A friend recently moved back to the UK after living in China for ten years. Being English, he was always going to be an outsider in China, but what surprises him now is how foreign he feels in England too. He asked me whether this feeling ever ended. I told him that I suspect people like us will never fully belong anywhere again.
The novelist and filmmaker Xiaolu Guo articulates this sense of alienation exquisitely, knowing exactly what it’s like: ‘Part of me is always in exile.’ She left China in her late twenties when she was already a published author. In Radical, she tries to come to terms with being an outsider, using language as metaphor (she says she’s pursuing ‘an etymology of myself’). The result is a collection of poetic thoughts about what it means to belong, each sketch beginning with a word (from German, English or Chinese) and its etymology. These reflections come together to tell a roughly chronological story, less memoir and more anthology. She writes beautifully, though at times her introspections veer on the self-indulgent.
The book begins in the autumn of 2019. Guo has moved from London to New York to take up a temporary job, leaving behind her young daughter and a philosopher named J, ‘the father of my child’. She misses them both. In one vignette, which opens with the word Übermensch, (‘German, translated as “overman”, “superman”. German root: über “over”’), she reads Nietzsche, J’s specialty, in her Harlem apartment as the snow falls.
She soon begins an affair with a translator she calls ‘E’, but by the spring of 2020 the pandemic has come. She moves back to London ahead of schedule, to the house she shares with J and their child, while E returns to his family.