Never have the literary habits of so many readers been determined by so few people. Publishing is more centralized than it has ever been—with the proposed acquisition of Simon and Schuster by Penguin Random House, what was once the Big 5 would become a Big 4; the names of the genteel publishers of yore are now fronts for international conglomerates based in Germany and France.
This has created a situation in which books need to be international not only in their origins but in the sense that the writing can be easily exported. The last few years have seen many exciting writers published in translation by small presses. It is thanks to tiny, often nonprofit outfits like Two Lines Press, Archipelago, and the recently launched Transit and their overworked and underpaid editors and translators that American readers have access to writers like Marie NDiaye, Scholastique Mukazonga, and Horacio Castellanos Moya. At the same time, the “international” work that comes out of corporate publishing houses often feels homogenized and sanitized, its local details removed—the “world” as seen from a few offices in New York City. No matter how far-flung the origin of the writer, the reader can rest assured: Everyone is the same because they sound like me.
I think of recent misfires, like the novel American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins, marketed as a way of drawing attention to violence in Mexico and the journeys of migrants coming to the United States with details that seemed taken out of an after-school special, tinged with Don Winslow. The main character, a mother in Acapulco, owns an independent bookstore, not because there are many independent bookstores in Acapulco but because that detail might appeal to the suburban book clubs whose purchases support an entire industry. Better novels suffer from a certain homogenization or a lack of detail. Mohsin Hamid’s moving Exit West (2017), one of the few novels about recent refugee crises to find mainstream success, combines descriptions of violence with magical realism. Yet much of its narrative power stems from its being set in an unnamed city in an unnamed country, featuring characters without last names. To the extent that literature becomes more international, it is also more disembodied, cut out from national traditions and particularities. “New global voices,” reads the publicity copy. Writers require time, support, and money. Voices carry.
A writer’s success is now to some extent dependent on how well their work can be translated into English. It’s not enough that English is the language in which many displaced people must communicate, the language in which the ambitious get jobs. (“Speak Wall Street English!” reads an ad for a school I pass every day in Paris; the same school operates in thirty countries.) It is also true that international best-seller lists are often dominated by English-language books. Even the biggest “international” (read: non-Anglophone) literary phenomena of the last decade—Elena Ferrante and Karl Ove Knausgaard—became global successes only after they had been translated into English.
The work of Xiaolu Guo both plays with this globalization of literature and rebukes it. A writer and filmmaker, she has spent the past fifteen years working in English on books and films that take on the distance between England, where she moved in 2002, and China, where she was born in 1973 (she has since worked in New York and Berlin as well). In addition to writing more than a dozen books, she has made a number of films, both documentaries and features. (I was frustrated to find that most of her movies can be watched only by e-mailing her agent.) She is clearly as wide-ranging a reader as she is a writer, with a particular affection for the French nouveau roman and other experimental fictions of the 1960s, which she often cites and argues with in her work. (Whereas Godard’s 1967 La Chinoise follows foppish French Maoists on vacation, Guo’s film She, a Chinese follows a young woman who leaves a provincial Chinese village and marries a retired teacher in London.) The problems she treats—alienation, displacement, borders—repeat like memories across her work.
Guo seems interested in describing distance rather than points of commonality, capturing an inability to talk rather than a global conversation. She has spoken out against the self-censorship caused by authoritarianism, but also the kind created by the demands of the market. A few years ago, at the Jaipur Literature Festival, she created a fuss for telling Jonathan Franzen, “I think certain American literature is overrated, massively overrated, and I really hate to read them.” Less remarked upon were her statements on that same panel about Hollywood and the way that it now sets the standard for filmmaking around the world.
Writing in English, she has said, was a practical decision. She had moved to England at the age of twenty-nine after winning a scholarship for a film course. Although already an established writer and filmmaker in China, she found that no editors in London were interested in her books; a shortage of translators meant that few could read it in the original. So she wrote her next book in a language she had begun to learn several months earlier.
That book, A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers (2007), is narrated by a woman who has recently moved to London in order to learn English and get a better job in China. Her name is Zhuang Xiao Qiao, but no one she meets makes the effort to say it. (“When they see my name starts from ‘Z,’ stop trying,” she writes.) The book takes the form of diary entries describing her education: “Everything English so scientific and problematic. Unlucky for me because my science always very bad in school, and I never understanding mathematics. First day, already know I am loser.”
