On Touch, Gender, Writing and China
In conversation with my doppelganger, Poppy Sebag-Montefiore
Hi Global Jigsaw,
In this week’s post I am bringing you an exchange of correspondence between me and Poppy Sebag-Montefiore. Like me, Poppy worked as a journalist in Beijing, and at a similar point of time - 1999-2007 for her, 2002-2009 for me. We both wrote China-related essays for the literary magazine Granta a few years ago. Her’s called ‘Touch” won a 2021 Pushcart Prize. Mine was about returning to the hutong home I used to live in after a gap of a decade and reconnecting with my Beijing landlord, whom I wrote about in detail in my debut book, Smoke and Mirrors.
We talked about our work as foreign correspondents, being a woman in Beijing, the ways in which ‘home’ could carry so many different meanings and motherhood.
Pic: Pallavi and Poppy
I hope you enjoy it. I certainly enjoyed getting to know Poppy through this exchange. It’s a longer post than normal and I grappled with whether it would be better to spread it out over two weeks. But, I figured you guys have better attention spans than average and Poppy is quite riveting. So.
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So good to be in touch with someone who almost feels like a doppelgänger! I was in China from 2001 through 2009, and one of the first stories I covered as a journalist was the taikonaut Yang Liwei and his space mission that you also mention was your first, in ‘Touch’.
But, in a reversal of your experience, the first time I became attuned to differences in touch across cultures, was in Europe, not China. To an extent it’s just the sheer number of people in Asian megalopolises that makes the demarcations between the public and private a lot fuzzier than in the West. In Delhi, where I am from, and Beijing, to live is to jostle, rub up against, touch.
So, I had grown up with what to a Westerner would seem a very lax consciousness of private property. I still smart with embarrassment remembering the sharp reaction I provoked in a German college mate at university in England when I unselfconsciously helped myself to his open packet of crisps, as we sat chatting in the common room one afternoon. In China (and India), as you know, even the poorest peasants reflexively share their boiled egg and oranges with whomever happens to be next to them on a bus or a train.
In Beijing’s hutongs, where I lived, cramped quarters forced people out onto the streets, so that much private life was lived in public. And it wasn’t just about physical intrusion, but aural encroachment. Life in the hutongs meant one’s aural space was constantly intruded upon by a variable mixture of tinkling cycle bells, itinerant knife-sharpeners, the jackhammering of construction equipment and the neighbour’s mobile phone conversations.
But I was so used to all this from my childhood in India that it barely registered as noteworthy. Unlike you, who felt buoyed/nourished by the touch of strangers, growing up I used to resent these easy claims on my physical body, my time, my ears. Because of the sense of village-life superimposed on cities, people made demands of strangers as though they were bound together in mutual networks of social obligation, when in fact they no longer were. Strangers on public transport always assumed that if you were single and young, you would give up your seat to allow a family or group of friends to sit together. Neighbours would throw a party and blare music into the wee hours of the morning without any apology to those unable to sleep. It was simply assumed that you would tolerate the noise of their merriment, and they would tolerate yours at some unspecified time in the future.
It was only after spending years in the West that I came to appreciate these unsolicited social contracts, probably because I was older and more likely to be on the asking end of favours. Now it’s me who wants people on the metro to scooch up, so I can squeeze in next to my child, or for someone to help me lift a heavy suitcase off the conveyor belt at an airport. I’ve come to prefer kindness and presumed physical familiarity over being left to my own devices in my untouched personal space.
But returning to your experiences in China. I wonder if in all that crush you ever felt sexually threatened?
In so many ways I feel too that we were each other’s doubles in Beijing. I’ve just been reading your wonderful book Smoke and Mirrors and there are so many parallels in the things that we did there, the kinds of places we lived, the details that interested us, and the kinds of writing the place inspired in us. We may have even sweated next to each other on sticky mats at Mohan’s Yogi Yoga class in Ritan Park? I’d never done yoga before and a friend of mine bought me a lesson there for my birthday and I’ve been doing it ever since.
That’s an interesting question about feeling threatened sexually in Beijing. I wonder if you ask that because of the problems women face in the crush of public transport in big cities in India?
