Interview by Sheena Patel, Booktin, 25 March 2009


Booktin has the honour of presenting Xiaolu Guo, a novelist who explores the themes of alienation and personal journeys. Her first novel A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary For Lovers created a storm a few years ago. Since then she has directed and produced several films and has published two more novels, her latest being UFO In Her Eyes.



Booktin: I’ve just read A Concise-English Dictionary for Lovers and I thought it was fantastic. The structure is unusual, how did you get the idea of starting each chapter with a dictionary definition - what effect did you wish to create?

XG: The structure was somehow the very first thing when I had the idea to write this novel because I thought I would like to write a novel based on broken English or foreign English. That foreign English had to be the character of the whole book. In order to create that style I had to somehow mock a kind of dictionary - like the Oxford dictionary to then establish a kind of characteristic type structure and then when the character speaks in broken English then, I think, the whole novel gains a meaning from the broken down vocabulary, like a dictionary. The idea was kind of growing together with who that character, the character from the peasant background of China and the way she speaks. I tried to create an organic idea between the structure, the vocabulary and the protagonist really.

I come from an Indian background and my parents sometimes speak broken English, I thought it was nice to see a reflection of an original voice.

I think immigrants can benefit from speaking English because the language is very loose and open and it allows the immigrants to recreate their language based on Modern English which I think is quite difficult to do with German or French or other languages.

The word ‘properly’ confounds (the protagonist) Z and is stressed later in the novel, I think at least three times, what was it about the work ‘properly’ that you wanted to get across?

Well, I think it is about social rules, social rules foreigners will not understand so ‘properly’ functions differently in different societies. When you know what the proper way is in that country you are more likely to integrate into that country, if you don’t know what the proper behaviour is then you are still a foreigner or immigrant. So I think it’s more about social code in very small details.

Language becomes both the key and the lock to English and Chinese culture and it seems the more words Z learns the more dissatisfied she becomes, there is something quite heavy, quite sad about her. Why did you add this to your novel?

[Pause] I don’t think her sadness is because she learns more vocabulary or she learns how to speak; her sadness is a kind of existential sadness and her loneliness because people intend or think it is very easy to think OK cultural background is the first thing and is for everything so that’s why people are blocked to communicate with each other - that’s the problem between people. I think that’s a lazy and easy way to look at the culture. I think the fundamental problem is between two individuals, how it is impossible to communicate whether you are from the same culture or from different cultures. So a married couple could be all pure English or a married couple could be one Japanese, one German for example. That does not mean they are going to be more misunderstanding or less understanding if they are from the same culture. So I think the ending, how this love is broken between them is not really to do with culture its about individual loneliness and individual desires which are very different from another one. Love draws them together but love also tore them apart.

And so how people negotiate their desires and loneliness when they want to be together?

Yes, exactly.

I read in the Independent that you had trouble with your US publisher with the abortion episode in the novel - they wanted it taken out. How did you negotiate its place in the novel?

Well, It’s a funny country. But every country has their own issues, in UK , China or in America…

I think it’s quite strange that they advocate freedom of speech and then at the same time they’re trying to -

I don’t believe in that vocabulary

How come?

I mean it’s just bullshit. Those words, they don’t exist nowadays you may as well don’t speak because you know when you speak it is just a lie. I think the commercial censorship is the most awful censorship in the whole world I think it is beyond political censorship and so called freedom of speech and all this stuff. I think what I encountered in the West is commercial censorship: if the book can not sell or cannot be popular then you will not get published.

It’s capitalist.

Yeah, and I think that is the most horrible monster which affects the way you think, the way you write and the creative. Somehow people or Media pretend they don’t know about the massive censorship which is the true enemy of the creativity.

You are a film-maker as well as a novelist, in your books and films you concentrate on this alien theme - what is it that draws you to aliens and UFOs?

I think there is no place humans can go, you can’t go down to the sea so the only place you can go is up to the sky which is what William Burroughs said which is the only place humans can go to is to the moon. There is no where we can find our peace for existence really, humans look up to the sky or the heavens looking for the answers from God. I don’t believe in the physical god but I think a funny alien might do something with our earth [but] that is only a literary concept, that an alien could be a funny clown or a little god.

You live in three cities Paris, London and Beijing - what is the difference between them and what made you choose Paris and London?

XG: I guess Paris is more a city for literature and history and the past and somehow and it’s a city that allows you to think slower than London because London is very competitive and fast and it is a difficult for a writer or for a thinker or for someone who is looking for a slower pace to write. In London you have to fight for housing and renting but…London has its exciting side, I think it is really open to the foreigners. But in the end I am a Chinese, I feel comfortable in China because that’s my stomach.

You are seen as your generation’s voice of modern China. How do you see the future of Chinese Literature and where would you like to fit in it?

That’s not for me to answer - that’s really for critics to judge. I don’t write to make a position or making a place or making a seat for my life. I don’t. I have been writing since I was 13 or 14 when I first started to write - it was just loneliness as a teenager trying to find a beautiful sentence. Perhaps the difference now for me, writing somehow feels much more like a social responsibility in a way, it is less free in my mind because I am thinking more about culture and social problems and what a novel and intellectual can do. It is more intellectually minded now as a writer [...] what is true is how you write and your attitude and your view in your writing. What is most important for me is I don’t want to be a classical type of writer, I don’t see myself like that.

What do you feel when people put labels on you like that?

I don’t really care, I just don’t want to say from my own mouth.





Sheena Patel, Booktin, 25 March 2009




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