terry woo
banana boys.
Verbage : Kirby Szeto

Terry Woo is a Banana.
I'm a Banana too.
And so are you.
The difference? Terry had the talent and the balls to write a book about the experience. His novel, Banana Boys, is a funny yet touching look at the life of five Bananas growing up in Canada and the bonds that form between them. In the midst of working out a movie deal for the book, Terry took a moment out to sit down for a pint or two with Yellow Fellow to discuss the book.

Describe the Banana Boys in a nutshell.
They're five guys who met in university. Very different personalities, but drawn together I guess by virtue of the trauma of university life. And I guess that's something that's not completely race specific. But also brought together because they have this common bond of being Banana, someone who's yellow on the outside, white on the inside. So there's Luke, who's kind of like a type of Liberal, artsy Dj-sort of type person. Very relaxed, but he's kind of hiding some problems in the background by, well, being very cool. There's Dave, who's like the very bitter software tester. Hates his job, hates his life, he drinks far too much. He likes to complain about his situation, the situation of Asian men in society in general, whereas he's not really doing too much about it. There's Shelton, his best friend. Shelton is your typical sort of "nice guy" whose one desire in life is to find true love. Wide eyed, innocent, kind of dopey. I modeled him, by the way, after my best friend, whose happily married in Hong Kong right now, expecting his first kid. Then there's Rick, who's hyper obsessed with success. Someone who was with the Banana Boys for a particular reason and then found he had a lot more in common with the Hong Kong FOB mentality. He has a lot of goals, revenue projections, that sort of thing, and he wants to meet them so he sets up his life in terms of these monetary goals. And then there's Mike, who is a cuckolded, almost stereotypically brow-beaten Asian guy who wants to be an artist, wants to be a writer, but is pressured into going to med school by his parents and feels very helpless, feels very painted into a corner. So all of these guys are fairly different. They're modeled off of about 20-odd people I've known in my life. But they're all drawn together I guess by the whole condition of being Banana.

So how much of the book is culled from your own experiences and how much is fiction?
I guess I'd be lying if I said if it was a work of pure fiction. Definitely a lot of elements of myself and my personal experiences at Waterloo. Having said that, I grew up in an environment where I didn't know too many Asian people and in high school, most of the kids I hung out with there were South Asian or Jewish. So University was the first time that I really ran into so many other Asians...Orientals...Canadians don't really mind that word. Americans really mind it for some odd reason. I just hung out, I met a lot of friends, and enemies. Very typical. But I always knew that they had really cool stories. Good stories from their own experiences and stuff like that. And after a certain point I just wanted to get them all down.

So what kind of childhood did you have and where did you grow up?
Well, I'll tell you this and you'll probably think my childhood was the same as Dave's. I was born in Hamilton. My dad got his PhD in Engineering at McMaster and then we moved to Chemical Valley, Sarnia. So I grew up in Sarnia. I can't it was a truly traumatic childhood like Dave's but I definitely ran into a lot of problems with schoolyard bullies. A lot of racism and stuff like that. You know, the irony is that I do have another friend from Sarnia who's also a Banana Boy. And he didn't run into a single problem. He went to a school 15 minutes away and didn't have a single problem. My sister didn't run into a single problem. So it was odd. I grew up in Sarnia. Got beat up a lot. It was very very traumatic and it has shaped my politics. At the same time I don't think I've turned into a Dave, a whole hate-the-whole-world sort of thing.

Did you always consider yourself a Banana? And do you still?
Not always. I grew up in an environment that was almost exclusively Caucasian. And then you think that "Man, all these problems are being caused because I look different" so you try to sound the same, look the same, be the same. Very white-washed. So when I went to university I became very cultured, very political. Then I guess after I graduated I sort of realized that I had to be a normal person and that's when I resonated with the whole concept of Banana the most, in the sense that I didn't really belong to one group or the other, both groups having rejected me in certain ways already. And I liked it. I like the imagery, I like the fruit and it really seemed to personify everything that I really wanted in life.

Who do you consider you role models in life and in literature? Banana or otherwise?
None really. I mean, I've admired a lot of people for the types of things they can do. And if they're Asian or Banana, I notice them a lot more. So like, I've got strong tastes in electronic music and a guy like Big League Chu is very impressive to me. He's just got a lot of talent. Same thing with a lot of turntablists like Kid Koala, DJ Serious. They're just noticeable because they look like me, they sound like me but then they can do all this cool shit. Other role models...I don't really read all that much. I say that I'm a writer but I don't read a lot of books. I read a lot of newspapers and stuff. William Shatner. I think he's really cool.

