The First Letter
Every night I wake from dreaming. Memory squeezing the trigger of my heart and blood surging through my veins.
The dreams go into a journal. Cold sweat on my skin, adrenaline in my blood, I illuminate my cement room with the 40-watt bulb hanging overhead and, huddled under blankets, flip open my notebook and spill ink across the feint-ruled page. Capturing the ephemera of dreams, before they fade from memory.
I dream of teenage girls, parading the Ox Demons and Snake Ghosts around the running tracks behind our school. I dream of the tall dunce hats on our former teachers’ ink-smeared heads, the placards around their necks. Down with Head Teacher Yang! Down with Black Gangster Zhao! I dream of Teacher Wu obeying our orders to slap Head Teacher Yang, to the riotous cheers of
I dream that we stagger on hunger-weakened limbs through the Gobi as the Mongols drive us forth with lashing whips. I dream of razor-beaked birds swooping at our heads, and scorpions scuttling amongst scattered, sun-bleached bones on the ground. I dream of a mirage of a lake on shimmering waves of heat. I dream that, desperate to cure our raging thirst, we crawl there on our hands and knees.
I dream of the sickly Emperor Jiajing, snorting white powdery aphrodisiacs up his nostrils, and hovering over you on the fourposter bed with an erection smeared with verdigris. I dream of His Majesty urging us to ‘operate’ on each other with surgical blades lined up in a velvet case. I dream of sixteen palace ladies gathered in the Pavilion of Melancholy Clouds, plotting the ways and means to murder one of the worst emperors ever to reign.
Newsprint blocks the windows and electricity drips through the cord into the 40-watt bulb. For days I have been at my desk, preparing your historical records, my fingers stiffened by the cold, struggling to hit the correct keys. The machine huffs and puffs and lapses out of consciousness. I reboot and wait impatiently for its resuscitation, several times a day. Between bouts of writing I pace the cement floor. The light bulb casts my silhouette on the walls. A shadow of a human form, which possesses more corporeality than I do.
The Henan migrants gamble and scrape chair legs in the room above. I curse and bang the ceiling with a broom. I don’t go out. I hunch at my desk and tap at the keyboard, and the machine wheezes and gasps, as though protesting the darkness I feed into its parts. My mind expands into the room. My subconscious laps at the walls, rising like the tide. I am drowning in our past lives. But until they have been recorded, they won’t recede.
I watch you most days. I go to the Maizidian housing compound where you live and watch you. Yesterday I saw you by the bins, talking to Old Pang the recycling collector, the cart attached to his Flying Pigeon loaded with plastic bottles, scavenged to exchange for a few fen at the recycling bank. Old Pang grumbled about
the cold weather and the flare-up in his arthritis that prevents him reaching the bottom of the bins. So you rolled up your coat sleeve and offered to help. Elbow deep you groped, fearless of broken glass, soapy tangles of plughole hair and congealed leftovers scraped from plates. You dug up a wedge of styrofoam. ‘Can you sell this?’ you asked. Old Pang turned the styrofoam over in his hands, then secured it to his cart with a hook-ended rope. He thanked you, climbed on his Flying Pigeon and pedalled away.
After Old Pang’s departure you stood by your green and yellow Citroën, reluctant to get back to work. You stared at the grey sky and the high-rises of glass and steel surrounding your housing compound. The December wind swept your hair and rattled your skeleton through your thin coat. The wind eddied and corkscrewed and whistled through its teeth at you. You had no sense of me watching you at all.
You got back inside your cab and I rapped my knuckles on the passenger-side window. You nodded and I pulled the back door open by the latch. You turned to me, your face bearing no trace of recognition as you muttered, ‘Where to?’
Purple Bamboo Park. A long journey across the city from east to west. I watched you from the back as you yawned and tuned the radio dial from the monotonous speech of a politburo member to the traffic report. Beisanzhong Road. Heping South Bridge. Madian Bridge. Bumper to bumper on the Third ring road, thousands of vehicles consumed petrol, sputtered exhaust and flashed indicator lights. You exhaled a long sigh and unscrewed the lid of your flask of green tea. I swallowed hard.
