The Rumpus Interview with Susan Barker


A book review in The Independent likened Susan Barker’s newest novel, The Incarnations, to one of the most famous examples of magical realism there is: Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children. It’s never a bad thing for your book to be compared to “The Best of the Booker” winner.

What sets The Incarnations apart from its illustrious comparisons (another reviewer likened the book to a David Mitchell work) is its mastery of time and place. Where Midnight’s Children sticks to the twentieth century and the politics surrounding the partition of India and Pakistan, The Incarnations visits a half dozen or so distinct periods in the history of Chinese civilization.

Two souls chase each other from the Ming dynasty to the Opium Wars, from the Cultural Revolution to the streets of Beijing during the 2008 Olympics. Each commits terrible wrongs against the other, takes advantage of the other, and loves the other unconditionally. Eventually, one of the souls discovers their shared ancient history and offers a vision of their journey through time to the other slightly wary soul.

The Incarnations came out in the US on August 18th from Touchstone.


The Rumpus: Which of the incarnations or storylines popped into your head first? How did that one story grow into the several that make up the book?

Susan Barker: I moved to Beijing in the summer of 2007 to research a novel set in China. Back then I had only vague ideas what the book would be about, and my research was very scattershot. I wandered about Beijing making notes, and read books about anything I was interested in—rural to urban migration, Qing dynasty emperors, Tang dynasty poetry, and so on—waiting for inspiration to strike.

The first incarnation that popped into my head was the taxi driver, Wang Jun. I was walking around Beijing on a freezing day in December 2007, when I saw some cab drivers having a cigarette break. I went over to ask for a light, and ended up chatting to them (chatting limited by my beginner’s mandarin). After I said goodbye and went on my way, I thought about what an interesting protagonist a Beijing taxi driver would make, as they drive to every part of city and have passengers from every walk of life. The next day I sat down and started to write.

Inspiration for the other past lives came from Chinese history books—books with titles like The Dynasties of China and The Chronicle of the Emperors. I would read through them, and when I came across a historical incident or figure that captured my imagination, for example, Genghis Khan, I would deepen my research into that individual or era, seeking out more books. Usually during the process of note-scribbling, ideas for narratives and characters would emerge.

Rumpus: Did you grow up speaking or writing Chinese? How did you go about crafting dialogue in a language that wasn’t your first?

Barker: My mother is Chinese Malaysian and a native speaker of Hakka and Cantonese. She emigrated to the UK in the late ’60s, and because her English is so fluent, she spoke only English when my sister and I were growing up. I didn’t start learning Chinese (Mandarin, which is not one of my mother’s dialects) until I moved to Beijing at the age of twenty-nine.

I studied Chinese throughout the six years I spent writing The Incarnations and got to a basic conversational level. Living in Beijing, and then in Shenzhen, I would hear conversations in mandarin all the time, so I had a sense of the rhythms and patterns of the language, as well as idioms, colloquialisms, and slang, which influenced the dialogue I wrote. The Incarnations was written in English, but when I wrote dialogue I would often think, would a Chinese character speak this way? When it came to answering this question, knowing some conversational Chinese really helped.

Rumpus: Could you talk about the research that went into The Incarnations? How long did it take for you to feel comfortable within each period?

Barker: I wrote each of the five historical stories, from the Tang dynasty (seventh century AD) to the Mao Zedong era (circa 1966), in chronological order, and my research was ongoing throughout the drafting and re-drafting of the book. For each time period, I’d usually spend a couple of months holed up in a library, buried in the relevant history books.

Though most of my research didn’t end up in The Incarnations, all of it seemed necessary. I thought it was important to understand the politics and society of each era, and to try and accurately depict the customs, etiquette, and dress. However, as a fiction writer (as opposed to a sinologist or historian) I wasn’t overly concerned with realism, and my fiction often veers into surreal and fantastical territory, and (especially in past lives that were many centuries ago) deviates from historical facts.

Rumpus: The book feels wholly Chinese, yet that sense is interrupted when one of the incarnations arrives in the form of a foreigner. How did you make the decision to include a British interloper in a story (“Ah Qin and the Sea”) that traces China’s history from ancient to present?

Barker: I included a foreigner, a British merchant called Tom, in the “Ah Qin and the Sea” story because I wanted to write about the relations between China and Britain during the first Opium War, and more generally about how racial prejudice dehumanizes and turns people into enemies. Prior to writing “Ah Qin and the Sea,” I researched the trade relations between Britain and China, and the British community in the Pearl River Delta circa 1840, in order to understand the social tensions of the time. Both the British and Chinese had chauvinistic attitudes towards each other, and I wanted to look at the way deeply ingrained prejudices, though perhaps not visible on the surface, can prevent genuine friendship ever forming.

Rumpus: In each era, there are brutal displays of power—sexual, physical, emotional or political. In what way do power dynamics shift as the characters progress from historical moment to historical moment?

Barker: There is no pattern in the way the power balance shifts between the two soulmates, life after life. It’s all very random. However, it’s usually the case that the more disempowered of the two will try to improve their position, through sex, manipulation or betrayal, or behave recklessly and destructively when they feel their ego has been slighted by the other.

There are many brutal displays of power in The Incarnations because I write about very chaotic periods in China’s history, when human rights were completely stripped away, and 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.

Rumpus: Has the book elicited a response in China? Do you have a sense for whether or not the Chinese readership (if there is one) appreciates the history you write about in The Incarnations?

Barker: The Incarnations hasn’t been published in China, and due to the political content, I doubt it ever will be. However, several Chinese friends, including a couple of Chinese novelists, have read The Incarnations, say the characterization and depiction of modern China comes across as authentic (to my relief). Some Chinese friends have made comments like, ‘I didn’t know much about the Jiajing Emperor until reading your book—that part was very interesting,’ and so on. But other people, mainly at readings, have said, ‘Why didn’t you write about Qin Shi Huang Emperor? Or the Warring States period? These are much more important periods in Chinese history!’ So I think, regarding Chinese history, The Incarnations is enlightening to some Chinese readers, and woefully deficient to others.

Rumpus: I couldn’t help but notice that in nearly every era, characters abuse drugs or alcohol as a means of escape. Is this a response to the overwhelming amount of pain and suffering in the story, or something else altogether?

Barker: Many of the characters turn to beer, wine, opium, and in one instance, a pitcher of pineapple and rum cocktail. They do this because they feel trapped, and becoming intoxicated is a means of escape. Throughout the novel there is a sense of fate, or an invisible hand steering the characters’ lives, and the oblivion of drugs and alcohol is one way of feeling free—at least for a short while.

Rumpus: How was the process of writing The Incarnations different from writing your previous two books?

Barker: I had no idea that The Incarnations would take six years to write—three times longer than either of my previous novels. My plan was to go to Beijing, research for two months, and then knock out a novel in a year or two. I ended up spending several years in China, and even though I was writing full-time, five or six days a week, the novel progressed slowly.

I loved the experience of writing The Incarnations though. I learned so much about China—the language, history, politics, and people. Working on The Incarnations was a much more immersive experience than the writing of my previous novels. I’m not exaggerating when I say that it took over my life (in a good way)!

Stephen B. Elliott, coincidentally sharing a name with the founder of this site, is a journalist and writer based in Telluride, Colorado. Follow him @ElliottStephenB. More from this author →