I remember feeling uncannily safe in Beijing as a woman walking in the streets at night. There was only one time I felt threatened. I was reporting on a story about HIV in Xinjiang and we had been asked to interview sex workers about their knowledge of the disease and their use of contraception. I turned up at a truck stop brothel in the middle of the night with another female colleague and talked to one sex worker who said she’d give us an interview the next day if we could give her a lift in our car to a nearby city. So in the daytime we returned and I went inside to collect her. She had bruises on her face. Her pimp told her to go and get ready, she disappeared into a back room; he unbuckled his belt and took it off. That scared me and I ran back outside. I told our taxi driver and asked him if he’d come back in with me. He may have been as afraid as I was but he didn’t show it. He acted like a real source of protection and strength. The night before my colleague and I had posed as clients, and the pimps had been amused by us, but in the daylight the place had an off-key, underworld atmosphere and the rules were unclear. We waited but the tension kept rising and soon we understood that she wasn’t going to be allowed to come with us and we decided it was best to leave.
There was one other time that comes to mind. I didn’t feel threatened, but I questioned what was going on. I was studying a form of martial arts called Ba Gua in Chengdu and the master took me out to tea and was talking to me about his philosophies. He prodded me in different places in my body and was saying my arm, my breast, they might be thought of in different ways but actually they are all just parts of my body. And in a way I agreed; he did seem to manage to press my breast in a way that was desexualised. He was showing me that he had neutralised himself with the similar control of a martial arts gesture. But also I wondered, if he just wanted to touch my breast. And I think that maybe it was both of these things. Maybe he wanted to touch my breast, and also to do it in a way that was void of that desire.
I wonder how you felt being a woman in Beijing? Overwhelmingly, for me, for huge swathes of time while I was there I forgot that I was a woman. I remember leaving Beijing for a holiday back to the UK. On board a Lufthansa flight I was sitting in the middle of three seats, a man either side of me. The air stewardess offered us drinks and instead of asking the men next to me at either the start or end of our row, she addressed me first. Suddenly I remembered – it’s because I’m a ‘lady’. As you know in Europe – at that time anyway, earlier this century – courtesy means that women are offered food and drinks before men. That doesn’t happen in Beijing. In Beijing you start at the end of a row and work your way.
For me, being a woman in Beijing was at the back of a long list of things that I represented to people. I was foreign, I was Western, I was a journalist, I was young, all before I was a woman. And I really enjoyed that. I enjoyed woman being at the end of that list. I think it affected my personality out there. Friends who I knew more professionally at home used to come and see me and were amazed at my boisterousness out there! Here in London I’m very well behaved. My default, if I’m not very careful, is that I’m deferential to men and everybody really. But out there I wasn’t.
In Beijing there was just an easiness between people, a lack of pretension. I remember after I left China I began to write a short story called ‘Landlord, Tenant, Cleaner’ set in Beijing because there was an intimacy to these relationships in the hutongs that I wanted to remember and to describe. You describe your relationship with your Beijing landlord so beautifully in your essay ‘Mr Wu’. I was really moved at the end, with what he offered you. I found that in Beijing a lot of emotion did collect within what here in London would usually be quite perfunctory relationships. I’ve just begun your novel about the middle class cat and the alley cat in the hutongs. I’m loving it. What was it do you think that made you turn to writing fiction set in Beijing?
Did you know that Yogi Mohan now runs a yoga empire with tens of thousands of students enrolled and franchises in almost every Chinese province? He’s a wonderful example of the kind of upward mobility that China can offer – something that used to be the preserve of countries like the United States or the UK.
You mention that in China there were times when you ‘forgot’ that you were a woman. That is almost exactly how I felt. This is interesting to me because so much of the discourse around women in China focuses on gender discrimination and oppression, from the now defunct practice of foot binding to today’s overqualified, ‘leftover women’ who cannot find husbands.
Sexist values are certainly embedded in many Chinese social norms. Do you remember how hostesses for the 2008 Olympic Games had to meet desirable physical attributes including minimum height and maximum weight?
