Dawson City offered sudden inspiration to Kim Fu. Arriving there for a writer’s residency in 2015, the author of the acclaimed novel For Today I Am a Boy wanted to develop a stalled project.
A cast of characters had occupied her thoughts for years, appearing in multiple scenarios and sequences, yet she lacked a unifying plot. Progress was further delayed by the success of her 2014 book, which received the Edmund White Award for debut fiction, and Fu hoped the solitude of the Yukon would be a creative boon.
During her stint at the historic Berton House, as she hiked through snow and met people who lived in the bush, Fu, a Seattle resident who grew up on Metro Vancouver’s North Shore, began to reflect on survival and vulnerability. “What would happen if I got stuck?” she says now, over coffee with the Straight in downtown Vancouver. “Everybody else knew exactly what they would do, and I’m just a city kid with no idea. I was thinking about that, and those ideas really cracked the novel open.”
The Lost Girls of Camp Forevermore maps five girls—Nita, Siobhan, Isabel, Dina, and Andee—during and after a harrowing camping trip on a Pacific Northwest island. Ranging in age from 9 to 11 when stranded with scant supplies and no supervision, the girls face nature, of the Mother and human varieties, while searching for a way back to the mainland.
“I think if you go through something traumatic at those ages,” Fu, 30, says, “it becomes more solid and all the more traumatic. The dynamics between little girls are very interesting at those ages. I wanted to explore those dynamics in a situation where the stakes were higher.”
This outdoor adventure, set in 1994, is cut with narratives about the individual girls as they pass from adolescence to adulthood, which gives a strobe-lit look at how personalities—and truths—adjust to circumstance. Revealing the grip of trauma on identity, Fu’s sophomore novel broaches “things that all women go through, or forces,” she says, “that act upon all women, but then manifest really differently in different people.”
As their respective futures unfold, Nita confronts being a doctor, wife, and mother; Siobhan works as a child-psychology researcher; Isabel reacts passively to the whims of men; Dina pursues stardom; and Andee, who attended Camp Forevermore on a scholarship, scrabbles to secure a home and stay autonomous. (To track this particular protagonist after camp, Fu focused instead on Andee’s sister, Kayla, who misconstrues her sibling much as the other characters do. “You circle around who Andee is, and only the reader really knows,” Fu says. “From all these other people’s misperceptions of her is how you actually get to know Andee.”)
Consciously and unconsciously, these separate trajectories are governed by spectres of that mutual past. Their later lives expose motives and damages, and demonstrate Fu’s skill at building characters of marvellous versatility and depth. “She had never left,” Fu writes of Siobhan, “and everything that had happened since was a dream, a girl’s fantasy of adulthood, a film reel in the afterlife.”
Like For Today I Am a Boy, which tells the story of a Chinese-Canadian transgender woman, Lost Girls shares Fu’s interest in gender performance. This also informed How Festive the Ambulance, her 2016 book of verse, which emphasized her measured wit. (Poems are “a great pleasure to write,” she says. “If I was the last person on Earth, if there was no one left to read it, I would still write poems.”)
The strength of her writing lies not only in its awareness of body and mind, but in its attention to language and image as ways of unfurling strange splendour. Few conjure the fugue of youth with such power. Each of Lost Girls’ threads presents womanhood as a wilderness needing navigation, and proves Fu to be among the most exciting and talented young Canadian writers today.
The ultimate fate of her characters, though, is seldom considered beyond the final page. “While you’re writing, you’re very obsessed with these characters and you want to keep sticking them in different situations and see what they’ll do, and picking at them and poking them, and making them react,” she says. “I’d be thinking about them all the time. And everything I saw would be like, ‘How would they see that?’ And you write and you write, and not all of it makes it into the book.
“A day comes when your obsession ends,” she continues, “and that’s when you’ve said all you want to say. It’s all there somewhere. You wake up one morning and you’re not obsessed anymore. And then that means it’s done.”