Writing from East to West

To work, a fictional world needs to be even more logical than the real one. As Terry Pratchett once said, your world can contain pigs that fly, but the internal logic of this must be tightly considered. What is the effect on pork prices? Do some religions still consider swine to be a filthy animal?

Since 2014 I have been working on a collection of short stories set in a country where I have spent a lot of time, China.

In doing so, I am not creating a fictional world but seeking to use the English language to portray a culture that is alien to most target readers. How to do this in ways that are real and respectful, compelling and convincing?

My background before that was in translating and publishing salacious news stories with a view toward having them go viral. This was an imperfect apprenticeship. A good work of fiction needs to be more than sensational, there must be relatable characters, emotional truth and structural clarity.

One of the best short story writers of my generation is Simon Rich, whose works are mostly set in present-day Brooklyn. The cast of characters of his first two collections includes Sherlock Holmes, Cupid, Adolf Hitler, and Marissa Tomei.

Because he is writing about things with which his audience are familiar, he is free to be wacky in ways that I am not. Still, my task is not impossible.

Below, I will discuss four works of fiction with present-day East Asian settings that portray the societies accurately while doing the job I have found so difficult – telling a bloody good story.

Each of these writers is obscenely talented, and to suggest them as examples to be followed is neither helpful nor kind. Still, they all demonstrate technical skills that can be picked up with practice.

“Lotus” by Zhang Lijia

Like Guo Xiaolu (“A Chinese:English Dictionary for Lovers”, “I am China”) Zhang Lijia is a native Chinese speaker who writes in English. But while Guo deals with issues as heavy as dissidents, asylum seekers, corrupt politicians, and The Tiananmen Square Massacre, Zhang’s 2017 novel “Lotus” tells the story of ordinary Chinese on the bottom rung of society struggling to get by.


The eponymous central character resorts to prostitution after the unfairness and destitution of factory life become too much. While following her story, in which a non-sexual relationship with a male photo-journalist offers her a chance at salvation, readers can take in much about Chinese culture. Following the superstition of naming one’s children after what they are hoped to achieve, the titular character is named after “a flower that grows in the mud yet remains pure and unstained”.

The novel humanizes both the prostitutes and their clients: “one middle-aged architect didn’t want sex, but to complain about his terrible wife.” Lotus is given a pet-the-dog moment early on when it emerges that – like most of her colleagues – she sends money back to her struggling family in the countryside.

The chapter of each title is a Chinese proverb and folk wisdom is sprinkled throughout to help the reader make sense of the characters’ experience: “a fresh flower withers away on cowpat”, “if you stay long enough in a fish market you soon get used to the stink”.

As well as making the characters likeable, it puts them through relatable hell. One reflects that “poverty stifles dignity” and social issues are unobtrusively brought to the fore. Discussing his exam pressure, Lotus’ brother confides to the photo-journalist: “If I fail…my sister will probably kill herself.”

After creating these characters, the novel harnesses the brutal side of life in China to challenge them: “Since Little Red had died young and unmarried, no funeral rites were performed for her.” This leads to a climax in which Lotus considers that “only marriage could ease the stain of her past and secure her future financially.”

“Silver Castle” by Clive James

In Mumbai-set “The Silver Castle” by polymath Clive James, the author’s intellect shines through. In fiction this is not necessarily a good thing, but the depth and quality of James’ writing along with the audacious scale of storytelling keep the reader engaged.

The central character, Sanjay, is a child beggar who establishes himself as a Bollywood stuntman before encountering a situation in which he could either become a star or end up as an adult beggar.

To bring this to life, “The Silver Castle” uses God’s-eye-view narration. James spends pages at a time explaining to the reader what makes the setting and Sanjay’s story unique. At the start of chapter 7, he muses on the challenges of becoming literate in Hindi, using his intimate knowledge of the Russian, Hebrew and Japanese writing systems to explain.

Silver Castle

This culminates in observations like: “One of the most unpalatable facts about the great synthetic nation of India is that its lingua franca, English, is written down in an alphabet so insanely unfaithful to what is said, whereas the principal sectarian languages can, in their written form, be mastered with comparative ease. So the alien language which was meant to unite India has turned out to be universal only in its frustrating elusiveness, whereas the languages that divide it have one dangerous element in common – they feel like home.”

