Interview / September 2016 (Issue 33)

Yut, ye, sam, sei: A Conversation with Sarah Howe

by Tammy Ho Lai-Ming


Tammy Ho: Sarah, can you tell me what life has been like for you personally and also for the people around you, such as your family, since winning the TS Eliot Prize and achieving widespread recognition.

Sarah Howe: I think my family was very proud, which was lovely. I think they had always been confused by me being a writer, and I suppose I hadn’t really ‘come out’, as it were, as a poet until this book was released. I’d always had, and still have, a day job as an academic. So I think, maybe winning the prize has helped my parents to understand that maybe this is a good thing. It’s really sweet how supportive and delighted that they’ve been. For my own part, it’s also been an incredible experience; it’s really changed the profile of my work… even down to the number of people reading the book. It’s probably made quite a big difference on that front. On the other hand, it wasn’t entirely easy in the sense that…even my initial elation at the news was quickly tempered by some other difficulties that arose at the time, to do with currents in the British literary scene that weren’t entirely happy with me winning the Eliot Prize.[1] I found that quite hard at the time but now thankfully it seems quite distant.


T: You mentioned that your parents primarily consider you an academic and I want to know a little bit about your academic work. Do you still have time to do research? And how do your scholarly publications compare with your creative ones, in terms of output?

S: I very much still have time to do my academic work, in the sense that that’s still the job that pays for my bread to be buttered! Though I confess it’s been so busy this summer season––I’ve been touring almost constantly since I moved back to the UK at the start of summer––that I’ve been quite grateful that the academic terms afford these long vacations where I can do other things. The various universities I’ve been affiliated with have all been really supportive of me pursuing this dual aspect of my career. My research is something that for a long time I conceived of as separate to my poems. I almost felt that I had to keep them separate from one another, but I think these days they’ve enjoyed a reconciliation, in the sense that I can now see all sorts of ways in which my scholarly work has shaped my fascinations as a poet. The historical period I work on as a scholar is quite remote––sixteenth and seventeenth-century English literature, which might not on the surface feel like it has very much to do with these poems at all. There’s maybe a handful of poems I’ve written that have something to do with that period of history. But I think that historical interest is, nevertheless, something that feeds into the poems––I’m interested in how stories are told and mis-told and retold over time. I’m in the final stages of finishing the book that’s based on my PhD, which is called The Mind’s Eye in Renaissance English Literature. Again, I suppose the ‘mind’s eye’ is a preoccupation of mine as a poet too; that research is all about this question of how words might make us see pictures, which is also something I’m interested in as a writer.


T: It sounds really fascinating. When did you finish your PhD research?

S: About five years ago… it’s a long labour of love, as you know!


T: It does take that long to turn a PhD thesis into a monograph. You mentioned the universities you were affiliated with—I know you have been, and still are, a Radcliffe Institute Fellow at Harvard. What about the UK? Are you employed by or affiliated with any university there?

S: I used to be at Cambridge for a long time. And then when I left for Harvard last year, it was sad to leave Cambridge. I felt like in lots of ways I was formed as a person and as a mind there, so it was quite sad at last to say goodbye––I was thinking a lot about that Chinese poem… saying goodbye to Cambridge again. But now I have a new job at University College London, I am really excited about starting work in London. Even in all the years I was working in Cambridge I always had one foot in London, because my husband lives there.


T: Next, I want to talk a little bit about your poem, “Crossing from Guangdong” (pp. 2-5), which is a wonderful poem—I really like the language and the images. In the poem, you write ‘I count out the change in Cantonese, / Yut, ye, sam, sei. Like a baby’. This is very beautiful. Do you speak Cantonese?

S: No, I don’t. So when I say ‘Yut, ye, sam, sei. Like a baby’, I literally mean that that’s as far as I got with my Cantonese: that I speak the level of Cantonese that a very small baby would. My Mum didn’t really speak to me in Cantonese when I was little…


T: Was it a conscious choice on her part?

