Here at the ILB to speak about her recently published memoir, Once Upon a Time in the East, British-Chinese author and filmmaker Xiaolu Guo was already one of our Author Spotlights. We caught up with internationally renowned author after the reading for a one-on-one about language, filmmaking and the International Congress for Democracy at the ILB this weekend.
You already told us that writing helps you form a “better language to live in.” What does that mean? Is language like a physical space for you?
Language is like a big city that we choose to live in. You adopt this city’s language because you decide that it will be your real home, rather than your first home. In my case, I grew up with Chinese languages, but I chose to live in Europe. The current language for me, then, is English, and I want to use that to write, rather than recount. If I write in Chinese, I’m recounting the past, in a way. I wrote eight books in Chinese, but now I choose to write in English.
You’ve described yourself as an “urban Zen Buddhist.” How does the “urban” play into Buddhism for you?
I really think that urban space is how we, as humans, will survive together. There isn’t really any nature left, so we can’t “return to nature.” I think it’s better for us to build livable, harmonic urban spaces. You can still be a Zen Buddhist in New York or London – you can maintain inner peace within a large city. I don’t want a completely isolated life.
You’re a filmmaker as well as a writer, and you’ve directed some adaptations of your own writings, like UFO in Her Eyes. How does the role of filmmaker compare to that of writer for you?
Writing always seemed very natural to me – I started writing very young – but I love the immediate energy of filmmaking. You’re always with people. I’ve made 12 films, usually combining documentary and fiction elements, and I never make studio films, so I’m out in the real world. All my scenes are in messy streets in China, or in poor areas of London, with real people. This reality gives me a power that I don’t have when I’m writing alone in my kitchen. It pulls me back to the world. And whenever I get frustrated with my filmmaking, I go back to my writing. My books are more inner monologue-based, and my films are born from real places – the problems in East London, or in small Chinese villages. I wrote my memoir while I was in production for a film. They’re radically different worlds.
And before coming to England, you weren’t allowed to make movies in China because your movies were too “depressing.”
The film censorship is much tighter in China than the book censorship because far fewer films are produced. If you’re a filmmaker in China, either you work for the Communist party or you make some kind of commercial film that has an upbeat spirit. I don’t make those kinds of films – I make very personal films, with truthful, emotional moments like melancholy, depression, rebellion.
You were on the “Focus China” panel during the International Congress for Democracy on Sunday. Do you think China is moving towards democracy?
I think so, although the country may have to pay a huge price to achieve that. If you look at Chinese history – the Cultural Revolution, Communism – there’s always revolution in China. But China has worked extremely hard to achieve material dignity, and the next step is spiritual dignity. I don’t know when, but it has to be.