“You have to latch onto the language”

an interview with Xiaolu Guo

Une Grande Nation (Issue IV/2017)


When one reads what you write about your childhood in the Chinese provinces, it sounds more like the Middle Ages than the 1970s.

The fishermen in a village like ours had no control over their own destiny. We children suffered greatly from poverty - especially poverty of love.

Your parents gave you away when you were an infant. Why?

Girls were traditionally worth less than boys. In the 1970s, a mother also had to work in the factory. Who should take care of the children? Of course I can blame my mother for that in the book, but in reality it was a consequence of the fragmentation of the traditional family, whereby the grandparents no longer lived with the children. The China of the last 50 years is like a living museum in which industrialization took place in a very condensed and accelerated way, 300 years later than in Europe.

Your parents met in Maoist China as class enemies …

You were either proletarian or bourgeois. My father, as an artist, was automatically classified as a class enemy by the Red Guards, to which my mother belonged. But he was so emaciated that my mother felt sorry for him and helped him survive in the labour camp.

What is the situation today in China regarding the oppression of girls?

I don't think that it’s specific to China. Look at Japan or Korea. Of course, the situation in Western societies has improved considerably since the 1960s. But there are still Catholic countries like Ireland where there is no right to abortion. We still live in a very barbaric society. But violence and aggression are a puzzle piece of our humanity. I say this because you might think my book is a story about a victim. I think our human experience basically has a dark side. But there are many ways in which you can fight your way out of misery and completely reshape your life.

You beat 7,000 other applicants to get a place at the Beijing Film Academy. As a student there you were "obsessed by the West"...

I was crazy about pop culture, the Beat generation, I was able to find myself in their rebellious moment. And I loved European cinema: Godard, Pasolini, Fassbinder. Their films contained so much modernity. That was my idea of Europe, that's where I wanted to go. I never understood the classical or religious Western culture, I always found it sinister and depressing.

What language do you write in?

When I came to London on a scholarship for a film school, I started writing my books in English. So I could write free from censorship - also from self-censorship, free from my old style. For a Thomas Mann it would be a ridiculous undertaking to express oneself in a foreign language. Today, however, many immigrants are forced to do so. You have to latch onto the language of the new country to gain respect. As an immigrant I envy the state-supported native artists in England or Germany, but I also criticize them for their comfort. Because nowadays you have to be able to assert yourself. Our life does not consist of daily yoga lessons and holidays.

Once Upon A Time in the East: A Story of Growing up, Xiaolu Guo, Vintage, London, 2018.

The interview was conducted by Friederike Biron



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