An exploration of separation, love and loss across time and space
By David Fedo
There currently seems to be no shortage of Asian writers born in or transplanted to North America. Some, like Maxine Hong Kingston and Amy Tan in the United States, have achieved a kind of celebrity status. Others, like Andy Quan and Evelyn Lau in Canada, are less well-known internationally but worthy, nonetheless. Now it is time to add an ex-Singaporean to this expanding list: Lydia Kwa, whose third novel, Pulse, has just been published to strong interest and reviews in her adopted country of Canada.
Kwa, who, in recent months was back in Singapore to read from her novel and conduct a writing workshop, emigrated from Singapore to Toronto in 1980. She eventually earned a PhD in Psychology from Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario, and moved west to Vancouver in 1992. She now practices part-time as a clinical psychologist and does some teaching, but, as she says on her website, writing is now "my central focus".
In some ways, Pulse shows the confidence and assurance of someone who has undergone a lengthy apprenticeship. In fact, Kwa started out, like many fictionalists do, as a poet. Her first book, The Colours of Heroines (Women's Press), in verse, was published in 1994, and is a collection of work written over the preceding four years. As she tells it, the poems are "recollections of life growing up in Singapore, the taints of Colonialism, and violence in the home"—all themes, including race and language, which carry through into her later writing, including Pulse. Also seen in the best of the poems are her fine craftsmanship and attention to detail, the lines spinning out cut-glass images and the narratives of lives, including her own, that are hard to forget.
In 2000, she published her first novel, This Place Called Absence (Turnstone Press), which brings together into one tangled plot the re-imagined lives of two Singaporean sex-trade workers in the first part of the 20th century with the "real" lives of two women, a mother (Mahmee) and daughter (Wu Lan Lim), in a fast-forwarded modern Vancouver. (The action becomes "a chorus of four musical voices," Kwa has said in an interview.) The death by suicide of Yen, the father-husband, haunts the women as they struggle free themselves from the past. Eventually, the daughter, a clinical psychologist, whose lesbianism is her mother's "horrible secret," discovers her solace at a Buddhist temple, where a scholar teaches her that the name Wu Lan Lim signifies "exorcist of hidden demons." Chow Chat Mui, one of the prostitutes, is also rescued by another scholar, who ends up marrying her.
A second novel, The Walking Boy (Key Porter Books), published in 2005, is a very different kind of work. The setting is eighth-century China, with the cunning and ruthless female Nu Huang (Wu Zhao) as the empress; the protagonist is the hermaphrodite Baoshi, the "Walking Boy" of the title, whose adventures, told in the present tense by the narrator, Cold Flower, constitute the bulk of the book. The sex—and there is a lot of it—is polymorphous. Kwa calls the work her "quirky and queer novel", and although she seems to be having great fun in the writing of it, and the prose indeed has its pleasures, especially as it conjures up a China now thought to be lost, its quirkiness may distance the novel from some readers.
Pulse is a far deeper and richer novel. It is an expatriate's book, to begin with, and thus is a story about memory, separation and loss. The main character, Natalie, born in Singapore and now in her late 40s, has established herself professionally (she is an acupuncturist, a profession where pulses are laden with significance) after moving with her family to Canada in 1979, and has a good-spirited lover named Michelle. Her life seems stable, although vaguely unsatisfactory. But suddenly, she is drawn back to Singapore by an anguished letter from her long-ago, now-married first lover, Faridah, who reports that her young son, Selim, has just died—an inexplicable suicide. In her devastation, Faridah's thoughts come back to Natalie:
So, Pulse is also a longstanding love story. We discover that, many years earlier, there was an "irreparable rift" between Natalie and Faridah when they were just young teenagers, well before Natalie emigrated to Toronto, and well before Faridah settled into the routine of family life. Kwa doesn't reveal the reason for this rift until near the end of the novel, although there are hints of it much earlier, especially when Kwa flashes backs to a conversation that Natalie had along the Boat Quay with the troubled Selim when she was visiting Singapore in 2005.
Selim (the name is Malay for "peace") is gay, intelligent, mysterious, unusually intuitive--and also deeply depressed, although Kwa doesn't give us the horrific details until well after his suicide. Somehow, Selim knows that his mother and Natalie were at lovers; he also knows, somewhat disconcertingly to Natalie, that she is, like him, a practitioner of kinbaku, a Japanese form of erotic bondage. (Selim is into pain, but Natalie is not.) Most importantly, we learn later, Selim suffers unforgivably at the hands of his father, Adam, just as Natalie has suffered grievously at the hands of hers. As Selim tells Natalie: "It's love we hunger for, right? The unconditional kind. That's what will convince us we've transcended suffering."
The novel probes the loss and love and suffering mostly seamlessly through leaps of time and place, from Natalie and Faridah as schoolgirls and then adults in Singapore, and through Natalie's fretful life and reflections in Canada. We follow the two as teenagers in Secondary One ("the two tallest girls in class"), tentatively discovering each other and then stealing time together as young and passionate lovers.
Kwa doesn't sentimentalize or overglamourize any of this. But, after three years, where happiness ends abruptly, the result of the brutality of Natalie's father, what followed, according to Natalie, "was a year of hell". Then later, she is off to Canada, and Faridah becomes a wife to a husband in Singapore that she doesn't love. "I was counting on love," writes Natalie many years later. "Without knowing it, I had made Faridah the gatekeeper of my vitality. The truth is, no one could have saved me then."
