Interview with author and artist, Lydia Kwa

by janeeatonhamilton

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photo of Lydia Kwa by Hideaki Kanamaru

I’d like to welcome artist and writer Lydia Kwa to my blog. Lydia and I have known each other for many years, and this spring I had the pleasure of reading her books in a string in order to formulate questions for this interview. If you don’t know Lydia’s work, I highly recommend it.

As a writer of fiction and poetry, a visual artist, and also a psychologist, you cross genres and professions. What drew/draws you to bending genre and career? Can you tell us how you come to understand that an impulse is toward one kind of expression, and then, if that’s a written expression, how a written work will become one genre or the other?

I don’t set out with an intellectual resolve to bend genre or career. I find myself constantly surprised by new adventures and experiments that arise in response to situations, books, art or music I encounter. I have a playful and curious mind—that childlike quality prompts the beginning of many pursuits. I’m predominantly functioning from an intuitive place, both as psychotherapist and as an artist and writer. As a writer and artist, it’s only further along, when I am developing a project, that my more deliberate and analytical self comes to the fore.

You also cross nations and cultures in your writing, splitting your characters between Canada and Singapore, and are involved in the literary communities in both locations. Do you feel that you have two homes? What are the ramifications of being bi-national for your literary career?

I follow my natural connections to lived experiences, and most of those relate to having been born in Singapore and living there until I was 21, then coming to Canada and basically spending more than half of my life here.

No, I feel like I have one home, and that’s been Vancouver for the past 24 years. Going to visit Singapore is like being an inside outsider. It’s a strange, slightly disorienting phenomenon for me, every time I visit.

I sense there have been many ramifications for my literary career. So far it has led to a difficult and uneasy presence in both literary worlds, because I can’t be fitted into either easily.

You write about immigration, race, colonialism, childhood abuse and trauma. How do these coincide/inform each other in your imagination and artistic practices?

I write about experiences I care about, and some of these stem from my personal experience; inspiration also arises from my empathy for people I’ve worked with in my private practice, although I never use material from my clients.

At the start of your novel “Pulse,” a character has just committed suicide in Singapore. Your Toronto-residing protagonist returns to Singapore to untangle the mystery at the heart of suicide. Is the outside topography mapping Natalie’s inside topography? What were the original impulses toward writing “Pulse?”

I am a symbolic thinker in the final stretch. Yes, it’s true, I like to suggest that the outer world resonates with inner psychic realities. With respect to Pulse, I wanted to situate most of the novel in 1960s and 70s Singapore because that was the time of my adolescence, and there was a lot happening then with the “birth” of an independent country.

I wanted to explore what kinds of secrets and practices bind people’s spirits; how do we transcend trauma, as individuals and collectively, as a nation? Maybe both are really not separate.

A 2015 Masters thesis from Yu-Hsuan Guo (Department of Foreign Language and Literature, National Sun Yat-Sen University) suggests that Pulse could be viewed as the “sequel” to This Place Called Absence (Winnipeg: Turnstone Press, 2000). I quite like that notion, although I did not consciously intend it that way. I suppose Pulse is part of an ongoing exploration and conversation I am having with my history and that country’s history since both have been intertwined.

How do you use the web when you write? What other ways do you research and how is research incorporated in what you write? For instance, regarding kinbaku (Japanese erotic rope bondage), which appears in “Pulse?”

I use. I use a lot. ‘Tis not autobiographical.

In 2011, you were caught up in the demise of Key Porter Books and the HB Fenn bankruptcy. Can you tell us what happened as it pertains to your work?

Let’s just say I don’t think it helped my literary career.

You are also a psychologist. Do you experience your professional life weaving through your poetry, fiction and art in any direct or indirect way?

I became a psychologist and a writer because I’ve always been a person interested by the life of the mind-body and spirit.

It seems there are two general approaches with novel writing—free-form, where the story suggest itself by modifying drafts, and controlled, where the story is shaped before writing. What is your process?

The former. As I said in my answer to Question 1, I am quite organic in the initial process of creation. Then I become quite anal in the end, which allows me to torture and torment myself through numerous iterations.

Your visual art is striking, often involving text with images. How might a work like “Linguistic Tantrums,” a series of art cards you call “visual poems,” develop?

That project completely evolved in response to the news that Ho Sun Hing print shop was closing down in Chinatown. I went to the shop and bought trays of letterpress type, simply because I love the physical beauty of type. Next thing I knew, I was creating images which I now call “visual poems”. Then I used scans of the twelve images, along with accompanying couplets, to make “linguistic tantrums”. Things grow and take over (like mould, perhaps) and next thing you know, it’s a project/product! Really, truly, I was playing and playing, and having fun, and then voila.

George Woodcock, in his review of The Colours of Heroines, an early book of poetry, described you as “a memory writer of almost Proustian intensity, who has lived variously and remembered astonishingly.” (BC Bookworld, Summer 1995). Do you have a disciplined and intensive focus once you’re inside a project?

I’m just intense all the time. I can’t help myself.

What relationship do you have with social media? Do you feel it helps or hinders your life as an author?

I’m a charming introvert. Sometimes I show up on social media in a quirky appearance. And then I rush back into my cave. All I can say is that I want to be famous when I’m dead.

What are you working on currently?

A prequel to The Walking Boy. An art installation using black-and-white Polaroids and text done with a letterpress machine.

Can you tell us a few things you’d like to do/accomplish in your life to come?

I know you mean this current life. But I’ve been thinking I’d like to become a homeopath and be a skilled martial artist like Donnie Yen in my next reincarnation.

Are there things you wish you had done differently in your careers?

I don’t spend time or energy in wishful thinking. This saves me a lot of grief.

When you’re writing, do you think of other authors? What authors inspire you?

I don’t think consciously of other authors when I write, but I’m reading all the time. There are so many authors who inspire me. Don’t really think I can only highlight a few. I don’t set out to copy anyone, although I am sure their work influences mine.

Do you have any advice to young artists/writers just starting out?

Don’t do it in the hopes of fame or money. Or of getting laid. Do it because you feel an urge to, to stay sane and healthy. And sometimes, staying sane means being okay with being very non-normative in many ways.

 

POEM FOR MY AFFLICTION

by Lydia Kwa

 

surfacing turmoil

 

running on time

or outside

 

hidden bursts

a quiet ugliness

 

skin weeps

when I can’t

 

a stranger’s pain runs

invisible

 

tumult’s surface

seep of shadows

 

fleeing time

unvoiced

scream

 

rage rises

rage spreads

a poison a friend

a sign

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“stuttering in domestica” by Lydia Kwa