I first heard of Sarah Howe during the controversy over her winning the UK’s top prize for poetry, the TS Eliot Prize for her book ‘Loop of Jade’. I’m all for debate and discussion of the merits of literature, but was discomforted to read that an article in Private Eye magazine asked if she was awarded the prize “for extra-poetic reasons” going on to cite these reasons as her being “a successful and very “presentable” young woman with a dual Anglo-Chinese heritage.” Hardly worth engaging with, except that this tired trope keeps doing the rounds.
Moving from the ‘controversy’ to the content… Sarah Howe’s poetry deals her heritage, as well as other themes. One article describes the 32-year old poet as “a Cambridge-educated academic currently at Harvard, (who)… is half Chinese. Born in Hong Kong, she came to the UK when she was nine; Loop of Jade deals with her dual cultural heritage and her mother’s difficult family history”. A reviewer from The Guardian comments that “the Hong Kong of Howe’s early years is a fecund territory for a poet seeking to reconcile a quintessentially English life with a starkly contrasting eastern heritage”. Previously her work has garnered prizes including Young Poet of the Year.
At the writing workshop I ran at Mixed Remixed last year one of the issues that came up was people craving a sense of belonging. Howe talks about the same issue in reference to one of her poems.
Rather as I spent my first seven years staring at a tiny Union Jack blutacked to the pink triangle of England on my bedroom wall, the speaker’s son imagines China’s ‘blue flower on the map’… as the place where he will perfectly belong. I’ve experienced that same elated sentimental fiction of belonging all three times I’ve walked off the plane into Hong Kong airport – it even smells like home! That is, until I get a bit further down the arrivals corridor and realise that, though I might, from behind, for a second, mistake one of the older women for my mum because of the way her hair falls along her chin, they would never make the same mistake with me. On a flight from Lanzhou to Chengdu last week, the very nice stewardess asked me where I was from (‘Oh, Engelan!’), and then told me I looked like Lady Mary from Downton Abbey.
We also talked about how people experienced a sense of being an outsider but how we might harness this in our writing, and I was glad to see Howe talk about this same issue in this quote .
“(i)t’s funny how being ‘caught between two worlds’ is such a prevalent theme in my writing […] I began to realize how that tension – endlessly hopping back and forth across a dividing line – might actually be something productive, crucial even, to my sensibility.”
Congratulations to Sarah Howe on winning this latest, prestigious prize and I look forward to reading more of her work.
by Clare Ramsaran (@clareram)