Just go with the flow, says Vancouver author Lydia Kwa.
Over tea and almond cookies at Zanzibar Café on Commercial Dr in Vancouver, the East End-based poet and novelist talks about the amorphous, free-flowing sexuality of her latest novel, The Walking Boy.
“The whole idea of sexual orientation is a Western psychological construct,” says Kwa. “People get put into these categories. Way back when, in different cultures, including Chinese culture, there was no such distinction. They just slept with whoever they wanted to sleep with. Hello, goodbye.”
Laughing, she adds that she was eager to write this “transgressive” novel, and “have a little bit of fun doing it. Probably offend a few people.”
Offend, but also entertain and enchant. Set in eighth century China, The Walking Boy is a sweeping experiment of a novel, marrying Kwa’s lyrical prose stylings with an exotic phantasmagoria reminiscent of such films as Hero and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.
The main character, Baoshi, thought to be a boy, is actually a hermaphrodite, a secret only he and his master, a hermit monk, are privy to. Sent on a quest to find his master’s former male lover, Baoshi ends up in Chang’an, the centre of the Tang Dynasty, ruled by Nu Huang, the aging Female Emperor. What unfolds is a sumptuous, passionate ghost story complete with orgies and gentle-hearted transvestites, while illuminating the corrupting effects of absolute power.
So what was the impetus behind the hermaphroditism of Baoshi?
“I don’t know,” says Kwa. “I wanted to use Baoshi as a metaphor for embodying dualities. The dualities are not separate, and so there is that literal experience of a person having both sets of sexual characteristics and genitals. But there is also the symbolism around what does it mean to be male? What does it mean to be female? I wanted to use that as a way of playing with that idea of gender being constructed meaning.
“Just like Harelip [one of the characters in the novel] says, ‘Words are only sounds. Meaningless until you give meaning to them.’ Something like that. So I’m really interested in that kind of idea, of how we are the ones who create meaning in our language.”
Language can be limiting, she notes, though she readily acknowledges that labels and categories have their place, too. When recently asked by the Vancouver Sun if she is a lesbian, Kwa did not hesitate. “I said yes. I don’t have a problem with that. That is the way we interact in the world. We need language, whether it’s verbal or some other kind of language, to communicate.
“At the same time, I think sometimes if we let the language stop us or confine us, then it becomes a problem, because language is supposed to be our tool, not our prison,” she continues. “And I’d like to play with the idea that language can be more fluid, because meanings can be more fluid, because people are quite complex.
“I don’t think it’s unhealthy to have identification or a certain kind of label. I don’t think it’s unhealthy at all. I just think it’s whether or not that way of naming frees a person, which it sometimes does or it doesn’t.”
Readers who hold the perception that Chinese culture is sexually repressed may be surprised by the book’s frank sexuality. I asked Kwa if she wrote the book to quash that perception.
“Well, I don’t have a soapbox,” she replies, “but I am aware of that perception, that stereotype of Chinese culture — which I don’t think is true. But I certainly grew up with that myself,” she notes.
In fact, when she first began reading translations of the early Chinese novels, she too was shocked. “Lots of explicit sex depicted in them. It made me wonder why today, in the 21st century, we have these ideas about Chinese culture being very repressive.
“I wonder if the fact that the Chinese Cultural Revolution happened-that there was some need to cut off from the earlier imperial history, and part of that was to do with a lot of the literature and the culture that existed.
“I’ve asked people who are from mainland China, who don’t have the privilege of accessing those earlier cultural texts,” she continues. They think ideas of sexual liberation or orientation are Western ideas, she says.
Born and raised in Singapore to Chinese parents, Kwa came to Canada in 1980. She studied psychology in university, and when she’s not writing she runs a counselling practice in Vancouver.
Although out to her friends and family, she admits that acceptance hasn’t always been forthcoming. “I’m out to my mother and she can’t handle it. I mean, she has handled it but doesn’t handle it. I don’t make it a big issue for her, because she has her life in Singapore and she has people in her life who are extremely rightwing, fundamentalist Christians. And she doesn’t want them to know because she’s vulnerable. So fair enough. I’m not on a high horse saying I absolutely have to be out to every single person.”
Which brings us to the perceived social conservatism of the Chinese-Canadian community, which some politicians in search of votes have tried to exploit of late. Is this, in Kwa’s view, an accurate perception or a sweeping generalization?
“People tend to have sweeping descriptions and generalizations, and you always wonder how that’s serving a certain kind of agenda people have in depicting the Chinese community that way. Of course there are always some of us who don’t fall in with the conservative agenda, who are not in that depicted majority.
“That said, we know that there is quite a big proportion [of people in the Chinese community who hold conservative positions regarding homosexuality]. I would say that, again, there are complex factors that enter into those people being invested in toeing that line or taking that position. I mean, these are people who may oppose [homosexuality] because of religious beliefs.
“[But] it’s more [a case] of people using religion — not that religion is the problem — as a way of saying this is not okay. And I think I’m more interested in uncovering what’s underneath what people say. [In my counselling practice], I want to listen underneath what they’re saying to get to what they’re really saying. I think there’s a lot of fear there in the Chinese community. Just a lot of fear of difference.
“If they are mostly straight, they have queerphobia, transphobia — it’s just fear of their territory being invaded upon or taken over. That’s not just true of certain people in the Chinese community, but true in general.”
Her new novel, then, can be seen an antidote to this type of parochialism — a fiercely imaginative tribute to the power of passion.