For Today I Am a BoybyKim Fu is an engrossing and readable novel about a young man named Peter Huang, the only son in a family of three sisters, a silent and stifled mother, and a Chinese patriarchal father whose ingrained attitudes about manhood are both proud and resolute.
In this lyrical debut, Fu creates a truthful portrait of a young man whose sensitive and effeminate nature delves him further into the recesses of his true desire—to fully identify himself as a woman.
The plot explores Peter’s internal and private torment, his abhorrence towards the body he was born with and the insistent desire for the kind of body he lacks. While his own genitalia repulses him, his desire for women only goes as far as his admiration for their beauty and femininity, and his wish to ultimately emanate them.
But, this tendency is often repressed, exposed first in small doses at a time within the safety of his sisters’ bedrooms and their trust; to the absence of his family while he is left to clean in the privacy of their home; to sexual exploration with BDSM with a dominant woman; to the stifling relationship with a lesbian-turned-Christian; and to the exposure to people of the LGBTQ community who encourage him to live out his fantasy if not for one day during Halloween.
While the male stereotype is often dominantly imposed by Peter’s father and his expectations of him, Peter himself is tortured with his own feelings of guilt and shame, struggling often between his compulsion and desire to live out the female identity that is his true, internal nature and the gender role, society has come to expect of him as a male. The result is a fiercely honest dialogue of identity crisis, repression, and hopefully for the reader and the main character — emancipation.
About the Author:
Kim Fu’s novel FOR TODAY I AM A BOY (2014) was a finalist for the PEN/Hemingway Prize, a New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice, and winner of the Edmund White Award for Debut Fiction. Her writing has been widely published and anthologized, including by the Atlantic, NPR, Maisonneuve, and Best Canadian Essays. Her first poetry collection HOW FESTIVE THE AMBULANCE will be published by Nightwood Editions in 2016. Fu is a graduate of the University of British Columbia’s MFA in Creative Writing. She lives in Seattle.
The Walker family is good at keeping secrets from the world. They are even better at keeping them from each other.
Max Walker is a golden boy. Attractive, intelligent, and athletic, he’s the perfect son, the perfect friend, and the perfect crush for the girls in his school. He’s even really nice to his little brother. Karen, Max’s mother, is a highly successful criminal lawyer, determined to maintain the façade of effortless excellence she has constructed through the years. Now that the boys are getting older, now that she won’t have as much control, she worries that the façade might soon begin to crumble. Adding to the tension, her husband, Steve, has chosen this moment to stand for election to Parliament. The spotlight of the media is about to encircle their lives.
The Walkers are hiding something, you see. Max is special. Max is different. Max is intersex. When an enigmatic childhood friend named Hunter steps out of his past and abuses his trust in the worst possible way, Max is forced to consider the nature of his well-kept secret. Why won’t his parents talk about it? What else are they hiding from Max about his condition and from each other? The deeper Max goes, the more questions emerge about where it all leaves him and what his future holds, especially now that he’s starting to fall head over heels for someone for the first time in his life. Will his friends accept him if he is no longer the Golden Boy? Will anyone ever want him – desire him – once they know? And the biggest one of all, the question he has to look inside himself to answer: Who is Max Walker, really?
Written by twenty-five-year-old rising star Abigail Tarttelin, Golden Boy is a novel you’ll read in one sitting but will never forget; at once a riveting tale of a family in crisis, a fascinating exploration of identity and a coming-of-age story like no other.
Book Review by Zara from The Bibliotaphe Closet:
Golden Boy by Abigail Tarttelin is a wonderfully sensitive novel that addresses the complicated issue of gender and speaks to the unique experience of what it means to be a young person who grows up with the burden of a secret identity—that he is a hermaphrodite or an individual who is intersex.
The convincing narrative is told in first-person by each character in the story:
Karen,a career-oriented lawyer whose self-conscious attitude especially toward outward appearances and the paranoia of what others may or may not think, compel her to be instinctively unhappy and controlling.
Steven, a moral and understanding father, yet busy lawyer whose active ambition tears him away from the knowledge and experience of his children’s emotional turmoil.
Max,an attractive, intelligent, athletic, obedient, and favoured all-star both amongst his peers and his family, is the center of the story’s narrative and the Golden Boy in which the book is named.
Daniel,Max’s highly intelligent, younger brother is an inquisitive, creative, but often overlooked little boy whose avid love for robots and video games affords him an escape from his mother’s critical eye.
Sylvie,a quirky and independent-thinking, social outcast befriends Max in a special way that essentially shows him a window to acceptance and love.
Hunter,Max’s childhood friend not only knows Max’s secret, but abuses it, which catapults and endangers their relationship to a complex level.
And Archie, a doctor who inherits the knowledge of Max’s crisis who learns to be an active advocate on his behalf and possibly others like him.
The plot is as disturbing as it is moving where the internal landscape of its main character, Max, is both turbulent and empowering.
The book itself is about more than gender and what it means to be intersex, but also about the family dynamic, the complexity of relationship and identity, what it means to be authentic, and ultimately what it means to have and abuse power.
