“This is generalised vocabulary for all women […] I could not find a lexicon for myself”, said author Xiaolu Guo during an event at the British Library in London about her new memoir Radical: A Life of My Own. As part of a special Chinese British exhibition at the venue, the novelist was invited to talk about her new book with writer and translator Lauren Elkin.
The Chinese-born British novelist published six books before moving to the UK in 2002. In 2013 she was named as one of Granta’s Best Young British Novelists. She is known for her many accolades including being shortlisted for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize for her book Village of Stone. Soon after, A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers was shortlisted for the Orange Prize.
Her memoir Once Upon a Time in the East won the National Book Critics Circle Award, was shortlisted for the Costa Biography Award and the Rathbones Folio Prize 2018. It was a Sunday Times Book of the Year.
What did Xiaolu Guo say about her new memoir Radical?
Speaking to Elkin, she mentioned the time she had met a homeless man on the street while living abroad in the US. The man became her friend over their shared love of the existential Walt Whitman. Her memoir showcases this time in her life, specifically her year-long stay in New York City as a visiting professor. The book explores themes of identity, belonging, and the creative process. Guo writes about her experiences as an outsider in a new culture, her struggles to find her place in the world, and her efforts to create a life of her own.
The first part of the book, “The Dictionary,” is a collection of essays and reflections on language, culture, and identity. Guo writes about the ways in which language shapes our understanding of the world. Consequently she talks about how it can be used to both connect and divide us. She also explores her own experiences, and how she has used language to find her place in the world.
“The Story” side of her book is a more traditional memoir. Guo writes about her year in New York. This includes her experiences as a visiting professor, and her relationships with her students, colleagues, and lovers. She also writes about her struggles to find her place in the world. Not to mention her efforts to create a life of her own.
She spoke of a story about a crab in her book, and the shedding of layers to build a new home. As well as being in vulnerable state, reflecting the author’s own changes when moving abroad. She equates this to women’s freedom: “When I thought of women’s freedom, then I thought of children, family, possessions. I thought of the physicality of female bodies under the judgements of society.”
Radical is a powerful and moving memoir about the search for identity and belonging. Overall, Guo’s writing is important in highlighting the creative process and the power of language.