For Today I am a Boy by Kim Fu

for today i am a boyBlurb: Peter Huang and his sisters—elegant Adele, shrewd Helen, and Bonnie the bon vivant—grow up in a house of many secrets, then escape the confines of small-town Ontario and spread from Montreal to California to Berlin. Peter’s own journey is obstructed by playground bullies, masochistic lovers, Christian ex-gays, and the ever-present shadow of his Chinese father.

At birth, Peter had been given the Chinese name Juan Chaun, powerful king. The exalted only son in the middle of three daughters, Peter was the one who would finally embody his immigrant father’s ideal of power and masculinity. But Peter has different dreams: he is certain he is a girl.

EDIT 9TH JAN ’17: I highly encourage all of you to read this article (…), written by a trans woman writer. The article highlights some of the problems within For Today I Am a Boy, and how its representation of trans* may be stereotypical and potentially triggering.

Beautiful, earnest, visceral, raw.

It is not often that you come across books that feature a trans woman of colour. It is exceptionally rare to come across one with a Chinese trans woman as its narrator. Finally, a story not only about a Chinese person, but a story about a Chinese person with an identity whose narrative is often invisible.

Fu’s debut novel is an intricate coming-of-age tale, full of subtleties, the twilight and dawn of life, and a story of what we bury deep inside us. Fu captures the human condition in its momentary beauty, illusory peace, melancholia, and how our lives are in a trajectory of movement, regression, but also growth.

Above all, For Today I am a Boy questions how much suffering and misery we endure for those fleeting moments of authenticity, that sense of rightness and truth to ourselves. Is this the human condition? To strive for congruence, to develop identity, to seek the true self?

For Today I am a Boy chronicles Peter’s life, from the innocence and attentive mind of a child, to the jaded and fatalistic adult. It explores gender dysphoria and how the pain is a crippling silence, it navigates childhood bullies, broken promises and dreams, her first job and sexual awakening, and manipulative lovers. However, something that I wanted to talk about – that is integral in the narrative and is quite close to my heart – is Peter’s family.

Writing and talking about Chinese family dynamics can be extremely precarious. We risk critical judgement and scrutiny from our Western, non-Asian peers when we talk honestly and openly about ourselves, our culture, and the palpable differences. For this reason, I am often apprehensive to share my culture with people I do not trust, not because I don’t want to share (because I usually really do), but out of fear of irrevocable judgement.

Fu writes about the Chinese family dynamic with honesty and sensitivity, and I commend her for it. Fu lays bare Peter’s authoritative father and his idealization of Western masculinity, Peter’s very different but quietly loving and accepting sisters, and Peter’s mother who I truly understand but I just cannot find the words to describe. Peter’s family is Fu’s quiet refutation to all the lazy, stereotypical characterization of Asian characters (i.e. Asian non-English speaking gangsters, the Magical Asian whose sole purpose is to mentor the White character, nerdy Asian, etc.). It was refreshing to read a story that had Chinese characters that were complex, that felt like people rather than caricatures.

Can you tell I am so deprived of well-written Asian characters?

Furthermore, Fu’s portrayal isn’t exploitative or harmful; it is an unapologetic and provocative illustration of the complexes and dreams of the immigrant family. Immigrant families sacrifice so much; not only of themselves for themselves, but for their children too. Peter’s father and his steadfast renunciation of his Chinese heritage is not a simple process of rejection.

This act is seemingly one of cruelty or an assertion of his dominance, but I perceive this as an act of great pain; to want something so desperately – whether it be acceptance from his home in Canada or success for his children – that he was willing sacrifice who he was, the language and heritage he grew up with it in exchange for this imagined acceptance and success. To an extent, Peter’s father is spurred by dreams of grandeur that have blinded him to how necessary identity is, and that it cannot be simply relinquished. Of course, he is forceful and imposes the West and its ideals on his family but it is such a complex and deep reaction — one that is difficult to understand and perhaps can only be wholly understood from lived experience.

Peter’s struggle with gender identity is a perilous, unrelenting journey. Her struggles and unhappiness were so graphically portrayed that the ache and anguish was laced in the narrative voice. The suffocation was palpable; I too felt suffocated and hurt. Add in the expectations of her father whose omnipresence permeates all areas of Peter’s life, lovers who exploit Peter for the purpose of their twisted fantasies, and the constant feeling of confusion, and alienation that stem from these experiences.

