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Gender identity, race at core of stunning novel

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One day I'll grow up, I'll be a beautiful woman

One day I'll grow up, I'll be a beautiful girl

But for today, I am a child. For today, I am a boy.

A song by Antony and the Johnsons provides both the title and the epigraph to Kim Fu's debut novel For Today I Am a Boy. This sing-song anthem of childish hope begins the novel and is a chorus that repeats throughout: a girl, born a boy, has the simple wish that the world see her for who she really is.

For Today I am a Boy follows the coming of age of Peter Huang. Born in a small Ontario town called Fort Michel, which could easily stand in for any small Canadian community, Peter grows up alongside his three sisters, under the ever-present gaze of his silent mother and tyrannical father. Peter's father, a Chinese immigrant to Canada, longs for nothing more than for his family to be seen as normal, as Canadian.

Expertly written and hauntingly candid, For Today I Am a Boy offers a unique perspective on the struggles of being transgender, being the child of Chinese immigrants to Canada, and what it means to grow up in a body that does not feel right.

As the only boy born to his parents, Peter feels the pressure to carry on his father's legacy as the perfect son, the dominant man. Yet, Peter intrinsically knows he will never be the ideal son because he is a daughter.

We meet Peter as a child, who pleads to his sister, "I want to be like you... I want to have hair like you. I want to be pretty like you," to which another sister replies, "You can't, Peter. You can be handsome, like Father or Bruce Lee."

We then follow Peter through the pressures of high school, escaping to Montreal, and starting a life as a burgeoning chef.

Along the way, Peter meets a handful of memorable characters, including a gruff head chef, an ex-gay Christian, a masochistic and manipulative lover, and a group of LGBTQ activists, who affirm, challenge and shift notions he has about his sexuality, gender and race.

The secondary characters in Fu's novel are not given the short shrift, however. They are carefully rendered, compelling and explored through odd and sometimes unnerving details that only an artful writer can achieve.

Like Asian-Canadian writers such as Wayson Choy, Larissa Lai and Andy Quan, Fu explores what it means to be a first-generation Canadian born of Chinese parents, and how that identity informs gender and intimate relationships.

Fu's writing is bold and sensitive. Peter is a relatable character who wants something so universal — the world to see his true identity — it is difficult not to feel wrenched every time his wish is left unrealized. The novel catalogues Peter's struggle to make sense of his desire to be seen as a woman, to be a mother, a wife, and his need to live a normal life in the eyes of his father and the rest of his family.

Fu's novel is a stunning achievement. It refuses the tendency to preach or to shock for the sake of effect. Instead, it compellingly constructs a story dealing with circumstances few of us can relate to.

It also tells a more universal story of what it means to inhabit a body, to live in it, fight against it and love through it.

 

Katelyn Dykstra Dykerman is a PhD student in the department of English, film and theatre at the University of Manitoba.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 18, 2014 G7

History

Updated on Saturday, January 18, 2014 at 8:49 AM CST: Tweaks formatting.

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