"Kevin Chong’s The Double Life of Benson Yu is an ambitious, metafictional novel about a boy, Benny, and the man he becomes. Set against a comic book world, it reveals how we are all simultaneously heroes and villains of our own lives, often working against our best intentions. A young, poor boy, Benny, loses his grandmother and must fend for himself in an apartment in Chinatown until social services intervenes. At the heart of the novel is the issue of trust. Who can we trust? What institutions? Can we trust ourselves? Our stories? But the truth is in the story somewhere. Chong sucks us into a vortical, troubling question of the past decade, a question played out politically but also in our personal lives: how can we distinguish truth from fiction?"
Kevin Chong is the award-winning author of several books of fiction and nonfiction. His work has appeared in The Guardian, The Rumpus, and more. He currently lives in Vancouver and is an assistant professor at the University of British Columbia.
What advice would you give your ten-year-old self about being human in 2023?
Cars still won't be able to transform into robots, but online shopping is an acceptable alternative to going to the mall with your mom.
In an alternate version of the world—one in which you are not a writer—who would be you be?
I was asked this question recently so instead of repeating myself I am just going to go with the first, most unlikely thing I could think of: I would be a photographer who specialized in high-school graduation photos.
If you could take a road trip with any author, living or dead, who would it be and where would you go?
Miguel de Cervantes, driving along Route 66. I am feeling a little random today.
The Double Life of Benson Yu is a work of metafiction. It explores the life of a graphic novelist who loses control of his own narrative when he attempts to write the story of his upbringing in 1980s Chinatown. Why did you choose to structure the novel this way, and what challenges did you face while writing?
I literally lost control of this novel. I had the first half plotted but didn’t know what to do in the second part. An unlikely idea popped into my head and I committed to it. The biggest challenge was making it look as though I had meant to twist the story the way I did right from the start.
What’s the last Canadian book that changed you in some way?
Anecdotes, by Kathryn Mockler, made me think about the environment in new ways, and it has a playful, anything-goes approach to fiction that I found refreshing.
Excerpt from The Double Life of Benson Yu
A few days after I receive that noxious letter from C., the boy appears for the first time. The picture fills my eyes, and the most expedient way to clear them is by writing it down. I see the boy, on the street, cowering behind his grandmother. That’s his default pose. He’s holding a fold-up cart. His ailing poh-poh nudges him forward. Up until a month ago the old woman pulled the two-wheeled cart herself. Then, one morning, after she’d been coughing through the night, she made the boy do it. On that initial outing, as they embarked on their errand running, she made a point of moving at her typically brisk pace. “It’s just my hand,” she said in Cantonese, with a village accent she used only around family, like a pair of ugly slippers. “It hurts, that’s all. It’ll be fine tomorrow.” But then she asked him to pull the cart again the next day.
Every week, on Sundays, this depleted family unit makes their rounds to the markets for dried scallops, for pea shoots and watercress, for oxtail and tripe. Everyone knows Poh-Poh. She used to teach Chinese school to half of them in the church basement. Everyone stands up straighter, eyes jittering, the second she appears.
Whenever he’s out with Poh-Poh, the boy worries about seeing kids from his class. Their side-eyes and smirks could strip paint. Those jerks will wait until they’re in the schoolyard to tell the boy they recognize his clothes from gift-shop clearance racks and church donation bins. They’ll ask him where his parents are, as though he hasn’t told them already.
Now that he pulls the cart, the shopkeepers direct their attention to him first, as the person who handles the business. They all know better than to see him as in charge, but this way they don’t have to meet the gaze of the woman who would pick their Chinese names from a roll to recite classical poetry.
Today, it’s Mr. Mah, who runs the convenience store across the street. “Dai lo!” he says from the back of the store. He’s finished stacking cans of soup. “How may we serve you?” he says in Cantonese.
Poh-Poh tuts, her voice like the rasp she uses on her feet before bedtime, and allows the boy—I guess we’re gonna call him Benny—to choose a shrinkwrapped package of snack cakes for acing his math test. One indulgence he’s earned from pulling the cart is getting to stop here first. He no longer has to wait until their errands are done for his weekly treat. “You’re acting as though he’s the one paying for everything,” she reminds Mr. Mah.
