By Michelle O’Brien
Lydia Kwa was born in Singapore, but has lived in Canada since 1980, and currently works in Vancouver as a psychologist and writer. As a writer who bridges Singapore and Canada while frustrating the dominant narratives of both these nations, Kwa’s work vitally continues to trace different lines of (transnational, transhistorical) connection between others; just as importantly, it illuminates literature’s profound importance by examining the restorative—and often unexpected—shifts that can occur through these bonds.
Her first collection of poems, The Colours of Heroines, was released through Women’s Press in 1994. In 2000, Kwa’s first novel, This Place Called Absence, was published through Turnstone Press and was nominated for both the Books in Canada First Novel Award and the Lamba Literary Award. Following this, The Walking Boy was published through Key Porter Books in 2005 and was nominated for the Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize. The Walking Boy brings to life 8th Century Tang Dynasty China through the experiences of an intersex person, Baoshi. Kwa’s third novel, Pulse, was released through Key Porter Books in 2010 and, at its most basic, is a transnational mystery set between Toronto and Singapore.
Kwa’s most recent literary work, a collection of poems entitled sinuous, was published by Turnstone Press in 2013. In 2013, Kwa also created a series of visual poems entitled linguistic tantrums, which will be part of her current project, a 2014 exhibition at Centre A in Vancouver: “M’goi/Do Jeh: Situational Rites of Gratitude – An Art and Community Initiative by Lydia Kwa and Kathryn Gwun-Yeen Lennon.” This exhibition considers rites of passage and gratitude in the context of urban transformation in Vancouver’s Chinatown. More information about Kwa and her work can be found at lydiakwa.com.
The thematics of your writing generally span two nations, but your writing is also quite localized. For instance, you’ll name specific streets in Vancouver or detail the ikan bilis served with nasi lemak in Singapore. In doing so, do you feel like you’re writing didactically for readers who might not be familiar with each place, or are you more invested in reimagining a different space or terrain? I’m thinking of instances in This Place Called Absence, for example, where the queer and feminist potential of places in Vancouver (even the VPL) is illuminated—or perhaps reimagined—through Wu Lan’s narrative and her research into the Singaporean sex trade.
I’m writing from my experiences as having lived in places such as Singapore and Vancouver and Toronto. Specifically in This Place Called Absence, of course I am focusing my imagination on places that have emotional and historical resonances with me, although I am not so much only interested in recreating my own lived history, but in imagining others; characters who live in different times and spaces, and hence such spaces or terrains become re-visioned.
The tensions of a person who has left one country, and then finds herself alienated in the new country or culture… these are themes that surface in all of my work so far. More than that, I am interested in internal, psychological landscapes—how people experience their trauma and alienation, how they connect with others in the new “land” (read “new relational experiences to a new space and time”). Of course I am interested in using the metaphor of being split between two nations, or two times, or two sets of loyalties to show the splits within a person’s psyche.
No, I am neither writing didactically for readers who are unfamiliar with Singapore, nor for those familiar with Singapore. Same goes for whatever geographical location. I am simply writing what I am interested in, some of which I might have some kind of direct, personal experience with; some of which I don’t at all, and I write to discover new experiences through imagining them.
Since I am queer and feminist, it’s a matter of writing deeply from my consciousness. I don’t set out to delineate how to communicate my values so much as trust myself to speak and to experiment with voicing the vulnerable, the queer, and those who stand outside of heteronormativity. Capitalist structures and systems and neoliberal agendas would consider certain segments of society as “expendables,” whether because they are frail, disabled, working class, on the streets, mentally ill, and so on. I’m interested in expressing compassion toward such shadowy others, and to bring them to readers in such a way as to stimulate transformative awareness, dialogue and hopefully inspiration for social and personal change.
In a review of Pulse for Canadian Literature, Chris Lee suggests that while Pulse offers a “meditation on the history of modern Singapore,” through Natalie’s diasporic identity, the narrative also provides “sustained queering of nationalism and its heteronormative structures.” While your writing often engages with queer sexuality and identity, do you feel like the queering of national histories, both Canadian and Singaporean, is a concern in your work? Put differently, do you feel that through the writing of queer individual identities, the queering of other identities (national, historical, social) follows for you?
I love hearing about Chris Lee’s review in Canadian Literature. I suppose I didn’t know about it until recently because I’m not one to check who’s been reviewing my books lately… ha ha.
