Susan Barker: 6 Years, 7 Cities, 1 Novel

Susan Barker
photo: Derek Anson

Late last summer, a friend who was in England tweeted about a novel she’d just found, The Incarnations by Susan Barker, and how amazing it was. It didn’t seem to have an American publisher, and it sounded like exactly the sort of thing I’d like to get a look at in my capacity as an acquiring editor, so I made enquiries, and found out that I was just a smidgen too late—the rights had already been picked up. Now, a year later, I’m finally getting to see why my friend was so excited, and I’m having much the same reaction. I’m approximately one-third of the way through, and there’s suspense, there’s the possibility of fantasy, and at the heart of the novel there’s a compelling character study wrapped in a portrayal of life in 21st-century China. In this guest essay, Susan Barker talks about the circumstances of the novel’s creation over a period of time in which it seems the only constant was the novel’s creation.

During the six years I spent writing The Incarnations I lived in seven cities in four different countries. I moved in and out of seventeen different houses and flats in Beijing, Seoul, Colorado, Boston, Leeds, Washington, DC, London and Shenzhen. I have lost count of the long-haul flights I made, crammed in economy, crossing oceans and continents and time zones, between the UK, China and the US.

This itinerant life, where I got a new stamp in my passport every three to six months, wasn’t my original plan. When I first moved to Beijing in 2007, I expected to spend several years researching, writing and completing my novel. However, a pre-Olympics change in China’s visa regulations meant I had to leave mid-2008, and then came the offer of house-sitting gigs in the States, and then the decision to accompany a boyfriend to his new job, and so on and so forth. The regular packing of suitcases, getting on and off aeroplanes, recovering from jet-lag, acclimatizing and settling in, were at odds with the stability and routine I need to work. But as a self-employed writer with no 9-to-5 job, mortgage or children, I was free to improvise my life, moving whenever a new opportunity arose.


23 August 2015 | guest authors |

Sara Wallace: Smoke in Streams of Light

Sara Wallace
photo: Rose Ann Franklin

Sara Wallace writes poems with vivid details, immersing you in her scenes, whether it’s a walk through the narrator’s grandparents’ farm in “Take This Old Coat” or the unflinching depiction of an abusive relationship in “You.” But her poetry can’t be reduced to “naturalism” on the one hand or “raw emotion” on the other; it’s the two elements in tandem that make the poems in The Rival stand out. It’s a point she takes up in this guest post, with reference to some of her own favorite poets…

I wanted to start with noir.
A woman’s dress like a tight shadow,
her fingertips dipped in darkness.
Beauty reduced to Glamour and made Suspect.

I am endlessly fascinated by Reality and Imagination and my favorite writers comment on and complicate this supposed binary. On one side, we have Reality—the commonplace, the solid, common sense, “salt of the earth” people and the hum-drum comfort of greasy spoons, where we “burst the bubble,” and “come back down to earth,” but where we also see “the cold light” and “hard truths,” where humankind’s greed and brutality are mundane givens. On the other side, we have Imagination—that imaginary get-away with a longed-for yet imminently unattainable Beauty, the “mystic visions and cosmic vibrations” (Allen Ginsberg, “America”) of faith, encounters with inspiring art, where there is charm, elegance, and wonder but where there is also affectation, ostentation, pride, “spells and incantation” (Keats, “To…”), and the constant danger of aesthetic failure (“I am going to dream up a tiger,” Borges writes in “Dreamtigers.” “Utter incompetence! A tiger appears, sure enough, but an enfeebled tiger…” )

Indeed, each side of the binary actually has multiple binaries within it, like the fractals studied in chaos theory. The most interesting contemporary poets play with this “hall of mirrors” effect. For example, Jack Gilbert’s poem, “Alyosha,” opens with a quasi-Gauguinian moment, with the narrator seemingly fetishizing locals: “the sound of women hidden / among the lemon trees.” The work as a whole, however, is hardly a simple celebration of primitivism (which, after all, exists in the imagination of the beholder). Gilbert’s disillusioned narrator knows that the reality of Beauty’s life is often terrible even as he covets her: “He is not innocent. / He knows the shepherdess will be given / to the awful man who lives at the farm /closest to him….”


7 July 2015 | poets on poets |

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