Susan Barker Unravels Centuries of Chinese History in Hypnotic Novel The Incarnations

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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.

So begins the first letter in a series of mysterious messages left in Driver Wang’s taxi. Spanning 1500 years of history, the letters detail Wang’s past lives—as a slave in Genghis Khan’s army to a teen during China’s cultural revolution. The writer insists that their lives have been intertwined for centuries, and Wang begins to fear that the writer may have violent plans for their latest incarnations.

Newly released in the U.S. this week, Susan Barker’s The Incarnations delivers a hypnotic journey through defining moments in China’s history. Paste caught up with Barker to discuss her inspiration for the novel, the possibility of reincarnation and what she’s writing next.

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Paste: What sparked your imagination to write The Incarnations?

1incarnationscover.jpg Susan Barker: My grandfather was originally from China (he emigrated to Malaysia before the Second World War), and I have always been fascinated by China’s history, as well as the rapid social changes since Reform and Opening in the late-‘70s. I decided to write the book back in 2006, so I could learn more about China (amongst other creative reasons). I was living in London at the time, so applied for an artist’s residency at the Red Gate Gallery in Beijing, and by the summer of 2007, I was over there researching the book.

Paste: What was the research process like for this novel?

Barker: I researched continuously throughout the six years I was writing The Incarnations. In order to write the sections set in 21st-century Beijing, I knew I needed to experience day to day life in the capital and gain some insight into how having grown up in the PRC would shape my characters’ worldviews and beliefs. So I went to Beijing, enrolled at language school, did homestays with local families and spent a lot of time chatting with Beijingers and exploring the city. I ended up living in Beijing for about two and a half years, and spent another two years in Shenzhen (in the south)—all vital research and inspiration for the book.

Research for the historical stories in The Incarnations involved long hours in various libraries (depending on where I was based at the time, The National Library of China, the SOAS library in London or the Fairbanks Collection at Harvard) reading history books and scribbling notes. I thought it was important to understand the social and political landscape of each era and to accurately depict the social etiquettes and costume, but I let my imagination have free reign when it came to the characters and plot.

Paste: Which “incarnation” was your favorite to write and why?

Barker: My favorite incarnation is Concubine Swallow, narrator of ‘Sixteen Concubines,’ a story about the plot to assassinate the Emperor Jiajing (rumored to have been a sexual sadist who tortured the women in his imperial harem) in 1543. Though the attempted regicide was an actual historical event, there is nothing recorded about the concubines who took part in it, so the character of Concubine Swallow was pure invention on my part. I liked writing Concubine Swallow’s narration of events, because she’s so complicated and has such a bitter, scathing sense of humour. Unhappy and self-loathing, Concubine Swallow is very arrogant and superior towards the other concubines, but underneath it all has a fragile heart capable of great love.

Paste: Reincarnation plays a crucial role in the novel. To what extent do your own beliefs align with its presence in the book?

Barker: I am open-minded about the possibility of reincarnation, but its presence in The Incarnations doesn’t really align with my own beliefs (agnostic at best). I initially used reincarnation as a way of structuring the novel. Having the souls of the main characters recur in various incarnations over a thousand years enabled me to link the historical stories with the contemporary Beijing narrative. The longer I worked on The Incarnations, however, writing draft after draft, the more the reincarnation aspect became the essence of the book and related to the main theme, which is the connection between innate recurring human characteristics and the cyclical nature of history.
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Paste: If you could choose to remember a past life from any point in history, what life would you choose?

Barker: In my late teens, I was obsessed with Simone de Beauvoir. I read The Second Sex and most of her novels, but I loved her autobiographies best. I admired de Beauvoir for turning her back on the social conventions of the time (that women ought to marry, stay at home, raise children and so forth) and creating the life she wanted as an intellectual and feminist pioneer. De Beauvoir was also impossibly glamorous—she hung out with the most talented artists, writers and philosophers in Parisian society. I would love to remember Simone de Beauvoir’s life, and to be a later incarnation of her would be an honor indeed.

Paste: Can you share any details about your next writing project?

Barker: I am now working on a project called Untitled Book IV, which is about a portrait painter and is set in London, Berlin and New Mexico. I am starting a course in Art History in the autumn and also heading off to Berlin next week to research the opening chapters. I loved writing The Incarnations and thinking and learning about China for several years, but it’s wonderful to be embarking on something completely new.