TAIPEI "The Incarnations," the third novel by British author Susan Barker, depicts China's transformation across millennia, as two repeatedly reborn souls encounter each other at various points through history.
The novel is anchored by a story set in modern-day Beijing, where a seemingly average cab driver is tormented by anonymous letters describing his five past lives, of which he has no recollection.
The lives span centuries, from China's golden-age Tang Dynasty, through the brutal invasion of Genghis Khan, the court of a tyrannical and sadistic Ming Dynasty ruler, to the high-sea battlegrounds of the Opium War and the blood-splattered interrogation rooms of the Cultural Revolution.
Barker, whose father is British and mother is Malaysian Chinese, said the novel was the product of years of intensive research, mostly in the years after she moved to Beijing in 2007.
She spoke to Reuters about how she gave a human dimension to such a vast and sweeping topic.
Q: How did you set about putting all these disparate pieces of history together to make a cohesive novel?
A: In creative writing you're told to write what you know, but I wanted to write what I wanted to know; I wanted to deepen my knowledge about China and research subjects about urban China and Chinese history. Maybe it's the whole ancestor cultural legacy thing - I've always been interested in stories about China. So much seemed to have happened there.
Q: How many liberties did you take with actual historical events?
A: I took inspiration from historical circumstances, but obviously I created characters and gave them interiorities. The historical stories are quite surreal and fantastical, and that's a real deviation from historical fact. The only one I didn't do that for is the Cultural Revolution, since all those events are within living memory and I thought it would be really disrespectful. Besides, the historical reality of the Cultural Revolution was so absurd that you didn't need to distort it.
Q: In the modern-day sections, why did you decide to make the main character a cab driver?
A: I've met a lot of interesting cab drivers living in Beijing and Shenzhen. I always make it my business to sit up front and make small talk. Surprising things and views of the world come out, and I wanted Beijing geography, all the traffic, architecture, pollution and concrete, to have a strong presence as a book. Looking through the windscreen of a taxi driver as he goes about his working day is a really vivid way of presenting the city to the reader.
Q: The central relationship portrayed throughout the book is such an intense one, and it's mostly manifested via same-sex attraction. What drove this decision on your part?
A: I've always considered sexuality to be a very fluid thing, how you can fall in love with someone and spend your life with them and it doesn't matter what gender they are. Maybe that's a naive thing to say, but I'm very removed from the sexual politics of it all. The gay relationship in the modern-day section came about organically; it seemed quite natural to put (the characters) in a situation where they're attracted to each other and they have sex and (the main character) Wang is quite conflicted about it. And of course at that time homosexuality was classified as a mental illness that was very taboo in society.
Q: What literary influences color your work?
A: I write the kind of fiction that I myself want to read and I've always been really interested in writers like Angela Carter who do have this kind of fairytale, fantastical twist to their writing. I do like fiction that is quite surreal and not constrained by reality and the laws of physics.
Q: Are you concerned about the potential reaction of Chinese censors to elements of the novel?
A: I've been told that what usually happens is that people that supply books in China are sent some guidelines that they're not allowed to have too explicit sex or anything overtly political but it's up to each supplier whether or not they choose to stock a book. I wouldn't be concerned if it was banned in China. I would love for it to be translated into Chinese and put here for people to read it but I don't think that's too feasible considering the Cultural Revolution section and it paints a very bleak portrait of contemporary life in China.
(Additional reporting by James Pomfret; Editing by Michael Roddy and Robin Pomeroy)