“The book is such a strange object.”

A conversation with the author and filmmaker Xiaolu Guo about identity, everchanging narratives and why it is essential to bring more female literature to the curriculums.

Interview: Eva Bensberg

© Xiaolu Guo

Xiaolu Guo grew up in China and studied at the Beijing Film Academy. In 2002 she moved to Europe and lives in London most of the time. She writes novels and essays while also making her own films. In 2009 she won the Golden Leopard Award at the Locarno International Film Festival for her film „She, a Chinese“. She has taught at universities around the world, most recently as the Samuel-Fischer Guest Professor at the FU in Berlin. Her work focuses on migration, transnationality, identity, and the lives of women. Her latest work is “Radical: A Life of My Own”, a memoir, which will be published by Penguin UK in April 2023.

In your memoir „Once Upon a Time in the East” (US Title: Nine Continents) you write that the name Guo translates to „outside the city walls“, or as your father interprets it: an „in-between zone“. Do you feel you live up to that name, always moving around and never arriving? 

Guo: We try to make sense of our identity and our history from whatever: our job, our home, our name. But it is not an immediate explanation! I feel this drive of exploring different, unknown worlds. To go out into this external world which can take me away from my perpetual writing, which is a very internal, isolated world. The younger generation is writing in different languages, working in different cultures. It seems to be natural. I have been moving around and writing and making films for a long time, so now it’s natural for me as well. 

Do you think you could have written your stories if you had stayed in China? 

Guo: Rather than cultures or countries, the living experience changes your way of writing. I’m almost 50 years old. My stories now are very different from when I was 20. When I still lived in China, I wrote more prose essays because that form is very natural for my culture. A novel is a form of individual voice. I grew up in a collective society, so I didn’t write many novels. I wrote about my life and the life around me. My books are more like prolonged poetic essays. Sometimes it involves characters or narratives, but most of the time it’s a reflection of daily life. 

I can imagine that it’s hard to walk this fine line between reality and fiction. How does it feel to share very personal stories with the world?

Guo: This question would have been more crucial when I published my first two books, „The Village of Stone“, and „20 Fragments of a Ravenous Youth“. Those two novels are very personal. As a young writer you feel this moral judgement from your family, from your close friends. How do I deal with it? It’s an existential anxiety! Do you live as a private person? Do you live as a public writer? The writing process itself is extremely private. When the book is out there it is public. I cannot be a different author; I could never write a Stephen King style novel. I can only write with my diary as a starting point. That’s maybe one of the only truths I have: My writing is authentic, because it’s based on my very personal experience, and perhaps that’s also very feminine. 

How do you define feminine writing?

Guo: We grew up being fed the big male authors, Dickens, Shakespeare. They are amazing male writers. Later, we are taught that there are also women writers. The Brontë sisters. Virginia Woolf. Marguerite Duras. It’s not something we were immediately given. The ignored private feminine life in a society is something I feel really connected to. The French Nobel Prize winner Annie Ernaux, she only wrote about her life. She’s one of my favourite writers. In most of my classes, a lot of the young women want to write, they share this sense of femininity in writing. Women’s stance on their body, their feeling of the house, their feeling of the bedroom; the way women narrate the world is so different. 

I’m always very cautious what kind of voice I’m writing with and how I am reading. It’s important to notice the sensibility in reading and to ask yourself: What was wrong with that famous masterpiece I was told to read in university? I just couldn’t read it. And why did I just immediately love that little book, which was not on the syllabus? 

I read both „Once Upon a Time in the East“, your memoir, and your novel „A Lover’s Discourse“. And sometimes the details overlapped in my head because there are so many parallels. 

Guo: My life is writing new stories, making new films, and travelling. I don’t spend one minute comparing my work, I don’t go back at all. Each book I finish, I move on to a new film project. I do contradict myself. The writing processes is a revision of your thoughts. And every minute your thoughts change and every year your experience change. A lot of writers don’t like to talk because it doesn’t represent their complex thought process. I discover something new and then I think, a lot of comments in the last book are not true at all. I feel this constant need of revising myself with my new work, and that is perhaps my approach. I have this urgency. Life is so short; I believe in the spontaneity and the immediacy of each work and each film. It cannot be restored by the change of time. Next year you have a new view about things.

What you mentioned about the overlapping is very interesting because there’s a part in „A Lover’s Discourse“ when the Chinese film anthropologist goes back to China and spends time with a painter in the village. And I also made a film in that real village, which was part of my research for the book. It’s a documentary called „Five Man and a Caravaggio”. It’s the same village and the same artisan. The only difference is that in the novel he is working on different paintings. It’s a kind of funny, overlapping allusion. 

In „A Lover’s Discourse“, and in many other novels of yours, you talk about love and everything it entails. Is there something about love you’ve learned that you would like to tell your younger self?

Guo: I don’t function that way. I believe that you can only understand something deeply when you live through it. When you’re younger, you can’t know the future. Even if you are told as a woman you have to be aware of this and that. Your body teaches you the most primitive and powerful lesson of your relation to the world, through sensibilities. There’s a secondary experience, which is by reading. You need both and don’t say „Oh, I wish I was this“ or „I wish I did that“.

All of life is just a chaotic bunch of narratives, built on a lot of random accidents or contingencies. And then you change by choosing different paths. Actually, you think you might choose, but you don’t choose – those paths choose you. Writers know the trick, how to change narratives. As a real person I’m very detached from things because either way, our end is the same. But as a writer, I’m not detached. I’m extremely invested in my writing because I want to imbue the narrative in a clear way. 

The book is such a strange object. Everyone has their own narrative which changes the way they read the same book. We’re all changing, and time is changing. There are a lot of books that I disliked when I was young, but now I love them. It is in our head; the world is in our head. 

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