Z, as she comes to call herself, falls in love with an older man who takes pleasure in teaching her, then withdraws. She records his reactions in her diary: “‘I just feel tired of you,’ you say. ‘Always asking me words, how to spell them, what they mean. I am fed up.’” Her English improves. Is this assimilation? It is accompanied by some kind of independence from the man. “My whole body is your colony,” she writes in her diary. He encourages her to travel around Europe. The narrative of her trip wryly upends a tradition of Western travel writing; here, it is the West that is being looked at with curious but ignorant eyes. Berlin reminds her of Beijing because of its grayness and unsubtlety. It “has a heavy colour, big square buildings.” She visits Paris, has sex with a stranger in Faro, Portugal. When she returns, the boyfriend seems even more distant.
Z’s English becomes more expressive. She begins writing in what a reader might consider a more literary style. Her sentences are longer, more complex, her thoughts more immediately understandable. She turns out to be quite a good writer. As she decides to leave the boyfriend, she thinks:
You look like a small dried fig fell from the tree….
They are tiny, immature, greenish, and shrinking like an old man without a happy youth. Those figs are full of small wrinkles on the skin. They look very sad. In the morning, you walk to the garden, pick up those figs from the soil, and your palms are full of dirt and pity….
They are quiet, obscure, plain and anonymous. They want to say something to me, but eventually they are tired. They are dried up by the seasons, just like you.
He is angry that she spends so much time writing. He says, “AT LEAST YOU’RE STILL LEARNING A LOT. EVEN IF EVERYTHING IS BROKEN.”
When A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers came out, it was praised for its polyphonic qualities, the way it integrated both Z’s learning and her difficulty feeling at home in England. But is English polyphonic? Or is it a language that gobbles up everything else? As the scholar Belinda Kong has noted, Z’s language is “gradually…absorbed into a dominant, proper, and publishable English.” The word “dominant” is central here—after all, Z originally traveled to England to make some money. Moreover, the book itself, with its carefully “broken” English, would only be fully legible to someone able to understand the shards. (Chinese translations of the novel, the Guo scholar Carlos Rojas told me, do not reproduce the “broken English” of the book’s opening.) Although ostensibly written by its central character for herself, it can be read only by an audience conversant in her second language.
What good does this learning do her? Z returns home. “I want to be a citizen of the world,” she thinks. “Recently I learned to say this. I would become a citizen of the world, if I have a more useful passport. Ah Mrs. Margaret”—her English teacher—“that conditional again!”
Guo’s own story, told in the memoir Nine Continents (2017), is so full of hardship, ambition, and transformation that it reads as almost fictional. Born in poverty, she was raised from infancy by her grandparents in a Chinese fishing village. One day a group of students came to visit, wearing “white sun hats” and “army-green shoulder bags,” and sat down by the sea to draw. It surprised her that the brown water could be interpreted as blue in the eyes of one student and blue-red in the eyes of another. “From that afternoon onwards,” she resolved, “I knew I wanted to become an artist. I would devote my entire life to that end.” At the age of nearly seven she met her parents for the first time; they had come to take her to a Communist worker compound in Wenling where they lived. As a teenager she decided to compete for a place to study film in Beijing. To do this, she had to answer questions like “How did the Hollywood film industry rejuvenate its creativity by adopting the methods of European cinema?” For seven spots, there were six thousand applicants. Rejected once, she spent the next year studying:
My father got his friends to gather any available books on film and theatre they could find—I read about Bertolt Brecht and Orson Welles. I had never seen any productions of their work, but I set myself the task of becoming “an expert” nevertheless.
She was accepted the following year and moved to Beijing.
The memoir is a testament to stunning resilience and determination. As a child, Guo recalls, she listened to her grandfather beat her grandmother: “Despite my young age, I was already numb from having witnessed this sort of scene too often. Usually I would just hide. Who, in 1970s rural China, had not encountered such scenes on a daily basis?” She would tell herself that she was safe as long as she remained unmarried. But when she was an adolescent living with her parents, she was repeatedly raped by an associate of her father’s. Arriving in Beijing as a film student, she found that her fellow students had similar tales from their childhoods; most of these women had never thought to tell anyone. The moment is shocking, upsetting, and quickly passed over.
