Interview: award-winning poet Sarah Howe on coming to terms with her Chinese heritage

Sarah Howe PIC: John Devlin
Sarah Howe PIC: John Devlin
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When Sarah Howe started to explore her Chinese heritage in Hong Kong she found poetry the best medium to tease out the personal and political dynamic of her family’s story, as audiences at StAnza Festival, St Andrews, will discover. Interview by Susan Mansfield

When Sarah Howe was born, her maternal grandmother took a jade bracelet, designed to fit a baby’s arm, to the temple to be blessed. In Chinese tradition, the loop of jade is a kind of talisman given to children learning to walk: if they tumble, the bracelet shatters, protecting them. She also asked a fortune teller for her grand-daughter’s future.

Was she told that this child, born to a Chinese mother and English father in Hong Kong, would one day become a poet in another country on the other side of the world? That, in her early 30s, she would win the TS Eliot Prize, arguably British poetry’s highest accolade, the first poet ever to win it for her first collection? Or that one day she would travel to St Andrews for StAnza, Scotland’s poetry festival, to share a bill with the Scots makar, Jackie Kay?

Howe’s grandmother died when she was still very young, taking to her grave many secrets, including what the fortune teller said. “I know all families have silence in them, but it sometimes seems to me that Chinese families have an extraordinary amount ofsilence in them,” she muses. However, she still has the bracelet, the “loop of jade” which gave her first poetry collection its title, a precious material link to a past which is full of silences and shadows.

I meet Howe, who moved to England with her family when she was seven, in a London cafe. She speaks carefully, as if testing each word to make sure it is the right one before moving on to the next, fitting, perhaps, for a woman fêted as one of the country’s finest young poets. But when she describes her beginnings in poetry, it sounds almost accidental that she ever put pen to paper.

She won a competition in her teens for some of the first poems she’d ever written – “I’d just been reading Sylvia Plath, I thought, why don’t I go home and try and do this?” – but didn’t write again until she was studying at Harvard in her early twenties. “I’d never read any American poetry, and meeting that was… wow. I think there was something a bit looser, a bit wilder, maybe a bit less traditional feeling [than in British poetry]. There was a real convergence of different cultural influences. That was the point at which I realised this was something I really cared about and wanted to do in earnest.”

By then, she had also made her first journey back to Hong Kong and on to Guangzhou in mainland China in search of her mother’s roots. She knew little, except that her mother had been abandoned as a baby, probably because she was a girl, and was taken by her adoptive mother to Hong Kong just as the Communist Party in China ascended to power. “It was as if all that recent experience had been looking for an outlet, a place where I could analyse it. From that point on, those journeys became bound up with poetry for me. Poetry became the vehicle for those journeys, they were almost like pilgrimages, because I was looking for something.”

Making the transition in childhood from Hong Kong to a primary school in Watford, Howe quickly learned to blend in. But as she grew up, she realised she needed “to reconnect with the neglected part of myself, the Chinese part”. Trying to understand her mother’s history, she found only broken threads, fragments of story murmured late at night. “I felt I had so little to work with, the stories she told me were the straws I had to grasp at, these fragments that would come out all wildly jumbled around in time, sometimes contradictory. These fragmentary oral recollections are all I’ll ever have, because there is no documentation of my mother’s adoption. All the steps would be, I suspect, completely untraceable. I think that’s why for me poetry made so much sense as a form for all of this because of the gaps and discontinuities and breaks.”

The poems about her journey of reconnection with her Chinese past form the central spine of Loop of Jade (although the book ranges widely across other subjects too). The gaps in the story become spaces for myth, for reflection on China’s history, and on the strangeness of seeing a land which feels like home through the eyes of a Western education and upbringing. Not surprisingly, it has been seized on as a narrative of immigration and mixed-race identity, but Howe is cautious of being turned into a spokesperson. “I think the publishing world and also the world of reception and criticism has a long way to go in terms of catching up with how to write about these things. I hope that my book may be a force for nuancing and complicating these ideas.”

She describes her Hong Kong childhood as colonial, “perhaps one of the very last”, reading English books at an English school, learning to count in pounds and pence. Her family were among many ex-pats who left in the run-up to the handover of Hong Kong to China in 1997, and watch with concern as the freedoms of the Hong Kongese appear to be being eroded under Beijing rule. When Howe visited recently for a literary festival, pro-democracy protesters marched past her hotel window.

In this context, literature takes on a political charge. Like the protesters 25 years before in Tiananmen Square, the students in Hong Kong’s Umbrella Movement scrawled poetry on their placards. Early in 2016, five Hong Kong booksellers were “disappeared” by the Chinese after continuing to sell books which had been banned in China. Howe’s latest project, ‘Two Systems’ (the phrase “one country, two systems” was used by the Chinese as a way to imply that Hong Kong would keep its freedoms) has become more charged than she intended. The concept was simple, and metaphorically resonant: to take the text of the Basic Law, Hong Kong’s “mini constitution”, and erase words and letters from it to make poems. Now, she is wondering if the metaphor of constitutional erosion might be a little too powerful.

“When I was in Hong Kong in November, I was putting out the word for collaborators and avenues of publication. Some people were extremely enthusiastic, but others were quite wary about what that work would mean being put out into the political climate there at the moment. I think they were just letting me know that it would be quite a major intervention and maybe a larger one than I was quite ready to make.

“I’m in a funny situation now. I feel a very strong connection to Hong Kong, in a way it is the place in the world that does explain my origins, but do I have a right to speak about these things because, as a British citizen, I’m shielded from the consequences of being outspoken in a way that some of the poets I know writing on similar themes in Hong Kong right now are not? I wonder if perhaps my role is to be an ally and supporter in these events rather than to presume to intervene in them directly. It is a very hard time to imagine what the future of Hong Kong can be, and yet I feel like imagination and the creative arts are going to be important to that political project of whatever Hong Kong becomes.”

It is a moment for poets and fortune tellers; it’s no coincidence that Howe sees a close connection between the two. The method of fortune telling she imagined her grandmother using in the temple in the title poem of Loop of Jade involves shaking out bamboo sticks which are tipped in red and numbered. The numbers refer to passages from literature, stories and poems. “There’s this idea that chance and accident in the universe direct you to these snippets of literature from the past which tell you about the present, or about your future – which I think is a lovely metaphor for what poetry does.” ■

*Sarah Howe will read with Scots makar Jackie Kay at the StAnza Poetry Festival, St Andrews on Saturday 4 March, 8pm at the Byre Theatre. For more information and bookings see www.stanzapoetry.org

STANZA FESTIVAL HIGHLIGHTS

Alice Oswald (Thursday 2 March, 8pm)

Oswald has been described as Britain’s greatest living poet, reading with St Andrews’ own Robert Crawford

Kathleen Jamie (Friday 3 March, 8pm)

Fresh from winning the Saltire Prize for her collection, The Bonniest Companie, reading with French poet and essayist Jacques Darras

Jackie Kay (Saturday 4 March, 11.30am)

The Scots makar talking about the work of Nan Shepherd, the Scots poet who now features on the new five pound notes, as part of StAnza’s Past & Present strand

Patience Agbabi (Saturday 4 March, 5pm)

As colourful on the stage as she is in print, Agbabi reads with Glasgow’s makar Jim Carruth

For more information and bookings see www.stanzapoetry.org