The British-Chinese novelist and filmmaker talks about writing about love in a time of division, why we need more balanced curriculums, and paying homage to an early European hero in her new novel, A Lover's Discourseby Rebecca Liu / September 18, 2020 / Leave a comment
Xiaolu Guo’s films and books have a habit of speaking back to canonical European culture. Her film She, a Chinese (2009), which won the top Golden Leopard prize at Locarno, is a homage to Jean-Luc Godard’s La Chinoise (1967); but while the French auteur documents the lives of white European Maoists in Paris, Guo follows a young woman living in the 21st-century Chinese countryside, with no apparent political commitments, who travels to London. Her most recent film, Five Men and a Caravaggio (2018), a documentary about the “copycat art village” in southern China famous for its reproduction of European masterpieces, is a response to Walter Benjamin’s 1935 essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” Her first novel written in English, A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers (2007), was inspired by Roland Barthes’s essays on love. And this year she has returned to the French writer in her new novel, which takes its name from one of his most famous works: A Lover’s Discourse.
“I think I belong in Europe,” says Guo from her east London home; “I’m always saying by birth I’m Chinese, but my intellectual influences—how I write films, I write novels—are mainly from European literature and cinema.” We’re speaking mid-July, over Zoom. Lockdown has brought an unusual period of stillness in Guo’s itinerant life. For the past year, she’s been teaching at Columbia University in New York, and returns to China annually to make films. Since first moving to London in 2002 as a 29-year-old film student on a British scholarship, Guo has lived all over the continent (“when I say Europe, I’m including Britain”). In the past two decades, she has taught in Berlin, Hamburg, Zurich, Bern, and Paris. “I refuse to be pinned down in one place,” she says.
Guo first encountered the European thinkers who would come to influence her work as a student in her early twenties at Beijing’s Film Academy. Guo arrived at the prestigious institution in 1993 as a voracious reader, keenly aware that her upbringing did not exude the glamour of her city-born peers. In her 2017 memoir, Once Upon a Time in the East,…