Writes of Passage
London's hottest new writers

Xiaolu Guo

by John O’Connell
28 February 2007, Time Out, London

The tiny sitting room of Xiaolu Guo’s flat on a run-down estate off Hackney Road also functions as an office and editing suite. It’s where the 34-year-old novelist and filmmaker wrote ‘A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers’, her first novel in English – a language she started learning a mere three years ago. Based partly on the diaries Guo kept in the months after she moved to London in 2002, ‘…Dictionary’ seduces the reader with its sharp comedy of cultural misunderstanding, only to mutate midway into something more brutal: an unflinching meditation on rootedness, commitment, privacy and the necessary selfishness of the artist. The ‘bad’ pidgin English of the early chapters gradually improves as its narrator, Z, becomes more confident. ‘Some of the reviews so far, they really expect that I am super-clever writer trying to manipulate bad English,’ Guo laughs. ‘And I’m like, “God no, my English is so much worse than in the book!” ’

This self-deprecation masks a formidable intellect. Guo was brought up by her grandparents in a fishing village in southern China. Her introduction to Western literature came after the Chinese government opted to publish works by JD Salinger, Sylvia Plath and Charles Bukowski on the grounds that they were anti-capitalist: ‘I remember reading Plath and thinking: Shit, in the West people are free to commit suicide!’ Despite the acclaim she’s receiving, Guo is anxious about the future. ‘If the subject of my next book is not language, what will I do? I can only play this game once. My English must get better or my life as an English novelist is over. I’ll have to become a Chinese novelist all over again…’



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