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Natália Peťková on A Lover’s Discourse
17 November, 2023
Xiaolu Guo is a Chinese-born British novelist and film-maker whose work deals with themes of migration, alienation, feminism, translation and trans-national identities. She spent the first 30 years of her life in China, first in the the coastal province of Zhejiang and then in Beijing, where she studied sociology and film making at the Beijing Film Academy. She went on to study Documentary Directing at the National Film and Television School in London, where she is now based. She has also lived in Zurich and Berlin.
A Lovers’ Discourse is written from the perspective of a young Chinese woman whose arrival in London coincides with the run up to to the Brexit referendum. After completing her MA in sociology and filmmaking in Beijing, she knows she does not want “to work in an office” nor does she want “to stick around in China”. She leaves with “too many unanswered questions about myself” but a firm conviction, after reading a biography of the American anthropologist Margaret Mead, that further education, in the form of a doctorate in visual anthropology, at King’s College London would give her the tools to be in the world as a woman.
I wanted to be a woman in the world, or really, a woman of the world – I wanted to equip myself with an intellectual mind so that I could enter a foreign land and not be lost in it. I would have a stance or mission, a way of navigating as an outsider. (p.7)
The idea of research as a safe, controlled framework within which to experience being a stranger is one that resonates with me. There are many things I could say about the book (the narrator’s being a stranger to Western culture brings into focus differing notions of freedom, privacy, authorship and time) but I’ll stick to language. Throughout the book, she feels outside language or language-less, as she struggles to understand and be understood.
Every day I hear some new English words. I hear them but I don’t register them. As if I was half deaf. (p.19)
I felt like a fish swimming in a new part of the ocean, unable to recognise the seaweed. (p.26)
I am feeling wordless. I call it wu yu. It’s like I have lost my language […] Why lost? If you have really lost one language, aren’t you gaining another? (p.43)
When Chinese terms find no translation into English, she exposes the limits of what can be imagined and perhaps even lived in the English speaking world. Her attention to the gender of nouns, absent in Chinese, – mother tongue as opposed to fatherland for instance – spotlights some largely unquestioned associations. Xiaolu Guo herself started writing in “broken” English as she puts it shortly after arriving in Europe around the age of 30. I find it curious to think of language as being “broken”. Is it something that can or can’t be fixed? We would not speak of a young child with a limited command of their native language. When they go to Italy, it’s the very nature of language in different cultures that asserts its boundaries:
This language was not too foreign for you, and you could make out many words for me, especially from food menus. But it was foreign to me. Even though this culture uses the same twenty six Latin letters, just like most European languages – the same alphabet. But I didn’t come from this alphabet. I came from the nonalphabetic. I came from ideograms. I cam from 50 000 characters. Each character is composed with many symbols and strokes, like a tangled forest of meanings. (p.198)
In counterpoint to her emphasis on the intellectual mind, the novel is very sensual. Wordless at times, she is feeling her way around. Feeling where home
might be. In London, Germany or China. In a flat, a house or a houseboat? She is anxious.
You knew I felt the need to make a family in the West. The need to put down roots. But the big decision had to be made: where were we going to live? (p. 204)
As I originally thought about it, doing a PhD was a way of finding a place in the real world – with a set of specialist vocabularies and methods I would have more chance to compete: but I didn’t find myself engages in most of my seminars, nor was I inspired by talking to my supervisor: Why was that? I asked myself. Perhaps I didn’t find anything real in that environment. (p..57)
Its about leaving and not returning. But why did I keep thinking about leaving? Was it the fear that you would leave me one day? Or was it the despondent feeling go my having left China for the West? (p. 73)
Duras’ The lover
But why did I not identify with the Chinese man, since I too am Chinese? For me, being female trumped everything else. I felt everything that French girl felt. Absolutely everything. Even though I had first read the book at university in China, and had ebevr travelled abroad at that point. I hadn’t felt any cultural barrier between my life and the French girl’s life. Strange. But there it was. (p. 91)
I always had problems readying Balzac, Dickens or even Hemingway. Somehow I found their tone pompous, and their unbending masculinity was impossible for me to penetrate. Only when I found paragraphs that carried a sense of the defeated, the ignores and the dying did I feel connected. Only then did I feel at last there was something in their books that I could get closer to. (p. 92)
“I read that in China, people would transplant large numbers of trees and bring them to the newly developed cities. Chinese people seem to be very adaptable, like their trees. […] Yes, but once the trees grow older, you can’t transplant them again. The roots are too embedded into the ground. (p.205)
“How many times could one restart a life? (p. 206)
My own feeling of being outside languages – perfect terrain for those prone to imposter syndrome.