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Xiaolu Guo: “The way we read has changed radically in the digital age”

The Chinese novelist on her Goldsmiths-shortlisted book A Lover’s Discourse, her love of Roland Barthes, and why fragmented narratives best represent modern life.

By Ellen Peirson-Hagger

Xiaolu Guo was born in south China and published six books in the country before moving to London in 2002. Since then, she has published novels including A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers and I Am China, both shortlisted for the Women’s Prize, and a memoir, Once Upon a Time in the East, which won the National Book Critics Circle Award. She is also the director of several award-winning films, and is currently a visiting professor at Columbia University in New York.

Her work speaks to her interest in moving across borders, and interrogates rootlessness, linguistic nuance and the differences and similarities between cultures. A Lover’s Discoursewhich has been shortlisted for the Goldsmiths Prize, explores romantic love through fragments of conversation between two lovers: a Chinese woman who has recently come to London to study a PhD in anthropology, and an Australian-British-German man who works as a landscape architect.   

The Goldsmiths Prize was set up to reward fiction that “breaks the mould or extends the possibilities of the novel form”. What can an “innovative” approach offer the reader (and writer) that a more conventional novel might not?

For a writer, it might work the other way around. For me it often starts with questions to myself: what subjects are vital and indispensable to write about and what form is new and meaningful for a writer like myself with a certain cultural and linguistic background? Then I work on a bunch of themes and try to experiment with some forms. But the result is never predictable. The final book can be conventional to some eyes and innovative to others. What matters is the novel should come from an act of necessity.

The “innovative approach” in A Lover’s Discourse is its fragmentary approach, short chapters that follow a relationship through dialogue, each honing in on a particular philosophical query. Why was this the best way to tell the story of this couple?

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I find it difficult to enter a perfectly sealed traditional narrative. I can do it with the classics, when I have to read fiction. But I do think the ways we read and view have changed radically in the digital age. We are easily distracted, and our knowledge is more horizontal than vertical, more fragmented than holistic. My novel reflects these phenomena, and the conversations between two lovers seem to be a simple way to convey a complex narrative and entwined themes.

Your novel shares its name with and borrows some of the sentiment of Roland Barthes’ A Lover’s Discourse. When did you first read Barthes’ book, and what about it made you want to reconfigure it in your own way?

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I read Barthes at university, in my early twenties. I thought Barthes’ work was amongst the most original in postmodern literature. He takes us through a narrative of ideas, he talks about literature as pre-fabrication, and, of course, there is “The Death of Author”, which unpacks the myth of originality and authenticity. That work is as important as his Fragments d’un discours amoureux (“A Lover’s Discourse”) for me. A reader can clearly see these influences on my novel A Lover’s Discourse.   

Your novel is, of course, far from a reproduction, but I wondered about the value of reproduction as an art form, since your protagonist studies the form and its meaning for her PhD in anthropology, travelling home to China to observe painters who reproduce Old Masters paintings. What can an artist learn by copying?

All art involves copying and reproduction, in some form or other. For me, the endless images of Jesus Christ or the Virgin Mary suggest that humans live a perpetual act of reproduction. Before Da Vinci painted the Virgin Mary, pre-Renaissance artists had done that millions of times. Caravaggio’s Saint John is different from Raphael’s Saint John, but again it is artistic reproduction. The artist’s interpretation is kind of like a mutation in the copying process – that is why we often talk about “originality”. In my novel, I wrote about a Chinese artisan reproducing Klimt’s The Kiss, but replacing the male figure with a pig head. I tried to provoke an argument that eventually there is no difference between the celebrated American painter Kehinde Wiley and these anonymous Chinese artisans I had spent time with. It’s through copying that there is a context, tradition and, in the end, evolution.

[see also: The longform patriarchs, and their accomplices]

Your protagonist is Chinese, moves to England, and begins seeing an Australian-British-German man. Her understanding of the cultural differences between these places come with an interest in their respective languages – Mandarin, English and German. You were born in south China and now live in London. What is it about the German language that interests you?

I’m very interested in different languages. I lived in Berlin and Hamburg for a year as an artist in residence. I finished making my two feature films there. During my residency, I had a German teacher from East Berlin and I remember the pain that I experienced trying to grasp the differences between der, die, and das, and all the verb conjugations. Germany is my second adopted country after Britain, and I feel that the German language is an interesting landscape waiting for me to explore.

The couple at the heart of the novel try out different ways of living – on a houseboat, in a flat, in a Bauernhaus in Germany. But the female protagonist still feels rootless. How does rootlessness affect one’s sense of self, and therefore affect the art or work one is able to create?

Her sense of “not belonging” goes way back. It is there before she has uprooted herself from China. It is beyond her individual narrative. It’s way back before the urbanisation of the current world, as the result of industrial revolution. So this does not only apply to Chinese people but to everyone who has been cut off from their traditional way of life and away from their native landscape. I do believe that a particular landscape constructs a particular idea of “home” and art. Obviously in my novel, the Chinese character is not a white European and she has to deal with a foreign existence through her lost identity, therefore the rootlessness is more strongly manifested than in the male European character.

Brexit is an important theme in the novel, and at first is a point of confusion for the protagonist. How has Brexit affected your feeling of contentedness in the UK?

It is obviously a disaster, produced by this kleptocratic Tory government. Brexit is just another way to continue their miserable reign. Please spare us! So, no contentedness at all. Quite the opposite.

Tell me about a piece of art, literature or music that was important to you in the writing of this book.

Walter Benjamin’s essay: The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanic Reproduction was important to me because it is a groundbreaking essay that announces how photographic and cinematic art changed our traditional idea of authenticity and originality due to its mechanical reproductive nature. And two paintings: The Virgin of the Rocks by Da Vinci, Saint John the Baptist in the Wilderness by Caravaggio. Both have a strange unearthly quality suggesting a transcendent reality beyond this material world; I also quoted these two paintings in my novel and my recent documentary. 

Why do we need the Goldsmiths Prize?

It’s very simple: we need encouragement and media support for promoting good literary work.

What past British or Irish novel deserves a retrospective Goldsmiths Prize? Why?

Perhaps Tom McCarthy’s Satin Island, or Will Eaves’s The Absent Therapist. These are very interesting and original works that should be read and discussed widely.

The winner of this year’s Goldsmiths Prize will be announced in an online ceremony on 11 November and will be in conversation at the Cambridge Literary Festival’s virtual Winter Festival on 21 November. Tickets are available here.

[see also: Veteran science fiction writer makes the 2020 Goldsmiths shortlist]