And yet, I had the overwhelming impression that Chinese women were an empowered lot. They seemed to lay claim to public spaces in a way that was impossible in say, Delhi. They didn’t walk hunched up avoiding eye contact with strangers. They rode bicycles and wore hot pants. Sometimes they loitered aimlessly, laughing up at the sun. They were loud and sassy. At zebra crossings people were herded across the road by women traffic cops. I was handed change on crowded buses by women conductors, and taken sightseeing in taxis driven by women. The neighbourhood committee of the hutong I lived in was staffed by formidable matrons, sporting Chairman Mao coiffures, who could turn errant residents into stone with a glance. At the airport, men were frisked, with business-like indifference, by female security guards.
For a female reporter, China brought remarkable freedoms. I never thought twice about hopping on a train and taking off for a remote village with only dodgy accommodation. And so, despite all the government censorship and efforts to control information, I actually found working there quite liberating.
As to your question about what made me turn to writing fiction set in China: I’ve only written one novel, Chinese Whiskers, about two Chinese alley cats who get caught up in a tainted pet food scandal. The book was quite a change from the kind of foreign correspondent memoirs I usually write.
I used animals as the protagonists and Beijing’s hutongs as the setting. The language was simple. The story could be read by children and adults. The hutong backdrop was the driving force behind the story. These were neighbourhoods that reflected many of the tensions generated by the intersection of China’s almost remorseless embrace of modernity with persisting forms of a more traditional, communal way of life. Animals were an intrinsic part of the hutongscape. At twilight you could sometimes spot the elongated silhouette of a huang shu lang (yellow weasel), the Beijing equivalent of the urban fox, tiptoeing across the roofs of courtyard houses. Regardless of the season old men in patched-up Mao suits would sit out on low stools, their caged songbirds on display next to them. And then there were the dogs. The hutongs were disproportionately peopled with retirees and their pet dogs; the ever dwindling younger generation having taken off for swankier addresses. This was an environment where people and animals lived cheek by jowl, the cramped spaces of the living quarters forcing everyone out on the street. So cats, especially given their unique perspective, inside (as pets) – outside (as wild animals) seemed like a natural way to enter into, and comment upon, this environment.
In 2006, my husband and I adopted two stray kittens. Through them we became acquainted with a whole new side to Chinese society. We met dedicated cat protection activists, disillusioned veterinarians and wise grandmothers, some of whom ended up as characters in the novel.
I think the rhythm and texture of life in Beijing at that moment of transition were better evoked in fiction. There could be more showing and less telling in a novel, than in reportage. I also thought it might have a wider audience, drawing in readers beyond the usual China watchers, including children and cat lovers. This turned out to be true. Chinese Whiskers was translated into several languages and proved most popular in Italy!
I’m working on a sequel now, thanks in part to pressure from my children. The new novel is set in Jakarta and has the cats caught up in a fake news racket, against the backdrop of rising religious extremism.
How about you? I know you are working on your first novel. Can you tell me a little more about it? You chose China to set it in as well. Why? Why not the UK? And why fiction?
I loved being taken back to the sloping rooftops and sounds of Beijing’s alleyways through Soyabean and Tofu in Chinese Whiskers. Using cats seemed to me an ingenious idea, not only to bring the landscape to life but also as a way of bringing together such a great group of characters who show us the ways of inhabiting the hutongs, the sense of community, and also the conflicts as they live with fears of virus and purge and the realities of people cheating the system and exploiting one another. I also felt that in journalism it often becomes impossible to show the warmth and ways of being that we love in a place, and only to focus on the problems. And in your novel you do put all these together.
