Playwright and writer James Thoo had always wanted to be a father. His own complex relationship with his nononsense, tough-love father made him more determined to have children. But when James was diagnosed with low sperm motility, any prospect of having children seemed dashed — until he and his wife, Alicia, decided on in-vitro fertilisation, or IVF. He shares their journey to parenthood in his new book, Palooka: Twelve Rounds to Fatherhood, an intimate, honest and humorous take on trying to do one of most fundamental things expected of a man: to sire a child. 

SINGAPORE (July 3): Award-winning playwright, screenwriter and author James Thoo has a friend he calls “Penis Hawkeye”, after the Marvel comic superhero, Hawkeye, who wields a bow with faultless accuracy.

This friend, says Thoo, has fathered four children — three of which he had in three years, and Thoo reckons that if he (the friend) wanted seven children, he’d have them in no time at all.

For Thoo, this seemed terribly unfair; he and his wife Alicia had been trying to conceive for six months, to no avail.

Most may think this isn’t such a long time, but Thoo had always wanted to be a father. He’d waited pretty much all his life to be one. Having had a complex and somewhat fraught relationship with his own father, who is a retired fighter and boxer, Thoo was all the more determined to be a father himself.

Now, in his mid-thirties, Thoo, who started his career as a journalist, before going on to write several very well-received screenplays, wanted a child while he was still young enough to play sports with them. And, after all, he and his wife are both healthy and fit people, in the prime of their lives — so there was no reason they could not conceive, right?

But after six months and some light-hearted ribbing from “Penis Hawkeye”, Thoo began to wonder if something was wrong. So he went for a fertility test. The diagnosis came back: Low sperm motility. Thoo had only 1% of healthy sperm, compared to the average of 11% to 14%. “This means that we could have kids, but we could just as easily not [have kids]. We could try forever and it could never happen, or try tomorrow and get pregnant,” Thoo tells Options in a recent interview.

In-vitro fertilisation, or IVF, was the way they could take things into their own hands, as it were, and so they decided to go down that route. However, it turned out to be far more challenging than he or his wife had ever expected.

It was, in his own words, “one prolonged uppercut to the scrotum”.

Palooka

This difficult journey towards fatherhood is told in Thoo’s book, Palooka: Twelve Rounds to Fatherhood, which started as essays he wrote in the long hours sitting in waiting rooms as Alicia took injection after injection, test after test, as a way to deal with the difficult situation with levity.

Writing is something he loves, and something he has done for the past 15 years. He’s worked on several features including The Rude Mechanical (2006), which he wrote for Ravenwood Films in Los Angeles, and the award-winning Malaysian film, Jarum Halus (2008). In 2015, his script Sonata placed number one on Scriptshadow’s annual list of the best unproduced screenplays in Hollywood.

Meanwhile, his boxing feature, Hurt, is currently in pre-production in Colorado with Bruise Productions. In Singapore, he wrote the play Stool Pigeon, the maiden production for Thomas Pang’s theatre company, Room to Breathe. His recent play, The Jugular Vein, was produced and staged by The Haque Collective to sell-out audiences in 2019.

He also teaches at the Haque Centre of Acting and Creativity, a professional acting studio that works with actors for major Hollywood films, as well as non-actors from all walks of life.

The title of his book, he says, is a boxing reference — boxing being his second-greatest love (after his wife, of course). Growing up, some of his best memories with his father involved boxing and it cultivated the love of the great sport in him. Thoo himself in fact had a short stint as a boxer when he was 27 years old.

“If you ever watch a preview show for a big fight, you’ll see a brief history of each boxer, and they’ll invariably tell you about their childhoods spent in rough neighbourhoods where they were forced to fight with alarming regularity. And that they always won. It’s all pretty routine. Because that’s how world champions and top contenders are forged.

“If there was a preview show for me, the brief history would be much the same. Rough, impoverished towns, oppressive, hateful neighbours, constant fist fights. The only difference is that instead of always winning; all of my fights ended in crushing defeat. And that is how journeymen, or what they used to term ‘palookas’, are forged,” he says, of the title of his book.

When a student in his screenplay class said she was struggling to express herself through writing, he shared his essays with her, hoping it would help her find her voice. The student eventually became his publisher. After reading what he had written, she convinced him that turning the essays into a book was something very much needed, especially to help couples struggling through IVF. Thoo agreed — after all, he himself did not know much about IVF, and in his words, was woefully unprepared for just how tough it was.

“I just wish that I had known [all this] earlier so that we could maybe have adapted our timeline or been more prepared,” he said. But he didn’t want the book to be too serious, either. “There are so many wonderful communities for infertility and IVF and all these things, but I think the impression that I got was that it is very supportive but there’s no introspection, there’s no really being honest.

“I mean, there are times that are bad, right? Times when you think less-thanpure thoughts about friends who have kids, and [you ask] ‘why can’t I have kids?’ I felt like there are times where sarcasm or levity would maybe have helped us, and you know, the ability to laugh at yourself. The first chapter that I wrote was about how I messed up so many times trying to get a sperm sample into the small tub. I thought it’d be worthwhile to just show that, you know, it can be laughed at. Don’t get me wrong, it is extremely serious and nobody was more upset than I was about my situation, but it helps to laugh at things,” he says.

The result was Palooka — an extremely heartfelt, well-written and intimate book. It is also hilarious; laugh-out-loud funny in a way you’d not expect from such a serious topic, because Thoo found a way to both inform and entertain in a self-deprecating, honest way.

More importantly, it is written with a great deal of vulnerability, depicting the round after round of knockouts and losses: like the great boxers of the past, who were his childhood heroes, and whose stories form the structure of the book.

Indeed, that was what IVF felt like to him — 12 rounds of bad news after bad news as they spent a year and nearly $100,000 to have a child. Worse yet was how ill-prepared he was for the process.