And yet even with the complexity of its subject, the book itself is easily readable and can both be read by the young adult (YA) audience as well as the adult one.
The tensions in the book as well as Max’s secret is primarily sourced from his mother whose high expectations not only stifle him, but emotionally neglect his younger brother.
And while what seems like the absence of Max’s father to a busy and demanding career, it is actually his father who is his most mature advocate regarding his intersexuality, next to Archie, Max’s doctor.
And the innocence of Daniel, Max’s younger, yet precocious brother is refreshing. While they are indeed close siblings, the weight of Max’s secret about his intersexuality is one which causes awkwardness and divide.
The story, while a tumultuous tale of growing up, is also a great testament to the self-discovery of sex, the complexity of gender, and the power of awareness and acceptance, as well as inclusivity.
It makes for an eye-opener to those who are unfamiliar with intersexuality and a reaffirmation and encouragement for those who experience its ambiguity.
Overall, The Golden Boy is an enjoyable narrative about a fascinating and rarely known subject.
Characters: 3.5 stars
Pacing: 3.5 stars
Cover Design: 3 stars
Plot: 4 stars
A special thanks to Simon & Schuster Canadaon behalf of Atria Books for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an unpaid, honest review.
The subject of gender is a complicated one. What made you decide to write a book about the intersex experience?
I was thinking more than ever about how living as one gender or another defines us, and I began to believe that the differences between us are less biological and more to do with how we are treated by each other, and what treatment we accept. Having seen XXY in 2009, an Argentinian film featuring an intersex protagonist, I began to wonder how someone who was brought up as a male might feel to suddenly find their body insisting on their womanhood, and if approaching questions about gender from this perspective could highlight how gender makes a huge difference in our experience of the world, particularly in terms of our physical vulnerability and social expectations of how we should behave. In researching intersexuality, I came to understand that conditions that weren’t life threatening were being treated as such. I was particularly perturbed by statistics and stories about the loss of fertility and sensation experienced by individuals following operations on intersex children, and the parallel between this and the way women today disregard their own comfort to perform painful rituals to maintain their beauty and acceptability in society.
What do you think is most challenging personally and socially for an individual who is intersex?
Society’s preconceptions and constructions surrounding gender force intersex individuals to make choices for the benefit of acceptance and not their physical health. In the case of Golden Boy, Max feels so much pressure from so many people to conform to these standards, but these standards are arbitrary and Max is a healthy individual. I do think standards are changing, and on blogs like Tumblr, there are certain courageous young people choosing or inventing their own gender labels, or deciding not to label themselves at all.
How can people help in better supporting an individual who is intersex to ease those challenges?
Finding an online community like Tumblr where people can explore how to be, while remaining as anonymous as they like, could be really helpful in the case of intersex individuals. I think meeting people of any ‘non-binary’ gender identity would help to realise that they are plenty of ‘different’ people in the world, and at the same time aiming to break down stereotypical gender roles within your community and household, so that there weren’t these strange, arbitrary lines drawn between us, would be beneficial to intersex people as well as women, men and LGBTQIA people in general.
Do you think gender is more influenced by genetics, or an individual’s environment, or both?
I do strongly believe in genetic determinism, which is to say that the genes of an individual, along with environmental factors, determine the physical and behavioural development of an individual. I think more of our behaviour than we know can be attributed to our instinctive need to contribute to the evolution of our species, whether that behaviour be our urge to create art, or argue, or fall in love with a member of the same gender. When it comes to gender, aspects of our genetics, particularly our sex chromosomes, are significant factors in our development, but ‘gender’ itself is a human invention, a word we use to define the difficult to define, the in flux, the strange and unknowable. Like ‘gay’, ‘straight’ or ‘bi’, ‘woman’, ‘man’ and ‘intersex’ are finite terms human beings use to describe things that are not truly finite.
The character, Max, in your book wasn’t told the details of his intersex genetic makeup, nor was his intersex spoken about or addressed by his family, and this seemed to be a crucial mistake in raising him since he had to deal with many unanswered questions about his gender growing up. How does a parent of a child who is intersex raise him/her in a healthy environment without imposing gender upon his/her child until which point the child may identify him/herself as a boy, girl, both, or neither?
To be honest, I think parents of children of all genders – intersex, female, male etc. – should attempt to bring them up neutrally with regards to gender. This is such a hard thing to do, particularly when there are many outside influences on children, and I applaud any parent who is making that really courageous and fairly self-sacrificial attempt. I think it’s important to read up on the subject to make yourself aware of how, for instance, toys are marketed in a gender-specific way, or girls are expected to be less rambunctious than male children, and how meek or fearful behaviour in a boy is often punished, but accepted in a girl. I’m currently reading Delusions of Gender: The Real Science Behind the Sex Differencesby Cordelia Fine.
You included statistics on intersex in your book. What is the ratio of individuals in the UK/Canada who identify themselves as men? As women?
I am not personally aware of a study that demonstrates the ratio of individuals who identify as male or female in Canada or the States. But if you find one, I’d love to be!
Can babies who are conceived by individuals who are intersex, come to full-term and survive?
