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Deutschland Autorin und Filmemacherin Guo Xiaolu in Düsseldorf
Image: DW/S. Peschel

Guo Xiaolu: "Language means dignity and identity"

Sabine Peschel
September 9, 2015

Language is a matter of survival, says Chinese-British author Guo Xiaolu, ahead of the International Literature Festival in Berlin. She tells DW about writing in English, and why she thinks refugees are good for Europe.


Deutsche Welle: As you know, the arrival of many refugees in Germany is the main topic these days. At present you live in Switzerland, but your home is in London, since 2002. What do you think and feel about the way the refugees are treated in Great Britain and in central Europe?

Guo Xiaolu: As a Chinese artist I'm exiled in Europe. I have lived in London, and then Berlin, Hamburg, Paris, and now in Zurich, because of an invitation as a writer in residence. So I am able to live in Europe, but my situation still is one of exile, which means my work cannot be published in China and I cannot really live in China now. So - if you mention refugees I'm not unfamiliar with the subject. For example, my last novel, "I am China," is really very much about this drifting along without identity - the total dislocation and desolation once you left your hometown.

I think, especially now, the situation in Europe is incredibly sad but also very interesting. Only several months ago the discussions were about if the European Union should still remain the same, they were about the end of Europe. And suddenly there are these refugees and big accidents happening everyday.

The discussions are no longer about what's Europe, or the interiors of Europe - now they are about a Europe without borders. Now you have to do something - with all these civil wars and the refugees, all these foreigners. I think so far Germany is doing really well. Britain was very, very cautious. A country like Italy is on the frontline of all the refugees from North Africa. I have been to Italy and Greece recently, and I heard so many discussions about refugees. In a way it's a very big problem for the government, how to cope with them and for the society to digest the new phenomenon.

But intellectually - and I certainly regard this as a writer or a filmmaker - it is an amazing stimulation for Europe. Europe, which has been so proud of its cultural past, now is intellectually extremely challenged by this new reality. But this will make European think. It is going to do something great for the mind too, in Europe.

When you came to England you learned the language quickly, you even wrote four of your novels in English. Now you're an English author or an English-Chinese author - how did you manage the transfer?

I think I'm a part of this global migration movement which has been intense over the last 10 years, yes, not even 20 years: the global migration from poverty, from civil wars, from political prosecution. And that has nothing to do with the colonial time - the rich western country going to Africa, to the third world to plant its own kind of organization. It is a very different situation.

To learn English for me really was like a survival instinct. If I cannot publish my work in China, or if I cannot speak my voice in China, what can I do? I must gain control, I must learn to master my new language which is now English. And I must also be able to write novels because to write my novels is my only identity as a writer. Otherwise I will be a nobody in the West, just one of many refugees. And I think that distinguishes me from other migrants. In a way, this is also about dignity. A migrant can get out from Syria and live in Berlin, but perhaps this immigrant can never recover his identity as he was in Syria, unless he gained his dignity back in Germany. And I have the same feeling that if I don't continue my work in the west I have no voice.

Many migrant authors in England came from countries where English was spoken as a colonial language, so they didn't have to adjust to a new language. Are you in contact with other migrant authors?

I think especially in London the concept of migrant writers is not as widely used as it is in mainland Europe. The reason is those writers from post colonial times, for example the Indian writers, they always wrote in English. I'm talking about the upper-class Indians, they don't write in Hindi, they always write in English. Or even Nigerian writers, Caribbean, they write in English. It is very blurred. Regarding London, there is still post colonial literature and migrant literature, of course. But with a writer like V. S. Naipaul it is very complex - he criticized both societies. Of course his cultural identity is very much linked to the English one, although there still is his Indian and Caribbean background - it's so complex.

And I don't have that. See, I don't have that natural connection, historically, like all these immigrant writers in Britain because they are mostly from colonial states. In a way I find it quite lonely living in Britain as a writer from China who writes in English because I don't share this colonial history in my writing. And also, it became an industry to write about this colonial history: works that will become a bestseller family saga, a bestseller for people to weep and feel guilt. And I don't have that at all, you know? In a way I feel it is healthier to open your arms to all the literature from the world and let everyone bring their journey to the world.

Guo Xiaolu on set for her 2011 film
Guo Xiaolu on set for her 2011 film 'UFO in her Eyes'Image: Xiaolu Guo

Do you consider yourself to be a dissident writer, like Ma Jian, as an example - who lives in London as you do?

