Lydia Kwa

Something Old, Something New 

Lydia Kwa’s Fiction Crosses Many Borders

Originally published in CURVE MAGAZINE, March 2010.


Lydia Kwa balances various identities: she’s a writer and a psychologist who was born in Singapore and now lives in Vancouver. She’s published poetry and fiction for which she has received accolades in the queer community and Canadian mainstream. Her first novel, This Place Called Absence (Kensington, 2002), was short-listed for a Lambda Literary Award and a Books in Canada First Novel Award, and her second novel, The Walking Boy (Key Porter, 2005), was a finalist for British Columbia’s Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize. A new novel, Pulse (Key Porter, 2010) will be published in March. 

Nairne Holtz: This Place Called Absence is told in the voices of four women: a mother, her daughter, and a pair of lovers living in a brothel in Singapore at the turn of the century. How are the stories of these women related?

Lydia Kwa: In the novel, the two ah ku are fabrications of Wu Lan: as actual women, they did exist in early twentieth century Singapore, as she found out about them from reading that book she found in the library. The two actual women killed themselves. But Wu Lan created a whole world about them in her head, as she later disclosed to her lover Frances. She did it to cope with her father's suicide. So we have a chorus of women, really it's Wu Lan arguing with two aspects of herself about how a woman must cope with her suffering and whom she expects—or doesn't—to rescue her. It's also about her estrangement as well as intimacy with Mahmee, and how they cope very differently with their loss.

NH: Wu Lan seeks anonymous sex with women but isn’t entirely successful. Do you think lesbians are built for anonymous sexual encounters?

LK: No. I won’t generalize! That would be essentializing, wouldn’t it?

NH: Baoshi, the novice monk and “walking boy” of your title, has a physical body that is equally male and female. What was your purpose in creating this character?

LK: I used his body as a metaphor: to explore the complexities inherent in any human being. To use his physical embodiment as both male and female to challenge us to think about what goes into gender construction and gender assumptions. We are too often caught in being literal, and think along dualistic lines. Harelip's exploration about words being mere sounds, meaningless until we give meanings to them is also part of this conversation.

NH: Ghosts appear in both of your novels. Are they metaphorical or metaphysical? Why do ghosts appeal to you?

LK: They are both metaphorical and metaphysical. I use them as symbols of humans feeling haunted by the past, by unresolved grief or guilt. As well, I believe ghosts exist. Ghosts are very real one for me on both counts.

NH: You have also published a book of poetry, The Colours of Heroines (Women’s Press, 1994). What do you prefer about writing poetry? What do you prefer about writing fiction?

LK: Poetry is lovely in a different way. It's like a burst of sensation, one line at a time, whereas a novel is like one long dream or nightmare. I like both.

NH: Although queer themes are central to both of your novels, there is nothing to suggest this on the packaging of either of your novels. Was this a strategy on the part of your publishers?

LK: Not that I know of. If anything, I think that my publishers have been fairly energetic and supportive in promoting the books to a queer readership. Maybe they did not want the straight reader to dismiss or discriminate against the books at the outset. But I don't know the answer to this, really.

NH: What is the theme of your new novel? Are there lesbian characters?

LK: My new novel is called Pulse and it's about sex and violence in Singapore in the 1960s and 70s. Oh, I'm being silly, but it's actually true! What's the theme? How our lives are so interconnected, across generations and countries. The novel also explores the role of hatred and forgiveness. And yes, most definitely, there are lesbians running around in the novel!