Over the past several years, the transgender perspective—once a marginal voice even within the LGBT community—has gradually emerged into the mainstream. In 2003, Jeffrey Eugenides’ novel Middlesex helped raise awareness of gender identity issues when it was awarded the Pulitzer Prize. Elsewhere, transgender actress Laverne Cox has found acclaim on a popular show, and actor Jared Leto recently won an Oscar for his depiction of a transgender woman. Recognition is not tantamount to acceptance—for this, a long road still lies ahead—but Kim Fu has chosen an auspicious time for her first novel, For Today I Am a Boy (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 242 pages).
The story, which takes place in Canada, is about Peter Huang, the only son of Chinese immigrants, and his three sisters, Adele, Helen, and Bonnie. Peter’s father, an aloof and demanding man, is determined to distance his family from their Chinese past and subsume completely into their new culture. To this end, Cantonese is forbidden in the house, traditional Chinese soup, mistakenly cooked by the mother, is poured out on the lawn, and Peter, as his father’s male heir, is expected to become an ideal of Western masculinity. However, even at a young age, Peter realizes he is different. Playing with his sisters, he cries when he learns he should be handsome, “like Father or Bruce Lee,” and says he just wants to be pretty like them. Later, when he is caught in the cruel games of schoolyard boys, he confesses that “Boys were ugly and foreign, like another species. Like baboons. I was not one of them. The evidence was right there, all the time, tucked into my tight underwear, but I still didn’t believe it. I didn’t have one of those things, that little-boy tab of flesh.”
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Broken up into a series of short, disjointed sections (many as short as a paragraph, some as short as a sentence) that bring to mind Marguerite Duras’ The Lover, Fu snakes her way through Peter’s childhood as he chafes against his father’s discipline and questions his emerging desires. When he is caught wearing a frilly apron and cooking his family’s meals (a chore delegated to his younger sister Bonnie, not to him), his father takes the apron outside and burns it, then tells Peter to swallow a charred piece. Although such cruel treatment leaves Peter feeling conflicted, it ultimately cannot suppress who he is. Cajoled by a high school classmate to go lift weights at his gym, Peter sees a poster of a lithe woman pasted onto the wall. “How do you look like that?” he wonders out loud.
Fu’s writing throughout is delicate and measured, and she excels at showcasing the subtle interior life of Peter as he gradually discovers who he is. Upon meeting Chef, who gives him a job as a dishwasher, Peter feels his first blush of sexual attraction:
“ ‘You call me Chef.’ He tilted his head. ‘Your jacket is buttoned wrong.’ His fingers settled on my chest. He undid the buttons, pulled the jacket straight, and rebuttoned it on the other side. It took a long time. I could smell his hair, a sharp, cold scent, like the air before it snows. Like the walk-in freezer. He ended by patting the jacket smooth. ‘Men button it on the left. Women on the right.’ ”
Fu is unafraid to let her descriptive language do what other writers might have simply had their characters think or say, allowing us to see Peter emerge more naturally. His gaze often falls on clothing or on the curves and contours of someone else’s skin, which feels fitting considering he’s not comfortable in his own. And while his observations are meticulous, Fu is careful to keep Peter’s voice quiet and insecure. Only occasionally, such as when Peter is considering Chef (saying he might love him “as zealously as a supplicant loves a god”), does the writing become overwrought.
Similarly, Fu seems aware that, while her topic is timely and (at least for now) unconventional, she risks telling yet another iteration of the coming-of-age tale. To this end, she has broadened the narrative beyond Peter by mirroring his central questions of identity and self-acceptance in other characters, too. His father’s failure to disappear completely into another culture and forget his past trickles down not only to the son but to the daughters as well. Adele makes an ill-fated move to Germany, where she falls victim to her lover’s abuse. Helen closes herself off from the rest of the family in pursuit of her career. Bonnie, the youngest, gets caught in a world of sex and debauchery. Even their mother, who is nearly invisible as the novel begins, emerges halfway through to reclaim the identity her husband has long kept from her. Although Fu does not sketch these narratives as completely as Peter’s (at times, they feel tacked on), they nevertheless help elevate the novel’s second half into a more expansive consideration of not just a person, but a family that is trying to come to terms with itself.
Peter eventually meets a group of kids a decade younger than him who have never had to confront similar questions of identity, who have been raised in inclusive environments and studied gender and queer theory as a matter of course. Peter, whose struggle has lasted, by this point, over thirty years, can’t believe it, and goes on to deliver one of the book’s most moving lines. “You couldn’t just rename yourself,” he says, “you couldn’t tear down the skyline and rebuild and think there wouldn’t be consequences.” Fu’s accomplishment isn’t just making this line believable for Peter, but for everyone in the novel—indeed, anyone at all—who is somehow seeking to define themselves.