“One day he will. Big head, big brain, woh!” says Mr. Mah, rubbing his hands on his flannel shirtsleeves as he follows them to the front of the store. The sides of his face are crinkled from all the smiling he does.
His daughter sits behind the cash register. Benny’s cheeks warm at the sight of the girl. I cringe to picture him this way, fluorescent with hormonal yearning around Mr. Mah’s daughter, Shirley. I’ve changed her name, although the real one is pretty similar. Only a few years ago, Benny and Shirley did everything together—watching TV, playing Transformers, drawing, even eating, on most days, from the same bowl of macaroni, peas, and ham in broth—back when his mother had grown too weak to work and babysat her for extra cash. Now he can’t speak to her.
“Why can’t I have at least one smart child, laa?” the shopkeeper says to her. Shirley’s older brother, Wai, works at the store, when forced, but otherwise runs with the wrong kids, the ones who wear clothes their parents can’t afford. “Look at him,” Mr. Mah tells his daughter. “Always on the honor roll. Nose in books, teem.”
“He takes after his grandmother,” Shirley says in English, staring at her lap as she struggles to wipe her mouth clean of a smirk. She has an oblong face with wide cheekbones and tendrils of hair that escape from her ponytail. Her bright eyes and a readily pursed expression complement a thorny demeanor that the boy will always be drawn to. “Look who I have to take after.”
Mr. Mah wags an open palm at her, his eyes glinting with amusement. “Begging to be hated.”
Poh-Poh slides the cupcakes across the counter and produces a folded five-dollar bill from the lanyard money pouch where she keeps her senior’s bus pass. Shirley opens the register and calculates the change in her head.
“Your girl is even better with numbers than my grandson, gwaa,” Poh-Poh says. “Every child has a different strength.”
The shopkeeper seems stumped by this praise from a woman who offers so little of it. Praise from her always feels unprecedented. As they’re leaving, Mr. Mah gathers his wits and holds out a candy bar.
Benny stares at the treat. Flake. He’s never heard the name before. It’s probably chocolate. It’s probably good. It’s free. But why can’t it just be a normal candy bar? A Snickers or a Mars bar, and not something that came over on a boat?
“A gift for dai lo,” Mr. Mah says to Poh-Poh. “Free of charge.”
“Nonsense,” Poh-Poh says, and hands Benny two quarters to pay for it. Shirley reaches out. He wishes his fingertips weren’t so grimy as they glance along her palm. She turns away when she takes the money.
Benny eats the snack cakes once they step outside, eats them so fast it’s as though he’s trying to hide them from himself. Poh-Poh would chide him for eating so quickly except that she’s in a hurry. He’ll save the candy bar for later.
“That shopkeeper doesn’t pay taxes, woh. That’s why his girl is so good at numbers. Don’t tell her you know all of that, laa,” Poh-Poh says to him once they reach the next block. “Why were you standing around, acting so dopey around Mr. Mah?”
“I wasn’t,” Benny insists, moving a step ahead of her down the hill to their first stop. At night, he will picture Shirley, the way she flutters her eyelashes and tucks in the left corner of her mouth when she’s embarrassed. He sits behind her in their history and English blocks so he can watch her ponytail sway for up to two hours a day.
They pick up vegetables at a greengrocer, chicken feet at the butcher shop. The people at those stores don’t fawn over him as much. At the butcher’s, Poh-Poh slips on the wet linoleum but reaches for the counter to prevent a fall.
Throughout their walk, the big hill back to their cream-colored concrete housing development looms for Benny. The first few days pulling the cart were muscle-scorching slogs, ones that underscored his softness, and he wondered how Poh-Poh managed that task all these years. But the sum of that effort has made him more resolute, if not stronger. Today, he feels as though he can sail up that hill.
