M. Lý-Eliot looks at the work of this exciting young novelist and her exploration of the themes of isolation, education and revolution
Born in China and based in Hackney, Xiaolu Guo is seizing the stage as a prominent artist here in the UK. With the release of her brilliant third feature film, UFO in Her Eyes (reviewed on the F Word earlier this year), and her nomination as one of Granta’s 2013 Best of Young British Novelists, it is easy to see why people find her work so exciting.
In interviews she admits to being a writer at heart, using her work in film as a way of avoiding too much professional solitude. And in writing mode she is extremely prolific, with six novels published both in Mandarin and English. Her precocious talent earned her very first English-language novel, A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers, a place on the 2007 Orange Prize for Fiction shortlist.
Her novels are short and fragmented, with a mythic, parable-like quality – a style that she describes – maybe too humbly – as “grandmothers’ stories”. Her novels are both accessible and experimental: Concise Chinese-English Dictionary, for example, is written in the halting, often amusing style of a beginner language student’s notebook, which gradually becomes more fluent as the pages unfold.
This novel, like the rest of her work, is intensely preoccupied with the clash between the past and the future. In her earlier work in particular, Guo tends to focus on adventurous young female protagonists from rural China, forced into the metropolis to escape the devastating dreariness of impoverished peasant life. And in a way that closely resembles Guo’s own biography, ideas of reeducation and internal revolution, or 反身 (fǎnshēn – meaning ‘to turn the body’ in Mandarin) – are crucial. Time and again her engaging protagonists undergo complete, painful destructions of their pasts and their memories in order to survive in the contemporary metropolis, be it Beijing or London.
Guo’s own story begins in a similar way as that of many of her characters, thousands of miles away on a fishing village on the southeast coast of rural China. Born in 1973, her father was a fisherman-turned-artist, who made a living selling his paintings, but, due to the perceived bourgeois nature of his new profession, he was sent to a labour camp during the Chinese Cultural Revolution. Her mother was a Red Guard whose duties also took her away from parenthood and so Guo was sent away, to live as a baby with strangers and later with her impoverished grandparents.
Guo describes violence and hardness as themes that pervade her childhood, both in family relationships and in her experience of nature in the typhoon-battered fishing village of her youth, where fishermen often did not return from the sea and children were regularly swept away from the beaches. She only remembers consciously meeting her parents when she was about seven and spent most of her lonely childhood with her silent grandparents, who were virtually estranged aside from living in the same house.
Describing her grandfather’s lifelong abuse of her grandmother, a “baby bride” with bound feet, she highlights the outrageous suffering of women in pre-revolutionary China. Although her mother became a revolutionary Red Guard, Guo also describes her relationship with her mother as “violent” and her mother as perpetually resentful of her. The suggestion is that her mother’s radical rejection of patriarchal pre-Communist Chinese Confucian values did not fully play out within the nuclear family.
But while the Cultural Revolution sundered her family, it also opened up previously unheard-of educational opportunities for a young girl from a family background that Guo rather harshly describes as “very barbarian”. Despite or perhaps because of these early hardships, Guo began publishing poetry in her early teens. She was influenced by authors like Sylvia Plath, who she viewed as radical at the time for China as a woman writing about suicide and who was published in translation only after censorship laws were relaxed in the late 1980s.
Guo has described her early poetry as displaying the “Misty Poets” style, an allegorical, “mistily” subversive style that became prominent in China in the 1980s in response to heavy political censorship. This has seeped into her novelistic style. She later entered the Beijing Film Academy, where she studied and taught until the age of 30, when she moved to the UK to attend the London Film School.
As a 19-year-old student in Beijing, Guo published her earliest novel, initially titled Fenfang’s 37.2 Degrees, that later became 20 Fragments of a Ravenous Youth when republished in English. It is a frenetic, ‘don’t look back’-style tale of young peasant woman Fenfang’s search to become significant. The novel begins just as Fenfang, aged 21, has managed to register herself as an extra at the state film archives in Beijing.
The timing is symbolic: everything leading up to this moment is irrelevant to Fenfang’s journey to becoming an interesting member of society. Her rural childhood, the three years in Beijing working manual jobs and living with an abusive boyfriend’s family in one room (together with several family pets), the dozens of adult education classes: all these past experiences are barely described.
