Xiaolu Guo: Far East to East End

Xiaolu Guo, the Chinese novelist and film-maker, has crossed not only continents but languages. Boyd Tonkin catches up with an intrepid traveller in Hackney
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The Independent Culture

Xiaolu Guo, the prolific Chinese novelist and film-maker improbably settled in a deck-access council block in east London, is upset about a recent attempt at literary censorship. A publisher's editor advised her to remove a pivotal chapter about an abortion from her new novel, A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers (Chatto & Windus, £12.99). An editor in Beijing? No, in New York. "It'll become like chick-lit, and I hate that word," she fumes. "I'm really angry and worried." Much of the novel, her first written in English, cleverly courts our assumptions about the chasm between Chinese and Western cultures, only to upend them. So this bid to doctor her work to fit the puritanical gentility of American liberalism, rather than Chinese communism, rather proves the point. Battles between repression and rebellion obey no neat distinctions of geography, or ideology. And this is one bout she appears to have won, as I later learn: the abortion will probably stay in her US edition.

As for simple prudishness, it can raise its timid head in East or West. Her US editor also bridled at a section in which the novel's naive narrator sneaks into Soho peepshows and notes what she finds there in the words (such as "cock") that match the setting and the acts. For the author, it's "really a scandal" that she should have to fight like this to preserve her fiction's integrity with publishers who may have expected a more demure kind of property. "Before the meeting, they're thinking, I must be quite cute, sweet - a cute Oriental," she says. "But I'm much heavier and angrier than people imagine. I'm much more anarchist than classical writers - not a little Chinese peasant writer."

Cute isn't the word for Xiaolu Guo; acute definitely is. As the ideas tumble and swerve, her conversation feels as vivid as the brightly patterned crimson silk she wears. Tom Waits and Miles Davis do their thing in the background of a flat in a largely Bangladeshi block, set in that urban scrapyard where Hackney topples into Bethnal Green. She says, with a laugh, that "It's the most ugly area in the whole of London. Much more ugly than the village I come from in China."

Out of this scraggy duckling of a manor, she has fashioned something of a swan. A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers tracks, in journal form, a year in the London life of a Chinese girl from a factory-town family of peasants-turned-prosperous shoemakers, who is sent to the West to learn English. It is an utterly captivating, and disorienting, journey both through language and through love. Unpronounceable in British mouths, Zhuang Xiao Qiao becomes the abbreviated "Z" and falls for an "alternative" malcontent of a man in Hackney: a frustrated sculptor, at first charming but then increasingly morose, who drifts between moods, between jobs, between homo- and heterosexual loves.

As Z's love deepens, the English of her diary subtly shifts. From the stumbles and snarl-ups of an absolute beginner, it grows into a vehement and plucky personal idiom that catches an outsider's headstrong, and rather heroic, assault on the heartland of a culture, and a man.

This cross-cultural tale of exchanges and reversals abounds with the double-edged comedy of verbal misunderstanding. The heroine comes to grips with the city of "Big Stupid Clock" and "oily old cafés", where "demon starters" protest against globalisation, and the couple explore the erotic mysteries of her "liquorice". Jauntily ribald but deeply romantic, the novel balances its linguistic high jinks with a darkening sadness. "How can intimate live with privacy"? Z wonders in a "rainy old capitalism country", where "'self' means everything". The gulf between civilisations resolves into a gap between two people. "It's not really about East meets West, alright?" says the author. "Those are bad novels. It's such a concept. You lose the real meaning."

Xiaolu Guo first came to London in 2002. Her own keen eye, and ear, for the grunge and gab of Hackney life was nourished by watchful hours in greasy-spoon cafés. "Mostly, it's my observations," she says, "but of course she's much more of the naive young Chinese peasant - and it's their point-of-view on the West."

Does a book that delivers so much of its author's shrewd take on London life and language also draw on experience for its central relationship? "I don't think people would ask Tom Waits, 'are all these songs autobiographical'?", she replies. "What a strange question to ask! We're all the same - writers, songwriters, musicians. We have to write from the inside of our heart. But it's really backward to think of a novel as autobiographical."