When he turns around to see Poh-Poh midway down the block, her body seems to be twisting, hands aloft like a surfer’s along a concrete wave. She clamps a handkerchief to a face that’s purple with distress. As Benny starts to hurry back, the cart turns over. Stooping over to pick up the scattered groceries on the sidewalk, he sees Poh-Poh reaching for a lamppost but missing it. Then crashing.
He abandons the cart and races down the hill. When he gets to her, she swats him away. No, she can’t grab hold of his hand. Finally upright, she reveals an abacus of scrapes along her cheekbone.
Benny sees Steph, still in her waitressing uniform, hurry down from the top of the hill. “It’s nothing,” Poh-Poh says to her. “It looks worse than it feels, gwaa.”
Benny marvels at his aunt’s brisk competency. First she recovers the cart and walks them back to their apartment before jetting off to the pharmacy for disinfectant and bandages. Then, while Poh-Poh rests, she cooks dinner, humming along to Perry Como on the oldies station while Benny watches her. Steph reminds Benny of Mommy. She has Mommy’s long nose, the kind he wishes he had instead of a flat nose with the hump of a chocolate hedgehog.
She has her double-folded eyelids, a pair more than Benny, who always looks sleepy. She has her ability to tease Poh-Poh, darting her eyes at him with complicity when Poh-Poh grows huffy. In his aunt’s presence, Benny, who’d never dare tease his grandmother, always feels the courage to crack up.
Whenever Steph visits, Chinatown shrinks and the world beyond it emerges. Poh-Poh always complains that Steph isn’t Chinese enough. Because Steph was born here nearly a decade after Mommy—Poh-Poh blames their age gap on the hardships of immigration—she is more westernized. Unlike Mommy, who worked a job preparing taxes, his aunt insisted on attending art school. Gong-Gong was dying when she enrolled, Poh-Poh says, so she didn’t have the energy to force her to abandon her dreams. Now Steph lives on the other end of town, where she serves breakfasts with funny names. The “Jacked Stack.” “Benny from Heaven” (one of her nicknames for him). “Huevos Rancheros.” And she’s in a punk rock band. The last time Steph visited, she gave him her old Walkman and a cassette of her band’s album. The cover shows the band members leaning against a brick wall in their jeans and leather jackets. They stand with their arms to their sides, blindfolded, with cigarettes at the corners of their mouths. “Do you really smoke?” he asked his aunt, to which she only answered, “In spite of yourself, you are so cute.”
After they finish eating, his grandmother tells him he can either watch TV or play video games. He gets an hour of TV, but only half an hour of gaming— to Benny, a cruelly unfair ratio. She doesn’t wait for him to choose, turning on their thirteen-inch set and, for the first time in his life, cranking up the volume. In his peripheral vision, he sees Poh-Poh lead her daughter into the bathroom. Noticing this, Benny is too distracted for Growing Pains. It’s a rerun anyhow. He stands by the door. Their voices are so low he can barely hear.
“Ah-neui,” he can hear Poh-Poh say.
“I know, Mom,” Steph says in English. “I’ve got it.”
“Do you promise?”
“I promise.” Benny doesn’t have time to ask Steph what she assented to. When she emerges from the bathroom, a quarter hour after Poh-Poh, she stretches out in a yawn. “Bedtime,” she announces. “Nice and early, as usual.” She winks at him. She’s changed out of her work uniform and into clothes from her bag. In makeup, hair done, in a leather skirt. Better places await her. Steph only comes by every couple of weeks, and he feels cheated that she cuts out so early.
I too had an aunt who helped take care of me, but not someone like Steph, who’s modeled after the older sister of a friend—another hopeless crush.
Benny doesn’t know it, but he’ll see his aunt tomorrow when she shows up after the worst day ever at school. That Monday afternoon, the final bell rings and he can’t wait to get home. He pushes through the outer doors but stops when he sees Steph. His chest soars. She’s here for him, and he’s too grateful to wonder why. He hopes she takes him out for hot chocolate and cracks a few jokes. Just the thought of her kindness, given everything that happened that day, steams him open like a mussel.
Excerpted from THE DOUBLE LIFE OF BENSON YU. Copyright © 2023 by Kevin Chong. Excerpted by permission of Simon and Schuster Canada. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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