MY SECRET LIFE AS CORAL
South China Morning Post, Hong Kong,
April 4 2004
Guo Xiaolu wants to bring Chinese literature to the west. But, she tells Tim Bryan, she's not sure she wants her mum to read her books
STACKED WAIST HIGH along the office walls of publisher RandomHouse in southwest London are rows of new books awaiting despatch. The latest batch is Stella Rimington's At Risk, a thriller from the former spymaster of British intelligence. Out of the window, barely 300 metres across the river, stands the tall, sandy-coloured edifice of MI5 headquarters. You have the distinct feeling you're being watched.
Guo Xiaolu also has that feeling. The award-winning filmmaker, screenwriter, magazine essayist and novelist, with six books to her credit, is one of a new wave of controversial mainland writers. But it seems she's uncomfortable about how her words, written in London, will be perceived back in China - not only by Chinese publishers and authorities, but by the public, and especially her family. She gives the impression that her parents know less than everything about her remarkable life. Even more strange, then, that Guo, 30, talks openly and frankly for 90 minutes, in near-perfect English, about life, love, film, culture and China.
The overriding impression is of a strong character, a survivor. Why feel uncomfortable? There are things you don't want to admit to, in China, about your life, she says, 'because you will be morally criticised ... China has changed a lot. But there are still feelings that, say, if you live with a westerner, for instance, you are betraying Chinese culture.'
Coral, the lead character in her new novel, Village of Stone, is in such a situation. Does the novel detail aspects of her own life? Guo smiles. 'It is a work of fiction,' she says.
Village of Stone - Guo's first book to be published in the west - is a fictional account of a young orphan's upbringing in an impoverished fishing village. But it sounds like a lightly camouflaged autobiography, starting with Guo's fraught childhood in 1970s southern China, on a coastline ravaged by storms - physical and political.
Although often dark - it deals with child rape, poverty, loneliness, neglect, abortion and restrictive Chinese customs, not to mention a diet of gruel and fish paste - Village of Stone is no young pretender to Wild Swans. Guo's book has a romantic, almost mythical quality, and although the subject matter is often grim, the reader is left with hope for the future.
As the writer Doris Lessing says on the book's sleeve: 'What could have been a story of misery has the mysterious charm of a fairy tale or a legend. Reading it is rather like finding yourself in a dream.'
Born to a painter father and actress mother, Guo was left an orphan, in effect, from soon after birth. When her father was imprisoned, her mother travelled the country with a dance troupe. Guo, like Coral (aka Little Dog in the book), was left in the care of her impoverished grandparents, who didn't get on, to put it mildly.
'Coral is my double in my real life,' says Guo. 'My grandfather married a child bride when she was 12. They never loved each other. They lived separate lives under the same roof. He would beat her, but she never once complained. They both suffered. My grandfather committed suicide because he was so poor. I really hated that fishing village.'
As a baby, Guo first lived with a foster family. 'They could not afford to feed me and, with my parents away, I was sent to my grandparents,' she says. 'My father was a fisherman who gave up the sea to paint Chinese landscapes. He made money, but he was frowned on as bourgeois during the Cultural Revolution. He then wrote an article about all the propaganda and lies, but was denounced and jailed.'
Meanwhile, Guo's mother was busy pushing the Maoist message. 'In China - then, as now - boys were more important than girls, so my mother took my brother on tour,' she says. 'I've always had a violent relationship with my mother. When my father was freed, we all moved back together, away from Shi Tang.'
Village of Stone flits back and forth from Coral's recollections of life in the village, to her new life in the concrete jungle and tower blocks of a Chinese city, where she lives with her lover, Red, a layabout and Frisbee fanatic. Her life is changed when a mysterious parcel is delivered inside a huge dried eel.
'It took me three years to write this book,' Guo says. 'First, it was a love story, between Coral and Red. But no one in China would publish that. So, I set it in the fishing village. But that was just too dark. I needed to grow up and recall the past from the present. That is why I used the eel. It was something organic. Eating the dried eel brought the past back.
