Xiaolu Guo: 'I want to discover myself, to see my reflection'
THE RISE AND RISE OF LITTLE VOICE
by Laura Barton
the Guardian - London, 13 May 2004
Despite hostility from male critics in her native China, Xiaolu Guo's harrowing, intimate novels have made her one of the country's most successful literary exports. She tells Laura Barton why she came to Britain
Beneath her blunt-cut fringe, Xiaolu Guo's eyes move around the room, over the coffee cups and the pale walls to the long window with its view over a damp, pigeon-grey London. She is calmly beautiful, tiny and intense; a kernel of a woman. At the age of 30, she is already an accomplished novelist, essayist, screenwriter and film-maker, well known in her native China. In Britain, however, her reputation so far has extended only to her short film Far and Near, which won her the ICA/Becks Futures prize in 2003. But this may be about to change, with the translation into English of her novel Village of Stone, the tale of an unfulfilled young woman living in Beijing.
Xiaolu's own story, like that of Coral, the protagonist of her novel, began in a small fishing village in a remote part of China - in that "tiny corner of the sea that, on a map of China, appears as nothing more than a deep blue stain, with no air or shipping routes to link it with anywhere else", as she describes it in Village of Stone. Like her narrator, Xiaolu lived with her grandparents until she was eight years old. It was an austere and deeply conservative environment, the community steeped in Chinese tradition: her grandmother, a child bride, still bound her feet, and Xiaolu recalls the long white cloth laid out on the floor on washing day, and her "tiny, twisted feet".
The only reading matter in the village was Mao's Little Red Book of quotations. "Nobody would read a book, and they had never heard of a machine called TV. I mean, we didn't have this" - she looks up at the light bulb - "this bubble light. I remember when I was a child I would stand on the beach, and across the water from our village was Taiwan - they were the enemy of China - and at night, if the wind was not strong, you could hear the radio music from Taiwan. You couldn't hear the lyrics, and Taiwanese is a different language - it's quite soft. But you're standing there the whole night, thinking, 'God, such beautiful music!' I think that's the only cultural input I had. It made you think: what would it be like to leave the fishing village?"
Her childhood was laced with violence. Her grandparents, she says, weathered a physically tempestuous relationship, and when Xiaolu moved back to live with her parents, her mother often beat her, "because in the countryside, girls are just not valuable". She was a difficult child, she says, awkward and distant, "because I didn't know what love was. I didn't have anybody to love, or anybody to love me". At the age of 18, displaying considerable chutzpah, she decided to leave the village and take herself as far away as she could, to Beijing. There she studied at the Film Academy, supporting herself by writing scripts about cop car chases and disgruntled mothers-in-law for TV soap operas. At the academy, she immersed herself in film, trying fervently to catch up with fellow students who regarded her as "the little peasant" whose knowledge of film amounted to crumbs. "You don't know about Jean-Luc Godard?" they would ask her. "You never heard of David Lynch before?" And then, as she describes it, "I really kind of got into the big swimming pool."
She graduated in 2000, and began a period of unpaid work on film sets. To keep the wolf from the door, she decided to write a book. "People say, 'Oh you must be really passionate about writing,' but for me it's from hunger," she says unapologetically. "And I gave myself a deadline. I said, 'OK, so this novel has to be finished by the winter.' " She was fairly confident of being published: China has a lot of publishing houses. "It is," she says, "a very literary country."
Even so, she found that her work was slightly at odds with the traditional Chinese literary canon. "In China we adore big historical novels," she explains. "To write that is to dedicate your own little life to the big party, to China, to the big continent. We sacrifice ourselves to it." Not surprisingly, people were somewhat resistant to her quiet novels, with their hugely personal themes of love, yearning, and the darker side of relationships.
"My father was an artist, and his generation, the older generation of artists, they could never focus on themselves," she says. "They worked for the government all their lives, and they dedicated their lives to communism. Whenever they painted or wrote about themselves they were told, 'You have too much self-regard, you're too bourgeois.' The great art was art that was dedicated to others." Chinese male critics have not been altogether kind about this new generation of young women authors keen to write about their private lives, such as Wang Any, Tie Ning, and internet sex columnist Mu Zimei: "They say, 'Oh God, she never looks at other people's lives.' "
Despite this, Xiaolu managed to forge a successful career as a film-maker and novelist in China. But in 2002, with five novels published, she began to feel unsure of her direction. "I was stuck," she says. More than anything, she found her personal life at odds with her career as an author. "I spent four years in one relationship and then another four years with another man, and I wrote books in that time. And then another four years with another man, and I wrote another couple of books," she explains. "But the problem is, all that time you live inside the house and you live with a man and you don't have a new life at all, you have no external influences ... and that can be really destructive."
She illustrates the dilemma by sketching it out on the tabletop. "You put writing and men in the same place," she says, setting her hands side by side. "And if you don't have men, do you write?" She raises her left hand. "And if you can't write, do you find a man and love him?" She lifts her right hand. "And it's a totally different thing - your career and your love life." Her hands sit on the table for a while, as if the matter is still unresolved.
Two years ago Xiaolu moved to Britain on a scholarship from the British Council to study documentary film-making at the National Film School. "I wasn't interested in studying film," she admits. "I wanted to write. I thought, 'OK, I want to get out, I want to leave China and just write for a year.' But then I ended up coming here to make a film ... I made [Far and Near, about a Chinese writer arriving in Britain for the first time] in two weeks. I'm standing there with all this wind and these cars and the cameras and I'm thinking to myself, 'Ohh, I want to go back to writing.' "
In a reversal of the situation at home, it is China's female writers, not their male counterparts, who are most successful and widely known outside China - novelists such as Jung Chang and Hualing Nieh. "I think," she says, with the air of someone who has thought this through many times before, "Chinese women novelists have somehow been symbolic of the Chinese traditional culture. They write about bound feet, concubines, about these traditional Chinese women's lives that are symbolic of old China, and which can be really exotic [to the western reader]." But she thinks it is the fact that she and other contemporary women writers now choose to write from their own experience and their own perspective - not an invented idea of old China - that has made them more popular outside their native land. "Chinese male writers like to write histories of China or of war, which is quite difficult for the west. When westerners start to read about China they can't so easily get into the political drama, or the civil war. So when the female writers say, 'My mother used to ... ' it's so emotional, and it's so much easier for the west to understand."
Perhaps this growth of interest in Chinese women's literature simply stems from the fact that they are more interested in and engaged with the world. They are perhaps not so willing as their male peers to, in Xiaolu's words, "dedicate their own little lives to the big party". Her own writing is full of the thrill of someone who is finally able to separate her own personal history from that of her country. "After some years I'll go back," she says. "But first I want to discover myself, to see my reflection, to see what I can do if I don't live in China for a while. Because when you're in China, the big, big Chinese voice overwhelms your own."