Her artistic education startles with a need for blazing creative production and control. In class she studies European cinema. La Chinoise is a favorite of the Beijing Film Academy. (“It just felt silly watching Westerners pretend they were taking part in the Chinese revolution.”) She wants to be a poet and soon publishes a dozen poems inspired by Frank O’Hara in various literary magazines. She then starts publishing short stories. At one point she becomes a soap opera writer, and soon her script allows her to pay a year’s rent. The memoir presents a clear story of growth and advancement—from village to city, unknown to known, aspiring artist to artist. It is almost American in the way it goes from success to success.
But Guo’s novelistic writing is not particularly narrative, or linear, or uplifting. Her books do not privilege storyline but take a more documentary approach. She seems interested not in some sense of “the world” but in a question of what it might mean to be international. The time we live in is not defined by a shared humanness but by the fact that no one is truly at home where they are.
Central to her work is how a person moves through the world with a sense of detachment and lots of ambition. (Shades of Chantal Akerman here!) Both her films and books take their tension from observation itself, rather than how a narrator has chosen to interpret it. We see the influence of the French New Wave, but used to create a kind of distance at once geographic and personal.
Her documentary Five Men and a Caravaggio (2018), for instance, feels both expansive and slack. Four of Guo’s friends talk, party, and debate around a copy of a painting by Caravaggio made by a professional copyist in China. The camera follows its subjects, who sometimes converse, sometimes paint, sometimes reflect upon their lives, and at one point attend a birthday party.
This reserved filming keeps the viewer a step away from what she is seeing; we may feel a little like we’re attending a party where we don’t know anyone and are straining to put together who is who. Similarly, Guo’s writing preserves this remove through definitions and questions, reminding the reader that the language it is written in has been studied and learned.
Guo’s latest book, A Lover’s Discourse, is in some ways a continuation of A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers. Again a woman has come to England from China. She is an anthropologist. She falls in love with a man, another “you,” whom she meets at a picnic. She calls him the elderflower picker.
They fall in love and move in together, first to the man’s messy and crowded apartment, and then, in search of freedom from land and roommates, to a houseboat. The couple discuss books, gardens. The man is a landscape architect. “Sex was always there, like a secret fragrance.” They travel to Scotland to visit a landscaped garden, to Australia (where the man grew up), as well as on the water; the ship must be unmoored regularly. “We lived in a state of indecision,” the woman thinks. Meanwhile, she continues her dissertation—a study of Chinese artists who reproduce images of Western paintings (as in Five Men and a Caravaggio).
The book is set up as a series of short entries, each prefaced by an aspect of the woman’s thoughts on England, her relationship, and love. These thoughts are addressed to “you,” her German-Australian partner. She is surprised by the grayness of London, its lack of dignity or elegance. Of a gentrified neighborhood, she thinks:
For people like me from China or other countries that have only recently escaped poverty, the sight of poor people barging into each other in a chaotic market with rats running around and fish rotting on the pavement was not that “trendy.”
Later, she comments on the scheduled nature of London life: “It is true that you Westerners are not able to be spontaneous in your day-to-day lives, and you are from a supposed free country.” She learns English, then German, which
was very different from learning English, because English was always in the atmosphere like pollen from the plants permeating the air, whereas German was like a specific mountain in the landscape which you had to have a particular ambition to climb.
The language is no longer the “broken” English of Guo’s early work but a serpentine text that seems to question its own words.
What language to use—and whom it belongs to—preoccupies the narrator throughout the book. She suffers from wu yu, a state of wordlessness: “I thought, why can’t I hold on to one language while gaining another at the same time?” She reads Roland Barthes’s A Lover’s Discourse to understand her nascent relationship. But her partner tells her that Barthes was gay and loved men. Another example of thwarted communication! “I had to admit it wasn’t speaking to me, or of me, exactly.” Again she finds herself in a state of solitude. Barthes structured his Lover’s Discourse by taking the words of others to express his ideas about love. He himself had no central romantic relationship; his deepest feelings of love, she writes, were for his mother.
Her own loneliness permeates the book. She is in a relationship, even in love, but often alone, wordless, unable to express what she wants. She and the man have a child. “For a woman like me,” she writes, “love was romantic first, then it grew domestic, and then it became concrete and there would be no room for the ungrounded play of romance.”
The narrator is aware of her difficulties communicating and often retreats into them, choosing to observe, note, analyze rather than speak. She arrives in England at the same time as Brexit. One of the first things she notices is a sign that says, “Vote Leave.” She thinks that in China, “I had never voted, because we were never asked to vote.” Walking around her neighborhood in Hackney, she sees
an ambulance rushing down the road, its siren shrieking. It was so loud that it set off my tinnitus…. Everything seemed to be sending out a message, saying: “Go home, jobless people. Go home, foreigners. Go home, losers.”
