On labors of love and language learning: Xiaolu Guo rewriting the monolingual family romance.
Translingual writers creating in more than one literary language have long been writing against the monolingual paradigm, showing the need for other metaphors to describe the connection between writers and their languages. Their putative matricidal attempts originated often in the need to evade the matrix of national cultures' oppressive monolingualism or gender norms. In a postcolonial context, this gave rise to the vocabulary of appropriation or abrogation (Ashcroft, 1989), cannibalism (Fernandez Retamar, 1971) or theft (Ramazani, 2001). John Skinner's The Stepmother Tongue: an Introduction to New Anglophone Fiction (1998) suggested "stepmother tongue" in an effort to find a term to classify Anglophone fiction composed in a language imposed by the unequal power structures of colonialism. The compulsory language of the colonizer, contrasted with the local 'mother tongue,' inhabits here the archetype of a stepmother. Critics have since turned to this somewhat playful metaphor to refer to writing in a non-native language in contexts other than postcolonial, which because of the increased mobility of people in the age of globalization has become also common in immigrant and diasporic literatures. Josip Novakovich employs "stepmother tongue" in his introduction to a collection of stories by non-native English speakers writing in the United States.
"Writing the Stepmother Tongue" returned as an umbrella term for translingual creativity in the recent symposium on Translingual Writing organized by Kellman, Natasha Lvovich, and Ilan Stavans at Amherst University in October 2015. During the proceedings, translingual writers assembled in the opening panel of the symposium interrogated the governing metaphor as they proposed that the dynamics of language acquisition as often include lovers as ancestors. Ilan Stavans suggested that his wife was the giver and listener of the language: "many of us are married to non-our-first-language speakers" and "the true translators, the true transfer ticket holders are those partners." Sergio Weissman followed with a comment about the "intimate informant," and Gustavo Perez-Firmat admitted that the only two people he ever collaborated with and allowed to edit his work were his wife and a best friend. What these statements point to is that the second language chosen for translingual writing--especially outside the postcolonial context--allows for more voluntary affections: it is not so much a "stepmother's tongue" as a lover's tongue. Significantly, this metaphor allows for an affective relationship to go beyond the presumed closeness with a unique mother. Even if the use of "stepmother" already dismantles some of the artificial proximity between language and its nativist connection to identity, it still places the metaphor within a family romance. Unlike mothers and stepmothers, lovers and friends are chosen. Unlike mothers, lovers are not tied to the speaker with the same tense knot of unique, inborn emotions that Yildiz has identified as the core of "monolingual ideology."
To show how one translingual writer engages in a rewriting of the monolingual linguistic family romance in the era of globalization, I focus on Xiaolu Guo's A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers (2007; hereafter, Dictionary for Lovers), which in its form of a learner's English challenges the unique affective investment in the mother tongue. Written in a language that is being learned, which improves and transforms throughout its fictional diary pages, the novel describes and enacts the labor of love that language learning always connotes. It narrates the story of Zhuang Xiao Qiao, pruned down to her initial as "Unpronounceable Ms. Z." (14), a twenty-three-year-old Chinese woman who falls in love with an eccentric Englishman almost twice her age during her yearlong stay in London as a student of English. As their intercultural relationship develops, so does her language. The transitional interlanguage of a self-consciously translingual text that bows to English without abandoning Mandarin shows the possibility of literary creativity at the cusp of languages.
Outspoken in interviews about the political underpinnings of her creativity, Xiaolu Guo provides insightful commentary on how her novel's languages are entangled with national ideologies. Aware of the artificial foundations of the monolingual paradigm, imposed by the post-Mao slogan-based language of contemporary Chinese literature, the author talks about her own linguistic formation as a motherless mix of dialects ("China in Britain"). Her mother away traveling with a dance troupe and her father at a reeducation camp, she grew up speaking her illiterate Fujian grandparents' dialect. When she began writing in the Mandarin Chinese of her education--she had published six books in Mandarin Chinese, amongst them two novels, before moving to London in 2002--she was already working in a non-native idiom, the sensibility of which she found alienating ("China in Britain"). If one can talk of a stepmother tongue in this author's case, then it is Mandarin rather than English. Also in Dictionary for Lovers, the unnamed dialect, the mother tongue of the peasant protagonist, disappears almost entirely, making room for the stepmother tongue of Mandarin and the beloved, lover's tongue of English.
