Stephen Mcewen

Xiaolu Guo interview: ‘Westerners have to read more non-western materials’

Xiaolu Guo interview: 'Westerners have to read more non-western materials'
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Born in a remote fishing village in south eastern China during the Cultural Revolution, Xiaolu Guo is now known as an artistic 'one-woman industry'. Producing both films and novels, her work has made her one of the most successful Chinese writers published in Britain today, being listed in the Granta Best of Young British Novelists last year. Her first novel Village of Stone was originally written in Mandarin and portrays a young migrant who has moved to Beijing as she comes to terms with her difficult rural past amidst the sprawl of the megacity. It was following her own move to London in 2002, thanks to a British Council film scholarship, that Guo decided to start writing in English.

The result of her linguistic U-turn was A Concise English-Chinese Dictionary For Lovers, for which she most notably came to readers attention, being nominated for the Orange Prize. The 'dictionary' is in fact more of a diary. The young Zhuang, or 'Z' as she shortens for Anglophone ease, recounts her travels, love life and cross-cultural observations through the vocabulary she learns. Moving from 'Alien' to 'Bisexual' and beyond, she titles each entry with a new word as she explores her new home and life. She begins her story in broken English as she arrives at Heathrow, and slowly improves over her year at a language school and in her relationship with a middle-aged hippie. Photographs and sketches are interspersed throughout this diary-dictionary hybrid and Guo's willingness to experiment with style and form has continued to feature in her later novels and short stories.

In her short story collection Lovers in the Age of Indifference, entire stories are written in spam emails, texts, letters and journal entries. The satirical UFO In Her Eyes is primarily composed of documents and interview transcripts, and her most recent novel I Am China, varies layers of narrative with the very letters that the main character is translating between two Chinese lovers, separated in different countries. Whichever form her writing takes, or even when she decides to make a film, she continues to explore her seemingly perennial interest in alienation and isolation, love and human relationships. These are all explored through her distanced and observational eye, which sometimes turns comic or satirical, as she focuses both on China's past and present and on her new home, Britain.

Stephen McEwen: You've written that your 'foremost problem is the natural flow of language' in English, bearing that in mind, what made you write in English in the first place? Does the 'flow of language' not often pose a problem for writers more generally?

Xiaolu Guo: For me the difficulty of writing in a second language is both a technical and non-technical problem. In a poetic way, you can say it’s truly re-inventing oneself even though the process is painful and hard. Often I am not searching for the ‘best’ or ‘right’ word while writing, but spend time finding the equivalent concept between Chinese and English. This is not a mere matter of translation, but something more complex, in order to build an English sentence through similar metaphors. But perhaps now I no longer translate the words in my head, I write with my thoughts which are not based on my spoken language – neither Chinese nor English. It’s kind of like a psycho-language, quite strange and mysterious, but also painfully real once you write down a sentence.

Seeing as your work has been translated into many languages, would you ever consider writing the work in Mandarin and then having it translated into English?

Everything is possible. If I decide to live in China for the next 10 or 15 years I would do so.

You have discussed the difference between the Western appreciation of dissident writers and those who are perceived as state writers, such as the Nobel winner Mo Yan. Do you think that the West concentrates too much on defining writers purely on a political basis?

Somehow an ideological point of view is always a first judgement when one looks at another culture. Humans are really political and ideological animals, which I think is a great limitation of our spiritual life. I do not want to blame anyone because how can we know anything when we don’t live in another culture, given that the ‘other’ culture is not within European tradition and system. I think that westerners just have to read more non-western materials – literature is the better media than news report.

Having previously said that 'freedom is essentially an illusion,' do you think that a Western focus on censorship and the role of the artist or writer in countries such as Iran, China or Russia deflects from writers here reflecting on their own role and their own freedoms?

I am not sure. The idea of freedom is very much texturized in each specific culture, and is coloured by specific tradition and history. We should never take anything for granted. We just need to remind ourselves that even in the US, a scientist has to be very careful with the publication of his research (what he should publish and what he should not) because the state perpetually controls the information and especially controls certain crucial scientific knowledge for the state interest. In the West, you don’t have to look at the censorship in Iran or in North Korea, just look at Julian Assange’s case.

You also wrote that 'every artist is born from within a state, trained by the state and has a complex discourse with the state'. How has living in the London changed your discourse with the state?

In a way I am stateless at the moment. Which is a good thing, at least for my type of character. Technically I am a British citizen, but that doesn’t define me at all. I could be a French citizen or a US citizen if I lived in those countries long enough. The important thing is you know you live within a political system, whether in China or in the UK. So you are not a bushman/caveman or bushwoman/cavewoman. In the end every state is quite similar if you look beyond the superficial level of reality. And I discuss this subject quite intensely in my novel I Am China, from my rock musician character Kublai Jian’s point of view.

Much of your work concentrates on personal relationships, are these more important than wider social or political dynamics, or do they act as a metaphor for them?

Both. In I Am China I wrote very personal stories in a political environment, but I needed some metaphors to speak about certain things my characters cannot directly talk about. So I used old legends, Zen stories, poems, songs, etc. I wanted the narrative to have different dimensions and they were necessary for the whole structure.

The character Zhuang in A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers explores the differences she faces in London when coming from a society which appears to prioritise a collective consciousness over a more Western idea of the individual. Is this dichotomy too parochial, undermining more subtle differences or similarities? When you write a character like Zhuang, who is often confused about Britain or comically mocks it, how do you decide what about British society is worthy of comment or focusing on?

It is a very personal novel and Zhuang is quite a young and naïve character, so her very basic reaction to another culture is manifested quite directly and childishly – which a reader might find funny or comical.  I don’t think I gave her a lot of intellectual ideas in the first place, but I think she is an authentic character, which means she would naturally offer some interesting discord for readers, if sometimes it appeared to be contradictive.

You have made East London your home and it appears in much of your work. What particularly draws you to that part of the capital?

It’s not like I wanted to choose a place to live and Hackney is my dreamland. Sorry to disappoint you. Like many immigrants nowadays, you are ended up in somewhere accidentally, due to work, due to family reasons. In my case, I write about things and places I know. But I wish I could write about Moon, Mars, aliens or things beyond this daily reality.

In your upcoming novel I Am China the main character is an English translator translating letters between two lovers, one in China and the other in a detention centre in Dover. How far does this character represent your role as a writer having to translate? 

The English translator character is very close to me, of course. She is at once British and Chinese but at the same time none of these identities. She is someone looking for her own life, with her own vocabularies. And she tries to find that through an abstract encounter with the two Chinese artists. She builds a bridge between two persons and two cultures.

On the topic of translation, there is much thematic crossover between your novels and films. What does each form offer that the other cannot?

Sometimes I find a great relief when I can construct the narrative through image rather than through the written words. Cinema is a very modern and direct format. You can be illiterate but still understand a film. So I love that instant quality. But writing can do something perhaps deeper in one’s brain; and for a reader it requires some effort to read a good novel, a novel with some serious vision. I normally do street filming, with a documentary essay style – so a ‘filmable’ subject is one of the first elements when I consider making a film. But cinema seems to belong to young artists, unless you are Luis Bunuel, or Fellini.

Xiaolu Guo's new novel, I am China, published by Chatto & Windus, is out on 5 June