S: I find this very difficult to know, and also find thinking about it quite sad and painful. My mum tends to explain it in terms of research she was reading at the time that argued that raising children bilingually hurt their language-acquisition, which is, of course, now believed to be nonsense––after an initial lag, it’s actually supposed to be the other way round, not least in terms of cognitive benefits. But I do sometimes wonder if that explanation is something of a smokescreen––if it points to other things. For one, in our particular family dynamic, my Dad might not have found it very easy to be the only one who didn’t understand a language that we, my mother, brother and I, would be able to speak to each other.


T: Perhaps your mother didn’t want to exclude him…

S: It’s possible. It’s a decision of hers I personally regret. It’s been interesting for me meeting other people with Chinese heritage in the diaspora and discovering it’s actually a relatively common thing, not to have access to Chinese, or to an ancestral dialect anymore. So, I didn’t grow up speaking Cantonese, but that lack always niggled at me. When I reached my mid-to-late twenties I thought, enough of this, I’m going to make real efforts to learn Chinese. But it was Mandarin that I ended up learning––at SOAS in London––partly because the resources for studying it in the UK are so much more accessible than for Cantonese. It does mean that we now have a slightly strange situation at home, whereby I would try to practise my Mandarin with my Mum, but realised she speaks it with a really strong Cantonese accent even I can hear!


T: From your poems, we learn that Cantonese is her first language. That’s very interesting—the dynamics between Mandarin and Cantonese, and also your speaking English…

S: Whenever I spoke to my Mum about learning Chinese, she would always say, oh, don’t bother learning Cantonese, it’s not useful. If you want to do business in China (which of course I don’t!), if you want to study the literature in China, you have to learn Mandarin. I don’t think she ever understood that my main motive for wanting to learn Chinese was to be able to speak to her in her own language, her mother tongue. But I still hope to come back round to Cantonese one day. In fact, I was thinking of signing up for some Cantonese classes this coming autumn, if I can make the time. So by the time I come back to Hong Kong in November, maybe I’ll be able to speak some more baby-Cantonese!


T: In another poem, “Islands” (p. 55), you write about the experience of boarding school and I assume that was in Hong Kong. Am I right?

S: Actually, that’s a bit complicated. That poem is in the voice of… if not exactly my mother, then a character very close to my mother. In reality, that boarding school was in Macao. In some ways, that poem, “Islands”, dwells on the idea of mistranslation, as do a few of the poems in Loop of jade about her childhood. I don’t want to get ahead of ourselves, but I think you had a question about language in that poem: you asked, interestingly, why the islands at the start of that poem are listed in their English guises, rather than by their Cantonese names.[2]


T: Oh yes, Ping Chau, Cheung Chau, Lantau and Lamma

S: It stems from the fact that I imagined that poem as a sort of dramatic monologue––a bit like the way parts of the title poem, “Loop of Jade”, are told to a daughter figure. This is where the element of ‘mistranslation’ comes in: I imagine the speaker constantly having to translate her memories of life in a Chinese-speaking culture into an idiom that an English-speaking child would understand, hence why there are funny moments of pivoting between languages in that poem. The islands are named in English, because that’s the only way the poem’s implied auditor would recognize them.  It’s an effect that is even more self-conscious in “Loop of Jade”––there, even the word ‘boarding school’ is a mistranslation: in English ‘boarding school’ suggests a real sort of elite privilege whereas, as you will know from that poem, that is very much not the sort of experience its speaker is talking about. An English speaker might form a mental image of place like Eton, but what the poem describes is actually a young girl taking the planks off the bunk bed and stomping the lice on the ground that drop out. They’re worlds that are hard to square, and that disjunction, that experience of disorientation, was important to me. In that poem, even the word ‘mother’ is revealed as something of a mistranslation: in that case it’s less a problem to do with moving between different tongues, than a moment of confronting any language’s inadequacy. I found it very striking growing up that whenever she said the word ‘mother’, my Mum would always pause just after the ‘my’: ‘my… mother’. You know, almost as if she was casting around for another word that would more accurately describe that relationship but couldn’t quite find one. And she would never say ‘my Mum’ or anything more intimate: there was always that formality there. I think those little verbal ‘tells’ really reflect something about the relationship she had with the woman that adopted her; that she was her mother, but she also wasn’t and couldn’t be, because of the sort of person she was.


T: You point out that this is not necessarily a personal poem, representing your own experience. Do you often get misunderstandings of your poems like that—readers assuming that a particular poem is autobiographical, that it’s entirely spoken from your perspective or based on your own experience?

