Toronto Star

China through the eyes of exiles

A couple’s letters over 20 years are brought to life in the fourth English novel by Xiaolu Guo


When author and filmmaker Xiaolu Guo left China to study film in London in 2002, she went into a sort of cultural exile. Her films, and especially her books, signalled her shifting world view as she grappled with a new language and a new existence that refracted her previous one in a new, bitter light.

I Am China, her fourth novel written in English, to some extent brings Guo’s retrospect­ion to a close. In a recent interview, she stated that this marks the final time she will ever write about China. Comprising the jumbled diary entries and letters of Kublai Jian, a politicize­d punk rocker, and Deng Mu, his idealistic poet girlfriend, I Am China spans three continents and 20 years to reveal an evolving China and examine its place in the world through the eyes of exile. These diary fragments and scrawled missives reveal Jian and Mu in fragments — Jian during his quest for political asylum after the publicatio­n of his manifesto railing against the Communist Party, and Mu during her parallel quest for stability.

This correspond­ence has landed in London, in the lap of Iona Kirkpatric­k, a Scottish-born translator who becomes consumed with the documents. Day by day, she randomly fishes photocopie­s bearing Jian’s soon-familiar scrawl and Mu’s precisely drawn characters out of a pile, translatin­g them and trying to make sense of what has happened to these two over the intervenin­g 20-year period.

She has been given this task by a London publishing house, whose publisher was handed the correspond­ence in haste by Mu during a Beijing literary festival to give to the London office of Amnesty Internatio­nal. Guo, who had published six novels in Chinese before writing her first one in English in 2007, is intimately familiar with the voids that exist in translatio­ns, from simple misunderst­andings to flawed inferences. In the character of Iona, Guo sketches the translator as voyeur, as an empty vessel through which Jian and Mu’s story can come to light.

Jian’s and Mu’s earliest letters are written in the aftermath of the Tiananmen Square massacre, which shaped them irrevocabl­y, as it did most of their generation. This political awakening, combined with Jian’s family background, leaves him “obsessed with trying to understand power.” For Mu, it brings to the surface her inner struggle to balance her idealism with “the repressed dutiful daughter in me, struggling to fulfil other people’s desires, the desire of continuing the tradition, and the weight of carrying history.”

With I Am China, Guo has completed her metamorpho­sis from an exile writing about displaceme­nt in a second language to a writer who seems to occupy two worlds at once, with a discerning eye cast on each and the myriad intersecti­ons between them. Jason Beerman lives and writes in Hong Kong.

 ??  ?? I Am China, by Xiaolu Guo, Nan A. Talese, 384 pages, $32.
I Am China, by Xiaolu Guo, Nan A. Talese, 384 pages, $32.
 ??  ??

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Canada