Interview: Xiaolu Guo

Xiaolu Guo shares her roots, her latest novel and the meaning of life

Born in southeast China and now based in London, Hui filmmaker and writer Xiaolu Guo’s work has long been concerned with identity.

As a young film student living in London, Xiaolu Guo fell in love. First there was Sergei Mikhailovich Eisenstein, the dead Soviet filmmaker. Then the French new-wavers Jean Luc-Godard and Serge Gainsbourg. And then Italian directors Federico Fellini and Pier Paolo Pasolini. ‘Pasolini is much more important to me than Lu Xun,’ says Guo, now in her forties.

As her scholarship with the UK’s National Film School continued, so did her love affairs with cinema’s greats. Guo discovered Germany’s enfant terrible Rainer Werner Fassbinder and the early works of Werner Herzog – holy figures in the church of experimental cinema. Italo Calvino, the Beat generation poets, Charles Berkofsky… the list grew and grew.

Together, they provided her a visual reference needed to muster her own brand of cinema and later writing style, a brand with notably ’60s and ’70s European roots.

Born in southeastern China in 1973, Guo grew up in a fishing village. Her family, of Hui descent, can be traced back to the Turkish and Persian Muslim peoples of western China. She has never found out how her family ended up on the opposite side of a country where the Han ethnic majority makes up 92 percent of the population, but the minority status left her questioning her own identity from an early age.

'The concept of Chinese is a pure construction by the state because everyone is from a different tribe,’ she tells us, speaking over Skype from London where she now lives with her husband, a philosophy professor at the University of Nottingham, and their young daughter. ‘Every region has its own identity and language. My blood is so-called Chinese blood but I don’t believe in Chinese blood because my parents were a mix.’

Although approaching middle age, Guo has a strikingly youthful face, framed by cascading black hair, that lends her an instant bohemian look. Her tone is unhurried yet feisty and she goes off on existential tangents about her theories of the universe and her favourite artists throughout our conversation. She is relaxing to talk to, and seems part beatnik, part earth mother.

Guo’s early film work, produced while she was a student at Beijing Film Academy and later in the UK, reflects the poetic side of her nature. Her movies were fragmented, illusive features that examined identity, alienation and separation.

Her breakthrough was 2006’s How Is Your Fish Today, which made the 2007 Sundance Film Festival’s Official Selection and received the Grand Jury Prize at the 2007 Créteil International Women’s Film Festival in Paris. Her documentary We Went to Wonderland (2008) was selected for the New Directors/New Films series at MoMA/Lincoln Center in New York in 2008. In 2009, her feature She, a Chinese premiered at the Locarno International Film Festival and took the highest prize, the Golden Leopard.

As a writer, her new dawn came with leaving home. Having moved to London, Guo decided to write a book in English, partly for the intellectual challenge and partly to make a clean break from China. She started by carrying a notebook around, jotting down new vocabulary and striking encounters with people. She made photocopies, allowing her to reshuffle the pages. These scrappy vocab lists and character sketches formed the basis for her first English novel, A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary For Lovers.

Written in the heroine’s broken English, the novel tells the story of a Chinese woman who is sent by her parents to study English in London. She renames herself ‘Z’ and meets an Englishman who remains unnamed. Throughout the encounter, their true identities unfold. Inspired by Roland Barthes’s A Lover’s Discourse, the book was nominated for the 2007 Orange Prize for Fiction.

Her newest work, I Am China, is also set in England. It centres on Iona Kirkpatrick, a translator for a collection of letters and diaries by a Chinese musician, who gets drawn into his world.

'She [Iona] has lots of sex and freedom, but maybe she doesn’t have real love. I wanted to compare Western and Eastern youth, politics and apolitical living, the idea of translation and mistranslation, and the idea of a certain kind of island mentality and Mainland mentality, if that exists,’ says Guo.

Guo says that the novel doesn’t try to reach a conclusion but one emerges: ‘That life is much bigger than political and ideological struggles – you can describe it as Buddhist or existentialist [ideology]. You can struggle but the tree will still grow and die, the planet is alive and much bigger than human life, which is something that I truly believe.’

Perhaps the most important thing for Guo is to offer some deeper meaning than the story itself, to go beyond the narrative and our ontological anxiety about being human. It’s an approach that one day might just put her name next to those of her heroes.