Xiaolu Guo is a writer and filmmaker whose latest novel, I Am China, charts the journey of two lovers separated by countries and political protest. In an interview with Vintage, the author talks about her inspiration and writing process.
I Am China is a story about translation and layers of meaning – emails, letters, diaries – and one of your main characters is a translator. Do you think in your books you are trying to bridge a gap in the understanding between East and West?
Certainly I was very conscious about how to build the bridge between East and West in this particular novel. I mapped out my characters and stories roughly before I began the serious process of writing four years ago, but it was still not clear at all how exactly it would work until I found the voice of Iona, a young English-Chinese translator living in north London.
In my previous novels I was only subconsciously thinking about bridging East and West, but with I Am China ideas of translation and cultural interpretation became the most focal and crucial themes of the novel.
In this novel we are journeying through East and West from a translator’s point of view, we as readers read what this translator has translated. But at the same time Iona is also a reader in this book, a reader who is trying to find a path for the narrative, or multi-narrative story she is building with her translations. Having grown up in China, then lived periodically in Germany, France and now England, I think of my identity as a sort of trans-nationality, if I have to choose one at all. I believe we now live beyond national borders and cultural baggage. And this new phenomena has clashed with identities defined by traditional societies, creating untold dramas and conflict in our daily life. My character Jian is the classic case of someone from a rigid society trying to break out of its bounds yet suffering from a constant existential loneliness and cultural isolation when away from it.
There are two very different love stories in I Am China. How inevitable was it that they had to end up as they do?
The love stories are basically coming-of-age stories: the story of becoming an adult and growing out of the state of the ‘child of wonder’. Iona’s love story is very much a western story of the individual – living in a massive city like London she can choose her lovers and can control her own love life with free choice. In contrast, the love story of the two Chinese lovers in this book is tragic but also very romantic. They fall in love at university under the influence of the political movement on democracy and personal freedom in the wake of 1989. They have been fed by ideas and ideologies and their love is inevitably embedded in – and ultimately destroyed by – the political circumstances of the country at that time.
I Am China is a novel with a strong political message about the state of modern China. How do you think it will be received in China? Do you think writers have a responsibility to effect change?
I don’t know if this book will ever be translated into Chinese and read in China; if it is, I think it will be useful for the intellectuals and general readers, although the reality is that most citizens of China spend their lives frantically improving their material life and desperately trying to make enough money to survive. However, I will always believe that writers have a strong responsibility to effect social change.
In all your novels you write poignantly about loneliness, especially loneliness in cities. Where does the inspiration come from?
The inspiration comes from my own experience – I’m sure you can well imagine my life! A pathetic and static antisocial life! Not only because the very nature of being a writer forces you to commit to solitude, but also because of my nomadic, migrant nature. As I moved from one city to the next, from one country to the next, I have had to abandon the people I have known, and the places I’ve loved and lived in. In the end, I am always alone. I always feel very alienated anywhere I go or stay, either in a hotel room or in someone’s house. I never feel I belong to anywhere and now I have come to terms with it. The people I know are only the people passing through my life now, even both of my parents died before I turned 40. So I don’t think my relationships have grounded me to a place or a sense of home; though perhaps they have done in a spiritual sense. Most of my friendships are intellectual with only the possibility they might develop into emotional relationships.
I Am China ends on a tragic note – was there ever a point where you thought it could end happily?
The novel’s ending is both tragic and emotionally fulfilling, I hope. I think a really great novel should never have a really final ending. And a reader should have a desire and a hope to continue reading the book if they believe in and love the book. To create an ending is to resign to our human destiny; and comedy is only a narrative, a human illusion. I will always welcome the open ending and with this novel different characters offer different futures to readers, thanks to the structure of the book. It is not a mono-narrative novel.
Since you started I Am China you’ve had a baby – has that made you write any differently (apart from having less time!)?
I would have liked to say the baby situation made my writing different. But in reality that was not the case at all because it is the novel I’ve wanted to write for many, many years. I started writing as a young poet in the Chinese provinces in the 80s, and I have always been drawn more naturally to the visual arts (cinema and fine arts) than to literature, so I wanted to construct a novel with a very particular texture – to link to the arts, to do with time and space, and of course to do a multi-dimensional narrative. I only felt ready to write this novel a few years ago, after writing so many other books. So this novel is like a homage, a sorrowful love letter to the idea of youth, to the age of honesty and faith.
Your main Chinese characters in I Am China experience the West for the first time – Britain, America, Europe. How similar is their experience to your first time leaving China?
Of course those characters are very close to me. I feel like I have lived through the lives of Jian and Mu, but also the life of a Londoner like Iona. But this is the first time I’ve really written extensively about Britain and America from a foreigner’s perspective. I did think more in I AM CHINA about enlarging the book’s imaginative space, for example, Iona’s Scottish island life, Jian’s French bohemian encounters, etc. I wanted the story to happen over a wide geographical span and over a series of different times, some real, some unreal.
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