Susan Barker’s newly-published novel The Incarnations is the book club pick for July – see the previous post for a plot summary. Susan was born in the UK, to a Chinese-Malaysian mother and an English father. As an adult, she moved to Beijing, where she spent several years researching ancient and modern China, before returning to the UK. She then moved back to China, to Shenzhen, and she currently lives in Beijing. Her earlier novels are Sayonara Bar, about a graduate student from England who takes a job at a hostess lounge in Osaka, and The Orientalist and the Ghost, which explores Malaysia’s 1950s Communist insurrection, and its continuing impact down to the 1990s. All Susan’s novels are published by Doubleday. The Incarnations is available in hardback, priced in local currencies.
Here Susan answers some questions I put to her by e-mail.
What drove your return to China, after you moved back to the UK? Why are you currently based in Beijing?
I moved to Shenzhen in June 2012, to stay with my boyfriend who was working for the Chinese tech company Huawei. We lived in the industrial suburbs in the north, where Foxconn and Huawei are. I lived in Shenzhen for about 20 months. My boyfriend quit Huawei this past March, and we moved to Beijing. Shenzhen was really interesting. It is a city of migrants, everyone comes from another province, so I met people from all over China.
While you were working on The Incarnations did you ever feel that writing in English distanced you from your characters and subject matter? If so, how and why?
I’ve been studying Mandarin since mid-2007 when I first moved to Beijing, but am far from fluent. I don’t feel writing the novel in English distanced me from my characters or subject matter though. Language is a medium of expression, and that which is expressed, i.e. the characters’ thoughts, emotions and behaviour, does not vary much with the language that is used. There are surface cultural and sociological differences between China and the UK that I took into account when writing my characters, but I don’t see these differences as being predicated upon language. Linguistically, my characterisation and dialogue is not very different from many Chinese novels that have been translated into English. Of course, I avoided using overly Western slang and colloquialisms.
Is a Chinese translation likely? If so, would you want any input into the translation?
I would love for The Incarnations to be translated into Chinese. In the past when my novels have been translated into another language I had minimal or no involvement. I think it is best to let the translator have free reign.
What drew you to write about reincarnation?
When I started researching and writing The Incarnations in 2007, I knew I wanted to write a novel set in contemporary Beijing, as I was interested in urban China and the speed of development and social change. I was also fascinated by Chinese history, which is rich with narratives of revolution and war and the rise and fall of emperors, and I knew I wanted to write stories from different historical eras and weave them into the modern-day narrative.
At the risk of demystifying the novel and writing process, the idea of reincarnation in the novel was initially a narrative device; a way of structuring the novel and bringing together all of my separate research interests in China past and present. But over the years, as I wrote draft after draft of the novel, the reincarnation aspect gained substance and became the essence of the book.
The idea of reincarnation and recurring souls also links to one of the major themes of the novel, which is the cyclical nature of history. The taxi driver Wang Jun keeps repeating the same destructive mistakes in each of his past lives, due to innate flaws in his nature (wrath, self-interest, possessiveness, jealousy) that recur life after life. History is repetitious too, with the same large-scale destructive power struggles playing out generation after generation, arising from the same innate human flaws.
Do you believe in reincarnation? Do you believe you have had earlier incarnations? If so would you be willing to give details? … Or do you think asking you about your own beliefs about reincarnation is like asking a crime novelist if they’d ever commit murder?
I am not sure whether or not I believe in reincarnation. Perhaps I do in my more irrational moments, but it’s a vast leap of faith to believe you’ve had past lives. My sister once met a medium when we were teenagers, who said that she (my sister) and I have been linked together for several past lives, but obviously I am sceptical.
Was it daunting writing about 1000 years of Chinese history? Did you ever feel overwhelmed by history?
The Incarnations has five historical stories (ostensibly the five past incarnations of the main character, the taxi driver Wang Jun). The first story is set during the Tang Dynasty, the second story is set during the invasion of Genghis Khan, the third is about imperial concubines during the Ming dynasty, the fourth is set during the Opium War, and the last story is about Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution.
When I started writing the novel in 2007, I knew I wanted to include historical stories, but I wasn’t sure which eras I would write about. So I read books that gave a broad overview of Chinese history from the Qin dynasty to Chairman Mao, and when I came across a historical period or figure who was especially interesting to me, I would deepen my research in that area (i.e., find every book I could on the subject). As I read and made notes, ideas for plot and characters would surface from my research, and I would proceed from there.
I was slightly daunted by the amount of research I had to do for each historical story, but at the same time, I like being challenged and immersed in a long project. I had no idea that The Incarnations would take six years to write though – I thought it would be three years at the most. I definitely would’ve been overwhelmed if had I known back in 2007 how long it would take to write this book.
Were you worried about the historical accuracy of your novel, or not?
As well as Chinese history the stories are influenced by Chinese folklore and superstitions, and as a result are quite surreal and fantastical in places. As a fiction writer I don’t feel constrained by historical fact in the same way a historian would be. I was able to take inspiration from historical incidents like the Mongol invasions or the Opium War and build on them creatively. The stories do deviate from historical fact, but this did not concern me.
Why should readers read The Incarnations?
I hope that the sections in contemporary Beijing offer a snapshot of urban China, and that the historical sections offer a glimpse of each era (though, as stated above, The Incarnations is nothing like a history book). I really believe that the reader should be entertained, and wrote the plot(s) with that in mind, and was inventive with my use of language. Characterisation is really important to me too, and I worked hard to make sure my characters are multi-faceted, and psychologically and morally complex.