S: I suppose I haven’t had enough one-to-one conversations with readers to know, to be honest! Under prompting in interviews, I do feel I end up talking about my life and my Mum’s life and incidentals of autobiography quite often––perhaps too often––as if that would somehow explain the poems, which I feel like it actually doesn’t. In some ways, I would prefer not to say anything at all––for the poems to exist by themselves. That’s in part why the poems are so sparing with the orientating details that they offer: they are deliberately elliptical in the narrative they unfold. For example, the whole story of the collection moves chronologically backwards in time, such that the poem which finally reveals a key aspect of my mother’s origins (I should possibly offer a ‘spoiler alert’ here!), the fact she was abandoned as a baby, comes only at the very end of the book. Part of the book’s conception is to offer the kind of mixed-up fragments and snippets that my Mum told me about her early life over many years. So, for me, it was sort of a detective story of piecing things together.


T: For me, when I was reading “Islands” and boarding school was mentioned, I just thought, it’s very interesting, because it’s not a very common experience for most Hong Kong people. But bringing us back to your own childhood in Hong Kong: you left before you were ten years old.

S: Yes, I was seven when we left…


T: Do you remember much of the time when you were a little girl in Hong Kong?

S: I do. I have very vivid memories, some of which made it into poems, while others I’ve written about in various non-fiction essays, including some travel-based pieces, over the years. Those early memories of Hong Kong tend to be images of and feelings about places. I remember my Mum bringing home a live fish from a wet market one day. She must have put it into the wok, but it jumped out again and flopped all round the kitchen floor, and my little brother, who must have been about three, was running around after the fish screaming and laughing––it was quite funny, the animal cruelty implications aside! And I remember looking down at the tiny cars and people from high up––staring down at the neon lights on the buildings at night in fascination for what felt like hours––because we lived on the 25th floor. It was only when I moved to England that I understood how unusual that aerial perspective on the world is. I remember getting the tram with my Mum: how she would let me put the change into the counter and how it would ring its way down the funnel. But it was quite strange when I came back to Hong Kong as an adult, because I didn’t really understand how the places I remembered fitted together. After we left when I was seven, I didn’t come back till I was seventeen, so there was a ten-year gap. For example, I can remember walking through a park and seeing the cranes––you know the majestic yellow crested ones…


T: Which park was that?

S: I have no idea; I could probably work it out by asking my Mum, but I also sort of like treasuring those decontextualized, uncontaminated memories too. People often say this about their childhoods: you get an overlaying of what you yourself remember and what your parents tell you, and they get mixed up. Some things I want to ask my parents and some things I just want to retain the child’s perspective if I can.


T: Talking about you parents and being a child, in the poem “Tame” (p. 11), you use the Chinese proverb, ‘it is more profitable to raise geese than daughters’ as its epigraph. What is your own relationship with your parents—based on what you’ve said and also from your other interviews, it seems like you’ve got a very good relationship with your parents, especially your mother, because it is her connections to China, to Hong Kong, that you draw a lot of inspiration from. I want to know what you think about Chinese daughters in general, today, in China and in the world, and how they’re perceived. What are your thoughts on this particular group of people and how they’re situated in the world?

S: I’m fascinated by the place of Chinese women in modern society. Happily and thankfully, I think that that place is becoming less and less… fraught as years go on, more and more autonomous and empowered––easier, in short, and I’m very glad of that. That poem “Tame” is a tricky one, insofar as many of these poems are sort of hybrid beasts (I say that with a nod to the Borges epigraph they are named for). “Tame” is framed as if it were a Chinese folk tale––and I have a feeling some readers might receive it as a retelling of an old story––but of course, it’s entirely imagined, a product of my imagination. But to add an extra layer of complication, many of the cultural elements, the echoes of old stories, that inform it are Western ones. For example, the metamorphoses––shape-shifting from woman to tree or girl to bird––which happen in that poem come primarily, for me, from the Latin poet Ovid, as opposed to the Chinese myths and folk tales that my Mum read to me before I went to sleep––though such transformations and escapes are also a part of those traditions. On some level, I hoped the cultural hybridity you see in that poem and in others would have a sort of political force as well. It’s like saying to Western readers: if you are so complacent as to think that patriarchy, the lack of respect or self-determination for women, is something unique to (ancient) China, then you need to look at yourselves, at your own literary traditions.

