Global villager: Xiaolu Guo on the joy and pain of lives in transit

Prize-winning indie director, acclaimed novelist in two languages, Xiaolu Guo has come a long way from her small Chinese fishing port.

Boyd Tonkin
Friday 08 January 2010 01:00 GMT

Robert Redford once saved Xiaolu Guo's life – in a manner of speaking. The Chinese writer and film-director's new work of fiction, Lovers in the Age of Indifference (Chatto & Windus, £12.99), collects 17 linked stories of solitary souls in transit between places, people and passions. One, "Today I Decide to Die", riffs on the gloomy displacement of a young Chinese woman stranded on a trip to the joyless state of Utah. In a near-suicidal mood, she takes the ski-lift up a mountain; there, "sitting alone in the opposite cable chair", is a man whose familiar face – "only a bit older, his hair a bit greyer" – suddenly triggers memories of The Horse Whisperer, Out of Africa, The Sting...

Could it be? It is. Her heroine, reports the author in the less elevated top-floor restaurant of a West End hotel, perks up: "She says, no, let's not die. And that was my real experience!".

Four years ago, Guo was showing How Is Your Fish Today? – one of her increasingly acclaimed indie movies – at the Sundance Festival in Utah. Much depressed her about the Mormon paradise, but above all the food. "I was bored there! And also I wanted to eat. It was this massive festival and there's two McDonald's for great film-makers to eat in. Where's my Chinese restaurant? I was so sad and desperate." She did indeed take that ski-lift, clock the movie icon and Sundance patron, who has a home nearby, and find a non-food reason to be cheerful, even in Utah.

On page and screen, Guo takes fragments and passages of real experiece, and makes them bewitchingly strange – sometimes very strange indeed, as in her SF satire UFO in Her Eyes. Raw memoir and confession leave her cold. "If this is not metaphysical or symbolic, why read it?" she snorts. "The diary is never a final form. The final form has to be kind of surreal narrative painting which combines the personal story but also a larger imagination."

In Lovers in the Age of Indifference, the stories – written over a decade and more – trace a twisting journey from a rural China of myth and folk-tale through the country's frenzied cities into an cosmopolitan sphere of weightless travel and fitful intimacy, where loneliness becomes "a way of life". For an over-achiever in two art forms who has within her brief 36 years come so far, and so fast, from the southern Chinese fishing village where grew up, this is on one level a personal odyssey.

"More or less every story is addressed to one person I know," she says. Often these bittersweet accounts of forlorn desires, lost loves and crossed wires across the gulfs of culture, gender and geography began as attempts to improve on direct communication: "I was trying to write a letter and instead I wrote a fiction piece."

Many enlist the new technology that mediates our private lives – text messages, emails, and so on – as a vehicle for timeless hopes and fears. "I'm not crazy about these big words like 'postmodern'," she says. "But we are in the time of postmodern narrative... the newspaper, the text message, the iPhone conversation and the internet. Those elements should be the form of literature as well. By saying that, I'm not despising the power of narrative and the character-based story. But if character and narrative don't open to the modern forms of communication, how is literature going to get back to the young people's hearts?"

Xiaolu Guo first slipped onto the literary radar in Britain in 2004. Village of Stone, her lyrical novel of young people in lurching movement between cosy backwater and chill metropolis, reached the shortlist of the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize. In China, she was a youthful prodigy. This girl from nowhere had, aged 18, landed a coveted place at the Beijing Film Academy. In her early twenties, she began to publish fiction: five controversial novels by the time Village of Stone came West.

Even in her seaside village, the contradictions of Chinese history had left deep scars. The "alienation" she cites as keynote of her work kicked in early, in the turbulent wake of Mao's Cultural Revolution. "First of all, I was alienated from this big Chinese history, as a small individual. I grew up in a very feudal system." "The village I grew up in was a pure Communist village – everyone read the Little Red Book. And yet my grandmother had bound feet" – and she had been a concubine. Not surprisingly, "I was really confused!"

