International interest in China's contemporary visual arts has hit exuberant heights, which makes the relative international ignorance of contemporary Chinese literature more conspicuous. Contemporary Chinese writing remains woefully undertranslated in English. Expectations for a translation boom, created when émigré Chinese writer Gao Xingjian won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2000, remain unfulfilled. So what is an ambitious Chinese writer who desires to reach an international audience to do? The 35-year-old Xiaolu Guo has taken matters into her own hands by writing in English. As a novelist who is equally at home as a filmmaker, and a nomad who splits her time between Beijing, London and Paris, Guo underscores her gutsy insistence that the value of a story isn't contained within geographic, linguistic or literary borders by perpetually crossing them.
Her latest novel available in English, Twenty Fragments of a Ravenous Youth, is a wry coming-of-age account of a young woman's struggle to carve out a place for herself in the wider world. Set in contemporary Beijing, it peeks into the mind of Fenfang, a plucky dreamer who left her provincial sweet-potato-farming village in south China for the distant capital at the age of 17. Her youth, she tells us in the novel's first lines, began several years and odd jobs after that, when she finally succeeded in parting from her "peasant" mentality and realizing that some of the modern, shiny things in life "might possibly be for me."
The story is semiautobiographical. Guo grew up in a small village on an island off south China's coast, and went to Beijing at around the same age as her character Fenfang. She churned out novels to support herself while in film school. In 2002, she left Beijing for London, where she continued her film studies and began writing A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers, a humorous novel about her struggles with the English language and a British paramour. An expired visa forced her to return to Beijing, where she put the novel on hold and made Concrete Revolution, a documentary about how the capital's ruthless physical transformation has affected residents and the rural laborers building it.
Twenty Fragments of a Ravenous Youth is about a different kind of Beijing newcomer, but is just as clear-eyed and compassionate in the telling. Fenfang hates the hushed anonymity of the countryside, where "people lived like insects, like worms, like slugs hanging on the back door of the house." She arrives in Beijing naive and thrilled, wanting to "rub up against" the bright city night. A job at the Young Pioneers Cinema sweeping up after moviegoers leads to a chance encounter with an assistant director who encourages her to work as a film extra. She is fully aware by this time that boorishness isn't limited to the countryside, and is sarcastic about the setbacks she has suffered since arriving in Beijing. Nonetheless, when opportunities come calling, she is nothing but youthful gratitude: "I gave him my ID number, my Young Pioneers Cinema number, my mobile phone number, my home number and my next-door neighbor's phone number." Guo's tender portrayal of one of youth's abiding contradictions its simultaneous scorn and passionate appetite for the world is one of the novel's pleasures. Apart from Fenfang's genuine love of food, this is what the ravenousness of the title is about.
She does get work as an extra in a series of movies and TV shows, but the bit parts lead nowhere, so she begins to write screenplays of her own. One of them, nestled like a matryoshka doll into the novel itself, is about an ignorant but good-hearted rural immigrant to Beijing who works as a street vendor. The structure of the novel itself resembles a screenplay, told in highly visual prose broken into a series of short chapters. The Beijing Olympics brought viewers images of the city's monumental new architecture. But Guo gives us the insider vantage the cramped one-room apartments, the cockroaches.
This is a short, spry, slangy novel, but it speaks about the conundrums of identity and individuality with gestures that remain long in the mind. The germ for the story emerged from Guo's first book, published in China when she was just 19. Guo reworked that in English, with the aid of a translation by Rebecca Morris and Pamela Casey. Now she has written in English again. Chinese critics may moan, as they have over Ha Jin, about linguistic "betrayal." Let them. Literature is about a place beyond the provincial, and wherever writers like Guo and Ha Jin go, that's where they take us.