The characters in Banana Boys have a strong affinity for beer. And with us meeting here at the Maddy, it's obviously a love that you share with them. In the tradition of Ernest Hemingway, how strong of a role do you think alcohol takes in the creative process for you?
Big. Well, it took a bigger role when I was a lot younger. When you're a lot younger you can handle stuff like that a lot more. You go out drinking all night, you get the best ideas in the world, you go home and recover. The older you get, the less able your body is at handling that. But alcohol, for the Banana Boys, and it's true of me and my friends back in university, was really a bonding-type of agent. It's like your inhibitions melt away. Just like in the Joy Luck Club, when those women would gather around the mah jongg table or something like that, which I think is ridiculous, my boys, to this day, we gather around the bar table, we order pitchers of drink, and we reflect. Not so much anymore just because I can't do it as much anymore.

What's your favourite draft?
I don't know. It's varied a lot over the years. I used to work down in New York so I really liked Black & Tan. That's like half Guinness, half Bass, layered over each other. But ever since I moved back to Canada, I couldn't find a single bar that could pour it properly. They always mixed it together. I'd have to say these days I'm drinking old man beer. Export and stuff like that. Carlsberg.

Welcome to your Carlsberg years?
Yeah I'm getting old so it's like that. But it's changed a lot over the years.

Favourite bottle?
Export. I think I'm influenced by those commercials. You know, it's all about balance. I don't read but I watch a lot of tv and I read a lot of newspapers so advertising has a big impact on me.

There's often a negative connotation attached to the term Banana, ie, white-washed Asian. What do you think of that?
I think it's bullshit. I think that anyone who uses anything in a derogatory way obviously has issues, power issues and so forth. Live and let live, you know? To each your own. Anyone has the desire to put down anybody else, most of all with racial things, it's cheap. It's so cheap. Make fun of someone because of their dick size or their intelligence or something, but don't make fun of them for their race, for chrissake. So I think the whole term Banana used disparagingly by anyone, be they "real" Chinese people or "real" Canadians, it's pure crap. I don't think it's as dramatic as taking back the word for our use like the way Black people are taking back the word "nigger" and stuff like that. But I'm glad to be a Banana. I like being a Banana. I like who I am.

The book has an obvious "Chinese" slant to it. In the course of writing the book, did you at any time consider say, adding a Japanese character, or making Mike Korean?
Yes. I actually intended to make one of the characters Japanese Canadian. And I actually had a very interesting friend who was Japanese Canadian. But my fear, I guess, was to dilute the message. You ever watch GI Joe? You know how most of the characters have a certain identity. Like they have the mountain specialist or the jungle specialist. And you know, maybe there's one episode that takes place in the Alps or in the jungle where the guy with the specialty can use his powers. But rest of the time they're just shooting. And I didn't want the Banana Boys to be that way. Because if you do that you have to be very very egalitarian and very direct about it. Like to have a gay character or a Japanese Canadian, it really would dilute the message. I didn't have enough domain expertise in those areas. I wanted to write what I know about and I know Chinese Canadians so that was my main focus.

In your college years you went to Waterloo to study Engineering. How did this experience change your perception of Asians?
Like I said, most of my Banana friends I met in University. I was completely devoid in high school and elementary school, definitely in elementary school. I don't know that I really had a perception of Asians before that. I mean I had my parents, my sister, and so forth, I had odd traditions at certain times of the year, like Chinese New Year. I guess it was very very comforting to find people who you could relate to and it seems like a very cheap way to relate to someone. I mean, I look at a lot of Asian posses today, 20-somethings hanging exclusively with Asian guys and girls. I can't relate to that. A lot of my friends are white or black or Indian or whatever. But still, being my first major exposure to other Asians, it was comforting to know that you weren't alone, that you could actually talk to someone. Or not talk. I mean, when something happens, you just kinda look over and they kinda nod back and that's enough.

Have you always like to write? Even going through an Engineering program?
Engineering was crucial to writing. It caused a lot of pain and aggravation and the writing was my outlet for it. Yeah, I've always like writing. Something that I really enjoy. Something I take a lot of pride in. Engineering basically showed me I really hate this life. I really would like to do what I want to do. I don't know if I've figured out what I really want to do but writing's not bad.

As in the book, Banana-parents are typically not very supportive of career paths outside of maths and sciences. How did family pressure affect your writing career?
Interestingly enough, they were about as supportive as I could truly expect them to be. My parents were actually fairly supportive. I've heard horror stories about typical Asian parents really suppressing the needs and desires of their kids. Oh you've gotta be a doctor or a lawyer or stuff like that. My parents really weren't that way. They didn't pressure me to go into engineering directly. I think I pressured myself more. I was living in the Reagan 80's where you couldn't make it as a starving artist. They were actually fairly supportive and yet, by virtue of the fact that they're Asian, certain cultural tendencies are just inescapable. They still worry about how I'm actually earning money, supporting myself, getting married, buying a home. They've been about as supportive as I could expect them to be and for that I'm actually really grateful.

