Guo Xiaolu at Pen America and Asia Society – Recaps and Videos

Guo Xiaolu at Pen America

Guo Xiaolu (郭小橹 / 郭小櫓), author of the new book I am China, recently visited New York for events at the Ace Hotel and at Asia Society, both of which are available for viewing online.  While the talk at the Ace Hotel was a good introduction to this London-based Chinese writer and director, the evening at Asia Society delved much deeper into her as a writer and included discussion about her films.  The videos are long but worth watching, if you have time.  Chinese who are trying to find and define their lives abroad may be particularly interested in the Asia Society talk.

The evening at the Ace Hotel, which was sponsored by Pen America, opened with a reading from I am China where she covers Allen Ginsberg’s philippic “America” but replaces “America” with “China”:

In a conversation with journalist Sasha Frere-Jones, Guo talked about moving to Europe at the age of 30, after spending 10 years at the Beijing Film Academy without having made a single film.  She had published a number of books in China in Chinese but began to write in English when she left her native land.  She says “language is identity and skin, and I no longer wear that skin when I speak English”.  The process of “removing what [she] was before” was like a “baby trying to learn language”.   Yet, this transformation is not a rejection of China. She is very much interested in China and is concerned about her direction and people.  She says over fifty years of Communism have separated people from their land and culture, and the sudden social and economic change have left many unable to cope.  Yet, she is hopeful, believing the exploration of new expression in China now is like America in the 50s.

Perhaps because of Pen America’s mission of free expression, the audience was particularly curious about issues of censorship in China and seemed surprised that Western writers like Allen Ginsberg, Charles Bukowski, Sylvia Plath, and J.D. Salinger were known in China.  Guo informed the audience that many books were available and well-translated, but cleaned-up.  Her own experience with the writers began at young age, secretly reading Beat writers along with the propaganda texts of her formal education.  She was shocked (“Whoa! Really dirty!”) when she read Bukowski in English and also by the profanity in Catcher in the Rye but noted that their decontaminated translations still worked.  In reply to Frere-Jones’ question of the Chinese word for “phony”, Guo laughed and said there were two: a “Communist version and a Confucian version.”

When asked about censorship in China and how much writers should acquiesce to the Chinese government’s demands in order to reach a Chinese audience, Guo she suggested that government censorship was secondary to commercial “censorship”.   While the country tries to digest as much as possible whether something is marketable is determined before propagandizing it to benefit the Chinese culture.

For more, take a look at the full video from the evening, which includes delightful singer/songwriter Nellie McKay:

The next evening at Asia Society, her conversation with ChinaFile editor Susan Jakes built on ideas introduced at the Ace Hotel with a further discussion about identity, language, and her development as a writer.  Her films were also discussed.

Hesitant to refer to her life as a Chinese in London as “exile” (“a big word you only get when you intellectualize life”), Guo doesn’t see herself as British writer, but as someone with a “multi-identity” who does not belong to any culture.  This self-assessment comes after a long journey.  Her early Chinese novels written while she was in Beijing felt repetitive to her despite attempting different approaches to the stories.  “When you’re young, you don’t know you’re young,” she says of her limited perspective.   She proclaims that it’s when she left China when she felt that she matured.  She also talks about an “island mentality” wherein everybody goes out to go out to conquer the world and compares it to a “mainland mentality” where people are nostalgic for home and never feel at ease.  With I Am China, Guo explores this dichotomy with a structure and semi-autobiographical characters that lead the reader to sometimes feel like they are reading in Chinese and other times in English.

Language has played a central role in Guo’s development as a writer.   Her decision to write in English came from the realization that her Chinese-language books were “Not OK for China to read and don’t work in the West” and an impatience towards waiting to be translated (she laments a lack of translated Chinese works).  When she first went to London, with her limited English ability, she felt speechless.  Fortunately for her, one of her early English novels, A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers used broken English to good effect.   Though she has written many novels in English, she still wonders to this day about how her process for writing in English.

During her talk she mentioned many writers, including Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, Milan Kundera, and Anaïs Nin.  While her talk at the Ace Hotel seemed to portray Western literature in China as nothing out of ordinary, Guo shows how revelatory it was for her.   Frank O’Hara’s poem about orange as a color and a fruit challenged her understanding of a poem should be.  Sylvia Plath’s poems (which the Chinese government said were depressing because they were protests against capitalism) in particular inspired her to want to write without idealogical direction and with a certain obscured meaning.  Early in her career and afraid that people would see no need to read more than one Chinese book a year, she worried about finding an audience but came to realize so long as she could communicate with the writers she admired and pay homage to them, she was satisfied.

Guo also showed clips from her political satire UFO in Her Eyes (unfortunately, the more satirical parts were shown) and Once Upon a Time Proletariat, a look at different groups of people in modern China.  A Q&A with a lot of really insightful questions followed.

There’s a lot more that’s not covered here, including the claim that I Am China will be her last book about China.  Take a look at the Asia Society full video if you’d like to learn more (note: the video does not work properly in Google Chrome):

Image by Andrew Shiue