I first got the idea to write my novel when I was sitting in the press gallery at the National People’s Congress in 2011, covering it for the BBC. Hu Jintao was handing over the Presidency to Xi Jinping. It was shortly after the Bo Xilai incident and so elite politics had been quite exciting over the previous few months and it felt like that story enabled us to see a little bit more closely inside the goings on that would usually seem opaque. I thought I saw a sadness behind the fixed expressions of both Hu Jintao and former premier Wen Jiabao as they handed over power. They’d come to the end of their terms and what had they achieved for political reform? Wen especially had been interested in reform. China’s top political leaders don’t give interviews to the press, certainly not to the foreign press. They’re inaccessible. And so I tried to imagine what it might be like to be a leader of that kind of regime and country at that time and be interested in reform but scared to take the leap, trapped among colleagues with vested interests in maintaining the status quo. How much courage would it take? What would motivate someone to diligently work their way up the Communist Party, and also want to be a reformer? It struck me as an interesting mixture of needs and desires to be part of that strict hierarchy, to be successful at moving up it, and yet also be someone who is interested in the kinds of reform that could end up in doing that party out of power. I started to wonder what kinds of intimate, family and historical influences might have worked on such a personality. And it struck me that the only way to understand China’s political leaders would be to invent one and imagine it.
I’m interested in how history – both our personal history and the larger forces of politics, economics, ideology impacts on our personality and relationships and ways that we live. Placing this kind of character in quite an extreme situation felt like a good way to explore these ideas. I’d been frustrated by the limits of journalism in thinking about how the big stories were affecting people’s intimate lives and also the other way around: how do people’s inner lives combine to make the bigger stories?
As well as wondering about who might run a regime like the one in China, I also started to think about what would make a young, modern, educated, woman in the twenty-first century with access to the internet – when things are opening-up – what might make her work for this state? What might it feel like for her to do this? And so another main character was born. Xiao Xu is a young woman who works as a civil servant in a bureau I invented called the Listening Department which has the official task of listening in to all the top leadership at work and play and transcribing their meetings to ensure ‘transparency’ at the upper echelons of the party. She’s going through a sexual awakening of her own too.
The other thing that I was interested in was the boom in psychotherapy and psychoanalysis that was taking place in Chinese cities. I wondered if this was partly about how repressed the recent history had been and whether now that things were opening up, people might be beginning to explore the consequences of the personal traumas of this history and how they were being passed down the generations. As people were getting wealthier they may have more time to sit with the personal issues that are troubling them, so I thought it would be interesting to look at a moment where Freud might be taking over from Marx; or at least where these big ideas, these different ways of understanding the world, and different ways of holding ourselves to account in our relationships with others, were coming into contact, and maybe even conflict, with each other.
So in my novel all of these strands come together. Or at least that’s what I’m working on!
I’ve been interested in Chinese literature since I did my undergraduate degree in history here in London. I worked on a comparison between the emergence of European romances – King Arthur, Sir Lancelot etc . . . and the emergence of the Chinese love story in the Tang dynasty. Since the beginning of the written Chinese love stories – the big loves were never able to culminate in marriage; they could usually only exist hidden from or outside of society. But the European love stories have been about overcoming the obstacles to letting these relationships be enjoyed and accepted socially and ending – happily ever after – in marriage. (When these love stories were written, in the middle ages, Europe was the only society in the world which instituted both monogamy and no divorce – so marriage had an enormously high stakes role in people’s lives). You can still see the shape of these early stories imprinted upon our contemporary romances and ideas about love and marriage. Think Wong Kar-wai’s In the Mood for Love where the love is never even consummated and the two protagonists can’t be together even when they have both left their cheating spouses, versus Four Weddings and a Funeral where they end up kissing in the rain, for example.
I’d also been reading contemporary Chinese literary fiction Zhu Wen, Mo Yan, Yan Lianke, Wang Xiaofang for example. A lot of what I was reading was quite political, quite funny, often satirical, sometimes where ideas or a mood or a moment was what was most urgently conveyed, whereas in contemporary fiction here in the UK it seemed that character and relationships were much more the dynamic that was in focus. I began to teach courses in contemporary Chinese fiction at a couple of universities in the UK and the students who were from all over the world got so much out of the Chinese novels but many of them said that it felt different that character wasn’t so central to the stories. This made me think about whether I could try to combine some influences from the contemporary Chinese novels that I’d loved with the tradition I’d grown up in.
So my novel does centre around the journeys of a few central characters, and is influenced by the style and tone of some contemporary Chinese novels too.
Although I should say that although it’s all heavily inspired by Beijing, I never refer to proper place names in the novel. The country where my novel is set is called the Country and the city is called the City.
