In March, Chinese-born British author and filmmaker Xiaolu Guo left New York City in a rush. She’d been a visiting professor and writer-in-residence at Columbia University, and, just before the Covid-19 lockdown, she started to get very worried, she explains on a Zoom call from Berlin.
“I thought they were announcing closing borders,” she says. “And I changed my ticket, actually, to leave earlier. I left everything, so the rental flat is still full of clothes. And my office, full of books. Everything’s there”—including some chocolate she remembers leaving on the table. “I thought, Oh I’m just going to be back. Maybe a week or something, you know?”
Months later, home, for Guo, remains in wild, disconcerting flux. In a way, though, she is more prepared than most for the isolating geographical complications of a pandemic. Questions of identity, language, and what makes a home—both internally and externally—are central to the 47-year-old’s impressive body of work, which includes six books written originally in English, seven books originally in Chinese, and 11 films.
Her new novel, A Lover’s Discourse, which will be published by Grove Atlantic in October, returns to familiar topics for the author. It’s an examination of linguistics, love, and the connections between people, often disrupted by country. She began exploring these themes in A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers, the first novel she wrote in her second language of English, which she largely taught herself. (That book was shortlisted for the Orange Prize in 2007 and has been translated into more than 20 languages.)
Both A Lover’s Discourse and A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary were inspired by the work of Roland Barthes, whose 1977 book A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments Guo studied in her 20s while attending the Beijing Film Academy. Dictionary is told from the perspective of a young Chinese woman who moves to London and falls in love with an Englishman as she attempts to learn English. Discourse tackles similar themes, and is composed largely of conversations between a Chinese graduate student (like Guo once was) and an Australian man (Guo’s partner is Australian), who fall in love in Brexit-era London.
“In the book, the Chinese character, she’s a new immigrant,” Guo says. “The man is Anglo-Saxon, widely European.” As a white man in Britain, he naturally fits in, in terms of language and identity, whereas she struggles to find her way as an outsider. Searching for identity and connection, the unnamed narrator of Discourse moves through various roles—immigrant, academic, lover, wife, mother—each of them allowing her to sample a sense of purpose, place, comfort, and belonging, or lack thereof, while giving Guo a chance to explore the nuances of feminism, power, language, and strangely subjective cultural expectations. What her character is truly after is authenticity, Guo says. “The idea of authentic home and the idea of authentic love. Whether you’re married or not. I really think it’s what we miss in modern life.”
The author calls her books “documentary novels,” and notes that she was almost offended when A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers was classified as fiction: “In China, you don’t separate fiction and nonfiction. I’m not used to this idea: ‘Are you a fiction writer? Are you a poet?’ I thought, ‘Oh, but you can’t categorize me.’ ”
But the social reality of categorization—that the groups to whom one belongs, where one belongs, and why can so easily define you—isn’t just a matter of her work. When Guo was a newborn in China, her parents, unable to care for her, gave her to a peasant couple in the mountains to raise. At the age of two, she was given back to her grandparents, who lived in small fishing village. Then, at seven, she rejoined her parents, living on a Communist-era compound. (She chronicles these early life experiences and others in her 2017 memoir, Nine Continents.)
Art helped her survive these disconnections, and she left China in 2002, coming to London on scholarship to the National Film School. She’s since lived in Berlin, Switzerland, Paris, and the U.S. “I’ve been drifting along in all these countries as a short-time resident,” she says. “This is a habit as a person, a nomad, continues to drift and to look for a perfect home. Because I think, once you lose your original home, you just don’t have one.” Even after nearly 20 years in Europe, the author grapples with where she truly belongs: “I became a legalized European, then Brexit happened, and now I am only British. Now, suddenly, I’m a foreigner in Europe.”
At first, upon news of impending lockdown, Guo returned to her flat in East London, which she shares with her partner, a philosophy professor, and their seven-year-old daughter. In June, when travel restrictions were lifted, the family went to Berlin, with hopes of returning to London in a month. (Guo intends to go back to New York City at the end of August to start her new residency at Baruch College.) But the American Embassy where she needs to get her scholar visa has been closed indefinitely, she says. Travel bans between Europe and the U.S. continue. Home is as confusing to her, right now, as it is to her characters.
In A Lover’s Discourse, there’s a scene in which the protagonist and her partner go to get the birth certificate for their child, who, by virtue of being born in London, is English, even though neither of her parents are. The clerk asks if they want an original copy, as well as the original certificate. The narrator is perplexed: How can a copy be original? “The original copy I will produce here is original,” the clerk explains, adding that future copies will be produced elsewhere, and therefore will not be original.
This foregrounds a series of questions Guo continues to ponder throughout the novel: What is original—and does it matter? What is authentic? And how has colonialism influenced our thinking? “Who owns the land originally?” Guo asks. “Before that, who was killed in order to allow that? I think we move around, we just think, Okay, we might not be original now, but we might be original 10 years ago or 10 years after.” Where you’re born is, after all, “a very accidental human consequence,” she says, and is more political than anything. “We could be born in a war zone in Vietnam as American, or French in Burma,” she says. Through the couple in A Lover’s Discourse, Guo presents a countering, modern idea: “We should abandon the idea of traditional land. Adopt a new concept of home and identity.”
Meanwhile, Guo’s own feelings continue to evolve. “In my novel, there’s a strong sentimental value to the new home,” she says, an idea “that the nature, the human geography, should be something close to your original homeland. But nowadays, after a pandemic, you think, ‘Well, it’s not about that sentimentality, it’s about sustainability.’ The idea of home is even more pressing and also may demand to be more local.” At the same time, she finds herself pulled back to New York City, arguably the least familiar of her many homes.
As an artist, Guo posits, perhaps your home is the work you do, and your need to follow your drive to create wherever it takes you. “I try to live as this process of my character going through different languages and different lands,” she says. “It became so obvious: language is a writer’s identity. There’s only one loyalty—to the language I’m writing in now.”
—Sticks and Stones
This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly.