“Something Sets Us Looking for a Place”: A Conversation with Sarah Howe
When Fleurs de lettres approached me about interviewing Sarah Howe, winner of the 2015 TS Eliot-prize, I didn't need to think twice about accepting the invitation. Before Howe won the prestigious award, I had already admired her work in the anthology Eight Hong Kong Poets (Chameleon Press, 2015) and a special issue of Law Text Culture (18:1, 2014). When her debut collection Loop of Jade came out I bought a copy right away and I appreciated all the more the care and thought she put into her work.
Sarah Howe’s father is English and her mother Chinese, a combination that is the reverse of that of the Hong Kong-born award-winning novelist Timothy Mo (1950-), born to an English mother and a Cantonese father. Howe and Mo each spent their early childhood in Hong Kong before moving to Britain, and both write in English. I mentioned Mo here to demonstrate that Howe’s family history and background is in itself not that unique, given Hong Kong’s colonial background. What is unique, however, is the way Howe addresses this history in her poetry, which is at once personal and remarkably relatable, captivating, and often very touching.
Although Howe was born in Hong Kong and visits the city regularly, she cannot speak Cantonese very well. In her poem “Crossing from Guangdong”, for example, she writes
I count out the change in Cantonese,
Yut, ye, sam, sei. Like a baby.
Howe, then, can only speak the level of Cantonese of a small child. In the interview, she lamented this lack, saying that “I didn’t grow up speaking Cantonese, but that lack always niggled at me.” Howe’s mother, a native speaker of the language, had decided not to use it when raising Howe, as research at the time suggested that bringing up children bilingually hurt their language-acquisition. But Howe wondered if it was a “smokescreen”, and that perhaps her mother had sacrificed Cantonese so that her father would not feel excluded when mother and children were speaking to each other in a tongue that was unfamiliar to him.
Despite not being able to use Cantonese as their primary means of communication, the closeness between Howe and her mother remains undiminished. Indeed, Howe’s love for her mother is palpable. In the poem “Crossing from Guangdong” she retraces her mother’s journey from Guangdong to Hong Kong:
I have made the crossing.
The same journey you, a screaming
The poem is full of poignant moments, such as when she imagines a family link among the strangers she sees: “I am looking for a familiar face”, “something like finding family” and
Or the old woman on the Datong bus,
doubtless just inviting a foreigner to dinner,
but who could have been my unknown
grandmother, for all I knew or understood.
“People in this part of the world really do look like my Mum, in a way that, say, northern Chinese people don’t,” Howe told me. “And this means that I have this strange feeling when I come back here.”
Howe’s mother, born on the mainland, was adopted by a woman in Hong Kong and never knew her birth family, leaving Howe sensing possible family connections in even “the contour of a nose” as she encounters people when travelling in Guangdong province and Hong Kong. In her poem “Tame”, Howe uses the Chinese proverb, “it is more profitable to raise geese than daughters” as its epigraph. I asked her about her thoughts on Chinese daughters in general, today, in China and in the world, and how they’re perceived. Howe returned to her mother’s experience, saying that,
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 was always aware that there was a great sadness there, that it was most likely her gender which meant she faced such hardship in the first part of her life.
In writing “Tame”, Howe did more research and she became aware of how “remarkably common” an experience her mother’s was, especially with the one-child policy in China, implemented in the late 1970s and early 1980s, which “likely had the effect of further skewing sex ratios.” Using Mary Anne Warren’s term “gendercide”, Howe said the historical preference to sons is not unique to Chinese culture, and that there were South Asian readers, such as Indian women, who told her after she performed “Tame” that they were “very moved by that poem: [that their] culture has that problem too.” Still, Howe is positive about the place of Chinese women in modern society:
I think that that place is becoming less and less fraught as years go on, becoming more autonomous, more independent, more easy and I’m very glad of that.
* * *
Since the publication of Loop of Jade, Sarah Howe has been widely recognised as a Hong Kong poet and people in the city enthusiastically claim Howe as one of our own. I asked Howe how she feels about her identification as a “Hong Kong poet” and whether she thinks that, to some respect, it brings any responsibility, for example, to write about Hong Kong issues, or pay attention to what is happening to Hong Kong and its relationship with China.
Howe modestly says she feels that “Hong Kong poet” is “an honorific” that she never sought for herself. Instead, if she had to “adopt” an identity label, she is more comfortable being called a British-Chinese poet. However, she believes that “Hong Kong poet” is perhaps a more flexible and expansive category than people had previously imagined, and that she is honoured to be regarded as one, demonstrated by her being included in the Chameleon anthology Eight Hong Kong Poets. She continues,
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 watch Hong Kong’s situation very carefully and with great interest, but I’m aware that I watch it from the other side of the world. In fact, I rely on not only on traditional news sources, but on journals like Asian 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.
Howe is currently working on a poem sequence called Two Systems, its title a clear reference to Hong Kong’s “One Country, Two Systems” policy and I asked her to elaborate on the work. She said the idea was to explore the concept of the “Rule of Law” by applying erasure poetry techniques to the Basic Law, which has governed the territory since the 1997 handover, and to think about how poetry might tell us about concepts like law and citizenship and freedom and so on, and the difficult future ahead for Hong Kong.
Howe also had an intriguing idea, that is, to turn the project into a public art project. In her words,
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.
Unfortunately, Howe has not yet had time to bring this to fruition, although it is something she wants to carry through in the future.
* * *
Howe told me she left Hong Kong with her family when she was seven, and didn’t come back until ten years later. I was interested to know if she remembers much of the time when she was a young girl here. She launched into a beautiful and spontaneous rhapsody of the late 1980s Hong Kong of her childhood. You can see from her memory and the language used to express it how naturally words come to her:
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.
It is interesting that Howe mentioned “neon lights”, once an essential visual marker of Hong Kong’s night cityscape, now increasingly replaced with LED. Perhaps Howe will write about all this in a poem, or a sequence of poems, prompting us—and readers abroad—to look for traces of the Hong Kong of the past, while also looking ahead to its future.