Cultural Differences in Writer Guo Xiaolu's Eyes

May 22, 2008
Editor: yf

When I was 15, a most depressing age for me, my first poem was published. Since then I've always believed poetry can do something great for life. I am not talking about literary poetry, but having a poetic attitude to deal with life especially when it is brutal or hard going. Poetry helps you to go through it. Through novel writing and film-making, I try to discover how someone who has always felt like an outsider reveals the truth of human existence in a chaotic reality. I find the distance between our inner world and the outside world. Humanity cries for love, emotion and touch. Art seems to warm and strengthen the human soul. Shamelessly honest, sharp, poetic and feminine, that's the starting point for my work.
                                                                                                                                                                                                      ----Guo Xiaolu

Guo Xiaolu []
Guo Xiaolu, who was born in a small fishing village in Shitang County, Zhejiang Province, in 1973, and enrolled in the Beijing Film Academy at  18. She got a Bachelor's and Master's Degrees there. In 2002 she went to the United Kingdom to study. Now she lived in London, and sometimes she makes films at home. Her new film How Is Your Fish Today was screened at Sundance Film Festival recently.

She writes scripts and novels, makes film and is a film critic. Her works includes anthologies Movie Map and Notes on Movie Theory; novels Fengfang's 37.2 Degrees and Village of Stone; and movie script Who Is My Mother's Boyfriend?

A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers

A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers was Guo Xiaolu's first novel in English, which explores love across a cultural divide and is bursting with gentle jokes about culture shocks and language barriers. It was published by Chatto & Windus. The book was short-listed for Britain's 2007 Orange Prize and has charmed critics on this side of the pond.

A reporter from the Oriental Morning Post interviewed Guo and the following is the dialogue between them.

Oriental Morning Post: A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers was short-listed for Britain's 2007 Orange Prize. Have you ever imagined that your first book in English would gain such interest and a favorable reception?

Guo: I didn't think much about my possible readers when I wrote the novel and I was afraid it would not be published at that time, because the novel was experimental and it was a kind of words game. The original topic of the novel was A Person Who Lost Language, which would have challenged the readers, I think. I had no idea that there were so many readers later. However, I think the foreign readers can read a personal history inside Chinese through the novel.

Oriental Morning Post: What inspired you to write the novel? Some critics have said that the grammatical mistakes in the novel are a disguise of the author's poor English, but it was under the misapprehension so as  it was considered as a kind of innovation. What do you think of?

Guo: This is an experimental novel. The critic may not have understood, however, it is not their fault.

Cultural Distance Is the Key to Writing

Oriental Morning Post: What has affected you most in the migration from Shitang County to Beijing, then to England?

Guo: Life is a story about the paths we take on. I live in Paris instead of England now. Sometimes I live in other places. All life experiences will remain in your body, and you can live in various space-times if you are sensitive and brave enough.

Oriental Morning Post: What affects your writing most after a long-term study life in England?

Guo: Distance brings examinations and inspiration and the cultural distance between Europe and China is crucial to my writing. I am single and such life state is very suit for my writing.

Oriental Morning Post: Your writing state at present is similar to that of many immigrant writers in England like Vidiadhar Surajprasad Naipaul. As an immigrant writer, what affects you most?

Guo: I live abroad, and many writers live abroad. That's to help their personal life state and writing environment around them. A healthy writing environment should surround people like respect. I am thirsting for such an environment in recent years, and I think other writers may have the same feelings.
Boyd Tonkin, the editor-in-chief of the Independent News, wrote a news feature about Guo—Far East to East End. This feature occupied two editions of the newspaper and included Guo's picture. The Guardian had also carried Carole Cadwalladr's book review on Guo's A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers. And the English version of Guo's Village of Stone has received praise from the Guardian as well as being on the short list for 2005 Independent News Foreign Novel Prize.

The dramatis personae of A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers is Zhuang Xiaoqiao (call her "Z," most people in the book do), a young woman in her 20s comes to the UK to study English, with little knowledge of the country, and the language. With the improvement of Z's language ability, a chance encounter with a 40-year-old drifter leads her to the first meaningful romantic relationship of her life. Her consuming love begins promisingly, but her failure to interpret her lover's lifestyle as a hippie drifter (who's 20 years her senior) alerts readers to potential trouble in paradise, even while such a notion remains beyond Z's not-yet-jaded imagination.

The novel overflows with gentle jokes about culture shocks and language barriers including Z's inability to understand why Brits bother talking about the weather when it's obvious—but there are deeper observations beneath the humor. Z's comically earnest exploration of a sex shop illuminates the pathos of Western seediness, and her encounters with men reveal both the exploitative and meaningful sides of romance.

Apart from linguistic challenges, Zhuang finds it hard to come to grips with the beguiling metropolis of London and the peculiarities of the British, constantly checking her dictionary to interpret the world around her.

The novel is full of misunderstanding for languages, isomerism and cultures. And Guo intentionally illustrates the novel by the dense Chinglish, which has no grammatical rules.Guo has lived in England for nearly five years. Anyhow, the Chinese know Silvina Plath and Charles Bukowski, said Guo, but most people in the west know little about Chinese."I felt I was deserted in culture, which makes me angry. I want to write more and publish more to avoid people knowing nothing about China's culture," Guo said.

(Source: & / Translated by

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