LinguaTute

Xiaolu Guo

Xiaolu Guo (郭小橹) is a Chinese-born British writer and filmmaker. An award-winning creative, Guo’s work is renowned for captivating narratives that detail the pains of overcoming cultural boundaries and traversing complexities of identity. Guo’s unique perspective, which she explores in her works, arises from her own experiences of living across continents. Her works cover topics of migration, cultural assimilation, displacement, translation and belonging, which are discussed candidly. Refusing to be bound by a single language, location or genre, Guo creates her own distinct voice in literature and film. 

Her works have ben internationally recognised, with multiple books being nominated for awards such as the Orange Prize for Fiction, the Giuseppe Acerbi Prize for Young Readers and the Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction. Her films such as She, a Chinese won the highest prize at the Locarno International Film Festival in 2009, and many other of her films have received excellent reviews and awards. 

This article will focus on some of Xiaolu Guo’s novels, introducing a selection of her work. As a fan of her, I would encourage anyone interested in translation, identity, displacement, and culture to read some of her novels, as each provide a new insight or spin on a range of complex (and very human) topics.

Background

Born in 1973 in Zhejiang province, China, Xiaolu Guo grew up in a fishing village to a traditional painter father and a former Red Guard mother (part of a student movement mobilised by Chairman Mao Zedong during the Cultural Revolution, 1966-76). Her first work was an autobiographical piece originally published in Chinese, called Village of Stone (2007). She studied at the Beijing Film Academy in 2000, and later at the National Film and Television School in England in 2003. In 2002, she moved to London, and renounced her Chinese citizenship. 

A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers, 2007

This novel chronicles the journey of Zhuang, a young Chinese woman who moves to London to learn English. Through her diary entries, we learn of Zhuang’s struggles with language barriers, cultural differences, and the complexities of her evolving identity. As Zhuang (who early on in the novel takes on the name ‘Z’) navigates the new city, she undergoes a profound process of self-discovery and transformation. When she falls for an older English man, Zhuang begins to question the dynamics of love and relationships in a globalising world. Throughout the novel, language remains an overarching theme, with Zhuang’s broken English being a starting point for the novel, and each chapter beginning with a new English word she has learnt, alongside its definition. 

I am China, 2014

I Am China” centers on the discovery of letters exchanged between Chinese musician Jian and his activist lover Mu. A British publisher, Jonathan Barker, tasks translator Iona Kirkpatrick with unraveling their story. Jian’s letter recounts his experiences in Tiananmen Square and subsequent exile, while Mu’s punk poetry career unfolds. As Iona pieces together their lives, she grapples with her own identity and connection to China. The novel delves into themes of cultural dislocation, political repression, and the struggle for individual expression amidst societal constraints. Xiaolu Guo’s narrative focusses on the complexities of love, identity, and the human quest for freedom, offering a poignant reflection on the enduring human spirit in the face of adversity.

A Lover’s Discourse, 2021

Similar to Dictionary, A Lover’s Discourse is written in short fragments, letters, and conversations, between the unnamed narrator (a Chinese PhD student) and her lover (a German-English man), traversing the intricacies of their emotional connection. Set in post-Brexit London, the story captures themes of loneliness, the search for meaning in a metropolitan city, and intimacy.

Here Guo examines how love shapes our understanding of the self and others, whilst still maintaining themes of cultural displacement and belonging. 

Written in a more lyrical and poetic form, themes of loneliness, longing, and the transformative power of love permeate the narrative, inviting readers to contemplate the depths of human emotion and the complexities of intimate relationships.

Village of Stone, 2004

Village of Stone tells of a young girl’s life on the coast of China, and her relationship with a stranger named Red. Set during China’s rapid modernising period in the 1980s, the novel is centred around themes of tradition versus progress, and how societal change impacts rural communities. As the protagonist comes to terms with her desire to leave her village life behind and pursue her dreams, she is confronted with a complex situation of relationships and betrayals.

The struggles of Guo’s characters are positioned against the vast beauty and harshness of the rural landscape, written in a melancholic voice which describes the dangers of not letting go of the past. 

Village of Stone offers a poignant reflection on the universal themes of identity, longing, and the human quest for meaning amidst social transformation and, as one reviewer puts it: ‘leaves me feeling empty but in an odd, positive way.’ 

Once upon a time in the East: a story of growing up, 2017

Once upon a time in the East is Guo’s autobiographical memoir detailing her journey from a poverty-stricken fishing village in rural China to international success as a filmmaker and writer, navigating the change from her life of underground art and censorship in Beijing to her life in England.  

Guo is very transparent and frank about her upbringing in China, candidly detailing issues of women’s rights and treatment in China, coming of age, defiance of social expectations, and complexities of family dynamics. 

This book is a tale of discovery of every kind: self-discovery, disillusionment with reality, escapism, and rediscovery of the imperfections of life. 

Conclusion

Xiaolu Guo’s books deal with a multitude of universal questions: identity, sexuality, culture, and language, and are often written in refreshingly candid narrative style. Guo’s novels delve into the complexities of human relationships and the impact of societal change, language and identity and difficulties of human connection. 

Guo’s works are thought-provoking for language students, and may be interesting for those who wish to better understand and explore new perspectives on love, identity, and culture. 

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