In her novel, the landlocked beau pines for the ever-moving sea whereas Z, in true Chinese fashion, feels attached to the solid yellow earth. "We don't drift very much; we're very rooted," she says. "We think that if we lose the soil, we die." Yet Z's inventor has travelled far, and fast. Born in 1973, she was raised by grandparents in a fishing village on the coast facing Taiwan. Remarkably, at 18 she won a place at Beijing Film Academy.

At first the fledgling auteur "couldn't even hold the camera", but soon she began not only to direct, but to write fiction and film criticism as well. She had published five widely-discussed novels before, in 2004, Cindy Carter's translation of Village of Stone gave her a voice in the West. The novel, which reached the shortlist of the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, lyrically pins down the mingled euphoria and nostalgia of country kids set free, but cut loose, in big-city Beijing.

Her own move to London, originally thanks to a British Council film-making scholarship, meant a search for new directions rather than a decisive break. She finds Chinese culture "wonderfully chaotic", yet regrets that, even now, "there's strong self-censorship inside every artist. I'm mainland Chinese and I was educated from bottom to top in the Communist idea." For all her avant-garde attitudes, "I don't want to get into big trouble. If I couldn't return to China, that would be the big failure of my life." She does return to make movies every summer, but comes back to London to edit the footage. Her new movie about a writer who meets his character, How Is Your Fish Today?, has just screened at Sundance in Utah.

On top of this hectic traffic between countries and art forms, she has now set herself the Himalayan uphill task of writing in a second tongue. The difficulty "was how to make her very bad English" at the outset "represent the Chinese peasant brain in the West". Yet "as she gains more sophisticated English, she also gains depression from the English culture". Alongside that melancholy, the verbal jests persist, from the silly euphemisms in the instructions for a vibrator to the creepy Italian lawyer who tells Z that "I am an avocado". Surprisingly, she says that "In China we don't have humour; we have peasant jokes. Because humour requires that you're really detached."

To Z, who fights so doggedly for attachment to a voice and to a person, "We Chinese are used to struggle get everything... If no need struggle then we don't know how to live anymore." Here, perhaps, is one point where artless character and artful author coincide. Once, the latter told her boyfriend that "There's no peace. Life is always a fight. I just do believe it. It sounds like a crazy terrorist. But in China, that's how we talked. My boyfriend was very shocked to hear that - but that idea is very strong in me."

"I tried to keep the book in a sunny, childish, hopeful tone," she says, "but inside me is this heaviness". She suspects that the haste and noise of London has made a difference, too. "As a foreigner in London, I feel I become more aggressive as a person and louder as a writer, to hear my voice in the crowds."

For a globe-trotting multi-media creator,with Kind of Blue on the CD player and smart film-festival posters on the wall, that struggle might seem to be about the assertion of a rather Western artistic "self". Yet she insists she wishes to be heard not merely as a writer, but as a Chinese writer. "In China, we're Communist-censored. But we know who is Sylvia Plath, who is Charles Bukowski," she says. "Western people don't know their Chinese equivalents." Once again, you catch a glimpse of steel beneath the silk.

"I feel culturally abandoned here - and that makes me angry. I want to write more and more, to publish a lot - just in case people don't know that Chinese literature exists." Cheerfully going into cultural combat, from Hackney to Sundance, Xiaolu Guo deserves to smash a large hole in that wall of ignorance.

Biography: Xiaolu Guo

Xiaolu Guo, born in 1973, was brought up in a fishing village in south China. At 18 she went to study at the Beijing Film Academy, gaining a BA and MA, and began to write screenplays, direct films and publish fiction and criticism. Her first novel to be translated into English, Village of Stone (2004), was shortlisted for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize. She came to London on a scholarship in 2002, and in 2003 her short film Far and Near won an ICA/Becks Futures prize. A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers, her first book written in English, appears from Chatto next week; and her film How Is Your Fish Today? has just been screened at the Sundance Festival. Xiaolu Guo lives in Hackney, east London, and returns to China every year to film.

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