In what was previously a comfortable moment, an ex-girlfriend once asked me in bed what it was like to be Chinese. With rapt eyes, she waited for my answer and as I stared back at her, I realized I had none. As a completely "whitewashed" Chinese-Canadian teenager, I was so dismally unaware of my Chinese background that I barely even knew I was Chinese.
"Well… it's just like being Canadian," I stammered weakly. "It's no different than anybody else."
And for the most part, I honestly believed I wasn't different. I was a white guy at heart with Chinese skin--what some people, including author Terry Woo, call a banana. However, this all changed in my later university years. Chinese classes coupled with an anthropology degree gradually taught me of an ancestral past I'd grown up with but never named. So it was with some curiosity I held a copy of Terry Woo's first novel, Banana Boys, in my hand that he mailed directly to my office and to my name. (Self-promotion is such a bitch, eh?)
"I wanted--I needed--something that related better to me as a banana," says Woo. "Throughout it all, the banana conundrum--being caught in the middle, belonging to and being accepted by neither--still resonates with us at its most fundamental level."
According to Woo, that conundrum was the driving force behind the entire novel. Banana Boys focuses on five Chinese-Canadian men as they alternately plod, drink and/or power their way through their university and post-university years. The novel's strength comes from the weaving of the characters' personalities, thoughts and actions as they live with the everyday experience of banana-ness. Woo colours his tale with a caustic, piercing sarcasm trademarked by most twentysomethings of our generation, yet leaves enough meaning for readers to stew on. He likens the novel to a "Canadian anti-Joy Luck Club," yet he is the first to caution it is also very different.
"It's true that Joy Luck Club was something of an inspiration for Banana Boys, although not in a traditional 'I'd like to thank Amy Tan for inspiring me' way," he quickly points out. "But after digesting the book, I really did have a problem with portraying Asian culture as a series of ghosts, spirits, baby-killing, and other weird practices. Not to mention how Asian men were portrayed in the book--it struck me as odd that all the non-peripheral ones were idiots, weaklings, crooks, wife-beaters, and foot-binders. And this was a book taken to be the 'breakthrough' for Asian-American literature."
Indeed, Woo sought to re-instill a little bit of faith in Chinese men, but he did so in a very quiet, Chinese kind of way. Each of the five heung jiu (Cantonese for banana) is over the top in terms of personality, yet each comes across as a decent everyday Canadian guy. They down pitchers of Rickard's at their campus pub to the point of vomiting. They swear like truckers and curse the Toronto Maple Leafs. They suffer through stifling verbal pressure at the hands of their parents in Chinese while trying to retort in English--an experience most bananas can attest to. Then they even debate whether a scolding is better in smoother-sounding Mandarin or in the guttural tones of Cantonese. It's a great look into the mind of the Canadian-Chinese psyche, a very dark one at times, but one worth examining nonetheless.
"Well, I never intended Banana Boys to be the 'quintessential banana boy experience,'" cautions Woo. "Just like any other group, we're far too diverse. Banana Boys was only my cut of it, and it only happened to be coloured by a lot of university-based angst and lots of drinking. It's exactly the book I wanted to write, but I don't claim it to be representative by any means."
An added word of caution: the novel is full of the "university-based angst" Woo describes. The facet of the characters can try a reader's patience, but Woo skillfully answers the question of whether his characters were so dark that they became unrealistic.
"I wanted to put across the idea that they were regular guys--flawed, screwed up, crazy in their own right--but good, decent guys who would rather take out their problems on themselves and on each other, because they were the only ones who really understood.
"But the great thing about fiction is that you can reflect various aspects of yourself or others, and amplify them by a power of 10. For me, writing fiction is like putting certain parts of your personality (and of others) in overdrive, but in reality, you're still only capable of a fraction of what your characters are feeling and doing."
Nonetheless, it seems that this story and its characters resonate with others, however outrageous they are at times. Fans of the novel liken it to a banana version of Catcher in the Rye on Woo's Web site, a high praise that is not completely unfounded--at least in this my estimation. But then even I saw bits of himself in each of the characters as they drank, vomited and then staggered up for some more, all the while debating love, life and happiness.
Banana Boys is an extremely personal exploration into the banana mind--it is instantly obvious that Woo pours his experiences into his first novel. Otherwise, the book answers some of the questions of what it's like to be a visibly Chinese male in multicultural Canada. However, Woo takes it somewhere else--once you peel back the skin, the reality revealed is scary, but as unique as each individual.
"At the end of the day we handle things the way we handle it," Woo offers. "And if we're not hanging from a rafter somewhere, it's all good."