Prize-winning Hong Kong-born Poet Sarah Howe Makes Verse of City’s Basic Law

South China Morning Post Magazine
July 7, 2016
By Claire Tyrrell-Morin

We meet in a small office on the second floor of the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, overlooking a tranquil garden unseen from Harvard University’s main thoroughfares. It’s freezing outside, but the view is spectacular: the bare branches of an ancient tree, contemplated by scholars for generations, silhouetted against a wintry sky. It’s a good view for a poet.

The office belongs to a Radcliffe Fellow, Sarah Howe, who is spending the year here with 50 other artists and scholars. You may not know her name yet, but Howe could become one of Hong Kong’s most celebrated writers.

In December, the 32-year-old won the Sunday Times/Peters Fraser & Dunlop Young Writer of the Year Award for authors under the age of 35. The previous month, scientist Stephen Hawking read out a poem, titled “Relativity”, that she had written for him for Britain’s National Poetry Day. And, in January, Howe was presented with the £20,000 (HK$204,000) T.S. Eliot Prize for Poetry at a lavish ceremony at the Victoria and Albert Museum, in London.

Her winning collection was "Loop of Jade”, which weaves around her identity as a British-Chinese poet born in Hong Kong. The dualistic, hybrid work dances between the search for her mother’s Chinese roots and subjects as varied as censorship, 14th-century Flemish paintings, evenings in Arizona and the rain in London. The book captures a quest for identity, dislocation and the crossing of waters – themes familiar to many a Hongkonger – yet, equally, it is an exploration of the Western literary canon and the impact Chinese poetry has had on it.

Howe is the first poet to have won the prestigious T.S. Eliot prize with a debut collection; previous winners include Seamus Heaney and Ted Hughes. According to the chair of the judges, Pascale Petit, the panel was impressed by the collection’s “startling exploration of gender and injustice through place and identity, its erudition, and powerful imagery” and its “daring experiment with form”.

Nevertheless, several major British news organisations questioned why the award had been bestowed on a young, non-white poet. Was this “tokenism”, or an exercise in political correctness?

Satirical magazine Private Eye asked, “Was it perhaps, as some suggested, for extra-poetic reasons? As a successful and very ‘presentable’ young woman …” A Sunday Times article by journalist Oliver Thring caused a global Twitter storm. His condescending tone and suggestion that Howe’s poetry “pummels the reader with allusion, scholarship and a brusque, sixth-formy emphasis on her own intelligence” provoked a backlash from the poetry world. Thring attempted to defend himself, tweeting: “This gentle interview with a leading young poet has led various deranged poetesses to call me thick, sexist, etc.” This prompted thousands to come to Howe’s defence, using the hashtag #derangedpoetess.

British poet and literary blogger Katy Evans-Bush wrote in The Guardian, “So here we have had three male-centric media bastions … damning a 30-something woman for having won a major book award. They’ve got her on her education, her vocabulary, her ‘tasteful’ home and her looks – everything but her poetry. They don’t like it. One well-known male poet summed it up perfectly on Facebook: ‘Someone’s taken away their ball.’”

SARAH LOUISE HOWE was born in Hong Kong in 1983 and lived during her early years in a 25th-floor apartment on Kennedy Road, with her British father, an insurance agent, and Chinese mother, from Guangzhou.

“I had this immensely privileged, sort of late-era colonial bubble of a childhood, yet with these [glimpses of] another sort of Hong Kong, when my mum would take us to places that she knew. So I was aware of there being two spheres that we were moving across,” she says.

“On the one hand, I guess my dad’s job went with all these expectations that he would be a member of these clubs – the [Hong Kong] Jockey Club and so on – yet even as a small child I was sort of aware of the history of these places. I remember it being talked about at home that, at one point, Chinese people wouldn’t have been allowed into these places. So I intuited the history of racial hierarchy, which my family slots into in some ways. Without the colonial history of Hong Kong, I wouldn’t exist. So in that sense, I feel like my story is a Hong Kong story.”

Everything changed in 1991. Just before her eighth birthday, the family moved to Watford, north of London. Her priority then became to assimilate. “My early years in England were marked by this really acute sense of being several steps behind everyone else; of needing to watch what other people were doing in order to fit in with this new set of codes that were very unfamiliar to me, despite having gone to an English-language school in Hong Kong.”

