A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers, published in 2007, is an extraordinary novel about a Chinese woman who comes to live in England for a year to learn English, and has an affair with an Englishman. Structured like a dictionary with chapters arranged according to the alphabet — “a” for alien, “b” for bisexual and so on — it deals with issues of alienation, loss, memory and exile — so relevant in the face of the many artists who have had to leave China because of political persecution. Large parts of the novel are written in broken English to mirror the author’s own lack of proficiency in the language, which becomes smoother and more grammatically correct towards the end.
The story closely parallels that of its author Xiaolu Guo, Chinese author and filmmaker, who first learnt English when she moved to London 10 years. “I was 29 when I decided to go study and live in the west. I was already a well known filmmaker and having written six books in Chinese, and had begun to feel suffocated,” she says, speaking to dna at the Zee Jaipur Literature Festival.
She started writing A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary two years later as a challenge. “I realised that if I could write in another language, then I could live in another country,” she says. But agents and editors found the manuscript “unpublishable”. “I was refused for two years and revised it in good English. By that time I had been in England for four years and my English had improved a lot,” says Guo.
Ironically, Guo says, she finds it far more liberating to be writing in English, if only because she did not have to self-censor her writing as in her native Chinese. “When I am writing in English I find myself 20 years younger; I feel like I have become a child — silly and naive, like someone who doesn’t understand the culture I am living in. In English, my writing has acquired humour and comes out slightly mad,” she says.
Guo thus presents a paradox — she lives in the West, writes in English, is published by a multinational publishing house which gives her a wide, global readership. Indeed, this visit to India is something that could never have happened had she continued to live in China, as she well knows. But as a politically, ideologically trenchant writer, she is also aware of, and angry with the insidious attractions of Western, especially American culture. Her next book due to come out later this year is titled I Am China. It is taken from Allen Ginsberg’s poem I am America, a stringent critique of the American way of life. “My character is an exiled Chinese poet who replaces every reference to America with China and it works perfectly.”
“Chinese industry today appears more American than America,” she continues. “We are allowing American culture to penetrate our own. This is a kind of amnesia of culture. For instance in China, because of computers people write Chinese in English characters. Technology is taking over your memory and identity in a profound way,” she says.