Using Pascale Casanova's insights into the unequal linguistic exchanges both in translation and the literary world of The World Republic of Letters, I argue that as it presents a writer's alienation from either stepmother's or lover's tongue in literary endeavor, Dictionary for Lovers investigates and destabilizes both affective relationships in order to put in relief the asymmetry of exchanges at their basis. Casanova has contended that despite being often theorized as "horizontal exchange and peaceful transfer... translation must be understood, on the contrary, as an 'unequal exchange' that takes place in a strongly hierarchized universe. Translation can therefore be described as one of the specific forms that the relationship of domination assumes in the international literary field" (288). She abandons the postcolonial vocabulary of center and periphery, replacing it with the relationship of power and domination. This added nuance allows her to speak about the fluidity of dominated vs. dominating categories and their fluctuating importance dependent on consecration through translation into a dominating language. More often books originating in dominating languages are translated into dominated ones, not the other way round; but also the very dominant status of a given literature resides in the number of writers who contribute to it as translingual writers who "translate themselves." Xiaolu Guo's decision to harness the very process of a character's self-translation as the focus of her first novel in English creates an experimental text that stages the inequity between her character's slowly improving English and a perception of her unwritten dialect and official Mandarin Chinese as equally oppressive, between the linguistic and geographic locations of the transnational lovers, the hegemony of global English and the imposition of Mandarin Chinese as the language of her education, between Western capitalism and Chinese communism.
Even though Dictionary for Lovers is written in what Sara Ahmed saw as "rotten"--and thus usually unwritten--English, the language that it represents is precisely the kind of language that ESL students have written down again and again while learning foreign languages, in their notebooks, in their assigned essays, in their dictations. Linguistic caiques jostle here with malapropisms; misinterpretations follow on mishearings; mispronunciations signal the work required to influence the plasticity of a speaker's larynx. While the English of the novel remains always comprehensible, it never achieves perfection, and thus remains more poetic and opaque in its learner's simplicity. In terms of genre, the novel is both a travel diary and a dictionary because the main character notes down new words together with the experiences that led to her learning them; hence a novel that calls itself a dictionary. While the storyline might sound misleadingly simple, the epigraph to the novel--"Sorry of my English"--prepares the reader for the particularity of the literary language in which the novel communicates the difficulties the narrator encounters both as an ESL student and a lover in a foreign language.
What I find more unusual is not that this novel was written down at all but that a text so experimental was published by major publishers both in the original and in various translations, in a very attractive, commercial packaging that seduced the reader with a promise of plaisir du texte. That it also received such major recognition as being shortlisted for the Orange Fiction Prize may suggest a gradual loosening of the monolingual paradigm, a process which Yildiz dates back to the 1990s. The post-Cold War reorientation of global dynamics led to accelerated processes of globalization and thus more efforts to question the monolingualism of nations and literary canons. In 1997 Werner Sollors called for a multilingual turn in American Studies, inviting scholars to notice the abundant literature written (monolingually) in the US in languages other than English. Issues of linguistic inclusiveness stand now at the center of multiculturalism and nationalism debates and have spawned a body of work by authors such as--to name a few in this burgeoning field--Emily Apter, Brian Lennon, Azade Seyhan, Sherry Simon, Doris Sommer, and Juliana Spahr, who examine bilingualism and translation in the climate of global English. Though these studies reveal the prevalence of bilingual and multilingual situations around the world, the monolingual paradigm and its attendant metaphorics of affect and kinship still stand strong.