Do you feel like you belong in the Asian community now or do you still feel like an outsider?
It's interesting because I don't think I really belong anywhere. One of the major themes of Banana Boys is alienation. Alienation from both the Asian and the mainstream Canadian groups. You get older and you mellow out but I still feel very alienated. One of the interesting communities I ran into was the Asian Activist community. When I went down to New York I ran into my share of those, people who are very concerned about politics and rights and racism. And I felt like I didn't belong. They were just too extreme. If Asians had a Blank Panther party, I ran into a lot of Black Panther Asians...Yellow Panthers. So to this day I can't honestly say that I relate a lot to the Asian community mostly because I find most groups to be conducive to insular thinking. I do honestly prefer to meet people in non-group settings where I can take them at face value. Groups I feel really obscure that and Asians are sort of prone to that too.

Since (and probably during) the writing of Banana Boys, a lot has changed within the Asian community, both size-wise and community-wise. If you were born 10 years later, how do you think this would have affected both you and the book?
If I was born in '81? Different. Numbers are obviously a very important thing to political power. I mean, back in the day, (I sound like an old fart here), there just weren't very many Asians. There were no Asian groups. I didn't have any Asian friends. And that's why I was so floored when I went to Waterloo and there were so many of them. These days, they are different and you can tell by all those posses you see walking around. Numbers equal power. So if I was born 10 years later, I don't think Banana Boys would have been written the way it was. I wouldn't say totally different but a different set of 5 characters with a different set of issues overall. But the interesting thing is most of the best responses that I've recieved for the Banana Boys are from 20-somethings. I'm 30-something and even though I can say my issues and my situation were different they can still relate to them. They still liked it. They still enjoyed it. And for that I'm convinced that everything I've drawn on has a certain meaning, a common bond.

How did you get your book published and was it difficult?
It's a long story that involved a lot of luck. And a lot of it was persistence. I started writing strictly ideas down for the book before anything else. Kinda like Mike. Napkins, business cards, receipts, stuff like that. That was back in '90-'91. So it was about 8-9 years of work. After a few years I realized I had a lot of good stories, good information that I wanted to do something with. So when I graduated back in '96, I deferred my employment down to New York for a few months and I set out to shape it, to write a first draft. With the first draft that came along, well, first off, it was really fat, like 430 pages or something crazy like that. And it was what it was. I submitted it to several publishers and it got a lot of rejections. Some were pretty good, very friendly, it's a good story but we just can't do anything for you right now. Some were very patronizing and idiotic. So I worked in New York for 2 years and I was getting really sick of that, doing engineering stuff and computers. So I took a chance, quit my job and moved out to California and hired an editor to shape it up a little bit. He helped me a lot, cut it down to size, smoothed over a lot of rough edges. And then at that time, the Asian Canadian Writers Workshop had an emerging writers award back in '99. So I submitted the manuscript and I got short-listed, which was very very good. I eventually lost out to Madeleine Thien's Simple Recipes, which I haven't read yet but have heard is quite good. No embarrassment in that. But past that point, the ACWW was shopping around the manuscript but I ended up bumping into a publisher, strangely enough, at a funeral that I shouldn't have been at. I gave them the manuscript and they liked it, and I signed a contract with them. Another year/year-and-a-half of editing and they came out with a book that I'm really really quite proud of. First time I saw that book, literally, I jumped three feet in the air. It was so cool. I still get a high seeing the book in printed form.

Did it make it any more difficult for you that you were writing something so specific to an ethnic market?
No, it was easy to write, but publishing and writing are two different things. You can write all you want, but to get it published you really need to succeed in a certain way. And I'm still struggling with that.

So what do you have up next?
Good question. I don' know. After 8-9 years, I think the well's running dry. I think I've said almost everything that I needed to say in the book. I actually tried to take off last year's summer to write a second book. I did have a good idea, but I didn't really have the gumption or the urge to do it again. It really took a lot out of me, the first book. It's heart and soul, mind, spirit, everything. And after the book was finished, I got all of that stuff back. And I like having it back. I like being able to be in a regular relationship and stuff like that. So nothing yet. I guess the big news is that the movie rights have been optioned for the Banana Boys and just a few weeks ago my producer has told me that she tentatively has arranged financing for the movie. I mean, it's still a long ways away but I would like to help out with Banana Boys, The Movie.

For more information on Terry Woo and his book, check out http://www.bananaboys.com/.
(images shamelessly stolen from this website)