That said, I’ve always been aware that my Mum was given up as a baby after she was born in Guangdong, almost certainly because she was a girl. I mean, it’s hard for us to be sure––we know almost nothing about the circumstances of her family, whether they were poor and couldn’t look after her, whether they already had too many children, or whatever––but I guess statistics would strongly suggest that gender is a factor in such cases. Her adoptive mother seemed to tell her some snippets about the family she came from, but they might have just been speculation––it’s really hard to know. In the title poem, the character representing my mother says ‘what my mother told me, I don’t know how much I can believe. Because some of the details about her origins she was told by her adoptive mother were quite contradictory, my poems deal with that sort of unreliable narration.

I was always aware that there was a great sadness there, that… that it was most likely her gender which meant she faced such hardship in the first part of her life. As I did more and more research in the course of writing “Tame”, I became aware of how remarkably common an experience hers was, both historically, going back millennia, and in the generations after my own mother was born, when the one-child policy likely had the effect of further skewing sex ratios. By all accounts, I think it is accurate to call this phenomenon ‘China’s gendercide’, as some sociologists do. The historical preference for sons is by no means unique to Chinese culture––it’s been striking to me how often after I perform “Tame”, South Asian people, especially Indian women, come up to me and say, ‘I was very moved by that poem: my culture has that problem too’. So I’m glad that it’s changing and I hope it changes faster––as fast as possible.


T: You said that you left Hong Kong as a child when you were seven. And after that you came back when you were seventeen and now you’re back in Hong Kong. Did you come back in between those times? And you’ve also, just now, talked about the images of Hong Kong that you remember from your childhood. What about the people here? Do you have any thoughts about them? Just as a general impression, perhaps…

S: I try to come back to Hong Kong at least every two or three years. There was a period where I was learning Mandarin most intensely when, for the sake of practising, I would go to the mainland more often. I spent one summer in Beijing, for example. I guess I’m sad that, because of my Mum’s family circumstances I never had any Chinese family to visit here in Hong Kong. And so I always felt, regretfully, a pang when my handful of Chinese friends at our English secondary school would come back see their relatives in Hong Kong, visit their ancestral villages, sweep their grandparents’ graves, and so on. It just so happened that all my Chinese friends growing up were from Hong Kong families too: I guess because there was so much emigration from Hong Kong to England back then, though I think that’s changing (you now hear a lot more Mandarin being spoken in London’s Chinatown).


T: In Hong Kong as well.

S: (Laughs) But it meant that I always felt like I missed out on a huge part of Chineseness: not just not knowing the language, but also not knowing what it felt like to be part of a Chinese family. I never learned the words for ‘fourth uncle’, or all those complex calibrations that Chinese has for varieties of family ties, because I never had any. That was a source of sadness, and it also means that I have this strange feeling whenever I come to Hong Kong in particular, but also when I travel in Guangdong province that, because people in this part of the world really do look like my Mum, in a way that, say, northern Chinese people don’t... this means that I have this strange feeling when I come back here…


T: That someone might be related…

S: Yes exactly, that people might potentially be long-lost family; but also a strong sense that this is where my people are from.


T: There are several very moving instances in “Crossing from Guangdong” where you are seeking a familiar face from strangers.

S: Yes, that’s exactly the sensation, what you’ve just described. Even though I’m mixed-race, so obviously don’t look exactly like people here, there were always lots of Eurasian children around when I was growing up in Hong Kong, so I never felt out of place here. It was a different story when we moved to England; it took me a while to reconcile myself, those first few years, to my own difference. I felt like I stood out in my new school, even in the relatively multicultural community I was parachuted into outside London.


T: After the publication of Loop of Jade you are now quite widely regarded as a Hong Kong poet. I wonder how you see this identity and whether you think that, to some respect, you have to take on some of the responsibility of being a Hong Kong poet. For example, by writing about Hong Kong issues, or paying attention to what is happening to Hong Kong and its relationship with China.