The novel's language and form could have prevented a first-time novelist from entering a foreign literary market, which has habituated readers to smooth, edited translingual writing, which with its fluency obscures the very labor of language learning that leads to such self-translated books. Dictionary For Lovers, Xiaolu Guo's first novel in English, acted as a passport into the literary culture of translingual Anglophone writing--a passport only begrudgingly given, as the experimental language provoked obvious pushback from some reviewers: William MacNamara in the Financial Times headline marveled that "Broken English [is] no bar to Orange prize Literary Award," and Jonathan Mirsky in the Spectator paternalistically looked "forward to her next novel, written in grown-up English" (n.p.). Others, however, notably Ursula K. Le Guin writing for the Guardian, commanded the novel for its "ingenious and risky" narrative device of language learning, and for its "politically acute" psychology. The novelist herself was aware that she could "only play this game once" (qtd. in O'Connell, n.p.) and all her later English-language novels eschewed the experimental language and form of her first. Since 2007 Xiaolu Guo has collaboratively self-translated her earlier work from Mandarin, 20 Fragments of A Ravenous Youth (published in English in 2008 on the tails of the success of Dictionary for Lovers), UFO in Her Eyes (2011), and / Am China (2014), all couched in a significantly less experimental language and form than her first. Only Dictionary for Lovers was the product of an ESL--rather than fully translingual--writer who was not afraid to show how difficult the practice of self-translation can be.
Dictionary for Lovers has garnered significant scholarly response focused on the novel's daring grappling with language and identity formation. Fiona J. Doloughan, for example, notes the "tour de force" quality of the opening pages of the novel, which necessitated a long process of editing to make the language consistent in its experimental stylistics well after Xiaolu Guo herself arrived in England. Doloughan reads the comparisons between Chinese and English cultures and languages as in keeping with Bhabha's notion of "the performativity of translation in the staging of cultural difference" (qtd. in Doloughan 112). Similarly, Rachael Gilmour describes Xiaolu Guo's novel as an example of "translational writing" because it "foreground[s] and dramatize[s] the processes of translation of which [it is] both product and representation" (207). Ulla Rahbek probes the ways in which the novel represents cultural conventions of language as influencing identity. Eunju Hwang focuses on the impossibility of intercultural communication that the novel posits. Angelia Poon shows how the novel interrogates the oft-postulated fluidity of globalization when it meets the materiality of the body. While I draw on these earlier scholarly engagements with the text, my goal is to untangle the protagonist's affective relationships to languages as dominated by globalized asymmetries of linguistic power.
A useful insight into Xiaolu Guo's early conceptualization of the affective relationships in the book comes from two of her interviews. While in the 2007 NPR interview she suggests that it was her ambition to write a "storytelling narrative book" with "two solid characters," which suggests rewriting the family romance in the form of a generic heterosexual romance, later, in a 2012 interview with Harriet Evans, she reveals that her original draft focused on the learner's love affair with language, which provides another reconceptualization of the linguistic family romance that proposes instead an affective relationship with language itself. In the latter interview, Xiaolu Guo compares her first draft of Dictionary for Lovers to Roland Barthes's A Lover's Discourse: Fragments. In this form, the draft waited for two years in her agent's drawer because the lack of plot precluded its publication. Only when she transformed the love affair with language into one between two people could the book be published as a novel ("China in Britain").
To introduce the idea of a transcultural romance as a possible metaphorical replacement for the family romance of the monolingual paradigm comes with its own obvious pitfalls. For one, in the interview with Evans, the author herself admits she felt uncomfortable translating the affair with language into an affair of a young Chinese woman with an older white man because of the colonial, Orientalizing fantasy of Asian women, and their concomitant dehumanization by exoticizing stereotypes. Thus, Xiaolu Guo wrote the male character subversively: nameless, homosexual turned bisexual, marginal sculptor employed at odd jobs; in her personal dictionary Z chooses the word "drifter" to describe him (74). Poon additionally notes that his "vegetarianism, and his love of plants are a defiance of the traditional Chinese gender norms she grew up with" (6). The novelist cautiously avoided ascribing him power in the overarching narratives of his own culture, yet she kept the metaphors of colonialism as reference for the relationship.
Although the characters are too meticulously constructed to serve only as stand-ins for their cultures playing out as national allegory, their inability to communicate reflects the global inequities that concern Xiaolu Guo: both between English and Chinese language and between the West and East. From the moment Z meets the man at a cinema, the first-person narrator addresses the second-person "you." The lovers become two allegorical characters: both made nameless by their mutual incomprehension.
