#introducing talent from the Edinburgh International Book Festival. What’s new to us may be new to you..
I’ll be honest, before I went to see Xiaolu Guo, I didn’t know much about her. Judging by the guilty silence when the interviewer asked who had read her work, neither did much of the audience. I had heard that she’d won a couple of awards, and was aware of some hype surrounding her, but when I entered the small tent she was going to speak in, I didn’t know what to expect. Thank goodness I went to see her; I left in awe, and immediately purchased my first hardback in years. I’ve become a complete fangirl, raving about her to anyone who will listen (and many who won’t).
You know the sort: uber intelligent, uber talented, yet somehow uber down to earth? Novelist, director and all-round intellect, getting to listen to Xiaolu talk about her life, beliefs and work made for an inspiring sixty minutes. Guo grew up in a small town in China at the height of the political unrest in the 1980s. Her father was a prisoner, jailed by the Chinese authorities because he wanted to be a painter, whilst her mother traveled around the country as a performer. Raised by her grandparents, Xiaolu spoke of the intense loneliness she experienced as a child, and the anger this isolation caused in later years. Tired of the limitations of small-town life, Xiaolu moved to Bejing at the age of 20, to study at the Beijing Film Academy. Later, she moved to the UK, continuing to write and make films, despite the language barrier and a feeling of isolation which prevailed.
Now, at the age of 41, Xiaolu, has written several books in both Chinese and English and is an award winning film maker and documentarian. This feeling of ‘otherness’ is channeled in her first English book, A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers, a novel written in dictionary-entry style, mirroring her own experiences of her arrival to the UK. Xiaolu kept a journal documenting words she had learnt from the day, ranging from mundane everyday objects, to more complex concepts like post-marxism (I’m still not quite sure I know what that means).
In talk mode, Xiaolu leaps from topic to topic with authority and eloquence; one minute she’s talking about Beat Generation poets, the next about the need to make a distinction between the self and political ideology. People in the audience are becoming visibly excited about what she has to say – there’s a lot of enthusiastic nodding going on and the woman beside me appears to have stopped breathing. We’re all clinging onto her every word, hoping that some of her wisdom is catching. It was a weird experience; it was like listening to someone speak a sentiment you never realised you’d always had. This enchantment was somewhat disrupted by two long rounds of cannon fire coming from the military tattoo nearby, but after some awkward pauses, Xiaolu was back on form.
When asked about her travels, Xiaolu is keen to emphasise the importance of language to the understanding of culture. She’s lived in France and Germany amongst others, and always made an effort to learn the language whilst she was there. At the beginning of her interview, Xiaolu asked the audience for a show of hands if they spoke another language other than English. About 70% of the audience raised their hands (me included, no big deal guys), whilst the rest sat looking a bit miffed.
The importance of language to intellectual expression is discussed. When she first came here, Xiaolu says she was frustrated, insulted that the depth of conversation she had with many Brits went something along the lines of “I like Chinese food.” An audience member asks whether Xiaolu agrees that we take on a separate personality when speaking another language – she does, to an extent, and I can vouch this. When I spent a year in France I took on the personality of an alcoholic.
After the awkward question and answer session where one audience member inevitably makes it about herself, the interviewer finishes the discussion by informing us that Xiaolu will be in the bookshop immediately for signings. Cue mass-exodus to the bookshop and general anarchy as a usually civilised group of middle-class guardian readers elbow each other to get their hands on one of Xiaolu’s novels. A few fires break out, police are called, and an old woman gets a black eye (that bitch tried to steal my copy of I am China).
I am China is in stores now and the Edinburgh International Book Festival runs until August 25th. For more info on the festival and to get tickets check out their website here: EIBF.
Beci Moss is studies French and Philosophy at the University of Edinburgh. She is also the LITERATURE Editor of Prancing Through LIFE. In her spare time, she likes to cook, bake and blog about it over on: www.herbsandstitches.com. One day she hopes to become Mary Berry and assure everyone that she never has a soggy bottom. An admirable aspiration, I think you’ll all agree.
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(Images sourced from: www.guoxiaolu.com)
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