Gen­der iden­tity, race at core of stun­ning novel

Winnipeg Free Press - Section G - - BOOKS - Re­viewed by Kate­lyn Dykstra Dyk­er­man

AOne 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. 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.

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