Xiaolu Guo Interview
By: Mark B.
“The key is that you find your own way and be totally genuine and persistent.”
Xiaolu Guo is the author of the best-selling novel A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers, which was shortlisted for the Orange Prize for fiction. Her first novel Village of Stone was nominated for the International Dublin IMPAC Awards and the Independent best Foreign Fiction Prize. In 2013, Xiaolu Guo was named as one of Granta's Best of Young British Novelists of the last decade. She is currently based in the UK and continues to write from her flat in Hackney.
Photo by: Stephen Barker
B is for...book. What is your favourite childhood book?
When I was growing up, I didn’t have many childhood books - mainly school textbooks. I always loved reading about the nature, the land and certainly poetry. The serious reading I remember was encountering a translated poetry book from Sylvia Plath and it was a very strange and strong experience for a village youth like me. I couldn’t understand her text and her metaphors then (perhaps also due to the translation). I remember I felt very troubled
by her poems. Almost at the same time, I began to write poems at 12 or 13.
A is for… animal. If you could transform into one animal for one week, what would you be?
I wouldn’t really want to be an animal again, haven’t animals like us suffered enough? I would like to be a tree, much better.
N is for… necessary. If you were banished to a desert island and could only bring two items, what would they be?
No books, no art items. I don’t understand why people still need books in absolute nature. Isn’t imagination all we need to have in a barren place? If the desert island had a self-charging electricity system; I will bring rice and a rice cooker. At least my stomach will be happy.
A is for… authentic. How would you describe yourself in three words?
A cold-eyed rebel.
N is for… novelist. Which writer do you most admire?
I have to give at least 3 names because I am not a Christian and I don’t worship one God.
Itano Calvino, Mikhail Balgakov, and Duras.
A is for… appetite. What is your favourite banana themed food?
All I know, is I need to eat rice every day. If not, noodles. Then plenty of Asian vegetables.
How did you become an author?
Yes, I always wanted to be an author. Perhaps that was the only thing possible when you were young and lonely and you ended up reading many stories. It was natural to think it could be me to write these stories and to have other people to read them too. Words seem to me the most direct way to convey things in my head.
But later in my teenage years, I wanted to make films too (in the early 90s when the video cameras started to be around everywhere). So I went to the literature department in film school and since then I have been doing both films and books, which I feel blessed to be able to do so.
In A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers you tackle cultural challenges and misunderstandings immigrants face when moving to a new country. What are the greatest challenges that you face by being an ethnic minority writer in the UK?
First is the language. Of course, to write in one’s second language is difficult enough. But behind this language identity there are vast amount of stuffs when it comes to creative writing – structuring the stories, the way of telling a story, going beyond a culture tradition, the history of certain literature, etc. All this becomes a vivid problem and a complex thinking process during the writing. It can be quite creative for a writer who is interested in form and experimentation. I don’t see myself as an ethnic minority writer even though I am one. I am a writer who is interested in novels as a modern literature form beyond national identities.
My new book I AM CHINA is really about this.
What does the word "home" mean to you?
When I lived in Berlin for a year, in 2012, I thought Berlin would be my home and it was - temporarily. I lived in Paris too, from 2009 to 2010, but it felt less of a home somehow. I have lived in London for nearly ten years and it is supposed to my ‘home’. But I am not sure what you call a home. I have enough furniture and books in a two bedroom flat. I have never felt at home with the weather conditions in England, nor the fenced landscapes belonging to the very rich few.
Now as I am answering your questions in a hotel room in Melbourne, I feel very much at home in this town. In fact I felt home at one when I arrived in Melbourne, with so many young Chinese people and Chinese restaurants and a very friendly climate and the ocean water is warm nearby. Last week, I was in the rainforest in north Australia doing some research and I wished I could live in a house by a rainforest. That would be my real home.