S: I feel that ‘Hong Kong poet’ is a sort of honorific that I never really sought for myself. If I had to adopt an identity label, I suppose I would feel fairly secure in calling myself a British-Chinese poet—whether you hyphenate that or not is perhaps a question. But I didn’t, to be honest, feel like the title ‘Hong Kong poet’ is something I could really lay claim to, partly because I don’t live here. But maybe your suggestion just now shows that the idea of ‘Hong Kong poet’ is more flexible, and more expansive a category, than I had imagined it was to myself back in the UK. I was honoured, for example, to be included in the Chameleon anthology Eight Hong Kong Poets (whose pages we share), not least because I can see the chimings and commonalities amongst the work of those eight poets. Even though the voices are very different and diverse in background, you can see common strands of preoccupation. Maybe that is the respect in which I could be called a Hong Kong poet: I do write poems about Hong Kong, and am very interested in what happens in and to Hong Kong. As for whether it comes with a responsibility, I’m not sure… I watch Hong Kong’s situation carefully and with great interest, but I’m aware that I watch it from the other side of the world. In fact, I rely not only on traditional news sources, but on journals like your own Cha, on twitter and social media, to know what is going on here, and so it’s very much a mediated view that I get of the place. I find it important to stay in touch with events here as far as I can. And I guess that is something that is creeping into my work, even after Loop of Jade.


 T: Indeed I learned that you are currently working on a poem sequence titled Two Systems, in which you will also cover the Umbrella Movement in Hong Kong in 2014. Can you tell me a bit more about this project?

S: There’s been a recent newsflash on this project. When I was doing an event yesterday co-sponsored by the British Council and the Asia Society, in the audience was Xu Xi, whom I’d never met before. So it was a great honour to meet her and really lovely to chat about the literary scene in Hong Kong. She informed me of a project that I had no idea about, involving two poets––one, I think, of Western heritage but born in Asia, who was working in collaboration with a Hong Kong Chinese poet––where they’d done something very similar, and had apparently made some erasure poems based on the Basic Law, to be displayed in the theatre at City University of Hong Kong. I’d love to go and see their work, but sadly there won’t be time on this trip.[3]

Maybe there’s a reason they too arrived at the same concept independently, because it’s such a potent metaphor: erasing the Basic Law and the symbolism of that act. Funnily enough, the fact that other poets are working with the Basic Law as a source text in a similar vein actually mirrors my own thinking about this piece, which I’ve started to re-envisage as something potentially more collaborative, that could be generated at a larger scale. I first started work on this project, Two Systems, even before the Umbrella Movement came into being. It was in the summer of 2014, shortly after the White Paper was released, that I first had the idea. I received a commission for a poem to published in a special issue of Law Text Culture on the Rule of Law in Post-colonial East Asia: the first few pages of Two Systems were the result. (I was pleased to see your own piece in the same issue, by the way.) And so the poem began as a creative project rooted in exploring this concept of ‘Rule of Law’; in thinking how poetry might tell us about concepts like law and citizenship and freedom and so on, and what can it tell us about the difficult future ahead for Hong Kong.

The more I worked on this poem over the past couple of years, the more I started to realise it didn’t really make sense for me to be working on it alone. Earlier this year, I resolved in my mind that it wasn’t sufficient for the poem to take place solely in English: I needed to find a Chinese collaborator. It’s interesting to me that the other pair of poets had the same thought, that it needs inherently to be a bilingual project. But building on that realization, my current thinking is that this project would be most meaningful as a public art piece that allowed for a sort of collective and anonymous authorship: where you could enable members of the public to take individual pages of the Basic Law and, by erasing their own path through the text, to create an array of different poems out of the same materials. So the heart of the project would be in working out a way to display all of those different poems, different voices, different outcomes and imagined futures. I haven’t had enough time recently to concentrate on making this happen, but it’s an ambition for the future.


T: In a recent interview with Boston Review, you said something about race. You said, ‘even when I don’t feel I’m writing race, race is writing me’ and you pointed out that some of the poems, actually many of the poems, in the collection are not necessarily about race. Even though they are not entirely about race, people still read race into your poems. I want to know how you feel about your own role in this interpretation of your poetry—because in a lot of interviews, perhaps like this one, race is a question that is brought up quite regularly. And also in your lectures, in your talks, sometimes you make reference to it. How do you see yourself in perhaps encouraging this conversation?