You ask my name. I say name starts from Z, "But please no worry to remember," I say, "my name too long to pronounce." You tell me your name, but how I remember English name? Western name are un-rememberable, like all Western look the same. (40)
The stereotype of unpronounceable foreign names and indistinguishable Asian faces returns here subverted, further disempowering the male character, who, by his very location, native English status, age, and ownership of a house in London--even if an old, damp, and damaged house (47)--could be perceived as in a position of power.
The power dynamic between the lovers changes throughout the book. At first, the relationship resembles a colonizing one in its inequality of power: "you" acts as her cultural mentor and teacher of English. During their first meal at his house, "you" ventriloquizes Z by "speaking in her voice" and translating her rudimental sentences into full expressions:
I say: "I don't want coffee. I want tea." You change it: "A cup of tea would be delightful." Then you laughing at my confusing face, and you change your saying: "I would love a cup of tea, please." I ask: "How you use word 'love' on teal" (47-48)
The effect is both humorous and emblematic of the difficulties of communication when only one of the interlocutors speaks a language natively, with all the nuance of meaning and politeness. But even here, a deeper reflection comes with Z's surprise at how the word "love" can or should be used. Its frequent and flippant use in English suggests an entirely different attitude to the emotion, which she finds alien. A man at a pub calls her "love," which makes Z remark, "love is cheap object in London" (72). As she meditates on the differences in their understanding of the emotion, she also comments on the concept of tense that makes love "time-limited thing" in English, when in Chinese "it has no tense" (239). As the relationship develops, every definition--whether of love or any other concept predicated by language--becomes a struggle of cultural comparison. The lovers disagree over words and politics (in Tibet), over food (she loves meat, he is vegetarian), over the future and how to plan for it, over her ambitions and his lack of them (144-46). The lovers' conversations read real in their representation of intense feelings magnified by the distance of their cultures.
Also, their sexual relationship is compared to a colonial battle; Z admits, "My whole body is your colony" (104). She feels the lack of equality in their relationship and notices with surprise that she always wants his "charm in front of others disappear. So you would be weaker. Then we could be equal" (219). But by the middle of the novel, he too struggles for independence. He finds her insistence on commitment limiting, her voracious hunger for words and learning overwhelming. He is tired of the position of an intimate informant; he feels she is taking over his language: "Now when I talk to other people, 1 become slower and slower. I am losing my words" (141). By the end of the narrative, Z grows more confident in her English, appropriating her lover's tongue. It is she who speaks: "I talk and talk, more and more. I steal your words. I steal all your beautiful words. I speak your language" (232). This metaphor of language as stolen goods occurs also in postcolonial writing, where for example the Guyanese poet John Agard speaks of "mugging de Queen's English" (qtd. in Ramazani 15).
Rahbek notes that in the Danish newspaper Politiken (30 May 2009) Xiaolu Guo made the same statement as her character: "she steals the English language in order to make it a useful tool for her own purposes" (Rahbek 5). She explained also that the only way to make Westerners listen to her story was to write in a Western language. Were she to write in Chinese and translate into English, she would create a distance that would affect the reader's response (qtd. in Rahbek 5). For one, as she explains in another interview, she had to write in English in order to be read because of the popular belief "that Westerners cannot follow a Chinese novel because they don't share its sensibility" ("China's Youth" 52). Xiaolu Guo counters this belief with: "On the other hand, Chinese people are very well acquainted with international literature" (52). The asymmetry of the West not reading the East while the East reads the West replicates the colonial dynamics of center and periphery. Like Casanova, Xiaolu Guo understands that an attitude to the culture of a language determines how literature in that language is perceived, and thus its global presence in translation. Both of them cite lack of consecration of Chinese literary tradition in the form of the Nobel Prize in literature, one of the most important mechanisms of instilling national literatures with international value. At the time of the interview and The World Republic of Letters, only one Chinese winner, Gao Xingjian, an expatriate author living in France, had received the prize. (1)
In the same interview, Xiaolu Guo extends this reading of Western resistance to Chinese cultural production to show that it precludes also the possibility of dialogue, which is predicated on the equality of interlocutors. She sees the two levels of incomprehension as interrelated, as she explains when asked why the West does not communicate with China:
In order to achieve a level where we could have an equal conversation with the West, especially America and Europe, China had to view itself as strong as America. Only when the quality of life is equal, and people's education can improve, can we have a conversation. And the West will have to learn Chinese as well. I don't think there is a conversation yet. ("China's Youth" 50)
The quality of life and education predicate the power of a language globally, and that in turn generates curiosity about a given language. Thus, an attraction to a language comes from the power of its culture.