Why not set my first novel in the UK? I guess because I had spent most of my twenties in Beijing and really was involved in life there. I had relationships with Chinese people and spoke mainly Chinese. I lived for some time with a family. I was fascinated with the place and was eager to drink everything in and try to understand as much as possible. My work as a journalist took me deep into worlds I wouldn’t have normally known and that I didn’t know about in my own country. So in many ways when I came home to London, I knew China much better than I knew the UK, because my adult self hadn’t really spent much time here. Beijing was my world. And when I was ready to come home, I wasn’t ready to close the door on my relationship with Beijing and so, writing a novel set there, or in a fictional version of it, meant that at least I could return to that city in my imagination.
Do you feel that being a foreign correspondent means you are alert and alive to the places you report on in a different way from the way you are with your home?
I think when I used to come home from Beijing to London I would switch off that curious side of me and really take a break from looking. I wouldn’t even take photographs when I went on holidays to other places just to give myself time off from being the observer.
It was only when I moved home and started to do journalism here that I began to cast a more writerly eye on this country. If I was to write a novel set in the UK – it depends what kind of a novel it would be – but if it was one that was driven in some way by wanting to evoke a sense of place then I’d need to do a lot of work – starting from scratch I think – in turning on my antennae to the details and textures somewhere here which probably until now I’ve taken for granted, and have gone about without properly noticing, or perhaps even appreciating enough.
Do you find you have different ways of looking at countries you are reporting in, and those that you go to take a break on holiday, and also what about when you go home? Would your cat series work in Delhi too? Would you write about Delhi in fiction or non-fiction? And would it be a different kind of novel that you’d write there?
I wish your novel were already complete, so I could dig into it immediately. I especially relate to your interest in the psychology of a nation that has seen such epochal transformations, repeatedly, in such a compressed time frame. It always got me wondering how people managed to retain the core of their being intact. Given the pace and magnitude of the change, large-scale madness would have been an understandable consequence. And yet so many people seemed so, well, sane.
This really hit home one afternoon when I was out walking and came across a woman with impossibly tiny, lotus-shaped, feet sitting out in the Qianmen hutong neighbourhood. Her feet indicated her age even more than her wrinkles, since foot binding had fallen out of common practice in the early twentieth century. I asked if I could sit down with her for a while and she agreed readily, seemingly pleased at the attention. Her tongue was so thick in her toothless mouth that it was difficult for me to understand her. One of her neighbours helped interpret.
The woman was over ninety-years-old. The bones in her feet had been repeatedly broken and bent to achieve the desired size starting when she was about seven. Yes, it had hurt, she’d told me grinning gummily. But in those days things were different and you accepted pain as an inextricable part of life.
She had moved to Beijing from a village in Shandong province in the years before the communist accession in 1949. I thought of how in her own lifetime she had seen imperial China morph into a communist country; witnessed the capricious horrors of Mao’s campaigns give way to the capitalist excesses of the twenty-first century. How did she process all of this? How did she maintain a personal narrative arc that was not as violently fractured as the broader political canvas against which her life had played out?
I wonder if your novel will help me answer this?!
In the end, I left Beijing more impressed with the resilience of people than with the spectacular infrastructure – coming from a country that has a serious case of ‘highway envy’ when it comes to China, that makes me quite unusual.
As for your question about whether I have different ways of looking at countries I report from, those that I holiday in, and ‘home’, the answer is: of course. Yes!
When I am reporting from a country it’s like my eyes are stretched unnaturally wide to drink in everything they see. It’s quite meditative: journalistic mindfulness. On the subway, I actually read all the text on posters and advertisements. I eavesdrop on conversations. I notice body language, how people laugh, how they hold themselves. I note down the titles of books they might be reading. It’s all fodder for analysis. Everything helps me to understand, so I can later explain it to others.
But on holiday, my eyes shrink back to normal. There are things they take in, and things they miss. The things they notice are with a small, rather than capital N. I focus on the sensory, rather than the analytical. I stop googling everything for context.
