Xialou Guo Discusses Language Barriers

Jaime Gelman, Maroon-News Staff

“My identity really comes out in the West, but I am not a Westerner and I never was,” the charming Xiaolu Guo said during her reading this past Thursday as part of the Living Writers series.

Guo was born in China and grew up in a fishing village with her grandparents. She is both a novelist and a filmmaker and quite prolific in each field. Her third novel, “A Concise-Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers” was nominated for the 2007 Orange Prize for Fiction and has been translated in 26 languages. In 2005, she won the Pearl Award for Creative Excellence in the United Kingdom, and in 2013 was named one of Granta’s Best of Young British Novelists. Her films have won numerous awards at film festivals such as Locarno International Film Festival, Sundance Film Festival and Crétil International Women’s Film Festival.

While at Colgate, Guo read from two novels: “A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers,” which asks how we can converse with each other in different languages, and “I Am China,” which is about two lovers in London who translate the letters and diaries of two exiled lovers in China.

“It’s about how difficult and how remote one culture is to another,” Guo said.

“A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers” is a novel entirely about language.  Zhuang, or “Z” for short, moves to England and struggles to learn the English language and customs. While abroad, she meets a man who puzzles her as much as the language does. The readers can clearly follow Z as she begins to understand the man she is living with, as well as the language and culture in which she has immersed herself.

“The novel is based on the brokenness of the language of the character,” Guo said.

Just like Z, Guo taught herself English when she first moved to England to advance her filmmaking career. At age 41, she keeps realizing that she should go to school to improve her English language abilities, yet she would undoubtedly be ashamed next to younger peers who would be in her English class.

Guo also read from her latest novel, “I Am China.” This novel similarly focuses on language and the barriers that arise when people attempt to communicate across languages and cultures.

“In China, we say if you can talk to the boss then don’t talk to the boss’s secretary,” Guo said, as she read from the book. “And if you can talk to the boss’s wife then no need to talk to the boss.”

Guo discussed how when she writes her novels, she focuses more on the structure and the language than she does on the plot. She explained how her English writing differs from her Chinese writing. Yet, in the end, it’s important for writers to find the style that suits them, and once they do, they should keep writing.

“When I write in English now, really I function much differently,” Guo said.

Towards the end of her talk in Love Auditorium, Guo mentioned the Colgate ACC and her support for those fighting for marginalized groups. In her mind, everyone in the world is an immigrant, and so there should be no need for anyone to discriminate racially against another human being.