Another Kind of Revolution: XiaoLu Guo

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A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers, XiaoLu Guo

It’s no surprise that from the lines of books on the self, this title catches my eye; I’ve been intermittently studying Chinese all my life, and the dictionary is my best friend. But this brilliant cover, and recommendation from Amy Tan (The Joy Luck Club), seals the deal; the past couple of weeks have been hectic, but I manage to squeeze in this novel, giving up entirely on concealing the rather conspicuous cover.

If you’ve ever tried to communicate with someone in another language, learn one or cross-culturally communicate for just a train station’s whereabouts, there is no way this novel can’t speak volumes to you. ‘A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers follows Z, a twenty-something from China, and her studies of English in London from her first person perspective. The narration is dry and witty, and demonstrates perfectly a sense of a ‘foreigner’s’ bewilderment abroad –  but pivotally, expressed in that foreign language.

That is, our language: English. The typeset (pet love, indulge me) of Z’s Times New Roman narration, chapters headed with Arial dictionary references, the referenced handwritten notes, and suddenly baffling Chinese type – then relieving English translation, are not just a clever way of distinguishing levels of English usage and it’s complexities, but also visually illustrating the levels of complexities which Z faces in the physical world of the novel. What am I trying to say? Besides my opinion that font matters, that the novel is not merely limited to narrator’s description, there’s a whole other play of different media forms within the novel that demonstrate the novel’s central theme of communication.

But, the Guo’s choice of a non-native speaker narrating, and the themes it inevitably encounters are not without their challenges for the reader also. Broken English in conversation can be tiring, and in type for some half of the novel it is at times, unfortunately tiring. Not being at liberty to hunker down for a three-hours-straight reading session, stopping and starting the novel at intervals became at times laborious, whereas after a while of getting into it – you begin to embrace the flow of grammatical errors and strange diction that characterises Z’s diary. There are two points to come of this. Firstly, this is not to say that the ‘foreignness’ (is that PC?) of the narrator is ever lost; between constant references to the Chinese homeland, cultural practices and the different-ness (I, like Z, don’t like ‘alienness’) of the philosophies being referred to in English there is an unmistakable core of Eastern knowledge at the writer’s disposal – and it is not wasted nor used wastefully.

Secondly, this kind of second-language is English writing is a fascinating exploration of language difference. Beckett, who chose to write his plays in his second language, French, comes to mind. This may seem paradoxical, as Beckett, in his usual roundabout way, is said to have written in French to “write without style… “, to escape himself, and the poetry of the language, to both draw attention to himself, and weaken his presence (Carrière, 37). Beckett was fluent, Beckett was not writing semi-autobiographical narrative fiction. However, in a converse kind of way, the English here is crucial to the overall effect: the choice to complete the novel as a perseverance of the voice in English is precisely what makes in ‘A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers’ so fascinating; the broken usage of English language, the difficult and direct Chinese-to-English usage, it’s slow move towards native fluency. The English is blunt, with an unassuming poeticism that is as original as it is non-Western-traditional, devoid of self-indulgence or congratulation, capturing a sense of communicational triumph of a non-native tortured by learning conjunctives and nouns that function as verbs.

‘A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers’ is a frank and painful coming-of-age for “an entire generation of anguished Chinese youth”, a generation which Guo champions over and over from her novellas, prose and documentary work (Zhen, 46). It is a work of revolutions, sexual, linguistic, cultural and personal. But I don’t believe it is about the difference between Eastern and Western thinking, practice and lifestyle, as much as it is about the effort and difficulty to understand other cultures – for all parties involved. For me, it resonates a sense of unity; we are guided to empathise with Z and we do, but it isn’t an empathy of her right and his wrong way, it is simply one of their respective pain.

There’s nothing I like more than a novel of originality: where I can’t guess what’s going to happen next. And this is one of them.

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Works Cited

Carrière, Julien F. ‘Samuel Beckett and Bilungualism: How the Return to English Influences the Later Writing Style and Gender Roles of ‘All That Fall’ and ‘Happy Days’. Dissertation. Dec 2005. Online: http://etd.lsu.edu/docs/available/etd-07282005-174600/unrestricted/Carriere_dis.pdf

Guo, Xiaolu. A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers. Vintage: London, 2008. Print.

 Zhen, Zhang. ‘”I’m a Modern Peasant”: Encountering Xiaolu Guo.’. World Literature Today , 82.6 (Winter, 2008): 45-48. University of Oklahoma: Oklahoma. Online: http://www.jstor.org/stable/20621416

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I’m currently reading Bill Bryson’s ‘The Mother Tongue: English and How It Got That Way’. It’s fantastic, and if I can, I’ll update you on it!

