LY­DIA KWA

The Georgia Straight - - Fall Books - > DAVID CHAU

More than a decade ago, be­fore 2

the re­lease of her 2005 novel, The Walk­ing Boy, Ly­dia Kwa was asked to con­sider a tril­ogy. Her then pub­lisher hinted pub­licly at a se­ries ex­tend­ing that story, which fea­tured a monk’s dis­ci­ple in eighth-cen­tury China who aimed to re­unite his master with a lost love, and re­sponse from read­ers was en­cour­ag­ing.

Kwa, a Van­cou­ver nov­el­ist, poet, and prac­tis­ing psy­chol­o­gist, was am­biva­lent. This, how­ever, did not stunt her pro­duc­tiv­ity: Pulse, a novel, and sin­u­ous, a book of po­etry, came out in 2010 and 2013, re­spec­tively. De­cid­ing af­ter­ward that the time was right, she be­gan work­ing on Or­a­cle Bone, her new novel, a pre­quel to The Walk­ing Boy that re­flects her in­ter­est in Asian mythol­ogy and mar­tial-arts movies. “Chrono­log­i­cally, it re­ally is the first book,” Kwa says to the Straight, over tea at an East Van café. “Walk­ing Boy oc­curs much later, 30some years later, and I’m plan­ning and hop­ing to write a third book that fol­lows these two.” (A re­vised edi­tion of The Walk­ing Boy hits shelves in 2018.)

De­sign­ing the cy­cle of nov­els as a chuanqi tril­ogy, a form de­vel­oped in the Tang Dy­nasty, which started in 618 C.E., Kwa wanted to riff on the tra­di­tion’s pa­tri­ar­chal ori­gins. Chuanqi were pieces writ­ten by “male literati about strange crea­tures like ghosts, demons, and fox spir­its. These strange crea­tures they wrote about were al­most pre­dom­i­nantly fe­male and wicked.

“I’m at­tempt­ing,” she adds, “to sub­vert the dom­i­nant nar­ra­tive.”

A pri­mary in­flu­ence was the 18th­cen­tury text Strange Tales From a Chi­nese Stu­dio, by Qing Dy­nasty writer Pu Songling, as well as “those crazy movies in Hong Kong cin­ema—a Chi­nese Ghost Story, A Chi­nese Ghost Story 2—and then var­i­ous other films in Ja­panese film his­tory to do with ghosts.” These cel­lu­loid com­po­si­tions also shaped how the novel tracks pur­suits of power or virtue in sev­enth-cen­tury China.

In Or­a­cle Bone, Wu Zhao, the re­al­life monarch who ap­peared in The Walk­ing Boy, strives for dom­i­nance as her lover, Xie, pos­sessed by the evil Gui, hunts the tit­u­lar tal­is­man. “Only the or­a­cle bone would cat­a­pult its trans­for­ma­tion to the ul­ti­mate and ir­re­versible state,” Kwa writes, of the de­mon bent on de­struc­tion. “These past few years, dis­guised as Xie, it got close to the Em­press, win­ning her con­fi­dence and learn­ing the where­abouts of the or­a­cle bone from his in­for­mants—all that had been rather sim­ple if te­dious. But ac­quir­ing the bone was sup­posed to have been straight­for­ward as well.”

Hare­lip, a young monk ques­tion­ing his faith, and a cru­cial fig­ure in the Ethel Wil­son Fic­tion Prize– nom­i­nated pre­vi­ous in­stall­ment, tends to Xuan­zang, the famed holy man de­voted to trans­lat­ing su­tras he brought back from his pil­grim­age to India. Mean­while, Qi­lan and Ling, a Taoist nun and an or­phaned girl driven to avenge her mur­dered par­ents, oc­cupy the fore­ground.

This thread with the two hero­ines was an­other chance to chal­lenge pre­con­cep­tions. Kwa, who is versed in sev­eral self-de­fence dis­ci­plines, sought to up­end the trope in mar­tial-arts nar­ra­tives of “a strong male pres­ence. Usu­ally, some­body’s hurt or harmed—some­body’s killed— and the hero vows re­venge and they

see next page

go on a ram­page,” she says. “I’m going to en­gage with this theme of re­venge, and see what I can do that’s dif­fer­ent.”

Ear­lier nov­els, such as her 2000 de­but, This Place Called Ab­sence, a fi­nal­ist for the Books in Canada First Novel Award, em­ployed con­tem­po­rary and pe­riod back­drops to de­tail per­sonal jour­neys amid dis­lo­ca­tion. Us­ing a fan­tas­tic his­tor­i­cal set­ting for her chuanqi vol­umes freed her to cre­ate quests with fur­ther imag­i­na­tion. “Hope­fully, these char­ac­ters are strug­gling with things that many of us, in any time and place, can iden­tify with,” she says. “Not be­ing loved, be­ing aban­doned, hav­ing one’s loves and fam­ily taken away from us, anger, re­venge, ha­tred, fear, lust for power—these are all themes that are there for all of us.”

Or­a­cle Bone packs im­pe­rial in­trigue and clan­des­tine ro­mance, mag­i­cal be­ings and spir­ited show­downs, and rev­els in its cin­e­matic sen­si­bil­ity. Kwa would welcome a screen adap­ta­tion, but is cu­ri­ous about a dif­fer­ent medium. “At the time of The Walk­ing Boy, I said, ‘If I ever write a tril­ogy, I would love to have this tril­ogy made into graphic nov­els.’ It hasn’t come to that place yet. I’m open to it. I’m keep­ing my eyes open and see­ing who’s around.”

The third book is cur­rently in an ex­ploratory phase. Bridg­ing the plot across ti­tles, notes Kwa, re­mains the chief task. “I have to stay tuned, and then con­tinue to stay tuned and see what hap­pens,” she says. “I prob­a­bly won’t know for an­other two years. But I don’t mind that. In or­der to write a novel the way I do, you have to be will­ing to not know things and be pa­tient.” Ly­dia Kwa ap­pears at the Van­cou­ver Writ­ers Fest on Oc­to­ber 21. See writ­ers­fest.bc.ca/ for de­tails.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Canada

© PressReader. All rights reserved.