Xiaolu Guo's half-familiar fictions

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 Discourse

September 18, 2020
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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, she remembers her childhood growing up in the 1970s with her indigent grandparents in a fishermen’s village on China’s east coast, then later with her parents, an artist and former Maoist Red Guard, in the nearby city of Wenling.

Her father introduced her to the work of Walt Whitman and Ernest Hemingway, sparking Guo’s interest in storytelling. In the early 1990s, she applied to the Beijing Film Academy and travelled for three days across trains and buses to attend the institution’s two week-long entrance exam process. There, she found six thousand students from all over the country vying for seven places. She was eliminated on the fourth day, but was encouraged to try again the following year. Guo returned to Wenling and buried herself in books for the next year, reading up on Bertolt Brecht, Orson Welles, and Konstantin Stanislavski. She tried again next year—this time, the applicant pool had expanded to 7000. She got in.

*** Of all the avant-garde European artists and writers Guo later encountered in her studies, Barthes has left a lasting mark. Much like how his original 1977 Lover’s Discourse is structured like a “dictionary” of sorts, setting out words and phrases complete with short, one-page aphoristic definitions, Guo’s version does the same. “I’m fascinated by shorter essay writing,” she says, and sees herself as a “documentary novelist” who captures moods of everyday life.

But while Barthes’s definitions are general, universal ideas that could be telegraphed onto any relationship—“No Answer,” Barthes observes, is a case when “the amorous subject suffers anxiety because the loved object replies scantily or not at all,” thus anticipating the modern phenomenon of online ghosting—Guo’s dictionary tracks the evolution of a love story between two individuals, and follows the ordinary events and milestones in their lives. The protagonist, an unnamed Chinese film student, arrives in London during the Brexit debate in early 2015, and falls in love with an Australian-German architect. Definitions in Guo’s book track the evolution of their love affair: “The Elderflowers,” the first in the book, refers to their first meeting by an elderflower bush in east London’s Clapton Road; the story then takes us through “Horny”; “Marriage of Convenience” to “Second Trimester.”

As much as Guo might admire the grand European artists, you can’t help but feel there’s a sly critique smuggled into her homages. Faced with the abstract theories of Godard, Barthes and Benjamin, Guo responds by foregrounding the particularities of everyday life. You could watch La Chinoise and ponder Maoism as an abstraction, or read Benjamin and think over the authenticity of art. Or you could, as Guo does in her work, follow the life of a young Chinese woman in the countryside, and have a conversation with a street artist in Shenzhen about why he does Picasso reproductions. One form of knowledge—grand, abstract—has been traditionally prized over the other, and we have missed much wisdom as a result. The protagonist of her Lover’s Discourse finds many classical novels taught in schools “too male, too indigestible, and too exhaustive”; “only when I found paragraphs that carried a sense of the defeated, the ignored and the dying did I feel connected.”

Brexit and its fallout is a thread running through Lover’s Discourse. An early chapter is entitled “Vote Leave”—by the end of the novel, the characters are “Brexhausted.” Identity and cultures are explored in the relationship between the two lovers, resulting in several humorous exchanges:

[su_quote]“Look, basically I’m an Anglo-Saxon, a Wasp.” “Wasp?” Now it was my turn to laugh. “A fly with yellow-and-black stripes, going around stinging people?” “I don’t sting people, but I do wear striped shirts.” You choked a little on your hot green tea, then explained: “A Wasp is a white Anglo-Saxon Protestant. You might have heard of it?” “Hmm, a white Anglo-Saxon Protestant.” All these words sounded alien to me, apart from white.[/su_quote]

Cultural identity and the exchange between east and west figure in many of Guo’s works, and she has previously criticised the lack of attention British media pays to Chinese stories. But she is inclined to see the recognition of difference as a means to communal understanding, rather than the end in itself. “It can be very weaponised and noisy these days” she says, feeling a pressure to speak through the lens of “I am this, I am that.” Writing about love offered her way for her to escape the self, to instead explore what it would mean to make “a commitment to the other.” In today’s crop of literary fiction, full of tales about self-consciousness, guilt and modern alienation, such a project can feel quaint and romantic, but Guo admits to being as much: “I’m totally romantic and traditional… It’s kind of like I’m still living as an adolescent.”

*** One may commit to the “other” in one’s love life, but today, the possibility of equal exchange on a global level still feels remote. The Black Lives Matter uprisings this summer have spotlighted the incompleteness of educational curriculums. Does Guo feel her own self-identification as a “European” has to do with the one-sidedness of her own education? She resists the challenge to her own identity, making the case for fluidity: “I’m both Chinese and a westerner” she says; “I’m modern.” But on a broader level, “I see a huge problem with what’s on the university list,” she continues, pointing to the disproportionate presence of European thinkers “even in China.” She observes how east Asian students in the west can face a lot of “unjust prejudice” for having not read Thomas Hardy or Virginia Woolf at their universities: “but have you read Wang Wei; have you read Li Bai, have you read Lu Xun?” she says, listing China’s great historical poets.

But then why is it that the great European writers inspire her work? There’s the lingering romantic obsession, she admits—the excitement of conversing with the heroes of her youth. Then there’s more pragmatic considerations. “I don’t want a Western person walking down the street and looking at a Chinese face and asking, ‘what is this Chinese person thinking,’” she says. This drive to demystify the east motivates her as an artist. “To stop that happening,” she continues, “I have to invite western readers into a familiar world, with a point of reference they can understand. And then they slowly enter this other world, this unfamiliarity, this strangeness.” It is this generous bridging between worlds, this leap together from the familiar to the unknown, that is for Guo “the responsibility of the writer and artist.”

A Lover's Discourse by Xiaolu Guo (Chatto & Windus, £14.99)