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What I’m Reading: Country Childhoods & Cultural Histories

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It seems a bit of an odd shame that for the amount of books I read, let alone the crates stored in old banana boxes under my bed at home, there’s literally nothing to show for it in my books category. By the way of some cheap excuse, for the most part of the year I dread the exhilarating panic of writing essays, speed read through novels to meet the deadline of a seminar, and hunt though endless dusty second hand selves or barter impatiently with other students to grudgingly fork over notes for my reading list; I wonder if becoming an English Lit. student hasn’t somewhat diminished my desire to write about the books I read…

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Still, it would be a certain lie to say that my university years haven’t also made me enjoy reading more (if you’ll excuse the soppy/clichéd/lemming-esque nature of exalting university years). Great tutors, great discussions, great reading lists and historical, cultural and contemporary knowledge – all that jazz. But, I’m no academic (though boy, would it be fun to be that clever), so all I can offer is updates on what I’m reading.

Laurie Lee: Cider with Rosie

Taiwan: A New History, Expanded Edition.
Ed. Murray A. Rubinstein. East Gate, 2007.

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1st Edition Cover

Laurie Lee: Cider with Rosie

Before I started Cider with Rosie, recommended by a friend – and here I feel compelled to say a recent Oxford graduate as if it validates his authority, how depressing – I knew nothing of the Laurie Lee‘s works and had only heard some gleefully recounted flowery quotes of travel writing and countryside incest; an eclectic and bothersomely intriguing sample of Lee’s writing. Not without some coincidence, I needed something word-based to stem the nausea of  a 12hr flight not long after his recommendation, and found myself idly searching online for his autobiographical trilogy, unconvinced (as I wilfully am when it comes to childhood autobiography –  despite adoring J. G. Ballard’s Empire of the Sun, Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home and Adeline Yen Ma’s Chinese Cinderella…) that I would be sucked in by a rendition of childhood in the English countryside. I can be pret-ty stubborn.

But, Queen of Stubbornness though I may be, it was nearly impossible not to be transfixed by Lee’s oscillating chapters spanning his West England country-side upbringing; I said to a friend – first class honours Film graduate, Queen’s Belfast (just to be fair) – only one chapter in to Cider with Rosie, that it was “One of the best first chapters of writing I’ve read in a long time.” Weaving backwards and forward along his own time line, he carves out bundles of childhood stories in a burningly lucid first person retrospective narrative. Although sparse, his colloquial child’s voice that bursts noisily through the dream-like, wordy narrative prose; while there’s heavy use of metaphor and description that sometimes make the prose border on the weighty side, it’s intuitively original and I love it. There’s no sense of flattery of his childhood self (self-raising as we say in our house), and it’s particularly the blunt depiction of childhood roughness – remorselessly investigative – that strike me as great moments in the novel.

Between his reflection of his childhood self, his dabbling descriptions of the town, its folk and festivals, his mother, head of the family unit strikes me as a wonderful mast-head character for the childhood Laurie to ponder, adore and grudgingly follow. I’d love to have a physical copy of the book as here’s where I’d argue about her centrality in the physical copy (Chapter 7 of 13) – backbone of the book – as perhaps indicative of a child’s life, how the book spans around this matriarchal figure and more, however I feel slightly inhibited by my Kindle still, despite it’s undoubted portability. This debate on physicality of digital vs. paper copy aside, Lee’s words paint a wonderful, arresting rather than childishly enchanting, picture of his Gloucestershire life in Cider with Rosie, pulling elements to crystal clarity in the foreground and hinting backdrops to our own imagination.

As I type Cider with Rosie, I keep coming out with the odd Cider with Laurie; it’s somewhat self-indulgently fitting to close my review this way – the book as a sweating, cider pint pub-listener to the 1959 Laurie Lee as I imagine him, chequer-scarfed, heavy coated and with, of course, a writer’s flickering spectacles. It’s a distinctive, clever and strongly characterised voice which reads quietly to me from those pages. And what a truly excellent read it is.

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Taiwan: A New History

Taiwan: A New History, Expanded Edition. Ed. Murray A. Rubinstein. East Gate, 2007

I’ve ambitiously taken this stonker of a history out of my university library several times without being able to conquer my course reading list in time to read it. However this summer, I contrived a cunning plan by which it has now been bought to ‘intellectually enrich’ my family’s knowledge of their own cultural heritage; it hasn’t left my room yet (thanks Dad!). Now that it’s the summer, I finally have time to read all those books I’ve been wanting to read for a while, and there’s quite a hefty list piled up – unfortunately, the problem is usually acquiring them, fortunately, my friends bought me a Kindle for my 21st and between that and Project Gutenburg, my library of books has exponentially and digitally expanded beyond the banana box confines of my make-shift shelves.