James is similarly expansive when describing the slum where Sanjay spends his early life, contemplating the difference between the U.S English word “sidewalk” and its U.K equivalent “pavement”, and comparing Sanjay’s dwelling to both the favelas of Rio and the underground walkways of Shinjuku Station in Tokyo.

If I were as well-travelled and cultured as the author I may have enjoyed the book even more. It may be self-indulgent but as the (recently rehabilitated) Johann Hari wrote of James: “What a self to indulge.”

“Number 3” by Anna Metcalfe

The idea of teaching being a low-status, dead-end job is not common in Anglophone countries. Still, in China, some foreign English teachers are considered to be the plankton of the expatriate community, described as “unqualified scumbags” by Shanghaiist and by one memoirist and former English teacher as “total basket-cases at best”.

Shortlisted for the Sunday Times EFG short story award in 2014, this piece employs great skill to realize the challenges of China’s education system. The title alone illustrates that in China, schools have numbers rather than names, which says something about the lack of prestige and pride attached to most of them.

The viewpoint character is Miss Coral, a teacher who, though stuck in a system that under-uses her talents and often only dulls sharp minds, lives her life with quiet dignity and dedication.

Observations of her surroundings suggest a detached fatalism: “A late afternoon sun casts a haze over the urban sprawl. Smog and fresh dust linger, hovering over warehouses, slums and disused factories as they leave the inner city and approach the airport.”

At the airport she meets Mr. James, a young Westerner low on teaching credentials, high on entitlement.  By the time he appears, the reader is already more aware than he is of the subtleties of interpersonal interaction in this environment and can see how he is trampling over them.

Still, like all good antagonists, he does not see himself as being villainous and may simply be tactless: “He leans over and kisses Miss Coral on the cheek. She smells beer on his breath. ‘Fuck’, he says, ‘I forgot you don’t kiss in China.’ He walks into the dimly lit hallway, laughing to himself.”

The figure of Mr. James illustrates that, even today, being a Westerner in Asia is in many ways a colonial experience. It also, through their seemingly dispassionate observations, evokes the emotions that the Chinese characters are conditioned not to show.

“Sayonara Bar” by Susan Barker

Set in Osaka, Japan, Susan Barker’s “Sayonara Bar” is alternately narrated by three characters who typify one of the less appealing sides of Japanese society. British graduate Mary works in a hostess bar and embodies the systemic objectification of women; kitchen assistant and college dropout Watanabe the massive pressure placed on young people to perform academically; and middle-aged “salaryman” Mr. Sato the culture of workaholism.

All three narrators are unreliable, but not so much that it isn’t obvious why they are prone to misadventures. Mary is trusting and has poor taste in men. Watanabe, while claiming to exist on a higher plain of consciousness, fails at simple tasks like arriving at work on time and loading a dishwasher. Mr. Sato is strait-laced but tortured, narrating much of his story in the second person to his deceased wife.

Mary wants to flee Japan with her drug-runner boyfriend, Watanabe is secretly plotting to rescue her from this relationship, and Mr. Sato – despite upheaval from his colleagues, a meddlesome neighbour, and a mysterious hostess named Mariko – is determined to live his life in a way of his late wife would approve.

Being a stranger to this setting, Mary is the most relatable of the three, and has a wrenching back story: “When I was a kid she used to go on about the seven pints of blood she lost when she gave birth to me, as though those seven pints compensated for the lack of effort thereafter. Sometimes she’d up the number of pints to eight or nine if I hadn’t done the washing-up or whatever.”

Sayonara Bar

Barker’s prose is at its most enviably sparkling during the sections narrated by Watanabe. Since he believes he can read minds, the use of viewpoint is dazzling: “I too was intrigued by Mary. She gazed stoically into the middle distance as she waited in line. Her mental activity was negligible, practically flat-lining. All her thoughts had been displaced by a melody – the most haunting that I had ever heard, a bittersweet refrain to the indignity and pathos of life.”

The touchingly idealistic Mr. Sato may be different to the author in gender, nationality, age and beliefs. Still, Barker’s writing shows that through detailed observation, authors can make characters who are outwardly eccentric become hauntingly sympathetic: “Everything about her, from her narrow hips to her slight bosom, screamed with obscene youth. She looked at me, steadily, as serene and unabashed as Eve before the fall. I switched my gaze from the cello to banish her from my field of vision. I would not let my body respond. I would not.”