She remembers people making fun of her mother’s accent. She had an acute sense “of myself as other” in a way she hadn’t experienced in multicultural Hong Kong, where Eurasian children abound.

“I didn’t have the same feeling of sticking out that I sud­den­ly did when I was parachuted, in the middle of the school year, into this primary-school playground in Watford. There was quite a lot of racism, which surprised me.”

Her response was to embrace her English side. This continued into her university years, at Cambridge, where she studied Renaissance literature (she is now a Renaissance scholar). “It was a continuation of that path, of wanting to master the English canon and wanting to be so unimpeachably on top of English literary tradition that no one could ever question my credentials,” she explains. “Which, I guess, is a pattern you see in the work of Derek Walcott and other post-colonial writers; the nature of their grappling with English colonialism. So much is to do with the English literary past and form, and what it means to write a sonnet as a Caribbean poet.”

After Cambridge, Howe won a scholarship to study at Harvard, where something interesting began to happen. On a whim, she took a class with American poet Jorie Graham, studying translations of Tang Chinese poetry.

As a teenager, Howe had won awards for poetry, but a teacher had warned her not to fetishise herself by focusing too much on her Chinese side. “That was a real eye-opener for me,” Howe says. “I don’t think I’d even read those poets before that moment. What [Graham] was using them to illustrate was vividness of image, and how much as Western poets we might want to learn from this tradition. I was hooked.”

This discovery coincided with an unsettling sense that she had become “other” again.

“I had never been to America before and I guess it was the first time I’d lived in a foreign country since that first dislocation, when I was seven. So it brought up all this stuff for me: what’s my place in the world? I’m suddenly foreign again. For some reason, that switched on this tap of all the things I’d … yeah, suppressed for so long about my otherness and what it means to cross oceans, and what it means to be from another place. And that’s when I wrote the poem, ‘Crossing from Guangdong’.”

In it, Howe describes a journey she took to Guangzhou in the early 2000s to learn her mother’s story. Her mother, whose name she wishes to withhold – “especially in the wake of the hostile journalists I met earlier in the year” – was born in the Guangdong capital in 1949 and abandoned soon after birth. She was brought to Hong Kong as a baby and raised by an adoptive mother in a poor North Point tenement, which Howe tangibly evokes in Loop of Jade.

As the title poem reveals, her mother only started open­ing up about her past in late-night conversations when Howe was an adult.

“When the television has stayed on too long, the channels / ended and all the downstairs lights switched off but one, / sometimes, rarely, my mother will begin to talk, without / prelude or warning, about her growing up. Then her words / feel pulled up from a dark and unreflective well – willed and / not willed. It isn’t that this tacit constraint is not tinged by / our same daily fumblings, but when the men are asleep, I /think she believes it’s someone else’s turn to listen.”

Of these sessions, Howe says, “There’s a weird parallel across the generations. I found out about ... her past in these nocturnal, fragmented storytelling sessions and I think that’s how she found out from her adoptive mother, too – in her case, with much less kindness. I think it was often in angry moments that her mother would tell her these details about her past.”

The title of the collection itself is a reference to the jade baby’s bracelet Howe wears around her neck. Her maternal grandmother bought it for her when Sarah was born and took it to be blessed at Wong Tai Sin Temple.

“Jade bracelets are meant to protect Chinese toddlers when they’re learning to walk, like talismans – if the baby falls down, the idea is that the circle of stone will smash rather than the child be hurt. For me, it represents the broken bloodline of my Chinese inheritance – disrupted by the fact that my mother was adopted as an orphan – but also my efforts to reintegrate the Chinese half of my identity,” Howe says.

As the book unfolds, we begin to see Howe fill the holes in her mother’s story with myths and legends. She travels back in time. She takes on Ezra Pound and the way English modernism was affected by Chinese poetry, and she laun­ches fully into myths of her own. A stunning poem titled “Tame” opens with a Chinese proverb: “It is more profitable to raise geese than daughters”. It is a timeless and bone-chillingly beautiful mythic poem about a woodsman’s daughter, who is beaten and aban­doned by her father, and transforms into a wild goose.

“I almost feel guilty at having talked so openly in these interviews about my family and my background and so on, because I almost feel those aren’t true to the poems. They should be able to have their own life and existence separate from my own story and my mum’s story, and maybe that could cue you to read them in the wrong way,” says Howe, frowning. “I think the way I want a poem like “Crossing from Guangdong” [to be read] is this moment of realisation that reality can never match up to the imagination.

