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The Double Life of Benson Yu

A Novel

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About The Book

“A nuanced, complex, and highly original novel.” —Charles Yu, National Book Award–winning author of Interior Chinatown

A fresh, unique work of metafiction that follows a graphic novelist who loses control of his own narrative when he attempts to write the story of his fraught upbringing in 1980s Chinatown.

In a Chinatown housing project lives twelve-year-old Benny, his ailing grandmother, and his strange neighbor Constantine, a man who believes he’s a reincarnated medieval samurai. When his grandmother is hospitalized, Benny manages to survive on his own until a social worker comes snooping. With no other family, he is reluctantly taken in by Constantine and soon, an unlikely bond forms between the two.

At least, that’s what Yu, the narrator of the story, wants to write.

The creator of a bestselling comic book, Yu is struggling with continuing the poignant tale of Benny and can’t help but interject from the present day, slowly revealing a darker backstory. Can Yu confront the demons he’s spent his adult life avoiding or risk his own life...and Benny’s?

“Instructive as it is inspiring, The Double Life of Benson Yu is a phenomenal example of a writer taking real risks in order to reveal and reckon with deep-rooted, tormenting truths as a means of moving forward. Kevin Chong has crafted a novel that will get your heart pumping, mind jumping, and, best of all, fingers turning” (Mateo Askaripour, New York Times bestselling author).

Excerpt

Chapter One CHAPTER ONE
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 shrink-wrapped 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.

“Mom!”

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.

“What’s the matter, little man?” she asks him. Her hands, which she had on the straps of her backpack, reach for his shoulders.

He wants to chew her out for calling him “little man,” a nickname he’s told her not to use, but he bawls harder instead. “Mrs. Renzullo asked me a question about Christopher Columbus,” he begins. The rest of the story is too painful for him to tell.

As it happened, Mrs. Renzullo, his English and history teacher, always called on him. Nobody else could respond to her questions. Half the class could barely speak English. When he gave the answer, “King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella,” something collapsed in his mouth, a wounded bird’s death honk, on the third syllable of Isabella. “Faht yuhk,” Poh-Poh had said with an indulgent smile when his voice cracked the other night.

His classmates, even Shirley, who sat in front of him with her loose but perfect ponytail, would find his voice breaking no less funny than if he had answered Mrs. Renzullo’s question with a tuba-timbred, split-toned fart.

At lunch hour, it started. “Isabella” was croaked behind his back. He was shoved by someone as he stooped over the water fountain. He turned to see his tormentors, Bronson Su and Roderick Chow, cackling. Both of them were broad-shouldered (in a preteen way), with gel-swept hair and tapered trousers. If only he knew, I think now, how easy it would be to punch them, to fight back. He might take his own blows, but they would leave him alone.

Now, secure in his aunt’s arms, he thinks all of this, and yet he can’t utter one off-key word of explanation. Steph hugs him tighter anyway. If Poh-Poh were here, she would say, “No crying,” and turn her back on him until his eyes had dried. He can see some of his classmates hurry past him, but he doesn’t care if they know he’s crying. He’s dirt to them anyway. Soon his face is back in Steph’s argyle sweater. Because he can’t remember how Mommy smelled anymore, he likes to think she smelled like Steph. Like secondhand-store clothes, patchouli, and cigarettes.

“Tough day? Hormones?” she asks. “Whatever it is, I’m sorry.”

As he expected, they get hot chocolates at the Chinese bakery Poh-Poh avoids on account of all the white people stepping out from tour buses to crowd the place and justify its stiff prices. Steph also buys cocktail buns, egg tarts, and pork turnovers that the woman behind the counter places in a box and ties with a pink plastic ribbon.

“That is for you to take home,” Steph says once they settle into a booth with their drinks.

Benny figures that the promise she made to Poh-Poh has something to do with why Steph is visiting only him today. His aunt is on edge this afternoon, her fingers tapping the glass that covers the menus on the tabletop.

“Why are you here?” he asks finally.

“Um, I’ve brought something for you,” she announces. “A little listening.”

Steph unzips her backpack. From the bag comes a bundle of cassette tapes with handwritten track listings. “I’m sure you wore out my album by now. You liked my album, right?”

He nods, and reads the names scrawled on the spines of the tapes. The Clash, the Velvet Underground, Kate Bush. He gets preoccupied for a moment.

“We’re going on tour tomorrow,” she finally tells him. “Los Angeles to Chapel Hill to New York to Montreal. And a bunch of other cities.”

He stares down at the chocolate sediment still gathered at the bottom of his mug. “How long will you be gone?”

“Two months,” she says. “That’s why I wanted to see you, and not you and Mom. Your poh-poh doesn’t want me to go. You know how dramatic she can get, right? She thinks our van will crash. She worries so much.”

