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Aug 06, 2009

In her novels and films, Xiaolu Guo explores the meaning of home in a world in flux.

By Lindsey Schneider

Xiaolu Guo is one of China’s most successful cultural exports. Her novels have been shortlisted for four major fiction prizes, her films have been screened at some of the biggest festivals around the world, and she is still in her 30s.

Much of Guo’s work deals with the gulfs that divide her world—between East and West, between words and meanings. Both of her English-language novels—A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers (2007) and Twenty Fragments of a Ravenous Youth (2008)—examine the lives of young Chinese peasants trying to define themselves in big cities.

Her latest narrative film project, She, A Chinese, which premieres at the Locarno International Film Festival in Switzerland this month, chronicles a young woman as she wrestles with another kind of gulf, between external and internal worlds.

Meanwhile, her documentary, We Went to Wonderland, has been touring the globe for over a year. It tells the story of Guo’s elderly parents on their first trip outside China, on a journey to visit their daughter. Guo’s mother, like her father a good Chinese Communist, called the run-down section of London where their daughter lives “the wonderland.”

The entire film was shot in two- to three-minute segments on a point-and-shoot digital camera using the video function, and the audio was recorded separately on a standard, low-cost voice recorder. The resulting cobbled-together style of the final production accentuates the fragmentary nature of the narrative.

“I discovered the freedom I had with this tourist thing,” Guo says of the camera. The technical constraints discouraged the typical “epic” style of documentary filmmaking and lent a certain intimacy to her parents’ histories and memories.

Running throughout Guo’s films and novels is the attempt to reclaim what she calls “the individual voice of the peasants” in order to tell a larger story. “Only by understanding their interior voices,” she says, “can you understand how a nation is being constructed.”


Life in the Split

Guo’s life has taken a path similar to that of many of her protagonists. Raised in a remote fishing village in southern China, she ran away to the Beijing Film Academy at age 18 to indulge a love of films, books and criticism. By the time she left the city, she had already published five widely noted novels in her native language.

In 2002, at the age of 29, Guo relocated to London, beginning her Western life in Hackney. The East End neighborhood has what Guo calls “a profound displaced feeling” that was strikingly resonant with her chosen themes.

Last year, she published a piece in The Guardian in which she described a piece of mail that had just arrived. “One day, during my life as a foreigner in London, I received a letter from the police: ‘We have carefully reviewed your visa application. We regret to inform you that you cannot be granted leave to remain.’ I read that letter another ten times. I could understand every word, apart from the most important bit of all: ‘leave to remain.’ Must I leave, or could I remain?”

The answer was unwelcome, but evocative. “In the West,” she says, “my life is completely temporary.” The revocation of her visa has left her in a sort of limbo between Beijing, Paris and London.

Like much of her work, Guo’s novel, A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary, has been interpreted as being about the split between the East and the West. She maintains that it is also about linguistic play and, above all, intimacy and sadness.

“In the West, I don’t represent anything,” she says. “I refuse to represent China, because China has many faces.”

Many writers in exile manufacture their own geography to transcend nationality, but Guo struggles to explore the ambiguity in which she finds herself.

In Dictionary, the protagonist, Z, arrives in London from Beijing with a limited knowledge of English. On the airplane, she muses, “when a body floating in air, which country she belonging to?”

As Z wanders through London, she learns words and idioms, but does not necessarily understand them. The novel deals head on with two lovers (one Chinese, one British) trying to find a common language in which they can communicate their desires.

She and her protagonist were dealing with the problem together: It was the first novel she wrote in English, and she was learning the language’s nuances as she wrote. In the narrative, the two main characters seem to float together between their two languages, struggling to express emotions in a foreign tongue.

She considers this an essential part of her artistic development. Her novels and films, she says, still “have to be translated from my Chinese sensibility.”

No matter how hard Guo tries to reconcile and embrace both East and West, they remain in a stubborn dialectical tension. As her mother says in Wonderland, “even if Europe is a wonderland, my home is better.”

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