'The eel also signified a past you cannot escape, as it is too difficult to digest,' she says. 'A lot of people are ****ed up because of their bad childhoods. And I thought by getting through this massive eel, eating it every day, people could digest that past, and become strong and healthy. In Chinese culture, the eel symbolises long life. It is good for the body, with very positive characteristics.'
Just as the book moves between past and present, Guo now finds herself travelling between Beijing and London. Named China's best screenwriter in 1999, she earned a master's degree as a teacher at the Beijing Film Academy in 2000, before winning a scholarship to study documentaries at the National Film and TV School in London, where she filmed Near and Far, a short film about a Chinese girl's thoughts about loneliness, and the cultural differences between the west and China. It earned her the ICA/Becks Futures Prize last year.
'It has been a long journey, from the violence, bad memories and emotion of that fishing village to my life now in London and Beijing,' Guo says.
She's planning to write a new novel, provisionally entitled A Woman: Lost Language, about her impressions of the west when she first moved to London two years ago. It was a lonely time again, especially because she wasn't able to speak any English. 'It will not be as dark,' she says. 'It will hopefully be a funny, silly book.'
What was her first impression of the west? 'Here in London it was definitely the weather,' she says. 'It rained all the time. I now know why people read so many books here in this country. They have to stay inside.'
Guo's latest documentary, Concrete Revolution, is about demolition and development, and stems from her latest trip back to China. It tackles the staggering pace and cost of development.
'China is changing quickly,' she says. 'Everyone wants money. It is like the US. The cities are noisy, dirty, full of factories and skyscrapers. It is like they are trying to jump 200 years in 50. There are Starbucks now everywhere. It is scary. Soon there will be nothing left of old China.' Does she prefer the west or China? Guo says she likes both. But the longer she is away from China, visiting only briefly now and then to film, the more she misses it, she says.
And does she prefer writing or film? Each medium has its strengths and weaknesses. 'I can feel dishonest in film,' she says. 'I have to raise the money, and a lot of the time you end up lying to people about how long they're needed for. You can sit there all day sometimes filming when you'd told them it would take a few minutes. After I make a film, I always say, 'That's it, that's my last film. I'm going back to novels'.
'Writing is more pure to me as a woman, as an emotional woman. But it is more lonely, writing. There is too much solitude. Though film takes a lot of time and effort. I have been in films now for eight years, and I'm very professional at it - although sometimes I am now a little too lazy to take the camera out all the time and film people.'
While Chinese film may be earning prizes, Chinese literature hardly breaks into the sales charts in the west. Save for the Jung Changs of this world (factual tales, with plenty of 'woe is me'), Chinese books rarely figure.
Guo wants to change all that. She sees it as her mission to bring Chinese fiction to the west, especially her adopted, temporary home. 'I think, in Britain, people know more about India, and want to read more about there,' she says. 'Whereas in France, they prefer tales about China. I don't know why, really.'
Rebecca Carter, Guo's editor at RandomHouse imprint Chatto and Windus, has a theory about Chinese writers' lack of success in the west.
'More and more Chinese writers are finding their way to the west, and there is definitely an interest among British literary agents and publishers in discovering more,' says Carter.
'However, we are hugely reliant on also finding good translators. Xiaolu has a wonderfully creative relationship with her translator, Cindy Carter ... But a bad translation can kill a book.
'Even with a good translator, not all Chinese books are going to be accessible to western readers who are not specialists in China. We have such different traditions of storytelling, and such vastly different cultures.
'Plus, there are many obstacles to publishing translated fiction in Britain, regardless of whether it is Chinese, French or Norwegian.
'I was attracted by the quality of Xiaolu's writing and her striking imagery, as well as the fact that hers was a very contemporary female voice. I hadn't come across many young female Chinese novelists translated into English where the contemporary subject matter was evoked in such beautiful prose.'
Chatto and Windus is considering publishing Guo's first novel, Fenfang's Fever, which charts a stormy, often violent four-year relationship between a young girl and an older man.
Guo says Chinese literature has plenty to offer readers around the world.
'The Chinese need to talk about their pain, largely because of our long, dark history,' she says. 'And they rarely talk about their dreams, their happiness, their hopes.'