I regard For Today I am a Boy as one of those rare, once-in-a-lifetime reads. To say I ‘enjoyed’ it would be a misrepresentation of what this book can offer. Rather than enjoyment, this book offers insight, a unique trans narrative, and also a narrative on cultural differences and why, yes, race does matter. For all its quietness, this book shifted something deep inside me; it has changed me in a way I can not yet fathom.

A fantastic piece of LGBTQ+ literature, For Today I am a Boy is a book that I will never regret reading.

Rating: 4.5/5

Book Information
Book Name: For Today I am a Boy
Author: Kim Fu
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt


19 thoughts on “For Today I am a Boy by Kim Fu

  1. It sounds moving and phenomenal, I’ve never heard of any books based on Asian transgender- let alone one that is as well done as this. Brilliant review.

    You have to be Asian to understand the tough love style in the family. I didn’t get told once by many of my family members “I love you” — we just do. I like it, and to be honest saying it out loud feels uncomfortable to me now. Sorry my future children this is also how you will be raised :p

    • It is! If you ever read it, we must discuss it! :D

      I think that’s so true. Tbh in my family we tell each other ‘I love you’ now (idk how it came to it, but it did eventually), but there are some things you leave unsaid. It’s in those moments when they DO say it, it’s when you know that they mean it enough to verbalize it. I mean, I remember the first time my mum told me that, and I went to my bedroom and cried, haha.

      Hahahaha!! Even though I am how I am with my family, I think I’ll be the same when I become a mother… but who knows! It’s a long time between now and then, hehe. Out of curiousity, have you read Battle Hymn of a Tiger Mother?

  2. Wow. This books sounds so profound and inspirational. Definitely want to read this one. Not only does it have a transgender person, but that person is also Asian. So much diversity. It’s amazing!!

    Great review! Thank you for bringing it to my attention~

    • Absolutely! It’s really fantastic and really sheds like on a lot of obstacles people go through. We need more books like this one. :)

      Thank you very much! I hope you enjoy it, if you pick it up! :D

  3. This books sounds so good omg. And I think it’s the diversity that’s drawing me in. Yayy for LGBT characters in a book. Even more for including a character who isn’t white and from America. I NEED TO READ THIS. Adding this to my TBR asap. And yes, lovely review <3

    • Hey Nirvana!
      I promise, you won’t be let down. c: Oh, i never stated it my review (and I should’ve!) but Peter is born in America. So I think that makes his narrative all the more complex and compelling.
      Haha you do! If you ever read it, please let me know! There aren’t enough people who have read this book, so I’d love to discuss the book with someone! c:

    • Thank you for the kind words, Lydia. <3
      Hehe, you do! If you ever read it, let me know!! We must discuss! I don't know enough people who have read this book, so I feel lonely in my little bubble. ;_;

  4. I am convinced to read this someday. I appreciate stories that don’t step into the wooden stereotypical characterisations/tropes of Asian characters.

    • Hi Glaiza!

      You must! It’s truly fantastic, and doesn’t tiptoe around the reality of Chinese/diaspora experiences. It’s an extremely validating read, and its exploration of trans identity was incredible too, and particularly eye-opening for me.

  5. This is an absolutely gorgeous, thoughtful review. Your final words- “For all its quietness, this book shifted something deep inside me; it has changed me in a way I can not yet fathom” are striking and awaken something inside of me. When you get a book that does that, and those books are rare as anything, it’s undefinable. It’s indescriable. I’ve heard a little about this book, but it went off my radar. I’m not 100% sure whether I’ll be able to sink into it and enjoy every aspect like you, but I’m definitely going to give it a try. It’s worth at least that much, absolutely.

    • Hello Romi! Thank you for such a thoughtful, sincere comment.

      I absolutely agree. I still think about this book often. It really stays with you; a book that is very difficult to forget. I strongly encourage you to read it! It’s truly fantastic, and you are right, there is so little about this book out there. Let me know if you read it – I’ll be overjoyed to hear your thoughts. <3

  6. […] For Today I’m a Boy by Kim Fu – Another of my 2015 favourites, this profound and unforgettable book explores the life of Peter Huang – a Chinese trans woman, an incredibly invisible narrative, which is why For Today I Am a Boy is so so necessary and important. Whilst also addressing and exploring Peter’s process of discovering her identity, this book also offers a raw and honest exploration of the difficulties of growing up in a patriarchal and traditional Chinese home. (Goodreads, my review) […]

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