April 21, 2001

Bananas like beer, chicken wings and The Simpsons, too. Just ask writer Terry Woo, who happily says he is one.
By Gavin Power
National Post

photo by Warren Adriaans

When Toronto writer Terry Woo completed his first novel, Banana Boys, last year, he knew it would upset people. "It was kind of inevitable," he says over a pint of Moosehead in a downtown Toronto bar. "Anytime that a book is written about a taboo subject, it causes a stir."

Woo, 30, had written about twentysomething CBCs -- Canadian Born Chinese -- who find themselves in cultural limbo, torn between two worlds. They are the Banana Boys, yellow on the outside and white on the inside.

Woo is a self-professed banana. "I really like a lot of things that people consider to be white Canadian culture," he explains, pulling a quaff from his pint. "I love beer, chicken wings, hockey and The Simpsons. That is who I am."

He also spins records on the weekends -- his preferences are trance and breakbeat. "I'm something of a closet DJ," he says. "I mostly practise in my bedroom, but I've had a few gigs and would eventually like to hit the clubs downtown."

Like most good Bananas, Terry got himself a "respectable" degree in a reputable field: He graduated from the University of Waterloo with a degree in system-design engineering, a cross between computer and industrial engineering. He now works at a software company as a "solution architect," which means he provides application and platform expertise for his company's products -- a job that, not too surpisingly, leaves him somewhat unfulfilled. "Most Asian parents," he explains, "want their children to be doctors, lawyers and engineers. And not writers, artists or musicians."

Still, his parents have supported his writing. "They don't laugh at me and say, 'Oh how cute, he has a hobby.' They've been a great help, though my mother hasn't read the book because she isn't able to read English very well."

Woo thought about the book for nine years, then took just three months to finish a first draft, while on a leave of absence from his job. He would wake up at 9 or 10 each morning, then write on his computer for 10 to 14 hours a day, often losing himself in the story that he'd obsessed about for so long.

It was a story he felt had to be told. "There was a vacancy in Canadian literature. No one was writing about the Asian-Canadian experience," he says, adding that the only popular banana story he can recall is the Joy Luck Club, and it's about middle-aged women on America's West Coast. "I wanted to write an East Coast male response to that book and I think the Banana Boys fits the bill."

Woo is currently discussing a movie based on the book with a producer, and is considering writing a screen adaption. He has begun work on a second novel, which he hopes to finish within a year by working nights and weekends. He says it will be more personal than the first. "I think when a writer makes himself vulnerable, he has a formula for great literature," Woo says. "And that's what I am going to try to do, be vulnerable."