Not in every circumstance, but sometimes yes. For years intersex individuals were widely regarded as infertile by the medical community but, although certain conditions like CAH require immediate treatment to save the life of the baby, it is now known that intersex individuals can be fertile and thought that infertility in the past might have often been due to operations on the genitals at birth.
Is it more likely for an individual who is intersex to have a baby who is also intersex?
Not that I’m aware. The rate of certain conditions is higher in some populations than others, but certainly not every intersex condition is passed down from a parent. As I understand it from my research, it is more likely for an intersex baby to be born to a female-male parental partnership, and for a female or male baby to be born from an intersex parent, than the alternative.
Of all the characters in your book, who is your favourite one? Your least favourite one? Which character in your book was your favourite one to write?
Max is my favourite, but I’m very fond of Sylvie too. They are both heroes in my book. The Daniel/Max scenes were probably the most fun to write, but Max was certainly the most interesting character to be inside. I don’t hate anybody in the book, I try to present all characters – even the ‘bad guys’ – ambiguously.
Of all the characters you have created, who do you believe is most like you?
There are aspects of me in every character in Golden Boy, but I’m probably most like Max and Sylvie. A little less bold than Sylvie, and a little more insistent than Max.
What first inspired you to become a writer?
Everything inspires me to write. Writing is a compulsion for me and I can’t stop!
Who are your favourite authors? Which authors do you think have greatly influenced your work?
When I was sixteen or seventeen, my English teacher gave me a copy of The Cement Gardenby Ian McEwan, and I realised that I could write about anything, literally anything. Until then I had just read the classics, and although I love them, they didn’t show me that contemporary culture was an acceptable topic for a novel. I don’t have specific favourite authors, but one of my favourite books is The Good Women of Chinaby Xinran.
What are your top three favourite books?
I couldn’t choose three! I think the point of books is to read hundreds. Three of my favourites are The Rum Diaryby Hunter S. Thompson, The Women’s Roomby Marilyn French and Just Kidsby Patti Smith.
What book are you reading right now?
Children of the Jacaranda Treeby Sahar Delijani. It’s phenomenal, and because we share the same US and UK editors, I know Sahar and she is SO lovely, so for both these reasons, I recommend people read her book.
What does your working schedule look like? What is your writing process like?
Right now it’s crazy, because we are in the run up to publication and at the London Book Fair so I am getting my website up, meeting my publishers, doing reading events – which I love! When I am writing, I switch that world off. When I am beginning a novel, the writing comes in dribs and drabs. When I reach 21,000 words (my tipping point), I run away from society and write for five to six hours non-stop every day to get the first draft done. Usually this takes about a month.
What are you working on right now? If you’re working on a second novel, can you tell us a little bit about it?
My second novel has to be in to my publishers in a year. I have a few ideas but I haven’t begun to write them yet! I am looking forward to touring the US and Canada and making notes about the different places I go to. I think that might get me inspired!
What are some techniques you use to combat writer’s block?
I think you just have to ease up on yourself and not be mean to yourself! I can push myself too hard, where the best writing comes instinctively. The best thing to do is to get out into the world and live your life – that’s the really inspiring stuff.
What do you like to snack on when you read or write?
Sometimes to keep myself going I get jelly babies. It doesn’t help, but my Mum always gets them when she needs a bit of a sugar rush and I’ve picked up the habit just because it reminds me of her! I tend to neglect food when I’m writing because I get too distracted by it’s yumminess, but I always think a big, hearty meal after a good writing session is needed, because it does take a lot of energy! I like a nice beef burger and fries!
What kind of music do you enjoy listening to when you’re working on a novel?
Usually nothing, but I do like the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and if maps was playing over and over in the background, I think I could write. I listen to The National a lot but that makes me get up and dance too often.
Which is your favourite genre to read? To write?
To read: literary fiction, whatever that means. I like a book to be lusciously written, with beautiful prose and words I don’t know. I like to get to know a character and learn something meaningful about life. I don’t really read thrillers that often, unless they are the quiet, intense, character led kind. I think I’m still finding my voice in terms of writing. I enjoy writing in the first person, and I hope my use of language will continue to develop.
What’s your favourite saying or quote?
“Worry is like a rocking chair, gives you something to do but it doesn’t get you anywhere.”
That’s from Van Wilder, Party Liaison.
You’re house is on fire! What three things would you take with you before escaping the smoke and the flames?
Laptop, humans (includes one teddy bear), hard drive.
If you could have dinner with three people at the same time, who would they be and why?
My Mum, my Dad and my brother. It would be hilarious.
If you could describe yourself in only three words, what words would you use?
Cheerful, hopeful and interested.
What do you enjoy most about creative writing?
A lack of boundaries.
What’s the best advice you can give someone who’s an aspiring writer?
Don’t throw everything else away. Live your life out in the world too, because a writer’s words are only as good as their inspiration.
Thanks, Abigail, for taking the time to share a little bit about yourself and your thoughts on your new novel, The Golden Boy! It was certainly a pleasure to read the book and to get to know you through this interview. Congratulations on your publication and the best of success for your next project! – Zara
About the Author:
Abigail Tarttelin is a writer, actress, and the book editor for Phoenix magazine in the UK. She lives in London.