IVF is the process where an egg is combined with sperm outside the body, or in-vitro. It involves monitoring and stimulating a woman’s ovulatory process, removing an egg (ovum) or eggs from the woman’s ovaries, before artificially inseminating the eggs in a laboratory. For many couples who cannot or have difficulty conceiving, it is often the best, sometimes only, option to do so.

“I was not at all prepared [for it]. I just had no idea of how complicated and how difficult it was. I thought it was just, you know, they go in to get the eggs, they do the thing, but it’s not like that,” Thoo says. “The woman’s body has to be prepped [with hormones and numerous self-administered injections] and even then, when she is ready, a woman has a limited number of eggs and not all those eggs are usable.” “And every time, there was an additional thing that could go wrong,” he says.

In fact, things did go wrong.

A lot.

The first: Thoo tested positive for carrying the thalassemia gene, which causes a genetic blood disorder. Thankfully, two more tests subsequently cleared him of the false positive of the first.

Second: Alicia had a condition called diminished ovarian reserve, which meant that the number and quality of her eggs is lower than expected for her age.

Third: Upon implantation of two embryos, Alicia suffered a miscarriage. Initially, they thought it was a miscarriage of one embryo, since they had implanted two successfully. However, it was later discovered that it was actually an ectopic pregnancy, something incredibly rare in an IVF procedure. An ectopic pregnancy is when an embryo implants itself somewhere other than the uterus, where it should be.

Fourth: Worse still, the embryo had implanted itself on one of Alicia’s fallopian tubes, which meant it needed to be operated on and removed immediately or it could be seriously life-threatening. There was also the possibility that both her fallopian tubes would need to be removed.

“It just became bad news after bad news after bad news,” says Thoo. Thankfully, Alicia pulled through, and they eventually tried again. This time, success at last: their daughter, Zoe, was born last year.

Silver lining

When I asked Thoo what he is most grateful for throughout this entire nerve-racking and excruciating experience, he immediately said it is Alicia, his wife of four years. “When I held my child for the first time, all that I felt was more love for my wife because of the incredible hardship that she went through,” he says.

He never worried about the strength of their relationship or marriage [when he first found out about his low motility]. “I was just worried about telling her, because I felt like I had let her down, that our life was going to be so much more difficult now because of me. “I was the one who had been pushing for kids from the beginning. And you know, this comes out in the book, but I only realised later that I’d never actually really took the time to ask Alicia if she wanted to even have kids,” he says. “And so I was pushing her to do this and then we were going to have to do [IVF], and we’re gonna have to spend copious amounts of money. She was going to have to go through this emotional and physiological hardship.”

Honestly, says Thoo, if there had been a silver lining through the process it was a reaffirmation of how much he loves Alicia.

“It was just a reaffirmation of how much I love my wife and how lucky I was to have her, and she demonstrated strength I didn’t know that she had. I think, maybe up until that point in our relationship, I always had the impression that she was soft, because, you know, coming from a very masculine upbringing and being you know, very physical, I had this notion that I was the tough one — but that’s totally wrong,” he admits. “She went through all of it while having a stressful, high-flying job.

” “Hopefully our daughter will get that from her because she certainly wouldn’t get it from me,” he jokes.

Toxic masculinity

IVF, perhaps, was also Thoo’s journey to reassessing the ideas of masculinity and what it means to be a man, and reflect on his (now improved) relationship with his father, a tough, no-nonsense and conservative man, who tolerated no weakness in his sons, as it were.

Thoo is introspective, and thoughtful, when asked about what he feels about toxic masculinity — the ideals that a man is expected to adhere to, at all costs, to be deemed as masculine or manly, often to their detriment.

“I always hesitate to use the word ‘toxic’ masculinity, because I know that this is all going to come back to my dad, and I don’t like to use the word ‘toxic’ because I’ve never felt like I was beaten over the head with it, or that there were things about myself that I never felt I was allowed to express,” says Thoo.

Still, he believes that many young Asian men have a very difficult time dealing with ideals of masculinity. “I have so many friends, who, whenever I ask them about their kids or anything personal, that conversation either just abruptly ends or they move on to something else.

“It’s difficult, I think, because the message is muddled a little bit as well. On one hand, you’re supposed to be masculine and strong. But on the other hand, the vast majority of strong male role models in the world are not Asian, they’re white or black; so what is the strength that we’re supposed to demonstrate?” he says. “I think, then, that the greatest [masculine] quality that Asian families seem to hope to cultivate in a young man is the ability to provide financially and to do it silently and not talk about it — no ‘thank you’s’, just do your job and get on with it.

“I was definitely brought up with the belief that fathering a child is a necessary component of being a man,” he says. “And so, to be unable to hold up my end of the bargain and produce a family…”

His father features prominently in Palooka, but while he may first appear to be the “villain” in the book, the book has ultimately improved their relationship. “I knew that there was a point where he’s gonna have to read it, and he was going to be the ‘villain’. And so I warned him that this is going to be the case, but don’t worry, by the end, you’ll realise that I was the idiot and you were right. Then when he read it, it’s like he’s compensated completely the other way, he’s said the book is incredible and he wouldn’t change a thing.”

They meet for lunch regularly, and now, with the safe distancing measures amid the pandemic, his father video chats with Zoe as well.

Once, his dad asked Thoo, “Was I too hard on you?” and he answered no. “I said, I don’t think so. I’m the person I am because of it. I am competitive and always want to do the best I can, and am glad for whatever he did; that I’m now not the person who just settles for whatever,” he says. The family album has a picture of Thoo, his brother and his father which his father took, with the caption “me and my favourite boys”.

One could say, perhaps, after all that — Thoo’s journey to fatherhood has come full circle.