In any case, I don’t think China is a suitable place for my idea of ‘home’ even in the next 20 years - unless the environment is improved radically in a short time. One would not want to live in a place without clean air or clean water. It is obvious.
In a previous interview, you have touched on the topic of commercial censorship in the western publishing industry. Could your share your experiences on this.
It is about how wilful you are and if you are driven enough to express your voice as a writer or an artist. In a way, this applies to any environment.
In China, I published several books; some were about film theories and sold poorly. And I did struggle constantly to be a writer in China. I was fighting perhaps even more there. Also, it was because I was younger too.
Now in the West (in England and in Europe) of course you are in the minority as a Chinese writer. So this is the reality one must face. Once you accept this, I think you will struggle in a more complex, political and even more philosophical way. Because you realize that you are facing many layers of problems: cultural baggage and culture ignorance (which are not everyone’s fault necessarily), misunderstandings, and different types of censorship. But there is no key to the door. The key is that you find your own way and be totally genuine and persistent.
You have written books both in Chinese and English. How does it feel writing in a language that is not your mother tongue?
Both restricting and a sense of freedom. It is everything, in all dimensions. It is not only about finding your own language beyond national and geographical identity; and not only finding a common culture reference beyond the differences; and not only breaking the habit of your writing in your past. It’s about all of this. I now actually find it’s easier (politically speaking) to write in English than in Chinese. I find that my head is freer in the English expression, despite the difficulties. I think my new novel I AM CHINA is really a book covering these issues and trying to talk about bridging cultures.
What advice would you give to a new writer?
As I said, be genuine and be persistent. Most of time, commit to the accepting lonesome hard work as a writer.
In your books, you write about love and sex without pulling any punches. Many authors dread writing sex scenes. What advice would you give to a writer who is writing a sex scene for the first time.
I don’t think I write about sex particularly well, but I do know how to describe the aching feeling of isolation, loneliness, dislocation and the longing for love and warmth. Sex is only a way to connect to others, sometimes a strange and extreme way to connect, like my character Iona, the English translator. But Iona is really a manifestation of sexual freedom in a loveless life.
For a first time writer, I can only say you should draw upon your own emotional connection to write a sex scene, but reading other writers is equally important. It always helps.
What is the inspiration behind your new book I am China?
The idea of freedom in an artist’s life and understanding the ‘other’, beyond culture and language differences.
Many writers are introverts who enjoy long periods of solitude and then are thrust into the limelight when they have to do book signings. How do you balance your moments of solitude and noise?
There is no noise, philosophically speaking. If there is, then everything is all passing noise. It is an illusion to think a writer (a true writer’s) life attracts the limelight. Anyone who has heard of Eckhart Tolle’s ‘The Power of Now’ will understand this. There is no ‘self’; it is all about images of ‘self’, or the construction of ‘self’. So either live with it and relax or abandon the artificial world.
A number of your books cover the topic of love. Are you a romantic at heart?
Yes, of course I am very romantic, deep inside. That’s why I am so ‘despairing’ and ‘cynical’. For example, I think Milan Kundela, one of the most romantic writers and most hard-core political writers, is very romantic. But to deliver the pure idea of love, one has to connect to a much larger body of themes – history, war, etc. in order to bring the complexity to the surface. And in my case, I AM CHINA is the discussion about the ideology of politics and whether an artist should be totally political or live beyond it.
In terms of love, in the West, people say love is a very modern and new concept, only beginning after the Middle Ages. Another version is that love was only invented after the 18th century. That’s one way to look at love. I am not sure about that and I am not sure if it is like this in the East. So yes, I think the idea of love can be very different from culture to culture.
Imagine you are ninety years old, looking back on your life as an author and filmmaker. What kind of mark would you like to have left on this earth?
I really don’t think in this way, this way of measuring life is too functional and too American for me. If there is anything, I be feel okay to die if I have lived a full life, a life with some imagination.BW
I AM CHINA is published by Nan Talese / Doubleday in the USA and Chatto & Windus in the UK