, for supposedly flattening voices and milking money out of hopeless dreamers. I've even heard people say they avoid books by people who hold an MFA degree, which is insane—you'd miss out on Karen Russell, Yiyun Li, Michael Chabon, and Jhumpa Lahari, to name just a few. I'd written several novel-length manuscripts before I did my MFA, but it was an entirely different experience to develop one with invested, encouraging readers at every step. They challenged and motivated me, broke me of lazy habits, widened my small and self-indulgent ambitions. They opened up about their own experiences of gender and sexuality, and the program brought the linked gifts of money and time. I understand MFAs aren't for everyone, but mine was invaluable.

Who have you discovered recently?

I'd never been into Margaret Atwood—I'm Canadian, so she was on every syllabus—but something clicked for me this past year and I read eight of her novels in a row. I felt bereft if I finished one and didn't have the next immediately at hand, like I couldn't go without her voice for a second. And now that it's finished, I think it's safe to say the wildly intelligent and imaginative Oryx and Crake trilogy is her finest work.

My father passed away recently, and I read a lot of books about grief in response. One of the best was Say Her Name by Francisco Goldman, a memoir from a writer whose young wife died in surfing accident; it howls with honest, unrestrained pain, with no easy lessons or false redemption. But I still felt like I hadn't found the book I was looking for until I stumbled upon Rebecca Brown's The Gifts of the Body, an extremely short, almost plotless novel about a home caregiver for patients with AIDS. The prose is spare and straightforward, accepting the physicality and ugliness of death without diminishing its humanity and grace—it just says, "This is how people die." It's an utterly one-of-a-kind book, a gem.

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Sort by: Showing all of 4 Customer Reviews
  • Posted January 24, 2014

    more from this reviewer

    Kim Fu handles the transgender perspective in For Today I Am a B

    Kim Fu handles the transgender perspective in For Today I Am a Boy with the utmost care. This is not a radical, explosive book meant to shock its audience. Instead, it centers on Peter's thoughts, feelings, and experiences as he tells us about his childhood, his loved ones, and his coming of age, in his own voice. There are a number of subtle but powerful moments that made me forget this is a work of fiction; much of the time it reads like a memoir.

    Fu attains the perfect balance between creating interesting, complex characters without turning them into clichés. Especially when it comes to Peter, this maintains the story's reliability.
    Who were these kids? What right had they to be born into a world where they were taught to look endlessly into themselves . . . To ask themselves, and not be told, whether they were boys or girls? You eat what's there or you starve.
    I was glad that Peter, with all the turmoil he faced, did have a few people in his life who completely accepted him without question, who didn't try to change him. I'm not sure how realistic that is for most transgender people, but it certainly added an element of hope throughout the story.

    Approached with sensitivity and free of stereotypes, For Today I Am a Boy explores how who we are (and the discovery of who we are) plays into our sense of self, the path we take in life, and our family dynamics. This is a coming of age story well worth reading.

    I received a copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss in exchange for an honest review. I did not receive any other compensation for this review.

    17 out of 17 people found this review helpful.

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