Asian American Women's Magazine

 


Growing up as a "banana," yellow on the outside but white on the inside, aspiring author Terry Woo has struggled with two different cultures: Chinese and Canadian. Caught between two different cultures, Terry and other "bananas" have had a hard time rationalizing which culture they belong in.

The Banana Boys, Terry's debut novel, emphasizes these dilemmas about self-identity through the story of five Chinese- Canadian friends. "It's definitely a 'guy' story, full of brotherhood, pseudo-machismo, and odd moments of tenderness," states Terry. Terry had worked on this novel for about nine years and through various hurdles, he finally signed on with the Riverbank Press and had his novel published in October 1999.

The following is an interview with Terry Woo; you can read about his inspirations for his novel, his life as a "banana," his future plans, his advice to other "bananas" and much more.

How does it feel to have your debut novel, The Banana Boys, out? Has your life changed in any way?

It feels incredible... it's definitely been a long time coming. I've always hoped for it to be published, but after a number of rejections and other setbacks, I was feeling kind of discouraged at a certain point. But in the end, it all worked out incredibly well, far better than I would have imagined. I keep thinking about how many people dream of having a novel published, and how many people have actually gotten it done, and YEAH BABY, I'm one of the latter!!!

Personally, my life hasn't really changed all that much, but a nifty thing is that I do receive a number of comments via email through the novel website,
http://www.bananaboys.com/. Most of these comments have been very positive, along the lines of "Thanks for this / I've never read anything like this / I'm glad you've written something I can really relate to." It's intensely gratifying, and sometimes mystifying: I met one "fan" for beers because he was in the neighborhood, and he wanted to take a picture of me. I mean, who'd want a pic of my ugly mug?

Another very nifty item: a producer in Vancouver emailed me and I've signed an agreement optioning the movie rights to the novel to a production company called Persistence Pictures. They're a small outfit with some very energetic people; and while it's not a guaranteed thing at this point, I hope to see The Banana Boys on the big screen in a few years. It's great that someone liked the book enough to express interest in it in that way.

How long did it take you to write your novel? Did you have any problems to overcome, and did you learn anything from the whole thinking/writing process?

I started sketching out ideas for The Banana Boys about 9 years ago, when I was in second-year university. It was definitely difficult balancing a full engineering course load with writing, but over 5 years I managed to get down a lot of ideas: I positively hated engineering school, but aggravation is fuel for some great writing!

One of the things I've learned is never letting any idea - no matter how strange or seemingly mundane - go without recording it. I carried a huge number of notebooks and pens around to scribble notes in, sent myself emails, left myself phone messages... and if that failed, wrote on any surface available - receipts, business cards, my arm, even a piece of leather that was lying around (long story behind that one.)

A few years later, I started roughly organizing these scraps into a framework for a cohesive novel. In 1996 when I graduated, I took about 4 months off in the summer to shape it into a first draft. I spent almost every day waking up at 3ish in the afternoon, eating instant noodles and writing like an obsessed maniac until about 7 in the morning. It was a purifying experience. Then I submitted it to a number of Canadian publishing houses and then took off for New York City for a software job. Rejections ensued - like I said, it was pretty discouraging.

In 1998, I heard that the Asian Canadian Writers Workshop, based out of Vancouver, was sponsoring an emerging writers competition. New York was kind of grinding me down, so I quit and moved out to California to work with a professional editor to get the first draft contest-worthy. That was great - again, I was writing like a nut, but dispersed it with trips to the beach, the city, and down south to LA, while crashing on my buddy's couch for a few months. I got the second draft written by the contest deadline, and submitted it... eventually, The Banana Boys was short-listed, but it was beaten out by Madeleine Thien's "Simple Recipes." Oh well, I still owe a ton to Jim (Wong-Chu) and the rest of the ACWW for giving me the shot.

At that point, I was flat broke, so I moved back to Toronto. I met my publisher - interestingly enough - through some people at a funeral I wasn't really supposed to be at. Ever see "Sliding Doors" with Gwyneth Paltrow? It was totally like that: If I hadn't made a somewhat flippant decision to go to that funeral, I wouldn't be here today. My publisher - the Riverbank Press - was a small press working out of Toronto. I worked with their editor to get a third draft out. We had some battles over structure and content, but in the end, we compromised, and the result is The Banana Boys. It was published in October of 1999 - I literally *jumped* 3 feet when I saw it in book form, I was so ecstatic.