Okay, seriously now: yes, I am pleased to hear about how Chris Lee has read Pulse. Yes, in Pulse, I did set out to push some boundaries, particularly in pitting the characters against heteronormative structures and implied notions of what nationalism must involve; in some cases, such nationalism might implicitly require citizens to silence themselves, and to submerge their authenticities under the dogmatic requirements to “behave.”
Queering, any kind of queering that is not dogmatic! I am queering because I am in the act of being a queer! I am not using the word “queering” from an academic, conceptually driven position. I can’t help but be queering, since I am queer!
I am interested in writing against dogma, whether it be heteronormative or queer-based. That is my primary focus, challenging rigidity in categories, dualities, even any kind of progressive agendas that might erase or reduce the individual to a position or a category or membership in a group!
As a transnational author, one who participates both in the Singaporean and Canadian literary scenes, I’m wondering who you feel like you’re writing for. Do you have a particular audience in mind when you write, or is your work reacting or responding to the concerns of a specific audience or audiences?
I know this sounds like a lot of other writers, but it’s true for many of us—I do write primarily for myself. I write to connect to other human beings who care to engage in personal healing, healing of others, and healing of the planet.
But no to your last question—let those who consider themselves my audience decide what my work means for them.
Where do you feel that racialization fits into your work? Do you find that you need to use different tactics to talk about racial/ethnic identities depending on if a character or speaker in a poem is situated in Canada or Singapore?
Oh dear, this is too cheem for me, ha ha.
I write to subvert expectations and often this requires exposing people’s expectations.
As I said in my response to your first question, I simply let the intuitive, unconscious part of me decide how to write, what to write. I look back at my writing at later stages, to edit and to fine-tune. But no, I don’t go about deciding different tactics from a conceptual, consciously driven place.
Now, I’m risking sounding like an anti-intellectual. But I’m not an anti-intellectual. I just don’t like having to live like I, or anyone else, is a floating “head” dissociated from my “body,” and the latter meaning to include body of lived experience. Simply to say that splitting ourselves between concept and experience, between “head” and “heart” are problematic practices that have plagued us as human beings for eons and, if I might hazard a guess, a distancing from ancient ways of earlier hunter-gatherer societies (notice I am refusing to divide along national lines) where humans lived closer to the earth, closer to their intuitive intelligence, were not so “cut off” from their bodies! They were busy relying on hunting their own food, growing their own vegetables, protecting the vulnerable.
Also, I am simply writing for myself, what suits me. And as I had said, what suits me are also values to do with transformation of self, and society. I’m just not interested in preaching, if you get my drift. I am interested in conversation and inspiration.
I am not anal in the sense of worrying about whether a person in Canada or Singapore might not understand me. I would love my readers to work a bit, you know. No Pablum from me!
Your writing frequently foregrounds marginalized histories. While you clearly do a lot of historical research when writing texts like The Walking Boy or This Place Called Absence, do you find that you’re more interested in giving voice to or imagining the non-dominant histories that might not appear in history books?
And a follow-up: do you find yourself drawn to certain historical narratives that shape the rest of the story, or does the historical research come once you have an idea of the type of story you want to tell?
Yes to your first question.
I let the story show itself to me. I don’t know what the hell I am doing, until I see more clearly as the story develops. The research and history is padding. That’s why I think some readers who are expecting a “historical fiction” novel might be a bit perturbed by The Walking Boy. Or some readers mistake what I am writing as “straight-up” historical fiction. Never, I say.
In both your prose and poetry, the body and memory frequently become entwined thematics. For instance, “wandering phantom” in sinuous extensively draws together the speaker’s memory with their physicality. Do you feel like embodiment provides a gateway into talking about memory when you’re writing?
Well, hell yes. I mean, we’re not floating heads, right? We remember through our lived experiences, and we re-live memories in our bodies. Enough said.
And finally, your work appears on a number of recent academic syllabi, but in different areas of interest: a class on Asian North American texts, one on Southeast Asian literature, and one that deals with queer literature, for instance. Do you locate yourself as a hybrid writer, or are there certain positions you identify with the most?
I’ll leave it to my academic fans and enthusiastic supporters of my work to locate me! I refuse to locate myself.
Born in Singapore, Lydia Kwa moved to Canada in 1980, and received a M.A. and PhD from Queen’s University. She currently lives in Vancouver, where she works as a writer and psychologist.
Michelle O’Brien is a PhD candidate in the department of English at UBC. She writes on race and comparative multiculturalisms in Canada and Southeast Asia. Her work has previously been published in West Coast Line.
Published on April 17, 2014