I breathed your scent of cigarettes and sweat. I breathed you in, tugging molecules of you through my sinuses and trachea, and deep into my lungs. Your knuckles were white as bone as you gripped the steering wheel. I wanted to reach above the headrest and touch your thinning hair. I wanted to touch your neck.
Zhongguancun Road, nearly there. Thirty minutes over in a heartbeat. Your phone vibrated and you held it to you ear. Your wife. Yes, hmmm, yes, seven o’clock. Yida is a practical woman. A thrifty, efficient homemaker who cooks for you, nurtures you and provides warmth beside you in bed at night. I can tell that she fulfils the needs of the flesh, this pretty wife of yours. But what about the needs of the spirit? Surely you ache for what she lacks?
Purple Bamboo Park, east gate. On the meter, thirty RMB. I handed you some tattered 10 RMB notes; the chubby face of Chairman Mao grubby from the fingers of ten thousand laobaixing. A perfunctory thank-you and I slammed out. There was a construction site nearby, and the thoughts in my head jarred and jangled as the pneumatic drills smashed the concrete up. I stood on the kerb and watched you drive away. Taxi driver Wang Jun. Driver ID number 394493. Thirty-one, careworn, a smoker of Red Pagoda Mountain cigarettes. The latest in your chain of incarnations, like the others, selected by the accident of rebirth, the lottery of fate.
Who are you? you must be wondering. I am your soulmate, your old friend, and I have come back to this city of 16 million in search of you. I pity your poor wife, Driver Wang. What’s the bond of matrimony compared to the bond we have shared for over a thousand years? What will happen to her when I reappear in your life?
What will become of her then?
From The Incarnations
Susan Barker grew up in east London and has an MA in creative writing from Manchester University. She is the author the novel Sayonara Bar (2005), which Time magazine called ‘a cocktail of astringent cultural observations, genres stirred and shaken, subplots served with a twist’, and The Orientalist and the Ghost (2008). Both were published by Doubleday and longlisted for the Dylan Thomas Prize.
Her third novel The Incarnations (2014), was praised by the New York Times for its ‘wildly ambitious and mesmerizing storytelling,’ and is about a Beijing taxi driver whose past incarnations haunt him through searing letters sent by his mysterious soulmate.
Let’s start with that quote from Time - about you 'stirring' genres. Contemporary fiction has gone for this blending in a big way recently - is this a determined interest for you, or simply how you write?
My fiction often incorporates elements of genre fiction because it makes the writing process much more fun for me. I’d feel constrained (and bored) if I had to write an entire novel in a literary realist style and couldn’t play around and experiment with other genres. For this same reason my novels always have interwoven narratives and a multiplicity of perspectives, voices and prose styles. I like to keep the writing process as interesting and multifarious as possible.
The Incarnations occasionally veers into fantastical territory (some reviewers have likened sections to magical realism, though I’m not sure I agree with this classification), and ratchets up suspense like a thriller. However, in these forays into genre fiction I’m mostly interested in exploring the intersection between my characters’ psychology and the strange (thriller-ish, surreal or fantastical) incidents that occur. I’d like the readers of The Incarnations to question the extent stuff that deviates from ‘reality’ is real, or my characters’ unreliable perceptions and projections.
Are you a big reader of genre fiction? Do particular examples inform your work? Do these differ from project to project?
I probably read more literary fiction that crosses over into genre fiction (for example, The Last Werewolf by Glen Duncan, or Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood) than straight-up genre fiction. I don’t think these books particularly informed The Incarnations (which was more inspired by classical and contemporary texts about China), though David Mitchell was a huge influence when I started writing in the early 2000’s. I loved how his second novel Number9Dream moved from cyberpunk to Yakuza gangster to post modern experimentalism to historical fiction and so on. It showed me how literary fiction could borrow from the conventions of genre fiction, and twist them to create something bold, inventive and entirely new.
What was the starting point for The Incarnations. Did that sense of history come early?
I started thinking about The Incarnations back in 2007 when I was spending the summer as an artist in residence at the Red Gate Gallery in Beijing. I knew I wanted to write about 21st century China and the effect of the rapid social and economic change on ordinary citizens, and that I wanted to intersperse the modern-day narrative with stories from other historical eras. I had no ideas for characters or plot at that early stage, but I had faith that once I started exploring Beijing and reading up on Chinese history, they would appear.
