For Today I Am a Boy, the debut novel by Kim Fu, is a stunning, striking read. It explores a variety of identities and experiences, seeking to find the eager, tender heart that quietly beats within us all. Peter Huang, born in 1979 to Chinese parents who have immigrated to Canada, knows from an early age that he does not want to be that precious thing his father always wanted: a boy, a son. Surrounded by sisters, Adele and Helen, who are significantly older, and Bonnie, who’s a year younger, Peter is drawn to their world, to being a girl, yet he is overwhelmed by his parents’ demands to be Juan Chaun, the “Powerful king.”
Fort Michel is a small town with all a small town’s trappings. The childhood rituals of masculinity—scuffling during recess, tormenting a female classmate, learning to shave (at the uncomfortably early age of six, taught by a father too insistent to wait)—take on great force. These rituals aim to conquer Peter, to convert him. We see how the confinements of gender, imbedded into almost every youthful activity, can so easily skew one’s sense of self—this crushing demand to be just one of the boys since blue is for boys and boys will be boys causes daily harm. All the while, as he haplessly takes part in these rituals, playing along, Peter knows there is something he cannot share, a secret he must keep quiet forever. During an elementary school pissing contest, he thinks, “Boys were ugly and foreign, like another species. Like baboons. I was not one of them.” This is a sentiment Peter is unable to say aloud to himself and to others for many years.
For Today I Am a Boy is, in part, a coming-of-age novel filled with many moments typical of growing up in North America: older siblings studying for the SAT and then leaving for college, dealing with parents, getting a first job at a restaurant. These moments take on added complexity the more we learn about Peter. There is a constant unspoken tension that pervades his life, which he does what can to ignore. Fu strategically incorporates the stories of Peter’s friends and family into the mix, to create a community of voices. We learn of Adele’s failed marriage, of Ollie’s troubles with the football team, of Peter’s mother’s predilection for gambling at mahjong. This community of voices allows for a diverse exploration of identities and intersectionalities. Peter is not the only one struggling to understand who he is. Everybody is struggling, working out what it means to be alive at this particular moment, working to bridge the chasm between who you’re told you are and who you know yourself to be.
The novel is told from a reflective perspective, with Peter now an adult, now a woman, narrating these events. This allows the story to occasionally move back-and-forth in time and include touching asides, digressions into the future:
Years later, visiting home, I went to see the bar where Bonnie had given her number to old men. It was open at ten in the morning, dank and empty. … I sat at Mr. Becker’s table and we talked about his wife.
But if there’s a weakness to this reflective perspective, it’s that all the chapters have a similar diction and tone. Whether Peter is six, fourteen, or in his late twenties, the world is described in the same style. There’s no differentiation based on age. At ten, for instance, Peter thinks of Adele, the oldest sister, who “looked just like Audrey Hepburn—the gamine smile, the swan-necked beauty.” It’s a lovely description, capturing the allure of the feminine physique, but it lacks any sense of ten-year-old-ness. The best moments, those taut with emotion, occur when Fu is able to complete enter Peter’s mind, when his thoughts and feelings are not faded by time, not diminished by this reflective perspective.
Once Peter finishes high school and moves to Montreal, he does not enter the dazzling cosmopolitan life he always imagined. Instead he’s more alone than ever. And aside from one renegade act, purchasing a pair of platform sandals for his “girlfriend,” Peter hasn’t gotten any closer to becoming who he knows himself to be. Fu describes Peter’s feelings of self-disgust and isolation matter-of-factly: “There was a deep-down, physical ache. The opposite of a phantom limb: pain because that thing, that thing I loathed, was always there.”
In Montreal, Peter enters into his first relationship. Margie is old enough to be Peter’s mom. She immediately essentializes him, saying, “I’ve always wanted a little China boy,” as though Peter is a doll she can play with, decorate, add to her collection, and then discard. Although its unhealthy, their relationship allows Peter to delve into the complex realm of intimate, adult emotions. He has an overwhelming need to feel wanted by someone else, anyone else—he desires what has been denied him. Luckily, Peter never mistakes any of the emotions in this relationship with Margie for love.
When Peter thinks of who he knows himself to be, he focuses on the external changes. He imagines not having a penis. He thinks about going shopping: “Earrings, I thought. Earrings and plucked eyebrows and bold lipsticks … That’s all it would take.” It’s not until almost of the end of the novel when, thanks to the support of John, a transgender co-worker, Peter is able to think about the internal changes. This is when Peter is finally able to imagine, for the first time, that he is a woman, body and soul.
This is not a story of transformation. It is a story of everything that leads up to that transformation. It’s a story of coming into being—of finally being able to say openly: This is who I am, who I know myself to be. Fu’s novel asks us to think deeply about a community of characters, some of whom aren’t always likable or generous, but all of whom are vividly alive. After his father dies, Peter is able to see his mother more clearly: “She stared at my ponytail, at another of her strange, disappointing children…. Mother, a pilgrim who walked a thousand miles only to find the sacred grove was just a clump of trees.” All Fu’s characters are pilgrims. The lives they eventually arrive at might not be the ones they had originally imagined for themselves. The question is what to do when next, how to turn this clump of trees into your own sacred grove.