Why The LA Review of Books Is Wrong about “The Incarnations”

This riposte was originally published on The Nanfang on December 20, 2014

There are two things that people should know about critics. The first is that like any journalists, their primary task is to fill the white space. The second is that in doing so, they have to sound clever. Sometimes however, a critic tries so hard to sound clever they end up ignoring hugely significant facts and details. A review of Susan Barker’s novel “The Incarnations” published in The LA Review of Books is a striking example.

When it came out this summer, The Nanfang posted a favourable review of Barker’s novel, a thriller that spans over a millennium of Chinese history. This was followed by unrestrained positive reviews in South China Morning PostThe Independent (which described it as “China’s Midnight’s Children”) and The Guardian.

It is great that Barker’s novel is now getting attention in the American media ahead of a release in the world’s most powerful country next year. However, the review by Pierre Fuller of The University of Manchester contains some assertions that are factually inaccurate and others that are just plain silly. The most efficient way of dealing with some of the assertions is to Fisk the parts that refer to the novel, so here goes:

Incarnations’ (sic) most striking feature is its historical dimension, but its historical actors — concubines, eunuchs, Mongol warriors, Red Guards — appear to come straight from central casting. Storytelling should not be expected to provide authenticity, whatever that would even mean, but we want something at least beyond the literary equivalent of Chinese fare at the Golden Wok buffet, parked between the Dairy Queen and Jiffy Lube on the edge of town.

It is myopic to suggest that the cast of characters is made up of history’s protagonists. The three main corporeal characters are a taxi driver, a masseuse and a hairdresser. The stories set in the past also have plenty of figures who dwell beyond the wings of the stage of history, such as Jurchen artisans.

One of the most extraordinary things about Barker’s novel is that it somehow manages to demystify China. It contains a Tang Dynasty sorceress castrating her pubescent son. It contains Ming Dynasty concubines having their bowel movements and menstrual cycles recorded. It contains a chap who, in the twenty-first century, thinks that the way to fix a broken love affair is domestic violence followed by marital rape.

However, the characters are as real as they are in any good novel and not “exotic” as the headline claims. They make terrible lifestyle choices and grow attached to people who are bad for them – just like the rest of us. Barker, as she explained in a talk at The Hong Kong Book Fair, threw out a completed draft of the novel in 2009 after over a year’s work because she decided the characters weren’t real enough yet.

Barker, as the dust jacket explains, spent years in Beijing, not just getting a feel for life there today, which she captures well in the parts of the book set in the present, but also researching imperial and modern China to find material to bring into The Incarnations. So it’s especially disappointing not to find any trace in her novel of, say, Chinese pioneers opening up land in Sichuan or Manchuria, White Lotus Buddhist sectarians rising up to try to turn millenarian dreams into political reality, Bohemian poets, or any number of other equally entertaining, far more revealing (and in demographic terms equally numerous) possibilities from China’s past.

In the comments section, the accomplished translator Philip Hand dealt with this comment nicely: “The reviewer’s complaint that Susan Barker does not write about the particular Chinese people he is most interested in is just silly.”

Of course, the novel doesn’t cover everything that deserves to be covered. It is a novel not an encyclopedia. Most importantly it captures how, although we currently live in one of the least violent and most rational ages, history is indeed cyclical. One simile suggests that the fossil fuels that pollute Beijing are angered at being dug up from their million year-old graves. This fits nicely with the central motif of “history is coming for you”.

To call Incarnations “orientalist” would be a very tired charge. But equally tired are clichéd constructions of Eastern societies that fixate on the carnal, irrational, and predatory, as Incarnations does, while ignoring complexity and the socially or culturally unexpected.

Yes, this novel is full of violence, particularly sexual violence, but then so is history. Yet there are moments of tenderness that make a nonsense of the reviewer’s claim of “fixation”.

The scene where the main character meets the woman who will become his wife contains the following sentence: “Then she smiled, but as though her heart was breaking, and Wang knew that she needed saving from more than the rain.” After all the misery that has gone on earlier in the novel, reading that sentence is like breathing fresh air on a clear, Beijing day.

And as for the claim that this novel ignores complexity: “The Incarnations” captures the prejudices and superstitions of six different historical periods as well as evoking their sights, sounds and smells convincingly. This could not have been achieved without minute research and an appreciation of the complexities of each period.

“The Incarnations” by Susan Barker: A Page-Turning Thriller Spanning 1500 Years of Chinese History

This was originally published on The Nanfang on June 20, 2014

Literature is one of the few fields in which megalomania is a good thing. In fact, as Italo Calvino argued, without megalomania it is barely worthwhile.

