Xiaolu Guo explores the nature of identity in new novel

Xiaolu Guo explores the nature of identity in her latest English-language novel, writes Sue Green

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 08 June, 2014, 10:02am
UPDATED : Monday, 16 June, 2014, 9:41pm

I Am China
by Xiaolu Guo
Chatto and Windus
4 stars

For Xiaolu Guo, writing poses a constant challenge: containing the philosophical ideas which interest and preoccupy her in narrative form. "I want to write something that makes sense in a philosophical way," Guo says of her work.

Yet her new novel, I Am China, multilayered and rich in intellectual ideas, is also highly accessible. Told from the point of view of three main characters and encompassing three realities which intersect only peripherally, it provides multiple entry points and points of reference and empathy for a wide cross-section of readers.

Iona Kirkpatrick is a Chinese-language interpreter living in London, but hails from a small Scottish island where she has a vexed family relationship. She is translating the diaries and letters of Kublai Jian, an exiled Chinese political activist punk rocker whose diaries are written from European detention centres, and his girlfriend, Mu. She writes from China, and the US where she tours as a performance poet.

In the West, your self is your identity. The search for self is ongoing, whereas in China identity is assigned, fixed

Guo, 40, is a mainland-born author who attended film school in Beijing. She had published five Chinese-language novels before leaving for film school in London in 2002 and there began polishing her English with the aim of writing in that language.

She did so with immediate success: her first English-language novel, A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers, based on her own diaries, was published in 2007 and nominated for the prestigious Orange Prize. She was anointed one of Granta magazine's best young British novelists under 40 - a once-in-a-decade selection.

Guo says writing in the West is liberating, despite the limitations of English as a second language. Freed from the confines of the self-censorship she says is inherent in writing on the mainland, the themes of I Am China are wide-ranging - among them the nature of the Chinese elite and its power base.

It is clear early in the narrative that Kublai Jian - a name he chose - has not simply offended with his punk performances, but has written some kind of political manifesto which is anathema to the apolitical Mu, and that his father has an important position, the nature of which is revealed gradually, as are the reasons for the son's exile.

When Jian, incarcerated in a Dover immigration centre, confronts his memory of the last time he saw his father, he recalls being taken to his office during the annual National People's Congress meeting in Beijing, where his father was an administrative secretary. The bored child, told to wait in the kitchen, escapes and is beaten up by older boys. Bloodied, he returns late to his enraged father who locks him in his bedroom for 20 hours. A week later the father leaves, posted south, never to see him again.

"The boy was now a young man. He was locked in a dark room once again, only this time it was permanent: it was a larger room, from city to city, with occasional people to hold onto; a world in which the father he knew would never feature. His father had sent him into exile."

Parent-child relationships are central here. Mu, who travels to the US as a performance poet, returns to China, railing against her family obligations while fulfilling them; Iona, too, is in a form of exile in London - self-imposed, returning only occasionally to the Isle of Mull home she had escaped for college. There her relationship with her mother is prickly and awkward, with her father distant.

By night she picks up men for loveless sex, refusing to see them again. By day, she struggles with the pile of documents thrust at her publisher, Jonathan Barker, in Beijing by Mu. She reads the book Mu read, eats the food Jian and Mu ate. But as she is increasingly consumed by their lives, she realises the limitations of translation.

She translates certain phrases, sentences again and again, unsure which is the more accurate version. But how can she know this without knowing the mind of the writer?

Discussing this with her former professor, Iona says: "Translations only work because we get inside a person's inner culture. And how does one do that? How does one get inside someone?" She must allow herself to go beyond what she knows, to open herself up, he tells her. But this is not enough for Iona: the connection is lacking. "I think, my dear, you're talking about something else here. I don't think it's about translation at all. I think it's more about you," the professor says.

It's always about us, Guo is saying. In the West, your self is your identity. The search for self is ongoing, whereas in China identity is assigned, fixed, the implications of seeking a different one enormous.

As she so vividly describes the experience of refugees in Europe, the waiting, the forms, the incarceration and uncertainty, Guo explores the nature of identity, both individual and national.

Her characters, from East and West, live beyond national borders as she has done. Guo described herself, during a French film residency, as "studying French but writing a novel in English in my Chinese head", saying those years were crucial to her analysis of herself as a writer rather than as a Chinese.

Her novels have been published in more than 10 languages and she has lived from her writing for two decades. I Am China is her third English-language novel and is assured of attention, thanks to her previous success combined with subsequent controversy: at the recent Jaipur Literary Festival, on a panel with US literary heavyweight Jonathan Franzen, she criticised some American literature as being massively overrated.

Guo's work is complex and assured, worthy of attention in its own right, not simply for her outspokenness - when critics attacked "state writer" Mo Yan's Nobel Prize, she said that "to be a great state artist can be as great an achievement as being a dissident one" - nor for her previous accomplishments.

She has been critical of the novel as a form, describing it as often boring - a bag to put content in without designing the bag. She has described herself as addicted to the excitement of the new and for her the challenge is to explore the format itself.

In I Am China, she successfully uses a non-linear structure to create an involving, thought-provoking story within that format. Shifting across time, continents and between viewpoints, it has the potential to be messy and disjointed. It is a mark of Guo's maturity as a writer that it is not. But perhaps the fact that this work in her new language is so much more intricate and challenging than her earlier works in English demonstrates the limitations inherent in translation.

I Am China is also a perceptive study of what it means to be an individual within the state, the fragility of ideological struggle, an exploration of power relationships and expectations, both within the nation and the family.

The world is a global market, increasingly homogenised. The struggle to retain individual integrity is frequently undermined by commercial pressures. Guo wants her characters to understand each other and for Iona the struggle inherent in the translation is to know those whose words she is translating, rather than simply the words themselves. Yet differences remain which defy translation and the emotional isolation brought on by the disengagement and dislocation of contemporary life.