Only towards the end of the novel does Z realize that the man's appeal was closely related to the desirability of his language: "Your language was as attractive as you" (232). This reveals also what Xiaolu Guo named as the original intent of Dictionary for Lovers: to represent the lover as not so much a person as the language itself--the idea of "beautiful language" (50, 51) that seduces Z recurs beside her attraction to English's "noble words" (65,72)--the learner is a lover of language. Only intense desire directed at a language allows a learner the kind of emotional investment that leads to motivation strong enough to allow for an acquisition of near-native proficiency (Kristeva 1980, Kramsch 2009, Pavlenko 2007). If the language of expression can be chosen so it becomes a beloved tongue, the international hierarchies of power amongst languages and literatures predicate this choice. The affect towards a language comes with its dominance in the world; and while the various dialects of Chinese, and even Mandarin itself, might have the greatest number of official speakers, no language produces culture more powerful than English. Learning English, Brian Lennon repeats after Alastair Pennycook, is "an act of desire" for "language as cultural capital" (28).
Much as the initial accumulation of symbolic capital in English coincides with the expansion of the British Empire, its current status derives additionally from the capitalist might of the United States. Even if simplified and seemingly innocuous, Global English remains a language with a history and a local culture, despite the well-intentioned attempts to rid it of its imperial pedigree by such visionaries of auxiliary language as C. K. Ogden. (2) At the time of publication of Dictionary for Lovers, many books celebrated the ascendance of English to the status of global language as a pragmatic response to the dilemma of international communication; suffice it to mention David Crystal's The Global Language (2003) or Howard Richler's Global Mother Tongue: The Eight Flavors of English (2006). Linguistics scholars estimate that there are more ESL speakers in the world than native English speakers, adding up to about six hundred million people worldwide who are able to communicate in English. (3)
The triumphal tenor of such comparisons returns in the popular belief that English is the universal language of business and to be successful in the international market, also or even particularly the literary market, a writer should opt for English, which will grant her the widest metropolitan readership (Lennon 30). Casanova's work on the world republic of letters also reads English as one of the dominating literary traditions, based in a dominating language. Her concept of a dominating language is based on Abram de Swaan's, who locates the power of a particular language precisely in the number of multilingual speakers who speak it as their second or third (qtd. in Casanova 288). Similarly, as Casanova notes, it is translingual English in literature that makes English powerful as a language in the world of letters. Casanova characterizes the translingual author's choice to write in a dominating literary language as "a painful decision"--again returning to the affective vocabulary of the monolingual paradigm--made in order to speed up the process of consecration (298).
While consecration in the global literary market may lie at the heart of many translingual writers' decision to turn to English, the situation of Dictionary for Lovers is peculiar yet again because the novel refigures the primacy of fluent English to match the reality of the majority of its speakers globally being English as Second Language learners, and gives voice precisely to still-imperfect ESL English. While Xiaolu Guo clearly longs for communication, she does not seek consecration. Amongst grammatical and linguistic shortcomings typical of ESL English, Dictionary for Lovers transcribes the accentual difference of "Chinglish," which leads to mispronunciation of certain sounds that have often been used to satirize the Chinese in literature--the novel opens with "unbelievabal" and "Heathlow" (7)--here, the satire is subverted in order to assert Chinglish as a legitimate language to express the poetry of intercultural incomprehension. Jacques Derrida meditates on the importance of accent when he asserts that only on condition of losing it could a foreign writer--for example one born in Algeria like himself--enter French literature and thus achieve the sort of consecration that Casanova describes. Monolingualism, stripped of a trace of difference, remains in his view a powerful marker of belonging that causes an "anxiety of disguise, the recurrent fear of being unmasked, of being troubled in the anonymity of accentual equivalence" (48). (4) Since accent plays an important role in establishing legitimacy in a particular national space, such conscious transcription of accent in a novel published in England breaks with the idea of accent as a prime, if insurmountable, marker of national or local belonging. Because a particular national or ethnic alliance imagined in the form of purity of language does not represent in this novel the value to aspire to, Xiaolu Guo can--albeit uncomfortably--belong to both Chinese and English literary traditions. She avoids the discomfort of accentual passing for a native that Derrida describes. Instead, she attempts to construct a post-monolingual, and thus more inclusive, understanding of language and literature in the age of globalization. As such, the ESL of the novel does not present a dominating language per se, but rather a language that stages and interrogates this domination.