The thing is, I was born in the 70s so I grew up in the 80s and 90s when China was opening up to the west. To limit oneself as a dissident writer is an extremely sad and limited state. People like Ma Jian, Liao Yiwu or Ai Weiwei, I respect them immensely, but they are 25 years older than me. They are older than my father's age. And that generation cannot live differently. They can only live politically. Without political struggle they have no identity.

And that is exactly the character of Jian in my novel "I am China". He has to die if there is no political life around him. So in the novel he has to commit suicide. And that is certainly not my generation. I'm a new generation from China. I can write in both languages. In the last 10 years after I left China I lived in five countries. And I don't feel I have to be a political martyr in order to preserve my identity. In a way I think a great writer is beyond a political discussion. I guess my visions and my ambition is to be a citizen of the world that can be totally engaged with political discussions, but also your art should go beyond that, because that can last longer.

The title of your last novel "I am China" is exceptional. Can you explain why you choose it?

It's very funny, because when I began to write the novel I actually said that I dedicate it to one of my really big heroes, Alan Ginsberg. Everybody was very surprised that I was so much in love with the poem "America" by Allen Ginsberg from 1956. I could recite each line when I was a teenager. And then I had this funny hippie musical band in London, where I was playing ukulele guitar, and I always did a cover version of Allen Ginsberg's "America."

There is a line in this poem that says: "It occurs to me that I am America." That poem is about the relationship between the individual and the state. And there is absolutely no double way of love between the individual and the state. It's basically the state exploiting the individual and calling on the individual as America. And I think that is exactly what is going on in China. We are called on as Chinese - but where is real freedom in China, as a Chinese. I think what's going on in China perfectly matches that poem. So I had to use that poem at the end of my novel. And I had to use the title "I am China" as "I am America" in the Ginsberg poem.

Your novel came out exactly on the 25th anniversary of June 4, the Tian'anmen massacre 1989. Why did you choose this date?

That really is publication business. I didn't choose any date. It is an illusion to believe that any writer will have a say when his or her book should be published. Or what color the jacket should have. And that includes Nobel Prize winners - no one has a say when the book will be released to the public. But despite saying that, I will not deny that there is some kind of solidarity. The book is not about '89, but the emotion is generated from that year. The year the whole world cried for democracy. In Germany you succeeded. In China we failed.

You have said before that in your opinion there is not only political censorship but also commercial censorship. In what way has this commercial censorship affected your work?

I always criticize western commercialization in the publishing world and in the film world because I'm so deeply imbedded in this world. I made lots of films and I published all my novels in the west. Each time I struggle with my publishers, with different publishers, German, English, American publishers, each time I receive some notes about some parts they don't like, not because of the book but because of the market, I always fight back. I always try to protect myself. But then, I must admit that of course I'm a writer writing in my second language, which I never went to English school in my life to study for. So it is incredible that my publishers bared with me for the last 10 years - edited me, helped me with my broken English in each and every book. And they are all quite complicated books.

So, I feel absolutely awful for every author has to go through this commercial censorship. But, on the other hand, I think if you are an ambitious and strong enough writer you can even use that to protect yourself. Because I am a writer in exile I have to get published. So, I would try in all sorts of ways to protect and publish.

You are not only a writer, you make films as well. Are you currently working on any films?

Not this year. Because I had a baby last year, so I couldn't go out. I was very fast and efficient making a film and writing a novel every year. And then, suddenly I had this baby, and everything slowed down (laughs). And now it is like, well, maybe next year I will be faster. Her name is Moon, like Luna. She is very famous because I had to take her to every festival, every reading, so everybody knows her. You will meet her in Berlin.

Guo Xiaolu was born in 1973 and grew up in a small fishing village in southern China. She studied at the Film Academy of Beijing and the National Film and Television School in London. In China, she initially published several acclaimed and widely translated novels. In 2002, Guo moved to London and realized several documentary and feature films that have been screened at international festivals, in addition to writing "A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers" (2007), her debut in English. "I am China" (2014) is the fourth novel she has written in English. She is currently a Writer in Residence for Zurich Literature House in Switzerland. Guo Xiaolu appears at the International Literature Festival in Berlin, which runs from September 9-19.

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