Feeling out of place became a constant state. As a fledgling director and writer in frantic Beijing, she retreated into the bohemian-intellectual world of Left Bank Paris in its existential heyday of jazz, art and amour: "I feel like I was born in the Forties." As a teenager, "I didn't read Confucius or haiku – I read Marguerite Duras and Jean Genet... That's my intellectual neighbourhood. So there's this chasm". Ideas and images tumble through Xiaolu Guo's conversation with a sparkling profusion that puts laid-back native authors to shame. But her proununciation hangs on to its idiosyncrasies, sothe last word sounds – aptly enough, perhaps – like some globe-spanning superhero's killer blow: ka-Zaam.

As she grew to maturity, Maoist ideas dwindled into ritual formulae as a rampant "super-capitalism" set the country on its fast track to superpower status. Deeper, more glittering, chasms opened. Full of "grotesque" clashes, China's urban boom came to resemble "a postmodern Chinese painting, where maybe you see Chairman Mao on the left and on the right is a blonde woman with big breasts." Life turned surreal.

In the new stories, or in her coming-to-Beijing novel 20 Fragments of a Ravenous Youth, Guo dramatises the "faithless situation" of China today. All the big ideas have crumbled before an avalanche of cash. Money shouts, and love – so yearningly sought after by her ever-romantic heroines, and so elusive – can scarcely make itself heard above its din. "It's faithless," she reports, "but it's not anarchy, it's not hippie and it's not anti-religious. In China... because the traditional values are lost, contemporary values are pure American values. The Chinese have accepted them but they had no choice, and they also kind of detest it. So there's bitterness.

"They say. 'So what? We have the car, we have the house. But it would be great to buy a mountain back'." Now a noisy patriotism fills the void: "The urge, the need to re-establish the pride of being Chinese. It's extremely dangerous, and makes it tough even for personal communication between East and West."

The blunders and pitfalls that dog that intimate bridge-building lay behind her breakthough novel in Britain: A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers. For Xiaolu Guo, who first came to Britain on a British Council film scholarship in 2002, had taken yet another daunting jouney. She wrote the novel in English, and matched its enchantingly oddball East End love affair between a young Chinese student and her ageing-hippie English lover with a touching and hilarious learner's quest for a second language of love in a "rainy old capitalism country".

Guo still keeps her inner-city foothold in this rainy old capitalism country: a council-block flat in a ramshackle corner of Hackney whose urban grit – and grot – both enraged and invigorated her. That fury she brought with her from China, and it served as creative rocket-fuel. "When I lived in Beijing for ten years after my home town, every day I was angry about anything that happened – politically, culturally. Now, I go back and I don't feel that strongly.

"I guess I grow older, or I acknowledge the reality now – people just want to get rich or to get some sort of dignity in life. Even in London, for six years, every day I was so angry – in the most ugly area of Hackney, seeing the beer bottles smash in front of me. And now I start to think: I appreciate that!".

These days, "I try to calm down – to make some kind of agreement with reality." And reality has started to agree with her. Beyond the success of her fiction, her "guerrilla" films – put together on a shoestring, and shot in China with amateur actors – have scored hits with juries and audiences on the festival circuit that can make or break indie careers. She, a Chinese – both a riposte to Godard's chic Parisian Maoism in La Chinoise, and another take on the East-West slippages and entanglements of the Chinese-English Dictionary – won prizes in Hamburg and Locarno last year. It opens in Britain next month.

This month, she publishes not only the stories but a piece inspired by a visit to Cambodia in Because I am a Girl (Vintage). Compiled to fund-raise for the child-centred development agency Plan, this anthology calls attention to the enduring drawbacks, but rising life-chances, that come with growing up female in a developing country.

Xiaolu Guo did exactly that, and yet has made from the first acts of her life a rapid-action, wide-screen narrative that – in any other age – would beggar belief. Although she hankers after some free time to work on a new, large-scale novel - in Chinese again – slowing down does not really appeal. "I will never stand aside. I'm a fighter. I love to make some dust, kick up earth. I get bored if it's too peaceful."

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in