As July came to an end, I began this tome of Taiwanese history, and for a fact book (lol) I’m totally hooked. Now it’s hard to tell whether I can say other people will also be interested in this collection of essays discussing Taiwan’s cultural, political and religious history from the original aboriginal tribes and settling of the 17th century Han Chinese, through Taiwan’s extensive foreign domination and political strife ending with (I’m eagerly awaiting) a critical view of the first elective presidents Lee Teng-Hui and Chen Shui Bian as a culmination of Taiwan’s troubled democratization. However, the typeset and text is accessible, with little heavy reading without topic headlines, tables, maps and illustrations giving some light relief and extensive endnotes for (and hey, don’t knock the importance of layout); Chinese is clearly demarcated in, albeit now slightly worn, pin ying – but who can keep up with the constant changes in romanized pronunciation guides these days, for note-worthy terms and phrases of particular use to the bilingual reader.

I’m not far through enough to give you a conclusion, but stay tuned and I’ll keep you updated!

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Next Week:

As a Taiwanese-Northern Irish mix myself, one of my favourite, and narrowly defined, genres of books to read are  translated Asian bestsellers and those of second generations Chinese, ABCs and BBCs to those in the know (American Born Chinese, and British Born Chinese to those interested!). This week, I’m putting aside As I Walked Out One Morning, Laurie Lee’s autobiographical sequel to Cider with Rosie, for a book proudly proclaimed as shortlisted for Orange Broadband Prize for Fiction ’07:

A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers. XiaoLu Guo.

See y’all soon!

Happy reading.

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China: Backpacking Begins

Going Solo

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Endless trains.

I read Iris Murdoch’s ‘The Sea, The Sea’ and ‘Ender’s Game’ by Orson Scott Card.

I sleep. Alot.

It’s the first terrifying experience of backpacking alone, and as I’m left at the train station, I’m not filled with fear, but a burning shot of adrenaline alertness; a fend for yourself alertness. As I make my way through Beijing Main Station’s steel barriers, I enter a sea of dark-haired heads and become indistinguishable from the crowd. Beijing travelling is hot and sticky and distinctly not modern, and I battle with language barriers and reading barriers to make my platform.

It feels dangerous on the dark platform, rushing towards my cheap L-class, student-cheap train, but the train itself has the light, vaugely clean feel that attempts something clinical for the fifteen something hours six strangers are about to spend in around three meters squared of space.

Being alone, I feel at once reassured and threatened by their presence. Too shy to approach them, wary of being caught in a life-story trap, I curl up with my rucksack at my feet and settle into a long journey interrupted only by the rattle of the untouched food trolley and the occasional jarring-chug into not-my-station.

 

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Taiwan: Eslite Book Haven

誠品 Eslite

2nd Floor: Bookstore

Having a wee read between the aslies of Eslite, the haven of book-lovers. A book and one square meter of floor space. Utter contentment.

I’ve written before about the merits of Taipei bookstores, but this afternoon in Eslite Bookstore really takes the biscuit (if only they did custard creams here…). Ethics of reading books without buying them aside – I’m a poor student, forgive me – there’s nothing like being able to open books of the English Classics section and read it with pleasurable medical attention to not creasing pages, and certainly no shudder-inducing corner folding. Seats all taken, I sat cross legged at the end of a aisle on the cool tile floor, back to the stall of books, and surrounded on either side with similar book lovers – every end of aisle was taken.

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3rd Floor: Record Store

After my legs grew numb and Dante’s grew sick of his poetic Inferno being played out by the brilliant graphic novel illustrations by Dustin Weaver in Jodie Picoult’s Fifth Circle – which, by the way, is an incredible read and great introduction to graphic novel if you’ve never done them before – I headed up to check out the Music section upstairs. Not having the biggest affinity for either CD or vinyl (I’m more of a itunes download and listener than a format connoisseur) I’ve brought a few photo highlights for your amusement…

Highlights:

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Ooooo… alphabetised!

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Oooo… well-stocked!!

(Spot the band from little old Bangor, Northern Ireland, anyone?)

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Oh.

Well, that’s just weird.

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Taiwan: Book Cravings

Before leaving home, I stubbornly decided that I could survive three months in Asia without books.

Who was I kidding? In the first week I’ve accidentally read the whole of Ibsen’s ‘A Doll’s House’ in Kinokuniya… They provide seats, and apparently, its perfectly acceptable in Taiwan to snuggle down and read in a bookstore – but it rubs decidedly against the western ideal that “This is a book store, not a library.” Which I’ve been told on several occasions by disgruntled managers (grumble grumble, stingy s0-and-sos…). On returning to my accommodation, I tore apart the molty downstairs library in search of something to read. As it turns out, this is the only non-cheap-paperback-sci-fi novel in the whole of the library in English.

WHO has been stocking it? WHO??

Ayn Rand’s ‘Atlas Shrugged’

At least this might last me a month… Yummy.

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