Source: The Guardian (10/13/16)
Xiaolu Guo: ‘One language is not enough – I write in both Chinese and English’
The Chinese-British novelist on the hidden language of dreams, living in London and Berlin, and writing in her third language
By Xialu Guo
My writing day starts in the night, with midnight or early morning dreams. When I wake up in my east London flat, I ponder on them while making coffee. In one recurrent dream, my dead Chinese grandmother speaks in my hometown dialect to my western boyfriend, and my western boyfriend responds to her in his language. Both seem to understand each other perfectly without a translator. I must have been using a hidden language to narrate the dream – neither Chinese nor English. It is a dreaming language. I desperately want to capture it, and write in it.
Since I left China 14 years ago, my everyday writing life seems to be a battle between the language I think in and the language I write in. Sometimes, before my pen touches paper, none of my languages – Mandarin, English, Zhejiang dialect – come out; my hand freezes and I stare at my notebook or a scene in the street, my thoughts lost in translation. I cannot write – even though I’ve written several books in Chinese, and a few more in English; and I still feel there’s so much in me screaming to be heard. But something is deeply suppressed. My tongue is tied. I cannot express my thoughts with only one language. So I translate. I use one word to find another word. I try to write a transcript which is in both Chinese and English, a text that is alive and true for both cultures I am living in.
It has been like this for a while now. For the last decade I have led a life of an artist-in-residence in Europe. I’ve lived in France, Germany, Switzerland and Britain, although London and Beijing have been my main bases. When I lived in Paris, I was writing a Chinese novel – UFO in Her Eyes – in English while studying French. In Zurich, I worked on my memoir in English, largely set in China, and conversed with myself in a mix of Chinese, English and German. In those foreign cities, I woke up with confused dreams. I noted them down until I realised the linguistic disunity in my narrative. Then my pen froze again. My languages alienate me. They don’t make me feel at home. They tell me I live in the wrong place. They make me stateless. That’s the nature of my writing life.
This morning I take my daughter to nursery. I’m aware that tomorrow we’ll be in Berlin and I need to print the boarding passes today. After China abandoned me (or did I abandon China?), I decided that I would be based in London, but Berlin would be my second home – so as to keep touch with the continent. Each time I return to Berlin, I try to write English novels, while studying some German. But, today, my mind is in Beijing – a city I lived in for a decade before coming to London.
After leaving the nursery, I print out our boarding passes, and go to a bookshop where I buy a well-known Chinese sci-fi novel in an English edition, The Three-Body Problem. How fitting! It sums up my state. I will be interviewing the Chinese sci-fi author Cixin Liu – I’ll converse with him in Chinese and then translate our words into English for the audience. I must prepare the interview this week in Berlin. Returning to my flat. I cook some Sichuan-style stir-fry, and plan the rest of my day – mainly writing and reading, and stretching my limited vocabularies.
Wittgenstein’s famous line stays with me: “The limits of my language are the limits of my world.” Words fail me all the time, whether in Chinese or in English. But I still churn my words out in a foreign world, in a language that I hope will become mine.
Since I began to write in English in 2003, I’ve been living in multiple spaces, each with its own language. The fact that I now write in my third tongue makes my writing days even more difficult.
This evening as I pack my luggage, I stand before my shelf thinking: should I bring Mishima to Berlin or keep his books in London? What about Laozi? Or Bolaño? Or Joyce? I need them by my bedside, even though I don’t read them very often. Without them, I feel I’ve lost my glasses. Everything blurs. In this perpetual living abroad, I need to locate myself through these authors, through their particular ways of using language, ways of dreaming.
The dream language exists beyond verbal languages. But it’s my real native language. I want to understand the dream in which my dead grandma converses with my western boyfriend. One day I’ll fathom it; that mysterious language will eventually belong to me.
• Xiaolu Guo’s UFO in Her Eyes is published by Vintage. She will be in conversation with Cixin Liu at the London Literature festival, Southbank Centre, London SE1, on 15 October. southbankcentre.co.uk