Chronicles of a Chinese-Canadian Family
Kim Fu’s much acclaimed debut novel is filled with great characters.
Kim Fu’s debut novel, For Today I Am a Boy, is a quiet and moving tour de force of imagination. Chronicling the lives of a Chinese-Canadian family over three decades, it succeeds in revealing a secret world of shame and pride, shrouded by tradition and guilt. The author weaves her story skillfully through the sensitive eyes of her protagonist, Peter Huang.
“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.”
These lyrics from the haunting ballad by the Anglo-American band Antony and the Johnsons is the apparent starting point for this beautifully written work of fiction. Here is a youtube video of the song:
As the lyrics suggest, the pain of gender dissonance and sexual confusion hang heavily over the incidents of the plot, from the painful first scenes of bullies in the schoolyard to the hopeful resolution.
Set primarily in Ontario and Montreal, For Today I Am a Boy is really much more than Peter’s story. It is a group biography of a dislocated and dysfunctional family. The fact that they are Chinese and living in Canada is only part of the story. The scenes of problematic family life will resonate with anyone who has parents and siblings. That is not to say there aren’t many insights about ethnic reality, but that is not Ms. Fu’s primary motivation.
We move swiftly from eldest daughter Adele’s defiance to middle sister Helen’s life of academic responsibility. The younger children, Peter and Bonnie, are left to find their own ways in an often confusing and harsh environment. Their parents are traditional, but have repressed their pasts to make a better future for their children. This sad legacy perverts the natural relationships of parent and child, leaving the brother and sisters feeling like orphans.
I was a bit confused by the beginning chapters of this book, as Ms. Fu lays the foundation for the events that come later. These early childhood vignettes are warm with the natural love of kids who care about each other in ways they have difficulty expressing. We shift often from year to year and I found myself retracing my steps several times. This fluidity, however, eventually provides richness to the subsequent events, rewarding your patience.
The creation of characters that you want to know more about is always an amazing feat. But Kim Fu has created a family of them. I would welcome a sequel to For Today I Am a Boy. I want to know more about these fully imagined siblings. I would also love to read a novel about their long-suffering parents, who don’t get much of a backstory here. Maybe the future for this excellent writer will include more stories about the Huang family.
First novels are often seen as necessary evils. Every novelist must write one. Sometimes they are published, sometimes not. Whether readers take to them is another question. I believe that every dedicated reader and book buyer must put debut fiction (novels and short story collections) on their annual book list. We need to support new writers.
Kim Fu is a wonderful new voice and For Today I Am a Boy is a book that deserved to be bought and shared. It has been picked as The New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice and a Barnes & Nobel Discover Great New Writers selection. These are good sources for great new fiction.
Upcoming area Book Events:
Friday, April 11 (7:00 PM): Patrick O’Keeffe, author of The Visitors, in conversation with UWM’s Valerie Laken at Boswell Book Company, 2559 N. Downer Ave., Milwaukee. (414) 332-1181.This event is co-sponsored by the UWM Department of English Creative Writing Program. http://boswell.indiebound.com
Friday, April 11 (7:00 PM): Reading by Juliana Spahr at Woodland Pattern Book Center, 720 East Locust Street, Milwaukee. $5-$8 admission. (414) 263-5001 firstname.lastname@example.org
Saturday, April 12 (4:00PM): JD Glass, author of Glass Lion at Outwords Books, Gifts & Coffee, 2710 N. Murray Avenue, Milwaukee. (414) 963-9089. http://www.outwordsbooks.com/
Saturday, April 12 (7:00PM): “Milwaukee Poets Laureate Reading Series”: Jim Chapson and guest poet, Lewis Ellingham at Woodland Pattern Book Center. $5-$8 admission.
Sunday April 13 (11:00 AM): “Story Time” with Jannis, featuring a reading of Julie Fogliano’s And Then It’s Spring at Boswell Book Company.
Monday, April 14 (6:00 PM): Franklin Public Library Event with Andy Griffiths, author of The 26-Story Treehouse. The Franklin Public Library is located at 9151 W. Loomis Road in Franklin. Co-sponsored by Boswell Book Company.
Monday, April 14 (7:00 PM): Outwords Men’s Book Group – The group will discuss Last of the Wine by Mary Renault at Outwords Books, Gifts & Coffee.
Wednesday April 16 (7:00 PM): “World Book Night Reception” with Brian Kimberling, author of Snapper at Boswell Book Company.
Thursday April 17 (7:00 PM): Stuart Shea, author of Wrigley Field: The Long Life and Contentious Times of the Friendly Confines at Boswell Book Company.
Thursday April 17 (7:00 PM): Eric Pankey, author of Dismantling the Angel will give the annual “UWM Department of English Boudreaux Reading” at The Hefter Center, located at 3271 North Lake Drive in Milwaukee. Co-sponsored by Boswell Book Company.
Friday, April 18 (7:00 PM): “Redletter Reading” by Matt Cook, followed by Open Mic at Woodland Pattern Book Center. $2-$3 admission.