When Kim Fu thinks back to her “intense and prolific” time as an MFA student in creative writing at the University of British Columbia, one conversation in particular stands out. After reading an early draft of her thesis – a novel manuscript – Fu’s supervisor asked her what her expectations were. “I said, ‘I just want it to be something that I can hold in my hand. I just wanted to see a book,’” Fu recalls. “He thought that was a realistic way of looking at it.”
Several drafts later, Fu’s thesis went on to become her multiple-award-winning debut, For Today I Am a Boy. The novel tells the story of a young Chinese man who comes to realize that his male body is a prison from which he needs to break free. Fu, who was raised in Vancouver, previously had been known mainly for writing poetry and a few non-fiction magazine pieces; after HarperCollins Canada published the novel in 2014, the author found herself, despite her modest goals, receiving the kind of critical accolades new writers can only fantasize about. She was hailed as a masterful new voice in Canadian fiction, and For Today I Am a Boy went on to be published in the U.S., Australia, and New Zealand to enthusiastic responses.
Fu’s novel anticipated a general conversation on transgender issues well before the broader popular culture discovered it. (Although it draws on the author’s Asian heritage, For Today I Am a Boy is not autobiographical.) “She seems to have filled a void that we may not even have been aware then that needed to be filled,” says Jennifer Lambert, editorial director at HarperCollins. “Kim has made an important contribution with this book in moving that conversation forward.”
Fu’s success came as a belated validation of her decision, while an undergraduate at McGill University in Montreal, to abandon chemical engineering and switch to a double major in English and psychology. Still, she found the attention – interviews, readings, travelling – strange and overwhelming, and didn’t enjoy much of it while it was happening. “It’s only looking back at it that I can appreciate how lucky I was and what an incredible moment in the sun I had,” says Fu, who currently lives in Seattle with her husband, an employee at the headquarters of Amazon.
For her next book, How Festive the Ambulance, publishing this spring with Nightwood Editions, Fu chose to return to her creative roots. The move between genres, not to mention between major and independent publishers, speaks to Fu’s complicated relationship with writing. “Fiction and non-fiction, to a certain degree, have felt more career-oriented, I guess. More stress and higher expectations,” Fu says. “Poetry feels more fun and more niche. It’s for a smaller and much more passionate audience. To me, it feels more like a community, too – less potential for competition.”
Poetry represents more to Fu than just a comfort zone or the potential for bonding moments at sparsely attended readings; it’s where she feels most independent as an author and trusts her literary judgment the most. Poetry is home. “I feel that if I wrote a short story and everyone told me it was awful, I would throw it away and that would be that,” she says. “With a poem, if I believed in it, I would believe in it no matter what anyone said.”
If the tone of For Today I Am a Boy is somewhat sombre and its pacing favours a slow-burn, How Festive the Ambulance reveals a playful and even mischievous voice. While some of the poems do address themes of gender roles, they revel in the comic potential of everyday human interactions and relationships. Both books approach intimacy in ways that acknowledge the complexities (and absurdities) of their characters’ relationships with their bodies and emotions. The poems focus on matters that are “very small and very mundane. But they’re written about in a really ornate and even ridiculous way,” Fu says.
This doesn’t mean Fu won’t necessarily return to the realm of race or gender-identity issues in future volumes (she’s working on another book of poems, as well as another novel). Fu remains realistic about life as a writer, despite her international profile, and plans to keep her options open. “It feels very precarious,” she says. “It feels like something you’re lucky to have and it might vanish at any moment.”