Successful authors who write in a second language are a rare breed.
Beckett, Conrad and Nabokov most famously did it, but to name someone writing in English whose first language is Chinese is no easy proposition.
Xiaolu Guo, however, belongs to this select group. Furthermore, the 40-year-old, who in 2013 was named one of Granta’s Best Young British Novelists (former nominees include Salman Rushdie, Jeanette Winterson and Zadie Smith) lives and works in East London.
Brought up in a south Chinese fishing village, Guo showed artistic promise from a young age. She studied film in Beijing before moving to London in 2002 to take up a fellowship at the National Film School. She is a prolific filmmaker and novelist with ten books to her name – five of them written after arriving in the UK.
Her first novel in English, A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers, was published in 2007. It is the story of a young Chinese woman sent by her parents to study English in London, structured in dictionary form and written in a broken English that improves alongside the narrator’s own grasp of the language.
It won her plaudits, including an Orange Prize-nomination, and Guo has continued experimenting with narrative in her latest novel I am China, a tale of love, exile, art and politics, set over three continents and written in epistolary form.
“I think literature should be an intellectual exercise for readers, not only for the writers, and this habit has been lost in this country and in the Anglo-Saxon world really,” she tells me bluntly over coffee.
I am China is told through the perspective of a young translator, Iona Fitzpatrick, living in London, who is given a bunch of letters and diary entries by a publisher and few clues as to what they’re about. What follows is a detective narrative in epistolary form – not dissimilar to AS Byatt’s Possession in this respect – in which she pieces together a 20-year love story between exiled Chinese punk and Tiananmen protester Kublai Jian, and his lover Deng Mu.
If the idea of Chinese punk seems far-fetched, that’s because it is – China has never had its own punk culture. But Guo listened to The Sex Pistols and found the genuine anger in their music, reminiscent of the students’ pro-democracy protests in 1989.
She created Jian, her own Chinese punk (based on a real person) and wrote a short story in which he confronted Johnny Rotten and asked him whether punk is a positive or distractive force.
“The Chinese punk asks why Western punk music always creates diarrhoea. If you’re so angry why not construct a better society? And Johnny Rotten says ‘No, punk is about diarrhoea so you can let out all the capitalistic bullshit out your arse’.”
The unpublished story grew into I am China, and became part of the novel’s wider discourse on the role of the artist.
Guo calls I am China an autobiographical novel, with Jian and Muo representing two contrasting ideas about the world. Jian is an “ideological being”, prepared to go into exile after handing out copies of his ‘manifesto’ at a gig, while Mu lives beyond ideological struggle.
“Jian is very much like how I was, a very angry rock ‘n’ roll youth who believed all art is political and there’s no art that can really live beyond the political sphere and that even being apolitical is a political gesture. I was very much like that, and that’s what drove me all the way from China to here.”
‘Freedom’ in the West is something both Guo and Jian in the book hoped to find. But for Jian, leaving China brings him to detention centres in Dover and Switzerland. Similarly, Guo says she is now less naïve than when she first left China.
“Western democracy actually has a certain totalitarian character, because if you’re not inside this system you can never participate in democracy, you have no voice anyway,” she says.
Living with her partner and young child in Hackney, Guo has forged a life for herself and no longer feels like the ‘angry teenager’, aligning herself more with her lover character, Miu.
“This lover is saying that life is so much bigger, and this universe is so much bigger,” Guo says. “Because if you read Zen Buddhism you will laugh at Communism and if you know George Orwell’s 1984 you’ll know what a little awful crazy nasty political game man has created. I mean, we’re just advanced monkeys.”
Guo claims not to care as much now about politics or even the arts. But despite this, there’s something of the punk about her that refuses to mellow.
“I come across as this woman who comes from this far away China and lives in the West. That’s not me,” she snaps, when I ask her about her life in China. “Who is me is a novelist and filmmaker who communicates my story and my vision through a narrative. So ‘me’ doesn’t exist in a way. My little trivial reality is not interesting, it’s not like I’m Andy Warhol.”
When her character Kublai Jian comes to Britain and is detained, he becomes “stateless”. I wonder if, as an artist on foreign soil, she feels stateless too; neither fully British but long past the point of no return.
“I’m not really attracted to Hackney at all,” Guo admits. “If I could I’d live on a tropical island in the southern hemisphere.
“My journey’s really more like an intellectual journey, I’m not really into making a life in the West. I don’t care if I make a living in China or New York or Hackney or Hamburg. Basically I want to create art and write novels.”
I am China is published by Chatto & Windus. RRP: £14.99. ISBN: 9780701188191