Did I learn anything about the whole process? You bet! Good writing is equal parts passion, obsession, inspiration, sweat, persistence, insanity, and kisses from lady luck thrown in to boot! It really is the biggest accomplishment of my life... well...so far.

What did you have on your mind as you wrote your novel? What did you want to get across to your readers?

I've had some readers remark how "dense" the book is - that is, every page seems to hit them with a lot of information and ideas about a lot of things. I guess it's the result of having a lot on my mind, a lot to say about the condition of Banana.

One of the key ideas I wanted to get across was the alienation of the main characters from mainstream Canadian and Chinese cultures. Here are 5 guys who just want to lead what they feel are reasonably "normal" lives (whatever that means), and yet just aren't allowed to... whether it be identity issues, family pressures, societal stereotypes, relationship models, political issues, even media portrayals. Everything around them points to the idea that they ultimately don't fit in, and to a certain extent they feel screwed over in some way by all sides involved. As a result, the boys are in certain states of disillusionment and have a variety of constructive or destructive ways of dealing with it... they often take it out on themselves, through excessive introspection, extreme behavior, heavy drinking, even legal and illegal drug abuse - or each other, by mercilessly questioning things around them and each other, getting into arguments with each other.

I also wanted to write a bit about Asian Canadian / Asian American men, in relation to western culture. A lot has definitely been said about Asian American women - indeed, books like or something like Amy Tan's "The Joy Luck Club" are all over the place in the Asian American literary canon - but very, very few books are written by and about Asian guys ("American Knees" by Shawn Wong is one that comes immediately to mind, and maybe a few books by Chang-Rae Lee and Frank Chin) I guess I wrote The Banana Boys as a personal attempt to rectify the disparity, and because I thought I needed to stop whining about it and do something constructive about it.

When I first read "Joy Luck," I have to admit that I liked it - at the time, there were so few books out there with any Asian American or Canadian content. But on closer inspection, I started noticing some significant problems - that it seemed to over-exotic-fy Asian culture, that it had little to say positively about Asian men, that it seemed to hinge Asian female empowerment at the expense of the men. Amy Tan has a knack for telling stories and weaving exotic-sounding myths, but I just couldn't stomach the portrayal of Asian culture in terms of haunting ghosts, tortured spirits, and alien practices, especially in relation to modern Asian American living. And it was disappointing (to say the least) that every non-peripheral Asian guy in the book was a jerk, or a loser, or a weakling, or a bastard-son-of-a-biotch of some sort. I mean, give me a break here... where's the balance? It was all too contrived and artificially antagonistic, in my opinion.

So I wanted to respond to this, to write something of an Asian guy anti-Joy Luck Club - younger, hipper, more relevant to my generation, discussing some of the dynamics and politics, devoid of ghosts or railway stories or freaky baby-killing rituals because, quite frankly, that stuff is ridiculous-sounding to me as a Banana, at least at a conscious level. I think that while most aspects of Asian culture present itself to today's Banana may be alternately compelling or frustrating, maybe even pervasive, it's influence is ultimately non-mystical in an "wow, that's neat" or "whoa, that's weird" sense. In The Banana Boys, I wanted to write a book flavoured with modern twentysomething Asian Canadian life - music, sports, relationships (or lack of), drinks, stuff like that. I wanted to show that Asian guys also definitely have stories - good ones, modern ones that don't necessarily have to fit into the railway-epic / head-tax / Chinatown-centric model that seems to be a common template.

Another big (and sometimes controversial) issue the book deals with is the ongoing relationship at large between Asian men and Asian women. The Banana Boysis definitely a "guy" story; the perspectives are definitely "guy-ish" or even chauvinistic sometimes! But honest: the relationships between the Banana Boys and the women in their lives - mothers, sisters, girlfriends, temptresses, women in general - are varied, with some being intensely valuable and passionate, and others frustrating, but I try to inject a degree of mundane realism and honesty in the situations. Banana Boys tries to illustrate these multi-layered dynamics without using the female characters as cheap one-dimensional plot devices for the development of the Boys - sometimes unsuccessfully, but hopefully sympathetically.