The way I ‘see’ home is the most difficult to unpack. I know India so well that I find it almost impossible to explain. Any explanation feels so partial as to be untrue. I truly dread being asked the staple questions about caste and gender. I simply cannot bring myself to answer in a 700-word piece or a sound bite. I am also torn between a pride in the country and a visceral horror of its injustices. I suppose I ‘feel’ things about India more deeply than elsewhere, which makes it more personal.
I would not choose to set one of the cat series in Delhi. Were I to write about my hometown I fear it would be an altogether darker book. I wouldn’t be able to sustain the lightness with which I address challenging topics in China (corruption) and Indonesia (fake news and rising religious extremism). For India the narrator would have to be a god or a ghost.
What is it about writing that you find the most difficult, Poppy? Are there places you are reluctant to explore?
This exchange with you is making me realise how much I miss writing letters and emailing with friends. Most of my exchanges seem to take place on WhatsApp now, and I’d forgotten what it’s like to try and work something in correspondence with someone and with the space of a whole page.
It’s interesting what you say about being fascinated by the psychology of the nation in China. I think I was so struck by the resilience that you describe because I identified strongly with some aspects of it – tumultuous, traumatic things could happen and people can hold it all together, but at what cost? I was intrigued by so many of the cultural tactics that people had at their disposal to help them do this, and I think I felt that many of these things were more effective than what was on offer in London. But I was also interested in what consequences that kind of resilience creates for individuals, their relationships and for society. What does happen when a person lets the traumas get the better of them, or get to them, and they feel them? How much might they disintegrate? Then what? What possibilities can that disintegration create?
You ask what it is about writing that I find most difficult – I find all of it difficult. Sentences, words, structure, form, character, point of view, plot. Losing confidence, trying to find it again. Allowing myself time away from the keyboard to do the necessary thinking, reading. When I’m involved in writing I find it difficult to stop. I keep going until I burn out. When I’m not writing I find it hard to start again, to cross the threshold from bumbling about in life to that state of being removed and in the grip of something. But it’s also the most pleasurable kind of work. I used to relish the space alone that writing gave me, and not want anyone else involved. Now I’m finding writing lonely and I’m almost ready to let others in. Things change, moods change, and also I’m at a different stage of the book now. I’m editing rather than creating a world and imagining my way down the page.
What do you find difficult about writing? Do you have methods and routines that make it easier? And how about as a mother – balancing these two different jobs?
And you ask if there any places I’m reluctant to write about? It’s a big and complicated question.
When I finally came back home after living in Beijing for most of my twenties I said to myself I could never immerse myself in another place to the extent that I’d done. I think it was because I was there from when I was nineteen and I was young and open and I’d pretty much given myself a cultural transfusion. When I came home to do my degree in London after my first year in China, my tutor tested me for dyslexia because my writing was so strange. It turned out that I wasn’t dyslexic but I was writing as if translating everything back to English from Chinese. When I finally did return to London in my late twenties I was crestfallen because, China, this place that I’d loved, had become a place where I’d seen so much suffering and fear and injustice, and my work sometimes put me and others in danger. It was difficult to settle back into life in London at first, but it was a great relief to return to a place with an independent judiciary. I decided I wanted to get to know the UK. I’ve done quite a bit of television journalism here since then – but my writing has still been preoccupied with China.
China will always be a place I return to in my mind, and I hope I will always continue to find ways to speak Mandarin. A lot of things that I picked up from Chinese culture still infuses the way I live and think. But I wouldn’t write another novel set there after this one. I’m sure it would be time to move on.
And I think to write another novel – unless it was set in space or something like that, I’d need to get immersed again to some extent somewhere, or through research. I hope that I will be excited about doing that again, especially if it’s more like the journalistic mindfulness that you describe. Because writing about the place where I grew up doesn’t excite me particularly at the moment. And if it does in the future I would have to get to know it all over again.