S: This is a really complex question, for writers and for the world in general. In that bit of the Boston Review interview you’ve mentioned, I didn’t mean to imply I believe there’s such a thing as the writerly equivalent of ‘colour/race blindness’, or however you want to describe that ideology. I wouldn’t ever seek to write from a position of racelessness because I don’t think that position exists. It’s an illusion that is only possible to hold when you are so firmly ensconced in the dominant racial order that your race becomes invisible to you. In the case of the country I live in, that position is whiteness. I guess what I meant to describe was the sort of additional pressures or constraints that minority writers in the West feel that white writers perhaps don’t have to grapple with day-to-day in their work. This dynamic plays out in my poems in various, often quite self-conscious, ways––and also, sometimes, unconsciously or half-consiously. There are, I feel, several poems in Loop of Jade that work through experiences of duality, or mixedness, or contradiction, that don’t seem on the surface to be about race. For example, there’s a poem called “Sirens”,[4] which is about… well it’s about lots of things, including how the sexuality of women has been demonised in Western culture through the centuries, about power dynamics between men and women, and how these can play out in relationships such as that between teacher and student, or even writer and reader.

But it’s not, on the surface, a poem about race or being mixed-race. Except of course it is––how could it not be, when its subject is a creature that is neither fish nor fowl? And then there’s the bit of “Sirens” which quotes Horace’s Ars Poetica and its strictures against writers who try to mix genres too flagrantly. Horace compares their work to a mermaid where a beautiful women winds up in a ‘black and horrible fish’. His discourse on poetics starts to sound a bit like a coded discussion of miscegenation. And of course it also shows how, from the very start of Western culture, ideas of whiteness and blackness had this moral and aesthetic freightedness: even when people didn’t think they were talking about race, they always were––that whiteness was beautiful and blackness was hideous.

But to get back to your question, I feel like UK literary culture is on the cusp of great things as it wakes up to the immense richness that writers with origins and heritages from outside Britain bring to it. And I think you can see this, for example, in the fact that a poet I hugely admire, Kei Miller, who is originally from Jamaica, won the Forward Prize recently. And Claudia Rankine from the States won the same prize the year after, and so on. And yet, I still get frustrated when I see reviews of Black and Asian writers’ work that seem to rehash the same old stereotypes of what their writing is allowed to do––as if being published is only the first of the hurdles to being heard.


T: So you have only been in Hong Kong this time for two days. But I suppose you can feel the immense interest we have in you and how much we want to see you. We want to hear your thoughts on things. Did you expect this sort of reception?

S: No, really no, and I’m still quite surprised! I think it’s really kind and overly generous of people like you, Tammy!


T: You mentioned that last night you had a conversation, I think with Melanie Ho. Was that the first time you were faced with a Hong Kong audience?

S: Yes! It was.


T: What was it like?

S: Last night was the first time I have ever read my poems in Hong Kong. I was quite nervous, but in the end it was a lovely experience. I could feel the warmth and depth of interest in the room. And when it came to the Q&A session, I thought the audience asked wonderfully perceptive questions, both about the poems and also about the craft of being a writer. From some of the questions, I felt like there were a lot of writers, or maybe budding writers, in the audience. It makes me really heartened about the creative culture here that I got that sense. It does seem to confirm the impression I had begun to develop back in the UK, that poetry––thanks to writers like yourself––is flourishing in Hong Kong at the moment.


T: Thank you very much Sarah.

S: Thank you!


Editors' note: This interview took place on Thursday 21st July 2016 at the Renaissance Hong Kong Harbour View Hotel. It was made possible by the joint support of the British Council Hong Kong and the Hong Kong Chinese-language literary journal Fleurs des lettres, which published a shorter version of this interview in their September 2016 issue


[1] See this Guardian article about the ‘TS Eliot prize row’ after Howe’s winning of the prize was announced.

[2] Some of the interview questions were sent to Howe a week before the interview.

[3] Poets Collier Nogues and Ng Mei Kwan applied erasure techniques to Basic Law Article 1-23 Chapter 1-2. See more here.

[4] Loop of Jade, p. 25.

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