|photo: Derek Anson
Novelist Susan Barker has an English father and a Chinese-Malaysian mother and grew up in East London. She is the author of Sayonara Bar and The Orientalist and the Ghost, both longlisted for the Dylan Thomas Prize. While writing her new novel, The Incarnations, she spent several years living in Beijing, researching modern and imperial China. Barker recently chatted with us about cultural differences, reincarnation and the development of The Incarnations. Our review is below.
The Incarnations is an ambitious work. Did you always intend to create such a complex novel?
When I started writing The Incarnations back in 2007, I knew I wanted to write about a taxi driver in contemporary Beijing and to weave into this narrative stories from other historical eras, from the Tang dynasty to Chairman Mao's Cultural Revolution. So I knew then The Incarnations needed to be structurally complex in order to link together these multiple narratives, spanning over a thousand years.
Last year I read a short essay by Mohsin Hamid in which he described the DNA of fiction as being a double helix--one strand comprised of what the writer knows, the other strand comprised of what the writer wants to know. I wrote The Incarnations because I wanted to learn more about China--its people, history and politics. I think my favourite way to go about writing novels is to research and write about what I find fascinating, then figure out how to structure this into a novel afterwards--an approach that leads to complexity, I guess.
Do you believe in reincarnation?
According to a medium my sister met in London in the mid-'90s, we--my sister and I--are soulmates who have lived our lives in tandem for many centuries. Though I am sceptical about this, and reincarnation in general, I'm too superstitious to rule it out completely.
The Incarnations has a recurring theme of thwarted homosexual relationships. Why did you make this topic prominent?
I wasn't aware that homosexuality was a recurring theme in The Incarnations until the book was published in the U.K. last summer and interviewers started to bring it up. When I wrote each historical story, I usually invented the characters first, and then plotted out how their paths would cross afterwards. It seemed very natural for the characters to be sexually attracted to each other, even when they were the same gender. The love stories are not meant to be political, or part of a homosexual theme. The only time one of the homosexual love stories (and it even feels odd to use the term "homosexual love stories," because to me they are just love stories) intersects with politics is in the late '90s, when homosexuality was still classified as a mental illness in China; because of the stigma surrounding it, one character is deeply tormented by his feelings.
The central idea of The Incarnations is that the two main characters are soulmates, and in every past life they are drawn to each other, regardless of gender. In The Incarnations, sexuality is very fluid and (perhaps this sounds politically naïve) not of great significance. The relationships are thwarted, not necessarily because the characters are gay, but for other complicated reasons.
How did your time in Beijing affect the development of the novel?
I spent over two and half years in Beijing, and while I was there, as well as working on The Incarnations, I studied Mandarin, did homestays with local families, taught English to civil servants at the Ministry of Health and spent a lot of time at the National Library of China, reading up about the historical eras in The Incarnations.
When I first arrived in Beijing in the summer of 2007, I planned to stay and research for three months. However, by the end of the summer, I realized that I needed a more immersive experience of living in China in order to write the book. As Yu Hua says in his book of essays China in Ten Words, "Daily life may seem trivial and routine, but in fact it contains a multitude of incidents, at once rich, expansive and touching. Politics, history, society and cultures, one's memories and emotions, desires and secrets--all reverberate there." My time in Beijing (and subsequent two years in Shenzhen) was invaluable when it came to writing The Incarnations. The neighbourhoods I lived in, the people I met and the insights I gained into their lives, all inspired and shaped the book.
Did you find it difficult to write a book from the perspective of someone with a different nationality than your own?
Writing from the perspective of Chinese characters who were shaped by a very different historical and sociological landscape to me was definitely challenging. The main reason I spent several years living in China was in order to understand what it must be like to grow up in mainland China, and how this would influence a person's worldview and beliefs, as well as everyday habits and routines.
Another challenge was convincing people that writing Chinese characters was something I could do. "How can a British person understand what it's like to be Chinese?" was a common reaction when I told people what my novel-in-progress was about. Over the last 15 years, I've lived in Japan, Korea, China and the U.S., and I've come to think people are fundamentally the same everywhere. We generally want the same things in life: love, happiness, status, recognition, material rewards and so on. There are cultural differences between nationalities--such as how love is expressed, what confers status, etc.--but none of these differences are innate and ungraspable by outsiders. With enough research and time spent in the PRC, differences between the U.K. and China can be understood.
What were the challenges of writing the sections about past incarnations and of writing Wang Jun's modern-day story? Did you find some parts easier than others?
All of The Incarnations, both present and past, necessitated lots of research, so perhaps the biggest challenge was learning about what I didn't know in order to write about it. But I embarked on The Incarnations to deepen my knowledge about China, so the auto-didactic part of the process was as rewarding as it was challenging.
The sections that were easiest and most fun to write were the Night Coming (Tang dynasty) story and the Sixteen Concubines (Ming dynasty) story. After researching each time period, I sat down at my laptop and the stories emerged in a rush of inspiration, like automatic writing almost--something that rarely happens when I write.
I have recently started a new novel about a painter and his muses, set in London, Berlin and New Mexico. I'm immensely excited about traveling to Berlin and New Mexico, both places I have never been, to research the book. --Jaclyn Fulwood, blogger at Infinite Reads
Susan Barker: What the Writer Wants to Know