I don’t feel that I have a natural territory that’s mine to write about. I grew up in a largely Jewish suburb in north London and although Jewish myself I never felt like I quite fitted in. Both my parents were from different parts of London and I think they both felt like outsiders – maybe constitutionally – which might have been part of it. And even though my parents were both Jewish they were both such different kinds of Jews that I didn’t feel I had a particular grasp of either. Also our Jewishness was religion-lite, and I didn’t learn Hebrew, but at the same time we were more part of a Jewish community than an English one – so I got a bit of Jewishness and a bit of Englishness but neither one quite enough to feel a total understanding. I’m Jewish, I’m a Londoner. And I used to feel very comfortable feeling British – but the last two referenda in our country seem to have undermined that identity.
So, I don’t really know yet is my answer. And I might not know until I finish what I’m working on. But I think your question is complicated and important to think about because there is a great sensitivity now to where one writes about and whose story it is.
I think writing is a craft and in theory we should each be able to write about wherever we are drawn to, so long as we do it with sensitivity. We need literature to help us imagine other lives, not just our own, through reading, and also in its writing. I don’t think it would be healthy for fiction in the long-term if the divides that we have seen forming in our societies become mirrored in our novels. I don’t think we want a world where people only write about their own identity groups. And also perhaps other people feel a bit like me – that their own identity group doesn’t really sum up who they are or doesn’t even necessarily feel like the place they most want to write about. I’m really enjoying in this exchange – our moments of synchronicity, how you and I – from different continents and traditions – have many more things in common than I do with many of the people I grew up with: big things like being writers and mothers, but also small, subtle ones – like the way our relationships with our Beijing landlords have remained with us. There’s a lot I’ve written to you that I’ve never said to anyone else before simply because of how much you and I share. Here in the UK we’re in danger of forgetting that we are much more than our identities. Literature can remind us of this. And we need it to. To get a body of literature that really helps us to see ourselves, everyone needs to be able to take part.
But all of this is fraught with the problems of privilege and power. Now some publishers do seem to be listening and are beginning to open up. But it’s not only about opportunities to publish. How do people get started in the first place? It’s also about who has a quiet place to study? Who has a room of their own to think? And who has enough relief from stress to be able to access their imagination? I think about this all the time. Do you?
Do I think about the dynamics of power and privilege that underlie the writing life? Of course, I do. A major enabling factor for me is that I have a spouse who brings home enough bacon to allow me to write. It feels like a dirty secret. I am a feminist. I am reasonably successful at what I do. And yet, without financial support from my husband, I would struggle. It feels wrong, but it is the outcome of our collective social choices about what to value, how much of a value to put on different kinds of labour. Writing, housework and parenting are all at the bottom of that hierarchy.
As a freelance journalist I get paid poorly. My books only generate income sporadically. If it were not for a spouse with a ‘proper’ job I am not sure I would have enough ‘relief from stress to access the imagination’, as you put it. And even with him, I do not have a quiet place to study. I’ve had young children for almost my entire tenure as an author (my boys are currently seven and ten). And so I’ve grown used to writing in the pauses of their needs. They go to school, and sometimes they even play quietly for a few minutes when they are at home. The writing and accessing of the imagination happens in those spaces.
An unhappy consequence of the monetary undervaluing of writing is that if, as in my case, the woman happens to be the writer, traditional gender divides become very challenging to slough off. Despite our collective intentions and feminist principles, the silhouette of my contemporary marriage would have been easily identifiable in the mid-twentieth century. Because I work from home and earn less, I find myself as the primary care giver for our children. My husband is the Provider who spends more time reading the papers, or scrolling Twitter, than doing homework craft projects.
Poppy, you ask how I balance writing with motherhood. It’s by failing and fuming and trying to find humour in it all. Oh, and also by writing, of course. My last book was called Babies and Bylines and it is a comprehensive answer to your question
That’s it for this week. Hope everyone is doing well and keeping up with their New Year resolutions! Mine is just to stay sane until the end of my cancer treatments. The finishing line is about 11 weeks away. So, do wish me the strength to barrel through - or alternatively engage here with the Global Jigsaw- which, for me, amount to the same thing :-)
Hasta luego amigos,
This conversation gave me such joy. And such a thoughtful and thought through understanding of writing and self. Many thanks for this.
What a wonderful conversation. We are all much much more than our identities, thank you for driving that point home.