The sense that The Incarnations would be a historical novel (or a novel with historical stories) came very early on. However, Chinese history is so rich with endless narrative possibility, it took ages to decide which time periods to write about. I ended up choosing the historical incidents and figures I was most fascinated by, for example, Genghis Khan and the 13th century Mongol Invasions into northern China. I probably write best when the subject has become a temporary obsession to me.
Using reincarnation to examine a thousand years of Chinese history is epic and dauntingly ambitious. Was this an aim at the start - this sense of scope?
One of the central themes of The Incarnations is the cyclical nature of history, and the book spans over a thousand years and uses reincarnation in order to explore this. The taxi driver Wang Jun repeats the same destructive mistakes in each of his past lives, due to the recurrence of innate flaws and weaknesses in his character (will to power, jealousy, possessiveness, self-interest and so on). Civilization is repetitious in this same way too, with the same vastly destructive power struggles playing out across the generations, arising from the same inescapable human flaws. Society can teach people to listen to their better instincts, but it can never eradicate the most destructive parts of human nature. This is why we are always in conflict with each other, as individuals, groups, ethnicities, religions and nations, and why any period of enlightenment and stability is short lived. Perhaps this is facile as far as themes go, but it was a preoccupation while writing The Incarnations, which had to span many centuries in order to convey these ideas.
What challenges did this project present?
When I began writing The Incarnations back in 2008, I thought I’d finish the book in two or three years. However, the project became an over-ambitious and labour-intensive undertaking that took six years to complete. So asides from the creative challenges of figuring out what I wanted to write and how I was going to do it (which was actually quite fun), there were the practical challenges of how to support myself while working on the book. I prefer to live frugally and write full-time, than to live comfortably and write only part-time. This is mainly because I am a very slow writer, and need to write for about six hours a day to produce anything of note. That I have to immerse myself in my writing (and not get a full-time job) meant that I was always broke, always struggling to get by. Grants and fellowships I received from the Royal Literary Fund, the Society of Authors and the Arts Council England were invaluable. I honestly couldn’t have written The Incarnations without the help of these organisations and I am immensely grateful to them all.
The by-line that Independent (and others) use, that ‘Susan Barker, born to a Chinese Malaysian mother and an English father’ seems to answer to a question about legitimacy - about why you would be interested in writing about a specific culture, and that your heritage gives you some permission or authority to do so.
You lived in Beijing to research this novel. Can you speak a little about your relation to the subject, and also about this legitimacy that writers often have to answer to?
Authorial legitimacy was one of my main concerns while writing The Incarnations. My grandfather was originally from China, which is why I wanted to set a novel there, but this connection going back two generations definitely didn’t give me ‘permission’ to write from the perspective of Chinese characters. In the eyes of some mainland Chinese friends and acquaintances, I lacked legitimacy entirely – they just couldn’t see how a British woman who had grown up in the UK could write a novel about China.
I’m of the opinion that fiction writers can write about whatever they want to, that we don’t have to be confined to our own gender, sexual orientation, nationality or ethnicity. To place such restrictions on writers would result in some very narrow and inward-looking literary output. But the further a writer leaps beyond their own identity, the greater the risk there is of getting things wrong, and the more research is necessary in advance of making that leap. Though I believe the British and Chinese are fundamentally the same, the cultural differences are vast, which is why I moved to China for several years to research my book.
I hope the legitimacy of The Incarnations will be determined by my writing and not my identity as an author. If some people think the book misrepresents China, then fair enough – but only so long as my nationality, gender or ethnicity wasn’t factored into that dismissal.
What are you currently writing?
I am now working on Untitled Book IV, which is about a portrait painter, and set in London, Berlin and New Mexico. I’ve been reading up on modern art, and went to Berlin last summer to research the opening chapters. Other areas of research that’ll hopefully inform Untitled Book IV are aesthetics, the psychology of superstitious belief, and the occult. I loved writing The Incarnations and learning about China for several years. But it’s wonderful to be embarking on something completely new.
Susan Barker website
UK publisher: Doubleday - Transworld
US publisher: Touchstone - Simon & Schuster
Author pages: Amazon, Foyles, Waterstones