I meet Kim Fu at Greenwich Village’s Café Reggio on a Monday morning. She’s travel weary, coming on the tail end of a national tour that started in Seattle about two weeks earlier. Fu, 26, is talking about her debut novel, For Today I Am a Boy, which tells the story of Peter Huang, the transgender son of rigid immigrant parents, who grows up in a small Canadian town. The book was published last month by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
—Jordan G. Teicher
Jordan G. Teicher: You wrote that, for you, prose requires “coffee, sweat, and gnashed teeth; poetry comes as long as you are kept watered and turned to the light.” Is prose always difficult for you?
Kim Fu: Not all prose, but fiction. Fiction is very hard. Non-fiction and poetry feel much more natural to me; I can tell while I’m writing if something is working, if this is a good idea or not. I know what I’m doing. I know my own motivations. With poetry, before I begin I know what I want to say. Fiction still feels very mysterious to me. It still feels like I don’t know how it’s working and I’m just relieved that it is, when it is. When I read a novel, I still feel like I don’t know how it’s done, how it works, where it all comes from.
Jordan G. Teicher: You also wrote about your mentor, Keith Maillard and how much you appreciate his book Gloria, which is about a woman’s experience. How important was that book to you? And how does it inform the way you think about For Today I Am a Boy?
Kim Fu: The book was so transformative and singular and true, it feels almost authorless. I forgot I knew Keith or anything about him because the character felt so real and spoke so deeply to my experiences. I’ve talked to other people who have an issue with the book because a man wrote it. They said, How could this be the book for you when it wasn’t written by a woman? This is a very hot topic of conversation right now—women are being published less, they’re being reviewed less, they’re generally less of the conversation. So if other people are telling our stories, that’s problematic. But those are separate issues, in a way. Publishing should not be a zero sum game; the existence of Keith’s book has no bearing at all on the generalized suppression of women’s voices and it doesn’t make the book less beautiful or less personally meaningful to me. I would dearly hope that my book will connect to people.
Up until recently, when people asked how the trans community has reacted to my book, I would say I don’t know yet, it came out last week. Then the National Post had S. Bear Bergman review my book. It was a very thoughtful review and largely positive, and he didn’t even address the question of whether or not it was problematic for a cisgender writer to tell a trans story. I also had gone into it assuming that a lot of people would be angry—the same way that people reacted against Keith’s book. I was expecting people—without reading it—to say, This is problematic. But then in Portland someone came up to me and told me he was trans and it was really meaningful to him that I had chosen to portray a trans character at all, which was not a response I had considered. It was meaningful to me to think that that’s a reaction some people have to not being represented, that they want more representations and they want more visibility. They’re going to pay very close attention to how you do it, but they’re still going to appreciate that you did it.
Jordan G. Teicher: You wrote in your essay, “The Elite Yellow Peril”: “I wonder if anyone reaches adulthood feeling like they have the power to decide how large a role their ethnic identity and pride will play in their lives… Other people always decide the relative importance of your traits.” I find this interesting, because in a way, Peter is very much in control of the realization of his gender identity. What parallels do you see between your own experience of forming your identity and Peter’s?
Kim Fu: Peter and I have sort of opposite trajectories. Peter’s natural inclination is toward passivity and pleasing people and meeting the world’s expectations. That’s the just the way his personality is. When I was young, I had this completely misguided sense of entitlement and confidence where I thought, at least in terms of ethnicity, I could decide who I want to be and how people saw me and I could erase everyone’s preconceived notions about me. The world then had to disabuse me of those notions, had to force me to navigate other peoples’ expectations and the way they saw me. Peter had the opposite experience and needed to eventually resist his natural inclination to do what he’s told and follow the path that’s laid out when it was causing him so much misery.
Jordan G. Teicher: A lot of the focus in discussion of this book understandably goes to Peter, and, in turn, to questions of gender identity. But this book is also about Peter’s three sisters. What questions do you think the experiences of Helen, Bonnie, and Adele conjure in their own right?
Kim Fu: I think the sisters individually raise their own questions about gender, gender performance, and the different ways one takes on femininity. A great conflict between Adele and Helen stems from the amount of capital that Adele’s beauty has, how easily she acquiesces to others, and those things are tied together. For her, part of being beautiful is being available to other people, and existing for the pleasure of other people to the detriment of her own wishes. Helen thinks that her lack of physical beauty means you have to work twice as hard and be twice as tough to prove them all wrong, which has a racial element to it, too. For them, it’s an interpersonal conflict, but I think a lot of women face that internally, too. It’s the idea that you put in all this effort to be beautiful or attractive and to be nice in a way that is expected of you as a woman. At the same time, you fiercely want people to take you seriously and recognize you as a competent individual who has something to contribute to society.
Jordan G. Teicher: You wrote very openly in the National Post about your fear of saying the wrong thing while speaking off the cuff about the book. Has that fear subsided at all?
Kim Fu: No. There are a few questions I get over and over again and I have my answers for those down pretty pat. But I still worry about it a lot and it still sort of twists in my stomach before every interview and every appearance. I am really worried about the slightest misphrasing. These kinds of things have real consequences. It’s not just about seeming insensitive. This is the kind of thing that causes a lot of violence and a lot of pain to other people. The idea that my words have the capacity to hurt people in such a large-scale, public way is really alarming and stressful to me.
Jordan G. Teicher: Did you have a fear of writing the wrong thing?
Kim Fu: At the beginning, writing a first draft, which is a very intense and sort of magical process, I didn’t worry about it that much. Then I was just following a narrative instinct and a story that felt true and immersive to me, and that I enjoyed. It was only when it became clear that this might actually become a published book that I started to worry about those things. And I was lucky that there were people in my life that I could talk to, who could voice their experiences and concerns to me and keep those things at the front of my mind when I was writing. But I do think those concerns will serve me well in the long run. It’s sort of a baseline expectation of anybody who writes about underrepresented people and, especially, a group they don’t belong to.
Jordan G. Teicher: Any lessons form the writing of this book that you want to apply to your work in the future?
Kim Fu: I learned a lot about creating distance between yourself and the work, seeing it as artifice, as words on the page, and manipulating the words without it being your ego on the chopping block. I try to think of it as making this object that is not part of me as good as possible. Being a cisgendered person representing a trans character has caused me a lot of anxiety. When I first started trying to write a second book, I wanted everyone to be exactly like me so this question would never come up again. But the world doesn’t work like that. It doesn’t consist of just white and Asian people who are cisgender and largely straight. I can’t make a world that looks like that to avoid all these questions.