Xiaolu: "If you can't sell in China, you are nothing"

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Xiaolu: ‘If you can’t sell in China you are nothing’

Xiaolu Guo, the writer and film director tells Graeme Green about when she grew up in China and about freedom, censorship and loneliness.

What’s your earliest memory?

I was on the beach of my fishing village, by the East China Sea. After a big storm, when the sea was quiet, I could hear the anti-communist propaganda from the loudspeaker in Taiwan.


What were your first books?

My first books were school books at primary school when I was eight years old. They were books to learn Chinese writing, but they were very political. They said ‘how to be good and support Mao’. That was the end of the 1970s and early 1980s, so everything was about Mao.

Who or what inspires you?

People from European cinema and literature: Jean Luc Godard, Boris Vian, Jean-Paul Sartre, Marguerite Duras, Pier Paolo Pasolini and Italo Calvino... there are so many! US poet Alan Ginsberg inspires me, and also Walt Whitman. I always feel Walt Whitman is the true poetic spirit; his love for nature, life, sexuality and passion are so alive in his poetry. I felt that when I first read his poetry. I was in China then. I loved the free poetry and great writing of the Beat Generation and Ginsberg. I love literature that is not restricted by rhyme or conventions. I find it very difficult to like Victorian poetry, for example.

What do you feel passionate about politically?

We live in a very materialistic world: that’s something I think about a lot. I used to live in a world with a lot of government control and no freedom of voice. But now China is changing; it has opened up. Now there is not so much censorship. But in business, everything is censored; everything has to be on sale. If you cannot sell, you are nothing, zero.

It’s very difficult to talk about political ideas in stories. I think the best way is to be a journalist, not a fiction writer. Journalism is more direct, but there’s also a lot of control of journalists. With my new novel, I Am China, I spent many years trying to say political things through my characters. But in novels it is very difficult.

In I Am China, as in many of your books, the characters are in foreign cultures and they’re cut off and lonely. Are you using your own experiences?

If you’re a critical person, you can feel quite lonely or cut off in any culture, because you always feel this kind of ‘political problem’. And if you’re an artist, you try to be alone and try to write about it, and that cuts you off from the collective society. If there is a collective...

Your book A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers was very successful – what effect did this have on your life and career?

It was the seventh book I wrote, but the first book I wrote in English, so it was like it was starting my life again in the West. Before that, I thought I was going to go back to China and live and write in Chinese. That’s how I had lived most of my life. I wrote that book when I was 30 and it was my first published book in the West, so I thought: ‘OK, I can write in two languages!’

What makes you happy?

Being with warm people. Intellectual people. Interesting people.

What’s your biggest fear?

Losing the people I like.

If you could make one person leave the Earth, who would it be?

That’s quite a difficult question. It’s a philosophical question. I would get rid of the people who love war, people who want war, people who make war.

I Am China by Xiaolu Guo is out in June in Britain and Australia (ISBN 9780701188191) and September in North America (ISBN 9780385538718).

NOW READ THE ORIGINAL: http://newint.org/columns/finally/2014/06/01/xiaolu-guo/ (This article has been simplified so the words, text structure and quotes may have been changed)