Although I don't spend as much time with "Banana Girl" stories, the book features some hilarious interactions that I think all Banana's have encountered in one way or another! Then again, I wasn't really interested in being PC-type-fair in The Banana Boys- like I said, it's definitely a "guy" story, full of brotherhood, pseudo-machismo, and odd moments of tenderness. The Banana Boys are definitely not Asian Canadian supermen... they have flaws and hang-ups, they examine and hyper-analyze and criticize each other because of them, but they're still the best of friends.

All in all, I think I've put out a novel that fits nicely into a niche that hasn't been explored to its full potential. I hope more follow and add to the Asian Canadian or Asian American literary canon. I definitely think we need it.

Being born in Ontario yet coming from China [ie. being Canadian-born but with a Chinese background], have you had any difficulty adjusting to both the American and Chinese cultures? Has this caused you to become a "banana"?

Well, I grew up one of the few Chinese people in a small town in southwestern Ontario. As a result, I did run into problems when I was younger - I ran into a lot of racism in the schoolyard, really stupid garbage like being called "Chink" and "Chinaman" and stuff like that. When you're younger, you get hurt but you don't reflect on it much. But you do when you get older, and the result is that my politics and outlook on life has been largely shaped by these sorts of traumas. I on the basest level, I guess I wrote the book to exorcise myself of these traumas... all of the characters have run into racial issues on individual, group and societal levels, and all deal with them in accordance with their personality - ignoring them, confronting them, bitterly obsessing over them, bypassing them with alcohol or money or power, and (of course) expressing themselves through music and writing. (The really funny thing is that I have a pretty good friend - also Banana - who grew up not 15 minutes away from me who didn't run into any racial problems at all because he went to a different elementary school. Maybe I was unlucky... or maybe it was meant to be, maybe I was meant to do something about it. I'd like to think that all the bruises were worth something!)

On the flip side, my Banana-hood was also defined by my relationship with the folks, and to a larger degree, my ethnicity. My folks are great, I get along with them really well at this time, but that wasn't the case all the time... from really stupid stuff like them making you go to piano lessons and Chinese school, to fights about food and girlfriends, to some very substantial schisms regarding life's goals and aspirations. The family is definitely a microcosm for the Banana in relation to what it means to be Asian in the west. I think that's a very common condition of all Banana's in Canada or the States; there are so many expectations placed on you by your culture that it inevitably causes conflict when you're growing up. That's a central idea of being Banana, and a lot of these issues are illustrated in The Banana Boys.

Your novel is about 5 "bananas" who are Chinese Canadian guys. Was your life an inspiration to this book? Were you or your friends/family members reflected into the characters in your book? Were the situations given to these characters part of your past experiences?

I don't remember the exact time I decided to write the book, but I did know that the first time I encountered a variety of Asians was when I went to university. My elementary and high school friends were primarily white or South Asian, and I was seriously floored by the number of Asians during my first year of university. My many interactions with them yielded a lot of great stories - stories that one friend said "just need to be told." Banana Boys has a lot of these, woven amongst all 5 characters.

A lot of people ask which of the 5 characters I am in the book, and (even though it sounds a little bit like a cop out), I usually say I'm in and about all of the characters in certain ways, especially in their hobbies, characteristics and speech patterns. But the truth is that I've modeled all 5 characters from 20-odd people I've known or sort of known throughout my life - friends, enemies, acquaintances both off and online. There's Luke, the flaky-too-cool-for-you-hyper-liberal DJ; there's Dave, the bitter Angry Asian MaleTM; there nice guy Shel who only wants a girlfriend; there's psychotically capitalist Rick; and finally, Mike, who's the depressed pre-med student who wants most of all to write a book. People who know me see me all over in these characters, but even people who don't know me have remarked that they've seen variations of the Banana Boys in their friends and acquaintances, and that's just too cool! I'm glad I was able to capture the salient points of Banana in my characters and in the book at large.

Do you have any advice to give a "banana" who is caught in between 2 different cultures?