Listening to a group of women in a book club talk about Brexit, she hears one of them call the other, a European, a “desirable immigrant”: “A desirable immigrant. I repeated this to myself. If I stayed, would I be one of the desirable immigrants? I wondered.”
But she deals with these politics coldly and vaguely. She is an anthropologist with an odd lack of curiosity about the people around her. “Although I had been in Britain for a few months, I still could not say whether I liked or disliked English people,” she writes. Her view of England is blurry, distant, as if seen from afar. One wonders, for example, why she has no friends, why her world is so airlessly centered around this man. Certain subjects, like money, feel left out. The couple buy a houseboat, and then a piece of land, and then an apartment in London. Where does this fit in the budget of an anthropology graduate student? There’s an oddly hermetic nature to the book, so focused on the couple that the wider world blurs away.
This may be a way of leaving room for the reader to introduce his or her own opinions. Citing Marguerite Duras, the narrator praises fragmentary and spare fiction as more permeable than the nineteenth-century European novel—the fragments allow the reader’s own thoughts to seep in: “She pointed out that Balzac describes everything in his books. Absolutely everything. And it’s exhausting for readers. In Balzac’s novels, there’s no place for the reader.”
Perhaps the narrator is seeing her new compatriots as they see foreigners—divided according to whether they have the right to be where they are. After all, it’s an act of defiance to publish a novel about Brexit without featuring “British” voices.
Why, then, is she so myopic? This myopia seems deliberate—a particular kind of inwardness that comes with being a foreigner without any real bonds, even to one’s home country. An academic might point to the idea of “ambivalence,” developed by the Indian English scholar Homi Bhabha and others, which describes a particular texture acquired by literature from the developing world or countries that have been colonized. Searching for a language of self-expression, the individual both copies and rejects the language that has been imposed. What he or she comes up with is neither original nor copied, but a mixture of both.
In A Lover’s Discourse, Guo’s anthropologist is interested in authenticity. She goes to an industrial Chinese “village” near Shenzhen to film a man named Li Bing who copies old master paintings and recounts the scene with delicate humor:
“The rocks are easy to paint, but not the angel or that woman,” he remarked.
“The woman?” I enquired. “You mean the Virgin Mary?”
“Oh, is she the Virgin Mary?” Li Bing took a closer look at “the woman.” “But she has the exact same face as Mona Lisa! She has got the same hairstyle as Mona Lisa, and the same eyelids! Even the neck is the same: short and thick!” Li Bing cried out.
I glanced at the tiny image on his iPhone. Well, Li Bing was not completely wrong. Virgin Mary or Mona Lisa, she was probably drawn from the same model da Vinci had used. Who knows?
The narrator buys a version of da Vinci’s Virgin on the Rocks from Li Bing, nearly perfect except that the Virgin Mary—whoever she might be—lacks a halo. Her supervisor finds it funny; the image makes him erupt with “fruity sarcasm.” Her examination committee subjects her to a cross-questioning about Walter Benjamin that nearly gives her a panic attack. Finally, she passes her thesis defense: “I stared at everyone, and they were all smiling, nodding, confirming, as if I was the Virgin on the Rocks.” Still, she thinks, “Originality is a fetish of people who want to control the art market and the publishing industry. It’s also a fetish of academics, particularly the males and old farts.”
She is interested instead, she says, in the men who have made these images, “their lives, their anonymity, their way of looking at Western classics, and their purely pragmatic attitude.” Why privilege an idea of originality that is so narrow that it excludes other types of creation?
All forms of language require us to copy other words, other structures—and this thought, I admit, is not original to me—to create something that might at the very least be recognized as coming from a single mind, a person. While the language of globalized literature can be flat and universal to the point of alienation, Guo’s English, with its deliberate missteps, its open confusion, and its pockets of cold, is perhaps better able to capture a certain kind of alienation that people feel when being forced to communicate in a language that isn’t native to them.
It is only at the end of the book that the couple is able to come to a decision, the result of years of uncertainty. They commit to London. They settle, which is to say they stop moving. The “you” to whom the book has been addressed is finally in agreement with the narrator. For a brief moment, both are heard.