A novelist, essayist, and filmmaker, Xiaolu Guo was born in a Chinese fishing village in 1973. She attended the Beijing Film Academy before moving to London in 2002. In 2013, Ms. Guo was named one of Granta’s Best of Young British novelists. Like most of her work, her most recent novel, I Am China (published by Nan A. Talese/Doubleday) is concerned with cross-cultural differences, telling the story of Iona Kirkpatrick, a British translator, at work on a collection of personal papers. In the course of her translation she becomes captivated by the 20-year love story between Jian, an exiled Chinese punk musician, and Mu, who stays in Beijing and eventually tours the United States as a performance poet.
I spoke to Ms. Guo via Skype while she attended the Edinburgh Book Festival this past summer. The interview has been edited, condensed, and arranged by theme.
Anita Felicelli: Was Iona, the translator, a frame for I Am China from the start or did Jian and Mu’s story emerge first?
Xiaolu Guo: Kublai Jian’s voice from the mental hospital was with me a long time. He was writing to the Queen. I wrote out his letter. I vaguely knew he would have a Chinese poet as a lover, but I was still looking for a bridge to pin down this novel. I decided Iona would be a literary translator who had lived in Beijing and also knew the West. She would swim between two languages and get caught between a politically repressive culture and a very free democratic culture.
Language and the difficulties of translation are common themes in your work. You have previously mentioned that you wrote your novel Twenty Fragments of a Ravenous Youth in Chinese (it was called Fenfang’s 37.2 Degrees) and then rewrote it before publishing it in English. Was that experience a point of inspiration for I Am China?
I needed a very strong reason to write this novel in English, rather than Chinese. The original Chinese version has no punctuation at all, just page after page of sentences. It took translators years to figure out the tense and punctuation. I found the translated version of the book alien to me; the girl’s voice was very different than what I thought it should be. So I essentially re-wrote it in English. I did a similar exercise with The Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers. Both these books, I think, paved the way for this novel.
Do you relate to Jian or Mu more?
With these characters, I split myself into two personalities. Kublai Jian is more how I was five to 10 years ago, with all the bitterness and anger. Growing up, I was politically sensitive. We were in the southern province, which is very Communist. My childhood was really a struggle to find my voice. When I came to Europe I lived in Berlin, Paris, and London — and I became much more open. I discovered life is beyond art. To live ideologically is to narrow your life.
When Mu was at Harvard — all of that was pretty much my experience in America.
When Mu comes to Harvard to perform, Chinese students with government family backgrounds tell her to “stop licking Western ass” and tell her she doesn’t love her country. That happened to you?
Yes, I was showing my first film The Concrete Revolution and it was about China preparing for the Olympics in 2003, about all of these poor immigrants coming to Beijing to build this Olympic park, and how they were exploited by the state and never got paid. They were nobody. The film was critical of Chinese industrial development and the ruthlessness of capitalism. The Chinese students at Harvard were very nationalistic and, I think, ashamed about the film. Those experiences were really raw — as I wrote I Am China, I remembered this very well.
When did you first encounter punk music and counterculture?
In China when I was a teenager. We were influenced by American rock ’n’ roll from the ’80s onward. Punk wasn’t introduced until late, until the ’90s, but we had quite a lot of rock ’n’ roll — Bob Dylan, The Doors, Jim Morrison. And also blues and jazz. I liked rock ’n’ roll much more than punk, because I didn’t understand what punk was supposed to do — it’s not very musical. And when you don’t understand the lyrics, it’s hard to figure out what to do with it. Even if you don’t understand Bob Dylan’s lyrics, you can still connect to him.
I was taken with a passage in I Am China in which Jian asks Johnny Rotten if there’s any punk that does practical good for society in the West and Johnny Rotten replies that punks are “useless, or worse, by definition.” And then Jian identifies himself as a Chinese punk that does good. Does punk represent something different in England or America versus what it represented in China?
If you grow up in China, you might have some naive ideas about punk. We didn’t have a punk movement or beat culture. We didn’t have this culture of On the Road. Punk would never be born in China. For us, counterculture was imported from modern or postmodern cultures.
I think I had a romantic idea about the punk movement in the West. When I came to London, I encountered a few punks, and I saw Johnny Rotten perform with the Sex Pistols. I wondered if his anarchical attitude arose from the bad weather and poverty, or from the non-collective, individualistic culture, or the working-class oppression. I wanted to have this crazy discussion between the Western punk who believes in absolute anarchy and engages in a kind of verbal diarrhea and the Chinese punk who is very idealistic and socially engaged.
