New novel fuses immigrant experience and transgender identity

Kim Fu (right), the Seattle-based author of the new novel For Today I Am A Boy

Canadian transplant Kim Fu’s “For Today I am a Boy” is hot off the press with a fresh perspective on Asian American transgender identity.

In her debut novel “For Today I am a Boy,” Chinese-Canadian author Kim Fu’ opens a palpable and courageous conversation on gender and transgender identity, and weaves it in seamlessly with a story of the second-generation immigration experience.

We first meet her protagonist, Peter Huang as a young child — the only boy among four siblings — preferring dress-up to G.I. Joe’s. But he 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 Peter’s young, formative experiences in small-town Ontario. Without circumventing questions of race in a predominately white town, she avoids throwing in the typical racist monikers familiar 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 with pride (as Peter’s mother 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.

But as Peter gets farther away from home and closer to who he is, the values of sisterhood, authenticity, and community supersede living up to any repressive ideal.

I spoke with Fu earlier this month as she anticipated the January 14th release of her book, which will be celebrated with a reading at the Elliott Bay Book Company. As we talked, Fu reflected on her process in creating the Huang family and her first novel:

1. Where did the inspiration come from in developing your cast of characters and the lives they lead?

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.

2. With the vast majority of American literature and media still depicting Asian American families as affluent, you’ve chosen to make the Huang family working-class. What effect do you think this has?

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.

3. What was the most surprising thing you learned about yourself and in general in the process of writing this book?

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.

4. Your first novel is rich with cinematic detail and film potential. If you could choose a director to make it a film and actors to you’re your characters, who would they be?

[Fast & Furious director] 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.[Social Network actress] 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.

5. What do you think we can all learn from Peter Huang?

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.

6. What drew you to Seattle?

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 Elliott Bay Book Company on Tuesday, January 14 at 7 p.m.

A longer version of this story was originally published in the International Examiner

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