He remembers what Poh-Poh says about her two daughters. “Your mother was so responsible—the only mistake she ever made was marrying your father, gwaa,” she would tell him. “Your aunt just wants to have fun.” Normally, Benny loves the lightness Steph brings. He remembers tinkling on the electronic keyboard Steph would lug over when Mommy and Poh-Poh went to the hospital for tests. Later, she would play Go Fish with him in the hospital cafeteria when Mommy was too sick to see more than one visitor at a time. Now her shine feels like gloss as she sets aside family responsibility for personal fulfillment.

They know Poh-Poh is weakening with age. She can care for herself, even for her dead daughter’s boy, but she can’t manage without help. Even Steph knows this, as her eyes won’t meet his. She smiles at her hands. “We’ve been setting up the tour for months. We’ve all been working double shifts and overtime to pay for the van. Your poh-poh is a worrywart, isn’t she?”

Benny thinks about Poh-Poh. As long as he’s lived with her, she’s been getting up in the morning to make him jook for breakfast. It’s impossible to stay asleep when she has risen in their one-room apartment and the soup pot is clattering on the stove. And yet he will lie on the pullout, eyes closed, until she tells him to eat.

But for the past two mornings, Poh-Poh has stayed in bed. Through the night, she coughs and coughs. Sometimes, she will get up to rinse her mouth with salt water. For dinner, she bakes yams and serves them with rice cooked in the pot with lap cheong and doused in soy sauce. It’s the kind of dinner she prepared when Mommy was dying, less a meal than a gesture that acknowledges the biological necessity of eating.

As I hash out this scene, I’m glad I’m not drawing it. The only withheld emotions in Iggy Samurai come at swordpoint, the noble feelings of martial arts heroes keeping mum about their sacrifices. In this case, knowing her mind is set, Benny makes sure not to broadcast his concern to his aunt. He tries being happy about her decision. He hopes Steph can see through it. But her face is glowing in relief. The warmth of the hot chocolate receding, he waits with Steph until her bus comes. She tells him to call her if he needs anything. One thing, though. She has disconnected her line. She writes down a phone number on a slip of paper. “When I moved out of my place, I left all my stuff at our drummer’s house,” she says. The drummer’s roommate has a list of the clubs she’s playing while the band is on the road that he can share if necessary. “You can call me in an emergency.”

The bus comes. They hug. She asks him how many postcards he wants. He blurts out, “Four or five.” She says, “How about two?” “Three?” He waits for her to board. Once she’s inside, she holds up three fingers and nods. He watches her turn away and slip on her own set of headphones. Her face relaxes. The smiles and jokiness vanish from her face. Her eyes grow distant. She looks freed.

About The Author

Photograph by Iris Chia

Kevin Chong is the award-winning author of several books of fiction and nonfiction. His work has appeared in The GuardianThe Rumpus, and more. He currently lives in Vancouver and is an associate professor at the University of British Columbia, Okanagan campus. The Double Life of Benson Yu was longlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Washington Square Press (February 13, 2024)
  • Length: 240 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781668005514

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Raves and Reviews

"A nuanced, complex, and highly original novel, equal parts harrowing and illuminating. Kevin Chong's language is endlessly readable, bursting with pain, humor, and invention. Remarkable." —Charles Yu, National Book Award-winning author of Interior Chinatown

"Evocative and innovative ... This intensively readable and engaging novel deals with serious personal issues in an inspired manner."Library Journal, starred review

"A nuanced, complex, and highly original novel, equal parts harrowing and illuminating. Kevin Chong's language is endlessly readable, bursting with pain, humor, and invention. Remarkable." —Charles Yu, National Book Award-winning author of Interior Chinatown

The Double Life of Benson Yu hit me like a katana blade. It’s a funny and large-hearted coming of age story, wrapped inside of a wise and surprising take on the creative process. But it’s more than that. It’s also a moving testament to the strange, freeing power of fiction—to how the imagination can help loosen the relentless grip of trauma. I won’t forget this book, and neither will you.” —Sam Graham-Felsen, award-winning author of Green

"The Double Life of Benson Yu is a thought-provoking, gutsy novel from an accomplished risk taker. A daring and enriching book that lingers in the mind long after reading." —Iain Reid, New York Times bestselling author of I'm Thinking of Ending Things, Foe, and We Spread

"Instructive as it is inspiring, The Double Life of Benson Yu is a phenomenal example of a writer taking real risks in order to reveal and reckon with deep-rooted, tormenting truths as a means of moving forward. Kevin Chong has crafted a novel that will get your heart pumping, mind jumping, and, best of all, fingers turning. Get ready to laugh and have your expectations defied. I can only imagine how many people this book will help." —Mateo Askaripour, New York Times bestselling author of Black Buck

“An uncompromising exploration of toxic masculinity and cycles of abuse. Rather than opting for easy answers, this novel faces its demons and finds its catharsis in the powerful medicine of embracing the truth. A triumphant and important novel.” —Seth Fried, author of The Municipalists

“[A] powerful reminder that unless we confront our demons, we’ll never exorcise them.” The Millions

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