Chinese author Xiaolu Guo tells Nina Caplan about her trip to Cambodia with kids’ charity Plan, as part of its campaign for girls’ rights
Xiaolu Guo, the Chinese filmmaker and writer best known for A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers, was one of seven authors invited by children’s rights charity Plan to visit a developing country and write fiction inspired by her travels, now collected as the anthology Because I Am a Girl.
How did you choose where to go? Originally I wanted to go to Africa, but in the end I was drawn to the rough, raw and earthy landscape and the people of Cambodia. Also, when I looked at their society, it felt familiar to me. For the uneducated social class, Cambodia’s Communist revolution was very similar to China’s. Plus I wanted to dig a little deeper into the Khmer Rouge history [the name given to followers of the Communist totalitarian ruling party in Cambodia from 1975 to 1979], because I cannot really write about the Chinese Cultural Revolution for some reason.
You write of the Cambodians that ‘every heart was dead many times over’. What do you mean by that? That is a metaphor about the death of belief; about losing hope in values such as love, trust, compassion. Countries such as Cambodia, China and Vietnam have such a tragic recent past – brutal civil war, utter poverty and foreign invasion – and some of them have not managed to transform their agrarian culture into a culture of industry, unlike the West. These factors screwed up the gentleness of the heart and destroyed the bright side of the mind. I wrote a short story, ‘An Internet Baby’, about two young, poor Chinese lovers forced to sell their newborn baby on the internet. That sort of desperation is like the death of the heart.
Plan is vociferous about the importance of investing in girls, but your story isn’t about that. I didn’t want to write a propaganda piece about girls. After all, I’m not a politician or a journalist who needs to state the facts. I needed to write a good story drawn from my own understanding of the world. For me, the deep sorrow of loss is the essential feeling in my Cambodian story. The father lost his daughter, and that is a continuation of his loss of belief during the Khmer Rouge time, and his loss of dignity as a man through the utter poverty and hardship of his life. The loss of the little girl stands for an almost generic phenomenon in some third world countries with brutal political pasts.
Are these characters based on people you met? It is a real case [of a child going missing] that happened in Cambodia some years ago. I read about it, but my inspiration came from my visit: the jungles without trees, places without prospects.
What was your most useful encounter in Cambodia? I would say it was with the landscape: the earth, the water, the rotten jungles. Human emotion is the same anywhere in the world.
You write that ‘one could forget anything’ – would you say that Cambodia’s style of forgetting the Khmer Rouge is similar to China’s with the Cultural Revolution? The pain of the past can lead to despair, so I think sometimes people spend all their life trying to distract themselves from the great shadow of that pain. Another factor is the public fear of politics, so in China if you asked people about the Cultural Revolution, they wouldn’t want to answer. It is painful to digest the past, so we pretend that we have forgotten.
What should a concerned reader of these stories do? Readers have their own freedom. Literature is not a classroom with walls, but an entirely personal engagement between a book and a reader. Because I Am a Girl is published by Vintage. Proceeds go to Plan. For more details on Plan’s initiatives, visit www.plan-international.org