Interview with Lydia Kwa

From its minimal, ostensible cover to the delicate slipknots that adorn as section breaks within the pages, the simple yet symbolic aesthetic is an extension of the layers one unravels as one burrows deeper into Pulse and its characters. An empowering tale of reconciliation replete with vivid scenes of a bygone Singapore, author Lydia Kwa crafts the past as an ambivalent letter that protagonist Natalie Chia has to perceive and peruse.

We speak to Lydia—who is also a clinical psychologist working and living in Vancouver—about Pulse.

Pulse was first published in Canada by Key Porter Books. What made you decide to publish this new and revised version with Ethos Books?

Since much of the book is set in Singapore, it seemed a fitting new start for it. Pulsewas published in Canada the year before Key Porter Books had to close, and didn’t really have much of a chance to get out there.

This novel deals with heavy themes of trauma and healing, of possessiveness and displacement. How did you research for complex characters like acupuncturist Natalie Chia and policeman Selim?

Although Pulse is a work of fiction, I draw on my own experiences for some of Natalie’s character, having lived in Singapore until 1980, when I left for Toronto to study. In the ensuing years, I’ve returned to Singapore many times. Sights and sounds of the city, growing up in Joo Chiat, scenes at the beach in front of Marine Parade housing estate in the early 2000s—these are all things I have had direct experience of. The details about acupuncture, and Kinbaku rope practice, for example, I gathered from materials I read. I have direct experience receiving acupuncture, but not the bondage! I am also familiar with psychological manifestations of trauma, since I work with many people in my private practice as a psychologist, so I draw on my experience, but I never use any client’s actual history in my writing.

One would notice that at the start of every chapter, the Chinese character 脈 appears. What does this refer to and why this motif?

That is the character for the word “pulse”. I seem to recall that it was the suggestion of the Key Porter editor, and I agreed, that it would be lovely to echo the title of the book that way.

How much of real life bleeds into the characters or narratives you create?

Bleeding, oh no, not blood!  :D

Of course, some of my own experiences have been transformed, borrowed, and altered. An author writing fiction has to be good at lying in order to create alternative narratives. That said, there is definitely truth in fiction, if not fact.

A line from your novel reads, “So. To be closed is to be vulnerable. Openness and vulnerability, these aren’t the same thing after all.” Do you agree with that? (Just asking!)

Thank you for asking. I do believe in that. It’s a central idea in Pulse. I wished to circle around that notion, by building narratives to explore those differences between vulnerability and openness. Many of us, when we are hurt or traumatized, become weakened psychologically and subsequently, begin to hide aspects of our experiences. Not only from others, but also from ourselves. These acts of vulnerability are done unconsciously most of the time. We then might associate “openness” with being vulnerable to attack, particularly in relation to others who might have power over us. But to pull away, to be silenced, to disconnect from what is true, is also to re-enact and embody that victim position yet again. I am not advocating being open when the situation calls for a more careful and self-protective strategy, but I am positing that a willingness to be open with oneself, is also going to possibly lead to greater psychological strength and integrity. The truth—if we are willing to hear it from ourselves—could set us free.

Many creative references are used throughout the story, such as a lyric from Bowie’s “Diamond Dogs”. If Pulse had a soundtrack, what would it be?

Love the question! Haven’t been asked this before!

The soundtrack would be quite a diverse mix since the book has quite a range of musical references. There would be British punk rock from the 1970s—David Bowie’s “Diamond Dogs”, Bauhaus’s “Bela Lugosi Is Dead” and Roxy Music’s “Love is the Drug”. A short clip from the hymn “Jesus Loves Me.” Then there would the Bee Gees’ tune, “Run To Me; the song “Aquarius”; a recording of “Desiderata”. Some Chinese ballads, most definitely, such as 忘不了, 等著你回來, 得不到你的愛情, 我有一段情。

Pulse would make a great movie!

Lastly—are you afraid of needles?

I love a good acupuncture treatment!

Pulse is available for purchase at Kinokuniya, BooksActually, Booktique and our online store.