Interview: Susan Barker - The Incarnations


Jayson Albano speaks to author Susan Barker about her third novel, which explores reincarnation and the cycle of mistakes attached to humanity

Six years after the release of her second book, The Orientalist and the Ghost, Susan Barker is set to take the literary world by storm with her new novel, The Incarnations.

A real departure from her previous work, The Incarnations is set in Beijing in 2008 in the months preceding the Olympics, where a taxi driver named Wang finds a letter in the sun visor of his car, claiming that he has had several past lives, and that he and the letter-writer have met before in each one of these lives. Raised in London, Barker moved to Beijing in 2007 wanting to write a book set there. “I wanted to write a book that was interspersed with historical stories because I am very interested in urban China and the rapid rate of its development and social change, as well as the cultural richness of Chinese history.”

Barker was born to a Malaysian-Chinese mother and an English father. Having studied science in her A-Levels, Barker didn’t pursue writing until much later. “My ambition was to become a Chemistry teacher. I went to Nottingham University and I started a degree in chemistry. But I dropped out after one semester because I didn’t like chemistry. I changed to philosophy at the University of Leeds.”

Even throughout her time at the University of Leeds, Barker wanted to become a journalist, writing for the student paper and taking an internship with The Times in London. But it was her time spent in Japan that changed her mind. “I started writing fiction in Japan. I kept a journal. Because everything was so new and different in Japan, I just wanted to describe it to myself. I started to write short stories. I wanted to write about the people around me, the Japanese, how they lived their lives. Not about expats.” Eventually, she penned her first novel Sayonara Bar, which was set in Japan.

After the release of The Orientalist and the Ghost, and around the time she moved to Beijing, she started reading history books that gave a large overview of Chinese history to aid her research into the history of China. This was to be the groundwork for The Incarnations. “Whatever grabbed my interest, like the Tang Dynasty, the Cultural Revolution or the Opium War, I would zoom in and write a story about that.”

By living day-to-day life in Beijing, she was able to observe and explore the city as a cultural text, and came up with the idea of having a taxi-driver as the main character because she wanted Beijing to have a strong and sensual presence in the book – even as a central character itself. “By showing the readers Beijing through the windows of a taxi, as a taxi-driver went about his working day,” she explained, “I could offer a really panoramic view of all the different districts of Beijing.”

Barker then came up with the idea of reincarnation and anonymous letters to bring all of her research and historical interests into the setting of modern China, to structure the novel. But it wasn’t just that the concept of reincarnation was the only way to bring all the seemingly unrelated stories together. Instead, her aim was to show the futility of human nature. “One of the themes of the book is the way that history repeats itself. There is always conflict, there’s always war, and there will always be people who want power, who destroy other lives for it. That all ties in with this taxi-driver Wang, where in each of his past lives – because of these innate flaws in his character such as greed, envy, lust, power and self-interest – he makes the same mistakes over and over.”

The Incarnations, priced at $140, published by Doubleday, for more on Barker, check out


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