Well, let’s start at the beginning. What’s your novel about?
A taxi driver in Beijing, who finds a letter from an anonymous sender in his cab, informing him that he’s had several past lives.
Past lives? Like, reincarnation?
Yes, the letter writer claims that the taxi driver, Wang Jun, has lived before as:
1. A eunuch during the Tang dynasty.
2. A slave during the invasion of Genghis Khan
3. A concubine of the Emperor Jiajing during the Ming dynasty
4. A fisherboy during the Opium War
5. A student during Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution
The letter writer then sends the taxi driver more letters – stories about these turbulent past lives.
That sounds crazy. Does the taxi driver actually believe the letter writer?
The letters freak the taxi driver out. He goes to the police who say there’s nothing they can do. The taxi driver loses sleep over the letters and starts to suspect one of his old friends of writing them…
You’re British, so why write a novel set in China?
My grandfather was originally from China. I wanted to learn more about the country my ancestors are from.
Sounds like you had to do loads of research for this book.
I lived in China on and off for about five years. I studied Chinese. I explored Beijing by bus, subway and foot and made notes in spiralbound notebooks. I rode in a lot of taxis and sat up front, talking to the taxi drivers about their lives. I spent hundreds of hours in libraries in China, the UK and the States, reading books about Chinese history, scribbling notes, and surreptitiously eating sandwiches…
Sandwiches? In a library?
I like to keep my blood sugar levels up.
Reviewers often refer to the sex and violence in The Incarnations. Why so much sex and violence? Are you some kind of deranged sex maniac?
Have these reviewers ever read a history book about the Mongol Invasions? The Cultural Revolution? What life was like in Chang’an during the Tang dynasty? Bloodshed and violent punishments were a historical reality.
And as for the sex, well, it’s a fundamental part of being human, in any historical era.
Sex and violence are so widespread in popular culture. Look at how many people consume pornography (porn sites get more monthly traffic in the UK than all social media put together) and watch HBO shows like Game of Thrones. When explicit sex and violence are depicted in literature however, people find it objectionable. I don’t think the sex and violence in The Incarnations is gratuitous – it’s all there to (hopefully) illuminate complex psychological truths about being human.
Will you confirm whether or not you are a demented sex maniac?
Compared to Jane Austen, maybe.
One reviewer said that your fiction subjects China to an exoticising western gaze. Discuss.
I disagree with this – sexual and political content aside, there is no imagery or characterization in The Incarnations that you wouldn’t find in mainland China produced films, TV shows or novels. And would the charge of exoticism arise if the reviewer didn’t know I was from the UK? If I published under my mother’s Chinese surname? I don’t think so, though this is difficult to prove.
Are you just using this self-interview to vent about negative reviews?
Right. Subject change. Many of the characters in The Incarnations are morally flawed. They are selfish, manipulative and behave recklessly. Why didn’t you make the characters nicer?
There are nice characters in The Incarnations. Not Ned Flanders level nice, but there are many characters who are generally decent and good, but end up in situations in which they have to compromise their morality to survive.
I like exploring the darker end of the spectrum of human behaviour. I think this is what literature is for.
Many of the female characters in The Incarnations are disempowered. Doesn’t this conflict with your beliefs as a feminist?
I am aware that many of the female characters in The Incarnations are disempowered and dependent, to a lesser or greater extent, on the men in their lives. The women in The Incarnations tend to work to accumulate power within the patriarchal structure, rather than challenge or subvert it – I found this to be more realistic. However, many of the women, especially in the historical stories, attempt to take their fates in their own hands, which is quite empowering.
I think it’s important in fiction to avoid shallow, stereotypical female characters – to avoid two-dimensional characterisations of both genders, really. When a female character behaves in an ‘unfeminist’ way, I hope to make the reader understand their complex reasons for doing so.
Being a novelist is a weird vocation, isn’t it?
I have been writing full-time, more or less, for over thirteen years now. It’s definitely odd spending six hours a day in solitary confinement, making up stories about people who don’t exist. But I absolutely love it – it’s my dream job. And I am completely unqualified to do anything else.
Now you’ve written this book about China, what are you working on next?
I have just started writing and researching a new novel about a painter, set in London, Berlin and New Mexico. It’s exciting to be embarking on a new project, but I write excruciatingly slowly, so probably won’t have anything ready for another decade.
Good luck with that.
Thank you for being a co-operative interviewee.
You’re very welcome and goodbye.
SUSAN BARKER is the author of Sayonara Bar and The Orientalist and the Ghost, both longlisted for the Dylan Thomas Prize. She grew up in East London with a Chinese-Malyasian mother and a British father, and studied creative writing at the University of Manchester. She spent several years living in Beijing while working on The Incarnations, and currently lives in the UK.
Photo credit: Derek Anson