China frag­ments

Yorkshire Post - YP Magazine - - Front Page -

Two ris­ing tal­ents turn to non-fic­tion in or­der to ex­plore their re­la­tion­ships to their Chi­nese her­itage.

Those of a cer­tain gen­er­a­tion will re­mem­ber the “com­pare and con­trast” ex­er­cises we were given in English, and th­ese two books would fit that brief pre­cisely. Xiaolu Guo was on the Granta Best of Young Bri­tish Nov­el­ists list; Yiyun Li fea­tured on its Amer­i­can coun­ter­part. Guo’s book is a mem­oir with es­says; Li’s is es­says with a mem­oiris­tic bent

(the press re­lease in­di­cates that a mem­oir proper will be pub­lished later in the year).

There are clear sim­i­lar­i­ties in that both write about the process of ex­il­ing one­self, about how to write, think and dream in a new lan­guage, and about prob­lem­atic re­la­tion­ships with moth­ers.

But there are fun­da­men­tal dif­fer­ences as well. Li has never writ­ten “lit­er­a­ture” in Chi­nese, while Guo’s early works, such as Twenty Frag­ments Of A Ravenous Youth and Vil­lage Of Stone, were in her na­tive tongue. Li grew up in Bei­jing, while Guo was adopted for two years, then sent to her grand­par­ents in a fish­ing vil­lage on the East China Sea, even­tu­ally be­ing taken back by her par­ents at the age of seven.

Guo re­flects a great deal on her Chi­nese lit­er­ary her­itage – the dif­fer­ent sec­tions are sep­a­rated by a retelling of Wu Cheng’en’s Jour­ney To The West, bet­ter known as Mon­key – and al­though Li men­tions en pas­sant read­ing the po­etic clas­sics, her es­says fo­cus on her Western idols; Wil­liam Trevor, El­iz­a­beth Bowen and Kather­ine Mans­field. Guo dis­cusses her back­ground in film­mak­ing; Li her for­mer ca­reer as an im­mu­nol­o­gist.

But the dif­fer­ences are more deep-struc­tured than su­per­fi­cial, in that Guo and Li rep­re­sent two sides of an al­most per­pet­ual lit­er­ary di­chotomy; the Ro­man­tic and the Clas­si­cal. Al­though Li writes mov­ingly and af­fect­ingly about her own cir­cum­stances – the es­says were born out of two spells in hospi­tal for de­pres­sion and speak openly about sui­cide – she writes to­wards a kind of self­less­ness. (One won­ders how this will trans­late into the forth­com­ing mem­oir: she, like Guo, writes about the dif­fi­cul­ties of the English “I” for Chi­nese speak­ers). Her prose is honed, bal­anced, pre­cise. As she says in the open­ing es­say, for her, “ret­i­cence is a nat­u­ral state”. She dis­cusses fa­tal­ism as both a cara­pace and a sepul­chre. Guo is, in con­trast, re­bel­lious, flam­boy­ant and fun­da­men­tally op­ti­mistic. It is no won­der that she was at­tracted to the xing wei yi shu move­ment, a com­bi­na­tion of “be­hav­iour art”, “shock art”, “body art” and “per­for­mance art”. When she writes about her Western in­flu­ences, they are Walt Whit­man, John O’Hara and Jack Ker­ouac. (Both, in­ci­den­tally, have a fond­ness for Philip Larkin, and one can see a kind of strict melan­choly in him that re­calls the clas­sics of Li Po and Tu Fu).

Some of Guo’s nar­ra­tives of her­self are stag­ger­ing. Her grand­fa­ther com­mit­ted sui­cide by drink­ing DDT; her mother and fa­ther met when her fa­ther – a painter – was be­ing “re-ed­u­cated” dur­ing the Cul­tural Rev­o­lu­tion. Her mother was one of the Red Guards who hu­mil­i­ated and abused him. Her mother buried her son’s child in se­cret, so the fam­ily did not have to do so. She writes frankly and fu­ri­ously about be­ing sex­u­ally abused, and how en­demic such abuse is in Chi­nese so­ci­ety – Li men­tions glanc­ingly the same fears.

Guo’s Ro­man­tic dar­ing is ex­em­pli­fied in her first English lan­guage book, A Con­cise Chi­nese-English Dic­tionary For

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