Kim Fu’s debut novel, For Today I Am A Boy, was released earlier this month by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Fu’s book features Peter Huang, an American born to Chinese immigrants. Peter, who grew up with three sisters, is the only son in his family—meant to follow in his father’s footsteps and to embody his father’s ideals of masculinity. The problem? Peter believes that he’s a girl. For Today I Am A Boy has already been selected by Barnes & Noble for their 2014 Great New Writers program. Below is an interview with the author about her writing process and this stellar debut.
The Poetics Project: For Today I Am A Boy discusses topics like gender identity and cultural values. How did you approach these topics in your writing? Especially the topic of gender. Where did you start researching?
Kim Fu: Most of the research happened before I started writing. My sources fell into one of two categories. One was memoir and fiction written about trans individuals, and their stories were really unique and specific to their experience. The other type of stories that you find are long-form journalism articles and scientific studies, but those have their own set of problems because they are trying to draw these broad conclusions. […] It was important for me to read all of that and absorb it by osmosis, but I had to sort of put it out of my mind as I was writing and just write a character that felt real and true to me.
TPP: Because gender identity is a hot topic right now, did you worry that there would be a negative reaction to the book? In another interview you’ve done, you mentioned that you grew up in a neighborhood with many conservative, Chinese immigrants.
KF: I didn’t worry about my family and friends so much. I more worried about how the LGBT community itself or writers in that community would react. I’m really interested to see that conversation and how it progresses, because I feel like there is a kind of judgement of my book that only they can do—and I think that’s fair and I’m open to that—and also because there is so much violence perpetuated against transgender individuals. The community is more attuned–they are going to watch it very closely. And that does keep me up at night, but it was still the book I had to write. The reaction of people from my generation in the community has actually been very positive. I have read that I spoke to their experiences, and I appreciated that. I hope that has a ripple effect on the older generation—where they feel validated—or that it’s interesting that these are the experiences of their children.
TPP: In your interview with The International Examiner, you mentioned that none of your family members had read your book yet. Is that still true?
KF: My sisters are reading it right now. You know, they bought it the day it came out. My older sister is a serious, no-bullshit kind of person, so I really enjoyed hearing from her because she was really honest about it, saying, you know,”It’s going to be very awkward and difficult for me if I don’t like it.” And that worried me the whole time. […] My mom, I always thought would never read it. That’s what she had always told me as I was going along. There was an interview published in the Vancouver Sun—in my home town—and the way they did it was like an enormous picture of my face in the center. And then all of her friends started calling her house and were like, “Why didn’t you ever tell us your daughter was a writer?” None of her friends or sisters, nobody knew any of this, and they were all really shocked. After that, my mom decided she should probably read the book. People are going to ask her.
TPP: Was there a reason she didn’t want to read the book? Like the content?
KF: She doesn’t read fiction. She doesn’t read novels. But to some degree the content too. I think she would rather know me as she knows me. And not—well I have a complicated gender identity that is not as extreme as Peters, and it’s harder to articulate.
TPP: This interesting thing happens when an author is first published. They cross some invisible threshold. Other writers suddenly start flocking to the published for advice. What do you think about that? Do you feel any different after having been published? Do you approach writing differently?
KF: I do think that unpublished writers are treated with a lot of condescension. When you tell people “I’m a writer,” they think oh—I just sit at home and write poems with my cat in my pajamas. And then when you tell people “I have a book,” suddenly they accept that as a real job. Something they can understand. And I do think that’s absurd, because so much of what we do, so much of that line, is predicated by luck. An enormous amount of luck. I mean a lot of terrible books get published, and a lot of wonderful books just languish forever. That’s just the reality. I do feel more sympathetic to other writers now. To published authors, I think before I imagined there life to be a certain way. I felt that there would be more certainty involved. You would know that you weren’t wasting your life, but I don’t think anyone feels that way. […] I still have a plan B. You know, for if this all blows up, and I need to move on and live an entirely different life. It all doesn’t feel real. It feels like this is still happening to someone else, and when this all winds down, I’ll just go back to being me again.
TPP: In an article you wrote for Writer’s Digest, you were very honest about the writing process. You mentioned that if an idea isn’t working, you throw it out and move on. For you personally, how do you know when an idea isn’t working out?
KF: You don’t throw it away forever necessarily. It’s more like you put it in a drawer. You might put it in a drawer until tomorrow. You might put it in a drawer for the next ten years. You know, it’s hard to say. But I think if it’s making you miserable, it’s time to put it away. When it’s making you feel miserable and you feel like you’re just pushing—you’re just trying to break through a wall—it’s time to put it away. I have this problem where first drafts feel wonderful and brilliant to me, and then, when I go back and read it the next day it feels—it seems so terrible that I can’t bear to look at it again. And then once a certain amount of time has passed, it’s like I can go back and look at it and see it for what it really is.
TPP: People think of writing as a solitary act, but in that same article, you also discussed the importance of maintaining relationships with other writers. Can you expand on that a little?
KF: Writing by nature is you alone in your head with a world that you create. I think there’s a serious risk for that to make you crazy and for that to make you lose perspective about, you know, the artifice of writing, of the words on the page and how they read to someone else. And I think it’s really hard to maintain an objective and critical eye, or even to imagine your work as a reader would instead of something for your own pleasure or self indulgence. I think having other people read your work is really important, but also to just remember that there are other writers in the world and you’re all sort of toiling together. I also feel that it’s important to have friends that are other writers, who you love so much so that their successes become your successes. To sort of mitigate the endless failure of it all.
TPP: You have a MFA. How much do you think that degree lent to your success?
KF: Oh I mean, I owe that MFA everything. I don’t think that’s a question in my mind. I think maybe this could have happened, but it wouldn’t have happened for another ten years or something. My program was very good, but I also just got lucky. I happened to have people in my year that were unusually talented and unusually noncompetitive […] I really do think that from the moment that I walked in, all of us felt like we were being pushed in a way that we had never been pushed before. Not all MFA programs are like that, and it won’t work that way for everyone. You need to find mentors, and I think that just really boils down to “I like your work and I like you.” That’s kind of a rare combination. Outside of a MFA program, that takes a lot of bravery. You have to hangout with other writers you like, or make that happen. There’s a schmoozing aspect to that which is scary.
TPP: And lastly, why do you write? What do you get from your writing and what do you hope others will get from reading your work?
KF: I’ve never not written. There was only one year of my life when I was not writing, and that was when I was in an engineering program for a year. It’s easy for me to say why I write poetry. Poetry for me is because there are experiences and feelings that you have that you just can’t express any other way. With nonfiction, there is usually something I want to talk about or the way I want the world to be. Fiction is much harder for me to think about why I do it. […] Poetry feels like writing in another language that I’m fluent in. It feels very natural. Fiction feels like the hardest in the sense of sitting down and writing. […] You’re sort of conjuring a whole world with no parameters. At least with nonfiction, you’re restricted by the truth. With fiction, the infinite amount of options is scary and hard, but I guess there are truths that I can’t get at any other way. Fiction feels the most inscrutable and magical to me. When I read fiction books, I’m like I have no idea how you did that. I can’t—I couldn’t fathom it. If you gave me a million years, I could never write this book.