Since the narrative is told entirely through Natalie's voice, this is ultimately her story, held together by her own sometimes very complicated and painful version of events. Pulse begins and ends with an acknowledgment of possession — first, the arrival of Faridah's sudden letter announcing Selim's death, and then an earlier and long-withheld letter, again from Faridah, which asserts her abiding love:
And in response, Kwa, in the very last lines of the novel, allows Natalie this possession, a suggested transcendence through love over suffering:
A happy ending, after all? Perhaps, but maybe not quite. What Natalie finally realizes through the last letter is that Faridah ended their relationship to save her from her father, a secret abuser. A rescue, perhaps, but at great cost as well—the cost of more than half a lifetime that the two have lived apart; they will never be back together. Earlier, Kwa has presented, quoting from a letter by Joseph Conrad (through the book's idiosyncratic character, Kong-Kong, Natalie's maternal grandfather), a much gloomier view of human reality, whether under the spell of possession or not: "Life knows us not and we do not know life. We don't know even our own thoughts... Faith is a myth and beliefs shift like mists of the shore; thoughts vanish; words, once pronounced, die; and the memory of yesterday is as shadowy as the hope of tomorrow...".
Yet, despite such melancholy, there is a fullness in Pulse, in both characters and settings, that gives the novel colour, complexity and a kind of buoyancy that go beyond the struggles of Natalie and Faridah. First, there are Kong-Kong and his wife (Natalie's grandmother), Mah-Mah. Kong-Kong, with his "asthmatic, raspy voice", runs the Chinese medical hall on Joo Chiat Road called Cosmic Pulse, which is so central to Natalie's early life. (Natalie and her family lived above the shop, with its "quiet, dark rooms", until they emigrated.)
Kong-Kong has an opinion on everything. "Only Chinese people enough smart do business," he says in Mandarin. "Make money, everything proper place. You see Malays, only know how to fish and sit around kampong." Natalie's mother explains: "Your Kong-Kong, he a bit crazy, one hand on abacus, other one point to heaven." Mah-Mah's talent is in "divination" in the back room of the shop, where she dispensed wisdom based on wooden chips thrown on a table and guided by a book called the Oracle.
Later, Natalie says, she understood this to be the language of Taoism—"of Heaven, Man and Earth, with each force influencing the others."
To a wondering and curious young Natalie, these forces "led me to believe that there existed a cosmic pulse throughout the universe, and that it behooved us lowly humans to seek advice and direction from the myriad forces around us."
Natalie's father (Papa), someone known by those outside the family as "an entertaining man, full of humor and pleasantries", is, along with Faridah's husband, the principal antagonist of Pulse, and, in his way, he is like an ogre out of Dickens, shadowy, drunken, and savagely destructive. Yet, in my view, one of the very few weaknesses in the novel is that Kwa doesn't get inside Papa sufficiently. Ostensibly a Christian, he violates all laws of any religion, but we never really understand what drives him to do what he does. There is no "inner" Papa; as with Adam, Selim's father and Faridah's husband, there is only one dimension on display. Years later, Papa is felled by a debilitating stroke back in Toronto, and is close to becoming a vegetable—evidence that might be viewed as a kind of divine retribution—but Natalie shows no interest in striking back:
Through all of the pain and suffering, Natalie's mother (Mum), a good but strengthless soul, like Linda Loman in the iconic American play Death of A Salesman, hasn't the will to prevent or repair the damage in her family. She has chosen, like many in families do, to look the other way.
One of Kwa's great gifts is her ability to set a scene, to establish without flashiness or overwrought prose an image, the feel of a neighbourhood, or the look of a street or a building. Here Singapore "wins" over Toronto, even though early in the novel Natalie (Kwa?) says, about her abandoned country, "I mustn't get too nostalgic. Too much pain to be had." In the 1960s, as Natalie was growing up, Singapore was in flux, with Westernizing influences well underway, But Natalie's narration is filled with vivid descriptions of the old Katong around Joo Chiat Road, with the Indian hawker "whose daily garb was a tattered, oil-stained T-shirt paired with a purple and white chequered sarong", and the dentist's office with its "mix of terrifyingly pungent anesthetics." These little snippets can be lovely, even if they don't always move the plot along:
Some readers of Pulse, perhaps dulled by a steady diet of airport fiction, will undoubtedly chafe over the lack of exterior "action" in the book's plot; many of the key determinants occur "offstage", as in Greek drama, and are reported afterward not by a chorus, but by a ruminative Natalie. But there have been great writers—I am thinking of Henry James and James Joyce, for example—who made their artistic living by contemplating and exploring in exquisite prose the real or imagined actions and motivations that have come into their consciousness. These interior actions, I believe, are what move Kwa's Pulse along, and not only give the novel its movement, but also its heft.
What remains uncertain at the end of this moving novel, despite the closing letter from Fraridah to Natalie which I referred to earlier, is the fate of these two soulmates. The former will be leaving her husband and seeking a new life, and the latter will be back in Toronto, presumably picking up again with the forbearing Michelle. Will their pulses be firm? Will there be a measure of happiness in their lives? Or are these entirely the wrong questions? Perhaps a passage that comes midway through Pulse, where Lydia Kwa allows Natalie a sudden awakening, provides the most authentic hope of all:
QLRS Vol. 9 No. 3 Jul 2010