The Incarnations, published later this week, is the third novel from author Susan Barker. The Incarnations is the story of Wang, a Beijing taxi driver who begins to receive mysterious letters detailing his past lives across several centuries of Chinese history.
Ms. Barker spoke to us about China, history, violence and her new novel by email.
According to your bio, you have a British father and a Malaysian Chinese mother. Were you always interested in Chinese history and culture, or did your interest develop later in life?
When I was growing up I was more interested in the Chinese diaspora in Malaysia, where my mother is from, than the Mainland. I sometimes watched films by fifth generation directors and read books like Wild Swans, but I didn’t know China very well. Then in my mid-twenties I was writing a novel about the Communist Insurrection in 1950s Malaya, and my research led me to the history of the Communist Party in China, and my interest in 20th century China grew from there. When I finished the manuscript of the Malaysia novel, I began reading books about imperial China and the rise and fall of dynasties and emperors, and my fascination as a fiction writer was piqued.
Why set the “present-day” parts of the book in 2008? What is it about the Olympics that makes it such a popular temporal setting?
The modern-day narrative is in Beijing, from 2007 to 2008, because that was when I first moved to the city, and the atmosphere of pre-Olympics anticipation and renovation found its way into my novel-in-progress. However I made sure that the Olympics setting wasn’t too overbearing. I wanted to convey the chasm that existed between the $44 billion stage-managed spectacle of ‘Olympic Beijing’ and the lives of ordinary people, while keeping the Games in the background of the book.
Parts of the book take place in different eras of Chinese history. Did it seem a daunting task to undertake the necessary research?
Earlier this year I read this great quote by Mohsin Hamid about fiction writing. He said the DNA of fiction is a double-stranded helix, one strand comprised of what the writer knows, and the other strand of what the writer wants to know. I have a serious autodidactic streak, and when I was writing The Incarnations the adage to ‘write what you want to know’ was definitely my mantra. I choose to research and write narratives set in different historical periods so I could learn about them. For each historical era I spent a month or two holed up in various libraries in the UK, China and the US, reading my way through shelves of books. Usually during the process of researching and note-scribbling, ideas for narratives and characters would emerge.
I was slightly daunted by the amount of historical research I had to do, but at the same time, I like being challenged and immersed in a long project. I had no idea The Incarnations would take six years to write. I thought it would be three years at the most. I definitely would’ve been daunted, overwhelmed even, had I known back in 2007 how long it would take to write this book.
I have a question about sexual violence in the novel. In almost every era the characters seem to experience sexual violence, whether as perpetrators or victims. At least, the threat of sexual violence looms over every era. What is your approach to the subject of sexual violence?
One of the main themes in The Incarnations is power, and the power struggles between individuals. There are many ways my characters wield power over each other: through language, emotional and psychological manipulation, or violence and brute force. Sex is also used by some characters as an expression of power (as well as lust). In nearly every sex scene in The Incarnations, one character has more power than the other, and sometimes the power imbalance shifts into violence.
I write about very chaotic periods in China’s history – times when human rights were not protected by law and could be completely stripped away, and brutality and sexual violence was an inevitable consequence of this. My approach to writing these scenes was to be as unflinchingly honest as I could be, and to not shy away from moral ambiguity. Many of the perpetrators of violence in my novel are as trapped by historical circumstance as their victims. The violence is often an expression of their anger and frustration. Not justifiable by any means, but I want the reader to understand their motives.
Having lived in China, and obviously being interested in history, do you think that Chinese people have, in general, a good sense of their own history?
It’s difficult for people in China to have a ‘good sense’ of Chinese history, in particular the history of People’s Republic, because censorship in the media and online is very effective at whitewashing many historical events out of the national consciousness. The Communist Party is also very selective about what is taught in the school curriculum. A friend of mine told me the Cultural Revolution, a decade of chaos and tragedy, was dealt with in a short paragraph in her middle school history textbook.
When I began writing The Incarnations a Milan Kundera quote – ‘The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.’ – resonated very powerfully with me. Perhaps the quote seems clichéd, but it’s true. In the era of social media and instant sharing, Party officials are struggling to hide their recent corruption and misbehaviour from the public. But one thing they seem to have some success at concealing is Communist Party history. They are also skilled at directing people’s sense of historical injustice at the Guomindang and Japan. When I asked some twenty-something friends in Shenzhen about Japan, they voiced very strong anti-Japanese opinions. When I asked about Mao Zedong they were indifferent, and about June 4th, blank. I met a 32 year old engineer who works for Microsoft last weekend, who told me he found out about the Tiananmen massacre during a two week business trip to Berlin. He spent much of the trip in his hotel room watching clips on YouTube, and when he returned to China he got a VPN. If you want to know the truth about recent history in China, you have to go searching for it, and many don’t.
Susan Barker will be attending the book launch for The Incarnations at Glamour Bar in Shanghai on at 4PM on Saturday, July 12, 2014.