The difference is that in certain Asian cultures people still try to find some positive way to be collective. And it’s nearly nihilistic in the Western cultures. But, of course, I don’t want to be too generic. I do believe artists should be socially engaged.
There’s a poem that Mu writes and performs at Harvard, a rewrite of Alan Ginsberg’s America. Can you talk about that?
I loved Alan Ginsberg’s Howl. When I was reading Ginsberg’s poems in English some years ago, I thought it was so interesting to think that what is going on in China now was going on in America 40 years ago. I thought: if I replace the word “America” in America with “China,” the poem would still work. I did a cover version myself when I had a band; it was called Sabotage Sister — three boys and me. I did a reading of the “China” version of Howl in different European clubs, and it worked. The poem is a big part of I Am China. In a way it’s a novel dedicated to Alan Ginsberg.
I’ve read your essay in defense of Mo Yan and I know that you believe that the West places too much emphasis on dissidents from China. Do you believe that art always has a relationship to the political dimension?
I think this is very much to do with your background. If you grow up in China or the Eastern bloc or Africa or India — I think our writing has a very strong history of engaging the problems of the society, because our societies are not affluent yet. So there is lots of misery and struggle in our narratives, which will automatically be political. I don’t want to shy away from those subjects. I was quite obsessed with Marxism as well as the Western democratic way to organize society, and I wanted to use narrative rather than nonfiction to discuss them. Maybe this kind of novel is old fashioned in the West, but I can’t do it differently. The question of whether the arts should be politically engaged or beyond politics bothers me every day. I’m a self-exiled novelist and filmmaker, and this is my reality.
You’ve mentioned that all artists have complex relationships to the state, and also that you feel stateless. Now that you are a British citizen, where does your work fall in relation to the state?
First, I think we all want to be world citizens. I feel that the Chinese identity is narrow and restrained. For the new generation, we don’t want to fall under the shadow of national identity. Now I’m a British citizen — and I don’t think “British literature,” the phrase, exists the way it did. During the last 50 years in Britain, there has been very strong Indian literature, and literature by immigrants from Africa, and from people like me, all of which has made British literature quite multicultural. We have a transnational identity. Just because we use English to express ourselves, doesn’t mean we belong to this identity. English is very handy and makes it quicker to speak about our reality. Nationality doesn’t define me.
You’ve mentioned commercial censorship in the West and that all artists censor themselves. Do you censor yourself? What have you been afraid to write?
With this novel I was writing in a language that didn’t have these censorship problems, and I found it really liberating to write in a second language in a foreign land. But in China, you don’t have certain subjects, because you will end up in jail. You will lose your very nature. I think it’s not worth it. What’s most important is to act as an artist rather than act as a martyr.
I do think there’s commercial censorship in the West. You have to sell your novel and convince readers and publishers that it is worth distributing. This is quite demanding for artists to learn how to achieve that ability or platform. I think we suppose the market is a neutral market. But the market is not neutral. It is controlled by a few elite corporations. I think that’s quite damaging for a lot of artists, if you cannot enter that so-called free market.
At the Jaipur Festival you said that American fiction is massively overrated, and you’ve noted you’re not interested in naturalist realism. Whose writing do you admire and wish more people would read?
Well, when I said that, it was very reactionary. I was in Jaipur and there were all of these big famous male writers writing about big subjects. I felt this kind of voicelessness as a younger Asian woman, like: why am I here? So I was being reactionary, but that’s not really what I was trying to say.
I love lots of ’50s and ’60s writers like Marguerite Duras. Maxine Hong Kingston’s Woman Warrior is a very underrated book. I’m really into Charles Bukowski. Russian poetry. Tagore. I’m not into epic narratives. When you’re in China, you’re very sensitive to poetic language rather than grand narrative. I feel much more connected to Bukowski than Dickens, for example.
I Am China had a grand narrative feel to it.
That’s praise. Last year when I finished this novel, it was a time of change. My parents had died the year before. I turned 40 years old. I gave birth to my baby. And I lost my Chinese nationality because I gained a British nationality. I couldn’t return to my native country. We were buying a house in London. All of this was extremely dramatic for one year’s time. This is a book that is a farewell to my teenage years — to my angry youth — and it’s a conclusion of a certain kind of wandering artist’s life.