CM . . .
. Volume XVIII Number 5. . . .September 30, 2011
Toronto, ON: Groundwood Books/House of Anansi Press, 2011.
184 pp., pbk. & hc., $12.95 (pbk.), $18.95 (hc.).
ISBN 978-1-55498-093-2 (pbk.), ISBN 978-1-55498-094-9 (hc.).
Grades 7 and up / Ages 12 and up.
Review by Huai-Yang Lim.
Reviewed from Advance Reading Copy.
Some of my friends would be all right with me being gay. Wei, Kai and Jenny are cool. Problem is, Mila is the queen of our group, and everyone looks up to Jian because he's on the basketball team. I don't know where those two stand. Do I need my friends more than I need to come out?
If people at school knew I was gay, my locker would get smashed and paint would be poured in. I couldn't go anywhere by myself. I'd get beaten up, thrown into a dumpster or chained inside the girls' washroom. Each day I'd walk to school alone and then go home by myself. I may as well be dead. Tyson won't become a friend. His crowd is all westerners.
With his latest novel for young adults, Paul Yee adds to his already expansive body of work for children and teens that portray the lives of Chinese immigrants and their descendants in historical and contemporary contexts. Several of his previous works, such as The Bone Collector's Son and Breakaway, deal with Chinese immigrants' lives in the early days of Canada, whereas other novels focus on the contemporary challenges that Chinese immigrants and their descendants face in fitting into their community, achieving self-acceptance and acceptance from others regardless of their background, and acquiring the opportunity for economic and social advancement. Yee's works that are more easily accessible for a younger audience, such as Roses Sing on New Snow, Shu-Li and Tamara, and its sequel Shu-Li and Diego, also explore similar issues, such as prejudicial attitudes and the challenges facing interpersonal relationships that cross cultural boundaries. However, Yee has greater leeway in Money Boy to portray these issues, which would be less suitable for a younger audience, in a grittier and harsher manner.
As a genre, the young adult novel provides authors with a narrative frame for them to explore a protagonist's psychological and emotional development, particularly within the context of the protagonist's transition from "childhood" to "adulthood" and the tensions that result from this progression. Money Boy focuses on a gay protagonist's struggle to accept himself and to be accepted by othersóboth within the Chinese community and those outside of itówhom he feels are intolerant of his difference. The novel's narrative arc reflects Ray Liu's development from ambivalence and fear to self-acceptance and confidence about his sexual orientation and identity. In doing so, Ray goes through a key transition point in his life in which he comes to see himself as someone whose identity he can define on his own terms, rather than being defined negatively by others who are less accepting of his difference.
As the story progresses, readers will experience Ray's struggles to make sense of his identity after he is thrown out of the house by his father who discovers that Ray is gay. Ray harbours a simmering rage and self-loathing that ebbs and flows throughout the story, but this must be understood in the context of his sexual orientation and the stigma that he perceives as a result of it. Due to Ray's discomfort and uncertainty with his sexual identity, the Internet gaming world gives Ray an escape, albeit temporarily, from his daily life and into a world in which he is judged solely for his skills and ability. His constructed gaming character becomes an attractive persona that he can define separately from his sexual orientation. At the same time, this fictitious persona becomes increasingly inadequate as Ray starts to experience life on the streets and in his community's gay district, since this forces him to confront his sexual orientation and the meaning that this has in his life.
The novel also makes the reader aware of other societal inequities that are not highlighted at length, but rather mentioned in passing as part of Ray's thought process. For example, Ray's thoughts reveal his awareness of the class inequities that exist and the lack of equal opportunity for immigrants to advance and acquire well-paying jobs in Canadian society. As he mentions, food is so cheap in Chinatown because immigrants are working for low wages in dead-end jobs that have no possibility for social mobility in "mainstream" Canadian society.
Another valuable aspect of this novel is that it also portrays the prejudices and preconceptions that occur among people of Chinese descent. In doing so, Yee creates a more complex portrait of prejudice that goes beyond a simplistic binary conception of "us" versus "them." In other words, it is not simply the minority who is oppressed by the majority, but rather that similar attitudes prevail among the minority itself. These attitudes are not necessarily destructive in terms of impeding one's opportunities, but rather they perpetuate a particular problem that mirrors the real societal obstacles that they can face in other contexts. For example, Ray encounters certain prejudices and preconceptions when attempting to get a job, both from white Canadians and people from the Chinatown community. Yee has explored these issues in previous novels as well, such as in his exploration of racial prejudices towards First Nations people by both white Canadians and people of Chinese descent in Learning to Fly.
The language level in Yee's novel is appropriate for this age group. As with all novels that deal with the experiences of people from other countries and cultures, readers will be able to appreciate the story more effectively if they have an understanding about the history of Chinese Canadians and the cultural values that affect these characters' lives. This aspect is not as crucial in this novel because it takes place in a contemporary setting. However, readers will have a better appreciation for instances such as when one character comments that he is seen more favorably by his community back home and is less prone to gossip while he is in Canada. This comment is more readily understood in the context of Chinese people's historical perceptions of Canada as a land of opportunity and prosperity, such that the Chinese men who immigrate there are regarded as good providers for their families, even though the reality may not necessarily measure up to their expectations.
As a whole, the pacing and trajectory of the novel's narrative arc are effective. Yee avoids ending the novel in an overly optimistic fashion as readers will see that people's intolerant attitudes towards homosexuality continue to exist. In doing so, Yee provides a more realistic understanding of what it is like to live as a young gay man in Canada. Marginalization and discrimination can occur both within the larger community as well as within one's own community, due to one's sexual orientation and other markers of difference, such as one's skin colour, cultural background, and geographical origin.
At the same time, one potential problem is that the novel seems to end a bit abruptly. Although it is open-ended and leaves things open to interpretation, the novel ends rather suddenly in the middle of a conversation and without sufficient warning as to what may or may not happen next. For instance, will Ray's family accept his sexual orientation, or what will become of his outlook on life now that he has outed himself? Although a story does not necessarily have to tie up all loose ends or end happily, it should give a satisfying sense that what has previously transpired in the story has culminated into something significant for the characters involved. The novel does progress towards a potential turning point in Ray's life, but the ending may jar some readers who may not necessarily expect it to end in that manner and who may expect a bit more development for that turning point.
Nevertheless, Money Boy does well as a whole in representing Chinese gay experiences, a topic rarely explored in the young adult novel. Many young adult novels have focused on gay and lesbian teens, such as those written by Brent Hartinger, M. E. Kerr, and Ellen Wittlinger, among others. However, far fewer deal with teens from ethnic minority or immigrant backgrounds, particularly within the contemporary Canadian context. In this respect, Paul Yee's novel is a valuable intervention into the representation of gay and lesbian experience in the young adult genre. For more information about the author, readers can visit his official website at www.paulyee.ca.
Huai-Yang Lim, from Edmonton, AB, has completed a degree in Library and Information Studies and currently works as a research specialist. He enjoys reading, reviewing, and writing children's literature in his spare time.
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