“How much better it would be if human beings could be more like starfish.”
Of the three writers I interviewed for BIBLIOTOPIA, Xiaolu Guo has the largest body of work – and she is a filmmaker as well. I was not able to read all of her books in time for the weekend, but I managed four of them and am so glad that I did. Her work is a complex mix of biography and fiction, and she’s interested in issues of displacement (both within a culture and between different cultures) as well as sexual expression and feminism. She was also generous and engaging in person, a real delight to meet and discuss books with.
Village of Stone is the story of Coral, a young woman living in Beijing with her lover, a man named Red. One way to describe Coral would be to say that she is frozen, or stuck, and it’s only when a mysterious package arrives from her far away hometown that she begins to tell the reader the story of her childhood, giving us a chance to understand what has made her the way she is now. The book flips between the past and the present, revealing the tension that holds the two together. Coral was raised in the “village of stone” by her grandparents – two people who hated each other and lived on separate floors of their home – and she essentially lived as an orphan in a village of families, all of them at the mercy of a wild and merciless sea. The book is very much about loneliness and escape, about surviving trauma, and it plays endlessly with ideas of language and silence. (p.s. The title of this post is a line from Village of Stone.)
Once Upon a Time in the East is Guo’s most recent book, written in English, and published last year. This is her memoir, and many of its stories were achingly familiar after reading Village of Stone (which draws heavily from Guo’s own experiences). Here they are given more concrete detail and Guo’s own interpretations. The book also goes further, showing us when Guo meets her parents for the first time at the age of 7, the very fraught relationship she had with her mother, her family’s story during the Cultural Revolution and its lingering effects, as well as what happens when she leaves for Beijing to attend film school, and then when she travels to England and eventually stays. This book has a marvelous focus on what it means to create art, to write, from within a culture of censorship (which creates an equally strong self-censorship), and she talks a lot about how she was able to define herself outside of China, using English because for her it represented a switch from the patriarchal Chinese system and gave her a chance at equality. There is a lot about families here, too.
A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers is the first book that Guo wrote in English, and it accomplishes a very neat trick. She was learning English at the time, and so she used her unsteadiness in the language as the very basis of the book. It is written in broken English, a broken English that would be spoken by a Chinese immigrant. It’s a love story, as the title suggests, but it’s also a kind of travel narrative, and a book of self-discovery. There is nothing cheesy or simplistic about the novel but the directness of the language almost masks what is a lovely, careful story about losing one’s culture and oneself and trying to find a sense of wholeness again in a new place and a new language. That last sentence is the kind of sentence that gets so overused from a marketing standpoint, that I almost regret writing it, but the book very seriously and thoughtfully asks questions about what it is to love someone – physically, emotionally – and how loving someone else teaches you what loving yourself feels like. It is a deceptively light-seeming book with a much more serious heart.
20 Fragments of a Ravenous Youth is the first novel Guo ever wrote. She wrote it when she was still in China, and she wrote it in Chinese but according to Western novelistic narrative conventions, a style that was newish in China at the time. She writes in her memoir that a first-person story with a continuous narrative arc felt modern and strange. 20 Fragments is about Fenfang, a young woman who travels from the countryside to Beijing hoping to become an artist. She dates all the wrong men and has a lot of rotten luck. Again, there is a certain false lightness to the book that belies the seriousness of Guo’s subject: the real struggle of a young woman to make it on her own in a big city without family connections or support, and in a professional setting that is mostly hostile to women. An interesting footnote to this book is that the English version is probably very different from the original Chinese version. Guo writes in her acknowledgements that the ten-year gap between the publication of the original and the translation brought her to make some changes to the text, mostly because her vision of that young woman had changed, but also because, “The translation needed to capture the speech of a young Chinese girl who lives a chaotic life and speaks in slangy, raw Chinese.” I’m also curious if the English version is more overtly critical of elements of the Chinese system and culture than the original – something she may not have been able to do when the novel was first published.
If you’ve been reading this blog for any amount of time you will already know that one of my favorite things to do is read an author from start to finish. My experience with Guo over the past few weeks was like a compressed version of that, and it was interesting to read and study the way the margins blurred between her biography and her fictional project. Village of Stone fictionalized her childhood, 20 Fragments fictionalized her early experiences in Beijing, and A Concise Dictionary fictionalized her own immigrant experience in the UK and Europe. The actual memoir, Once Upon a Time in the East, added a ton of interesting nuance to those other stories.
I was not able to read UFO in her Eyes, I am China, or Lovers in the Age of Indifference (a collection of stories). I will eventually read those three as well, and I am particularly keen to read I am China because one of its characters is a translator who pieces together a love story based on letters, and also because it deals with modern issues of asylum. It’s also maybe the only novel of Guo’s that is written in the 3rd person and I’m curious how she’s made that shift.
I’ve gone on and one here, and I feel like I could still say a lot more. I’m delighted to have been introduced to Guo’s writing and films, and I look forward to follow what she does in the future.