We spoke with Susan Barker about her novel The Incarnations (Doubleday), what it means to be a Jerwood Fiction Uncovered Prize winner and the landscape of British fiction.
How would you describe The Incarnations to a reading group?
The Incarnations is about a taxi driver in Beijing who finds an anonymous letter in his cab. The letter writer says that the taxi driver, Wang Jun, has had several past incarnations as:
- A eunuch during the Tang dynasty.
- A slave during the invasion of Genghis Khan
- A concubine of the Emperor Jiajing during the Ming dynasty
- A fisher boy during the Opium War
- A student during Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution
The letter writer then sends the taxi driver more letters – stories about these turbulent past lives.
The letters freak the taxi driver out. He goes to the police who say there’s nothing they can do. The taxi driver begins to lose sleep over the letters and to suspect one of his old friends of writing them…
What inspired you to write The Incarnations?
My grandfather was originally from China, and I wrote The Incarnations because of this ancestral connection, and the desire to learn more about China and its history.
Parts of the book take place in different eras of Chinese history. How long did it take you to complete the research?
I researched pretty much continuously throughout the six years I spent writing The Incarnations. In preparation for writing a story about a particular historical era, for instance the Tang Dynasty circa 643 AD, I would read everything I could get my hands on about the Tang Dynasty, from books about daily life in the capital city, to its poetry, art and politics. I quite enjoy hanging out in libraries, making notes and surreptitiously eating sandwiches (steady blood sugar levels = library productivity), so it was a fun part of the book writing process.
One of the main themes in the novel seems to be power and the struggle between characters. Why did you choose to explore this particular theme?
All over the world civilization has been shaped by the struggle for power between individuals, ethnic groups, religions, political parties and nations. And because the desire for power is an innate part of what it is to be human, these power struggles are unceasing. I am aware of how philosophy undergraduate-y this observation sounds (and it does hark back to my Nietzsche-reading days), but it was a preoccupation while I was writing The Incarnations and influenced the book.
In The Incarnations I write about the oppression that occurs when power is concentrated into the hands of a few who subjugate the many – be it a tyrannical emperor, or a political dictatorship, or invading foreign power like the Genghis Khan’s army during the 12th century – and what happens to powerless individuals swept up by these historical forces.
The main characters of The Incarnations also play out these conflicts on a smaller scale, inflicting damage upon each other, life after life.
What does it mean to you to be a Jerwood Fiction Uncovered Prize winning author?
It means loads! I am immensely grateful for the money to fund the writing of my next novel, and the validation that, in the opinion of the Jerwood Fiction Uncovered prize judges at least, I have written a decent book.
Do you think there are any characteristics that define British fiction writing?
The best of contemporary British writing I have read is vibrant, powerful, original and ambitious – characteristics that define good writing all over the world really.
To be honest, I think the landscape of British fiction needs to be shaken up. Reports by organisations like VIDA and Spread the Word have shown that there is strong gender bias and marginalisation of ethnic minority and working class writers by the publishing industry and literary editors (and this is backed up by hard statistical evidence). It would be great if the British fiction writers that get published and decent review coverage are reflective of how diverse the UK actually is.
Can you recommend a contemporary British fiction writer?
Samantha Harvey is brilliant. I just read Dear Thief which is exquisitely written and resonates with insights about friendship, loss and the passing of time. I also really liked Niven Govinden’s All the Days and Nights, which is about the strange and complex relationship between a painter and her muse. On a line by line level, the prose blew me away.
And finally, do you have any works in progress that we should watch out for?
I have just started writing and researching a new novel about a painter, set in London, Berlin and New Mexico. I write excruciatingly slowly though, so perhaps in five or six years (and I’m not kidding here) there’ll be something worth looking out for.
Susan Barker (born 1978) is a British novelist. She has an English father and a Chinese-Malaysian mother and grew up in East London. She is the author of the novel Sayonara Bar, 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, both published by Doubleday and longlisted for the Dylan Thomas Prize. Her third novel The Incarnations (Doubleday, July 2014) won this year’s Jerwood Fiction Uncovered Prize.