Stephen Mcewen

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

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.

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