Academic Alastair Macintosh claimed that the world is a ball of strings, including economics, ecology, theology and popular culture. Most non-fiction books about China written in English in recent years tend to be happy to pull at just one string. A novel by contrast can reasonably attempt to unravel the whole ball.

“The Incarnations” by Susan Barker is a radical and fascinating novel that makes a commendable fist of doing just this. Covering over a millennium of history and most of the major themes that are currently popular with China watchers, to work with such material would – in less capable hands – be as irresponsible as playing with a ouija board. But Susan Barker, a Creative Writing M.A. who researched the book over several years after moving to China in 2007, handles it with near flawless sensitivity and skill.

Wang Jun, a Beijing cab driver, starts receiving anonymous letters from someone who claims to have been close to him over several previous lives as well as his current one. Some letters display an intimate knowledge of Wang Jun’s far from perfect family life. Others tell stories about the narrator’s relationships with Wang Jun as he was everything from a slave of Mongol invaders in the thirteenth century to a foreigner during the Qing Dynasty.

The most extraordinary of the chapters set in the past takes place during the Tang Dynasty and would stand alone as a short story. Loaded with fascinating period details, it claims that Wang Jun became a eunuch after fathering the narrator and is one of the places in which Susan Barker’s flare as a prose stylist is truly successful. In one scene, a madam gives an inexperienced young prostitute the following advice:

Men have all sorts of peccadilloes…some men like to penetrate the red during a woman’s moon cycle, or piddle on a woman out of the jade watering spout. Some men like to poke a woman in the back passage, which is called pushing the boat upstream.

As fascinating as this is, the strongest part of the novel is that set in the Hu Jintao era. It paints a convincing picture of ordinary, downtrodden Beijingers as the new China prepares to celebrate its 2008 coming out party. Every character has a compelling and believable backstory and through them, Susan Barker shows a deep engagement with the major issues in modern China that have been written about over the past decade.

We first meet Wang Jun when he is delving through garbage (Adam Minter’s “Junkyard Planet”). Wang Jun’s wife points out that girls are less important in the eyes of their parents, therefore they are freer (Leslie Chang’s “Factory Girls”). Wang Jun’s colleague Baldy Zhang is an incurable misogynist (Leta Hong Fincher’s “Leftover Women“). Wang Jun’s father is a bent government official (Philip Pan’s “Out of Mao’s Shadow”). One of the major characters is an oppressed homosexual (Richard Burger’s “Behind the Red Door”).

Whether or not Susan Barker read all these books, it is clear that her knowledge of China was won rather than scavenged. One of the major themes is China’s selectiveness in what areas of its past it’s willing to face (Louisa Lim’s “The People’s Republic of Amnesia”), but this need not distract from the fact that, for all its erudition, “The Incarnations” is best enjoyed as a thriller.

Susan Barker is a brilliant prose stylist and this book should be read out loud. Even some of the most minor details are charged with social and historical insight, such as the items that Wang Jun finds as he rummages through garbage. The notoriously difficult sex scenes are also well done.

However, Barker’s stylistic brilliance is the source of the novel’s biggest weakness – overwriting. Some of the similes, which average more than one per page in some sections, fall flat, not sufficiently defying cliche to warrant inclusion. Children are “wrapped up like little eskimoes” in winter.

This indulgent use of dazzling writing can be unappealing, like a beauty queen whose knowledge of her own hotness is to the detriment of her likability (oops, an unnecessary simile). At times, the excessive scene setting distracts from the narrative and makes the book a bit too much like a Creative Writing PhD thesis (oh bugger, another one). At times, my enjoyment of the writing declined like Wang Jun’s marriage (that’s the last one, I promise).

Moreover, Barker doesn’t always follow the principle that adverbs are guilty until proven innocent, though there is one brilliant use of the word “unfilially” towards the end. The edition I received also contains some utterly avoidable errors, although it is a pre-release version that may change prior to printing. Wang Jun’s stepmother Lin Hong is twice referred to as “Ling Hong.” Changsha is described as Mao Zedong’s hometown. The word “drank” is mixed up with the word “drunk” and the word “wedding” is mixed up with the word “marriage.”

Most of the scene setting is excellent though, such as at the beginning when Barker introduces Beijing by describing some of the passengers Wang Jun has had over the years. “Incarnations” is a genuine page turner that brings it all together quite unlike any other book about China published in the past decade.