Centuries-old ghost stories guide Lydia Kwa through new novel Oracle Bone

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      More than a decade ago, before 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, 30-some 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 18th-century 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 real-life 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 Daoist 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 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.