Guo’s first person narration is thrilling. Our experience sharing Fenfang’s world is always warm, despite the freezing colds of the Beijing winter and the periods of deep isolation and loneliness she experiences as a young woman trying to make it on her own as an actor and screenwriter in the big city.
Female isolation is a particular theme in Guo’s early novels, especially because the characters tend to be surrounded only by men. Embarking on her first screenplays, Fenfang tries to write a female character before suddenly realising that she does not understand women and has no female friends at all. In her words, “It seemed every woman in this city was busy with her children or her mortgage. Money was the only friend she needed. And I wasn’t my own friend either.” In Guo’s representation of China in the 2000s, the country’s rapid development as a market-based economy destroys any sense of solidarity that might previously have existed between women, especially for women with an artistic, non-conformist bent like Fenfang. Older women spy on her, accusing her of sexual impropriety because she lives alone, and she is totally dependent on male friends, partners and film directors for emotional and practical subsistence.
Guo’s next novel, Village of Stone, features the same kind of isolation: main character Coral’s only friend is her boyfriend, Red, a frisbee fanatic with whom she shares stilted dialogues and a stifling ground floor flat in Beijing. Strangely enough, a massive dried eel mysteriously sent from Coral’s home town, The Village of Stone, acts as the trigger that thaws the iciness in their relationship. Mesmerised by the appearance of this out-of-place and smelly eel, Coral and Red gradually consume it, causing memories of her past to become more accessible to Coral, thus allowing the lovers to achieve a previously unknown intimacy. Indeed, food as a stable physical link between past and present is a recurring motif in Guo’s work. It is as though ‘foodways’ (an academic term describing the cultural, social and economic practices relating to the consumption of food) are how characters explore their personal histories and represent a way to rebuild community after the individual’s abrupt departures and self-renewals.
Like Village of Stone, A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary charts lead character Z’s dependence on her lover, an older English man she meets when she arrives in London. Desperate for companionship, a week after their first encounter she awkwardly misunderstands his invitation for her to be his “guest” and moves into his Hackney house.
Yet despite these early intimacies between the lovers, she finds his liberal, individualistic sense of personal freedom (and his vegetarianism) extremely challenging. Especially for a feminist reader coming from an East Asian background, this makes for some quite painful, nerve-hitting reading. Indeed, an argument about splitting the bill at a restaurant leads an angry Z to deploy the choice phrase, “Of course you have to pay. You are a man. If I pay too, why I need be with you?” (!)
It’s clear that despite being educated within a communist system, Z still holds some very traditional views on the relationship between the sexes. Whether this is because of her poor rural background, or whether this is widespread among her generation (now being economically forced away from egalitarian values), is left unclear. But, sure enough, as Z’s broken English improves, the lovers’ clashes become more obvious, their ideological differences more fully expressed. She becomes less and less dependent on her lover and their relationship begins to fragment into constant arguing and finally, silence.
In her later works, UFO in Her Eyes and Lovers in the Age of Indifference, Guo seems to have had enough of telling intensely individual stories, and begins to tackle the same themes but with a broader range of perspectives. Both books have multiple narrators. UFO is written as multiple police reports, and Lovers as a melancholic and evocative collection of short stories that span ancient and contemporary China in seamless flights.
The lasting impression I take away from Guo’s later works is a touch sadder, more pessimistic, and conscious of impossible differences between conflicting ideologies as well as between the past and the future. With the removal of the first person focus, there is little room left for hopeful self-delusion and improbably happy endings.
In all of Guo’s work it is left unclear whether the heroines will achieve the full re-education that they constantly seek. And ultimately what seems more likely is that fǎnshēn itself will remain constant, as the characters perpetually change in response to the needy, inconstant and ever-demanding contemporary world.
Images show: (1) Xiaolu Guo at the Cines del Sur Granada Film Festival (used under a Creative Commons licence, with thanks to the film festival), (2) the Beijing skyline (used under a Creative Commons licence, with thanks to Michael McDonough); and (3) a row of copies of A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers in WH Smith (used under a Creative Commons licence, with thanks to BuhSnarf.