Yeah - love who you are and what you do, and don't let anyone else tell you otherwise. I think that there's a terrible trend with some people, groups, or movements to press an individual to think and act in a "right" way - families, so-called friends, authority figures, political groups, various opinionated loudmouths in various groups or forums. When it comes to Bananas, these forces usually manifest themselves in pointless comments delivered by idiots who say things like "oh, you're so whitewashed" or "oh, you're not really Canadian" or "you should do this or be like that or date this person." And I think that's pure and utter bullshit: what the heck is "right," anyway? It's all subjective, and driven by an agenda of some sort that has absolutely no respect for the beauty of the individual.

I think Bananas are extra susceptible to this because they are usually caught and pressured between two groups, and they might feel naturally kind of insecure because of the conflict. Who am I? Am I Canadian? Am I Chinese? Chinese Canadian, or Canadian Chinese? How about "none of the above?" The Banana Boys in the book struggle with these questions and invariably say: "hey, I'm me, and that's good enough... I'm gonna do what I do, like what I like, love who I love, and love who I am, and as long as I'm not hurting anyone else... and I'm gonna flip the bird to anyone who doesn't have the courtesy to respect this in any way shape or form." Life's really too short to be press ganged into a certain way of thinking and doing by what amounts to powerful lobbies and special-interest groups (and yeah that includes some parents!) I think it's unconscionable for other people and groups to screw around with Banana's the way they do.

Besides writing, what are some of your other passions/enjoyments in life? I heard you like to play hockey, and spinning breakbeats. True?

Absolutely! Both hockey and DJing are huge passions of mine. I don't play hockey anymore - I broke a finger when I was younger and was forcibly retired by my folks after that point - but I'm still an avid fan of the game. I strongly feel that it is a definitive Canadian game, something that despite becoming more corporatized and more American, lies in our national consciousness, and it's something we all feel at a certain level.

DJing is my current fave hobby - I spin both trance and breaks. There's nothing better than hitting the decks and spinning, controlling the highs and lows of the crowd with your music. The bad thing is that I'm a vinyl junkie - I can't stop by a record shop without plunging in and spending loads of cash on stuff I might not even play...

Other than that, I have pretty low-key interests. I love music of all sorts, and just like listening to it, driving to it, and of course dancing to it! I don't go to many raves or clubs anymore, but if a specific favourite DJ or band is playing, I'll go and try not to feel too old among all the kids there, you know what I mean? Surprisingly, I don't really read all that much, other than newspapers and magazines... I really don't know why. I get most of my ideas from popular media and culture - TV, magazines, movies, music.

What do you strive for as a writer? What are your future ambitions?

Not to fall into the sophmore jinx! Honestly, just satisfying expression of stuff inside. Writing is the only way I can do it - other people have music, poetry, acting, stuff like that, but for me, I can best articulate my ideas through writing, and only writing. [I'm glad this interview is via email!!!!]

As far as future ambition goes, I've put the second novel on the backburner for a while (see below), but I hope to have a modest part in advising for the movie production, if it gets to that point. I guess my future ambition is to write something that deserves to follow up The Banana Boys- at least in my mind.

To be honest, after The Banana Boys was published, I felt kind of aimless... after 9 years of obsessing over what was arguably the biggest thing in my life, I didn't really know what to do with my life past that point. I've been toying with the idea of changing career paths, going back to school, stuff like that, but I think I'm just enjoying life right now. A lot of people get caught up early on with stuff like career or family - and in the absence of something like that, I feel pretty lucky that I'm able to relax after Banana Boys. Life is pretty damn sweet right now.

Are you currently working on another novel? If so, can you tell us about it?

I recently dropped out of the rat race a few weeks ago with the explicit intention of writing a new novel. I do have a lot of raw material - ideas I didn't develop for Banana Boys, as well as some newer ideas since its publication, but midway through the summer, I just didn't feel the urge to "do it again," as with Banana Boys maybe 5 years ago. I think I've said all that I needed to say with Banana Boys... at least for now. So I've decided leave the second novel for a few years, after I've straightened out a few other things in life (without going into many details, that's going pretty well so far!)

I usually keep updating people through the Banana Boys website though -
http://www.bananaboys.com/. So if you're interested, stay tuned for news about reviews, the movie, and other stuff.

(For full issues of Jade Magazine, please visit http://www.jademagazine.com.)