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Interview: Poet Sarah Howe on her dual heritage and finding her roots

"When I need to make sense of the world, that process of enquiry for me is a poem"

A Hong Kong native born to an English father and Chinese mother, Sarah Howe’s first collection of poetry, last year’s Loop of Jade, won the TS Eliot Prize and The Sunday Times/PFD Young Writer of the Year Award. Howe comes to the Hong Kong Book Fair to discuss her poetry, which explores the author’s dual heritage and return to Hong Kong in search of her roots.

What was it like growing up in two different cultures?
I was born in Hong Kong – my mum is Hong Kong Chinese – and lived there for the first part of my childhood. During those early years, my brother and I were always told that one day we would be going ‘home’ to England, my father’s country. England didn’t mean much to me then: a land of picket fences and impossibly green lawns, filtered through a haze of Enid Blyton stories. When I was seven, my family packed up our Hong Kong apartment on the 25th floor and moved to a suburban house just outside London.

I wouldn’t return to Hong Kong for the next decade, but through all those years I continued to feel a powerful emotional connection to it, even as it became more and more a place in my imagination. Now I’m an adult, I try to come back as often as I can. I never felt like I stood out in Hong Kong. On the contrary, whenever I go back, it’s as though it’s the place in the world where I make most sense. I’ll see the back of a stranger’s head in the MTR crowd and jolt, thinking it’s my mum. Everyone looks so much like her, like family, in a way that sometimes makes me feel like crying.

What inspired you to write?
I think my writing came out of a fascination with language itself as a medium: its textures, opacities and felicitous accidents. Perhaps even more than novelists, poets know the delight of working with and against language’s resistant materials. Poetic form is like the most satisfying of crossword puzzles, the most elaborate game of hide-and-seek. That sense of play comes more naturally to me than narrative or plot – although I can see how I’ve come back round to storytelling and its ancient lure, in some of my poems, albeit by circuitous routes. When I need to make sense of the world, when I need to try to see it better, more accurately, more truly, that process of enquiry for me is a poem.

Has your background influenced your poetry?
I’ve been asked this question a lot recently, so I’ve had a chance to think about it at leisure. I wonder if some of my wariness about labels and categories – British Chinese poet, mixed-race poet, experimental poet, mainstream poet – comes from the fact that so much of my work is about unpacking and complicating such positions. The poems in Loop of Jade repeatedly butt up against the question of ‘identity’. Asking how far it might be imaginary, fluid, historically determined, politically contested and up-for-grabs. Maybe it’s less that my background has influenced my poems, than that I’m interested in how poetry might give me – or any of us – our backgrounds.

Could you tell us a little about your recent publication, Loop of Jade?
The ‘loop of jade’ that gives the book its name is a milk-green bracelet, sized for a baby’s wrist, which my mother’s adoptive mother bought for me when I was born. She took it to the temple to have it blessed and to have my fortune told. Even if it’s not exactly an heirloom, it has some of that emotive force for me, representing as it does the most direct, tactile contact I’ll ever manage with my family’s past. My own connection to my Chinese heritage is always already broken, and not simply by my migration to the West. The jade was given to me by a Chinese grandmother I never really knew and to whom I wasn’t related by blood. In some corner of my imagination, the loop of jade became an object of myth, a fairytale token left to identify a foundling child, a passed-down compass drawing me home.

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