The debut novel from University of British Columbia MFA graduate Kim Fu considers what it means to become who you are.
Peter Huang is the coveted son among three sisters in a Chinese-Canadian family. While his father struggles to instill his ideal of masculinity in his only son, Peter is tormented by a conflicted identity. He doesn’t want to be like his father: he wants to be a woman, a mother. But growing up in small-town Ontario in an ethnically traditional household, Peter doesn’t have the vocabulary to recognize he is transgender.
Peter finds solace in a clandestine world of material objects – high heels, wigs, make-up. Home alone, he does his chores in the nude, wearing only his mother’s frilly nylon apron. One day, his father wordlessly presents Peter with the apron, has him burn it in the driveway, and forces him to swallow a still-warm piece of the charred fabric. The moment is one of real brutality.
The story follows a coming-of-age novel’s typical trajectory: Peter gets a part-time job, graduates high school, and moves to the big city, where he has the opportunity to achieve a personal rebirth. But Peter is unwittingly chasing the same dream as his father – integration into the dominant culture – which he pursues the only way he knows how: by trying to find a wife. His two relationships – with an older woman and a former lesbian, born-again Christian – are damaging overcorrections, and Peter becomes more lost the harder he tries to assimilate.
Fu’s narrative deftly navigates through the 1990s and into the 21st century, where Peter is overwhelmed by the young people living in a mediated, politicized world. Peter has never before encountered the queer theory that dominates the bookshelves of his transgender co-worker, who teaches him about gender identity. To Peter, the luxury of selecting one’s identity remains both disobedient and unfair.
For Today I Am a Boy offers a lot to think about. Fu’s concerns range from the first-generation immigrant experience to changing standards of feminism. Amid difficult questions of gender and identity, the secondary characters (especially Peter’s mother, who gains a voice only after her husband’s death) are sometimes crowded out by the ambitious narrative. Nevertheless, Fu’s delicate, honest, and poetic prose captures the tragic, violent struggle of a soul at odds with itself. Despite a lifetime of self-doubt, Peter ultimately prevails and comes to understand that his identity might serve as the lynchpin for his divided family.