Interview: Xiaolu Guo on the universal human narrative and creating a hybrid voice

February 17, 2020

Xiaolu Guo is a British/Chinese novelist, essayist, and filmmaker. She currently holds a position as Writer-In-Residence at the Weatherhead East Asian Institute and is an adjunct associate professor at Columbia University. Her work includes the novels A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers (Orange Prize for Fiction Shortlist), and I Am China (a 2014 NPR Best Book), the memoir Nine Continents, as well as the feature films How Is Your Fish Today and UFO In Her Eyes and documentaries We Went to Wonderland and Five Men and A Caravaggio.

Guo, who has written and published books both in Chinese and English, has earned praise for her bold representation of cultural and linguistic identity in her stories, creating characters with unique voices characterized by “a sort of brokenness.” Guo says that she initially self-translated when she began writing in English, but has since worked to create a “hybrid voice” that stands on its own. Language, she says, is simply one of writers’ many tools; underlying her work is something more universal — a psychic language that runs deeper than culture or linguistic skill, and shared emotional experiences.

“There’s another sort of language which goes beyond a specific linguistic background, that underneath is just a universal narrative, [that has] to do with human stories or our emotional experience in the world—whether you are a native [speaker of a language] or not,” Guo says. “Home for me is peace. It means a state of mind in which I don’t need to go anywhere. It’s where I go when I try to reconcile myself with my past in writing a novel or a film.”

WEAI sat down with Guo to discuss her approach to storytelling, to self-translating and her thoughts on formal translations of her work, as well as where to find “home” in this globalized world.