I actually finished this novel at the end of last year, so quite a long while ago. Back then, this book blog did not exist yet and I also didn’t take down notes for a review like I do now. But I recently came across a video of a talk the author gave and hearing her speak about her work and the politics and history of her country made me want to write a belated review of the novel I am China. I have thought about it often since I have finished it and Xiaolu Guo also introduced me to other great authors like Eileen Chang.
The novel is set both in China and in the West (England and USA). The young translator Iona is asked to translate the love letters and diary extracts of a young Chinese couple. The rebellious and political punk musician Jian and his girlfriend Mu, the poet, have exchanged letters for over 20 years. The letters depict tumultuous times, both for the couple and the country they come from. But now Jian is being held in an asylum centre:
“Dearest Mu, The sun is piercing, old bastard sky. I am feeling empty and bare. Nothing is in my soul, apart from the image of you. I am writing to you from a place I cannot tell you about yet…”
Xiaolu Guo shows snapshots of the Jasmine revolution, the Chinese punk scene, police riots and the realities of being exiled. While Jian is being held in a detention centre in Dover and Mu travels further and further away from him, both in pursuit of her own creative and political identity, Iona has only little time left to reunite the two lovers.
The style of the book is very creative. Diary entries, letters and flash backs are woven together to create a very personal story of the three main characters. Through telling the story this way, Guo is able to not only show where the different characters are coming from but also how they react to each other’s realities. When Iona the translator is confronted with Jian’s experiences of being held as an asylum seeker in Dover, she subsequently questions her own life and her experiences:
“If you spend enough time reading someone else’s thoughts, after a while their thoughts infect you. You grasp on yourself becomes tenuous. Or you begin to see that you never were the essential you in the first place […]”
The issues that this novel deals with are oftentimes very bleak. Political exile, coming to terms with your identity and how this is connected to your nationality, revolution and responsibility are just some of the things these characters have to deal with.
“Revolution happens when the water in which the citizens swim is frozen. The ice breaks and shatters and the fish are cast out onto the dry land, gasping for air.”
Guo herself has made quite a few of the experiences that the characters go through in the novel. She moved to England and was also confronted with having visa issues. Jian’s time in England therefore seems all the more real.
Guo also has had to come to terms with a new language, one in which she would start writing and by doing so redefine herself as a writer. The characters in her book reflect her struggle with political, national and artistic identity. They are stand-ins for different points on a spectrum. Where Jian wants to stay and fight and change the society that he grew up in, Mu is looking for a universal truth and therefore something bigger than the political struggle she encounters. Both are valid points but only one will turn out to be the slightly easier to endure.
Another interesting aspect was the entanglement of beat poetry, punk music and Chinese culture and history. Guo manages to tell a heart breaking love story, give insight into Chinese history and question an artist’s role in shaping politics:
“Now the artist must deal with politics. That’s why art is always a political thing. […] Art is the politics of perpetual revolution. Art is the purest revolution, and so the purest political form there is.”
The novel definitely touched me on many levels and even after all this time, I still think about it from time to time. Sometimes a novel doesn’t let you go that easily.