Language, love and life as an outsider

A Lover's Discourse, Guo Xiaolu's latest novel, is about a young Chinese woman acclimatising to London - echoing the author's own story

A Lover's Discourse (right) by Guo Xiaolu (left) follows a young Chinese woman doing her PhD in London.
A Lover's Discourse (right) by Guo Xiaolu (left) follows a young Chinese woman doing her PhD in London.PHOTOS: PHILIPPE CIOMPI, CHATTO & WINDUS

In author and film-maker Guo Xiaolu's new novel, A Lover's Discourse, the narrator, a young Chinese woman doing her PhD in London, describes the feeling of "wu yu".

It is a kind of wordlessness, she says, a loss of language that has enveloped her amid the strange sounds and signs of a London in the throes of Brexit. When she writes to a love interest about her "wu yu", he suggests that if she is losing one language, she must be gaining another.

"Why can't I hold on to one language while gaining another at the same time?" she thinks. "Why do I have to lose one first?"

Love, language and the lacunae between the two are themes that run throughout A Lover's Discourse, as they do Guo's first novel in English, A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary For Lovers, written dictionary-style in broken English in 2007.

In a way, A Lover's Discourse is a continuation of this earlier novel - both are about young Chinese women acclimatising to London and new lovers - just as they are offshoots of Guo's own story.

Guo, 47, led a hardscrabble childhood in China and moved to London in 2002 to study documentary film directing.

"I was 30 years old and I began to write like a child in a second language," she recalls over Skype from her home in London.

She has lived in France, Germany, Switzerland and New York. "All these places surrounded me with foreign languages, a third language, a fourth language, and it created this discourse, almost a disharmony, to think and write in. You could be completely lost. I found that very inspiring."

Guo, who was named one of Granta's Best of Young British Novelists in 2013, is the author of seven books in Chinese and seven books in English.

She was shortlisted for the Orange Prize for Fiction for A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary and won the National Book Critics Circle Award for her 2017 memoir Once Upon A Time In The East.

Last year, she was one of the judges for the Booker Prize, which controversially named two winners, Margaret Atwood and Bernardine Evaristo. "It was an amazing experience," she says, skirting a question on which side of the tie she had been on.

In A Lover's Discourse, the narrator and her partner, an Australian-German landscape architect, live on a canal houseboat to escape the strictures of urban living, although she discovers it is not as glamorously bohemian as it seems. Later, they have a baby and she navigates motherhood while struggling with her own sense of belonging.

The parents of Guo's partner, Australia-born philosophy lecturer Stephen Barker, lived for many years on a boat near Queensland in the Pacific Ocean. She and Professor Barker have a daughter, Moon, seven.

But it is not enough to write based on personal experience, she cautions. "It's also extremely important to have the intellectual capacity to write something you have not lived."

A Lover's Discourse is Guo's spin on French philosopher Roland Barthes' A Lover's Discourse: Fragments (1977). She says she loves Barthes' work, his "off-centre way of thinking".

Barthes is best-known for his "death of the author" theory, which challenges the tradition of privileging the author's biography and intent as the controlling meaning of a text.

Throughout her novel, Guo probes the notions of authorship and authenticity. As part of her PhD research, the narrator goes to the village of Dafen in Guangdong, China, where artisans - mostly self-taught - churn out reproductions of masterpieces by Claude Monet, Vincent van Gogh, Leonardo da Vinci and more.

Guo, who has made 11 films, went to Dafen to make her 2018 documentary Five Men And A Caravaggio, which follows a reproduction of Caravaggio's John In The Wilderness from its creation in Dafen to its critiquing in London.

"We're coming into this age where everything's reproduced, copied or interpreted in such different ways, where stuff is being mass-produced and democratised," says Guo, nodding to cultural critic Walter Benjamin's 1935 essay The Work Of Art In The Age Of Mechanical Reproduction. "It's a great era to think about what is art."

In the novel, she says, the death of the author corresponds to the rebirth of the individual. "We as individuals should be the authors of our own lives, which means we should refuse a mass-produced concept of commercial life. We should invent our own lives."

Guo's father was an artist, which indelibly imprinted the value of art in her young mind. A state painter and a poet, he spent 15 years in a prison camp in the 1950s and during the Cultural Revolution. Her mother was a Red Guard and later a factory worker.

Born and raised in Zhejiang province, Guo was given away twice as a child, first to a poor peasant couple in the mountains, then two years later to her grandparents in the fishing village of Shitang. In that household, where there was little to eat, she watched her grandfather abuse her grandmother, who had been a child bride.

It was only when she was seven that she met her parents and went to live with them and her older brother in the city of Wenling.

"I think we children suffered as much as our grandparents who went through the war and our parents who went through the Cultural Revolution," she says. Both her parents have since died of cancer.

"First, there's the material deprivation and then there's the emotional deprivation. We grew up in this loveless, materialist, really bleak social environment. Somehow we survived. People say that Chinese people are tough and resilient, but I think we are still in this state of post-trauma."

Guo had to forfeit her Chinese passport when she took British nationality. She says she has found Brexit a "huge disappointment".

"It gives the foreigners here in London a lot of uncertainty and a new question: Are we staying, or are we moving back? It wasn't a question before that London's one of the greatest cities in the world. But now I question it: Is London still worthy to grasp on to?"

In A Lover's Discourse, the narrator moves out of London to a farm in Germany, but finds she misses the city. "London was the place I had begun my adult life, the place I had finally realised that I had forever lost my parents and my home country," she says. She tells her partner: "It might take me years to know where we will end up."

He responds: "Or, perhaps never."


•A Lover's Discourse ($27.95) is available at bit.ly/LoverDiscourse_Guo

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 29, 2020, with the headline 'Language, love and life as an outsider'. Print Edition | Subscribe