“If the book has any message, it’s that the reality behind these things is hard to access, even when you go back to the place. There’s always this overlaying of imagination and memory, and distortion. And that’s why these needed to be poems rather than memoir, say, because in my family history, there is so much uncertainty and blankness, and a point beyond which I just can’t go back,” she says. “Into that gap flooded Chinese history and myth, and the folk tales that I tell in the poems, which get mixed up and bound up with my mum’s past.”

The art of poetry, of course, is its subjectivity, and the way it allows readers to insert their own stories into the spaces between the words. The joy of reading “Loop of Jade”from a Hong Kong perspective is the way, in just a handful of poems about the territory, she manages to depict both the heavy-handed censorship of Beijing and the oppression of British colonial rule.

A piece called “Innumerable” is subtitled “Poem on the eve of May 35th”, a reference to the fictional date Chinese web users search with to get around the ban on “June 4”. In the poem, Howe recalls swimming in the “too-hot pool” of the Jockey Club and eating orange ice lollies from the clubhouse bar. As she brings us to the Tiananmen Square vigil of June 1989, sitting on a pair of shoulders, the poem focuses on “the slow processing row of black-trousered labourers” replacing the divots at the Happy Valley Racecourse.

“On rainy race days the turf workers, still bamboo-brimmed, would wear / transparent macs dotted with drizzle and the determination of a search party. / Where they pressed the clumps back down, you would never know.”

She evokes a too-perfect English lawn, manicured by Chinese labourers into something unnatural. “That poem takes part in a bigger strand in the book, which is interested in, well, politics in a broad sense, but also ideas of censorship and what can be spoken,” she says. “As I was putting together the poems that would become the book into their final order, I suddenly became aware that I’d been drawing this analogy subconsciously between power and authority, and how speech can be controlled, and in the family and the individual mind, a similar sort of mechanism of control and suppression might happen.”

She pauses before she adds, “I was aware that was a sort of tricky and even edgy thing to do. I have in mind the more painful aspects of my mum’s past that, for much of my life, I knew were there but had never been spoken or articulated to me. “What traces there are of colonial history in the book are very quiet but are supposed to speak to you with equal loudness as the legacy of the Tiananmen incident.”

THERE IS A circularity to Howe’s fellowship at Harvard. Just as a decade ago, when she found herself drawn to her Chinese side, she is working expli­citly on a project deeply connected to Hong Kong’s identity. Howe is current­ly composing ‘Two Systems’, an erasure poem – created by deleting words from a document or text to create new mean­ings – based on the Basic Law. It’s a quietly radical act. Every day, she sits at her desk with its beautiful view of the solitary tree and uses PhotoShop toforge a path of white through the legalese. She tells me, with a smile, that she’s making the text say things such as “power to the people” and “there is a need for art”.

“‘Two Systems’ is already an erasure of ‘one country, two systems’,” she explains. “The whole poem is an erasure in the sense it takes as its source text the Basic Law, the idea of what the collective document – a mini constitution – should be and should do. Also the fact that, in Hong Kong’s context, this document has a sell-by date; it expires in 2047. So whatever rights and freedoms it enshrines have this self-destruct looming over them. Erasure felt like a particularly perfect way to express that.” She had planned for it to be a book, but is now consider­ing it as a piece of visual art.

In 2014, Howe watched from England as the “umbrella movement” unfolded, although her husband happened to be here. “I’ve been grappling with what it means to write in solidarity with my native place but not wanting to impose an outsider’s perspective at the same time, or to be upfront about my not being there. That I’m an ally I suppose, rather than a participant,” she says.

Howe has decided to make this project collaborative, working with an as yet undetermined Chinese-language poet in Hong Kong who will create the Chinese version. “I thought it would be a perfect thing, you could sort of have a public art project, you could have pages of the Basic Law and Tipp-Ex or white paint and ask everyone to erase their own page from it, to choose their own path through the text. It would be this sort of infinitely replicable thing, where it could become a truly democratic project.”

Sarah Howe will give a talk titled “Turned always home” at the Hong Kong Book Fair on July 21. She will return for the Asia Art Archive’s “15 Invitations” project later this year.

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