The novel opens with the character questioning her need for English: her mother, "only speaking in village dialect, and even not speaking official Mandarin" (4), has achieved enough success manufacturing shoes that she could afford to send her daughter to England to study. Z notices and decries the reality that imagines the West as the only place where education matters, in the sense that to be considered well prepared even for a job in China, she has to obtain a degree in the West: "a certificate guaranteeing access to power" (Lennon 29). She is resistant to the trip because it means absolute alienation for her: both in its sense of isolation and estrangement. Already in the prologue, which is set in the airport, the axiomatic site of the meeting of cultures in the era of globalization, at the moment of an actual border-crossing non-belonging is equated with being alien. Quite fittingly, the first word Z learns, and therefore the first entry of Dictionary for Lovers that follows the prologue, is the word "alien." She learns the word while still in the airport, when she sees people separating into two queues (or lines) under the heading of "ALIEN and NON ALIEN" (7). The definition of "alien" she finds in the dictionary suggests "1. foreign" and "2. Repugnant (to)" (7) signaling the rejection of an Other by the dominant narrative of a nation.
This alienation is immediately refigured in linguistic terms when she thinks of the very first exchanges her English textbook provides: "How are you? I am very well. How are you?" (7). The repetitiveness of English, the idea that the question and its response are exactly the same sound very "alien" to Z and make her quote a Chinese proverb in italicized English--"Birds have their bird language, beasts have their beast talk" (7)--followed by the original Chinese in parenthesis. Clearly, Chinese still provides her first reference point, helps her domesticate English language and understand English culture. Z's commentary adds that "English they totally another species" (7). This assertion of difference in biological terms, seeing speakers of another language as another species, replicates the nationalist ideologies that knot nativism and maternity with language and nation. Thus the sentence marks a starting point for transformation of Z's attitudes to language and nation that she brought with her to England. She received an education that made her "proud of being Chinese" because of China's population and because of its size, almost as large as all of Europe as their geography teacher tells them (169). The labor of language learning demands from her a flexibility of attitudes, reshaping the identity she built in her native dialect and Mandarin Chinese. Thus, as she later admits, she loses "her reference": "But here, in this place in the west, I lost my reference. And I have to rely on my own sensibility. But my own sensibility toward the world is so unclear" (125).
Perhaps the most telling performance of the power dynamic between Chinese and English, and the strongest example of Z's changing attitudes, comes at the novel's almost precise middle when, under the heading 'nonsense,' Chinese irrupts in a long fragment that questions the possibility of communication. The meanings of "nonsense" are given as "1. Something that has or makes no sense; 2. Absurd language; 3. Foolish behavior" (142). For the character to switch back to Chinese in her new location means to be read as foolish, speaking an absurd language that makes no sense. While on the neighboring page the passage is translated for the Anglophone reader, those who speak Chinese enjoy a greater insight into the minutiae of translation. Like many translingual texts, this novel also favors bilingual readers, offering them additional nuances of understanding: the exasperated tone, swearwords, and repetitions. (5) Thus, although the novel avoids total incomprehension and estrangement here for English monolinguals, it nevertheless highlights the resistance of the foreign by putting Chinese and English side by side as if in a dialogue. Even those readers who read no Chinese can still suspect that the translation does not come from Z, and is not part of the original notebook, because the italicized English on the right hand side follows the rules of standard grammar and vocabulary, suggesting that the translation comes from somewhere else. The passage acts as reminder for the Anglophone reader that Z is the one carrying the burden of communication, accommodating them through her own labor of language learning.
British and US editions of the novel differ in how they present this bilingual standoff and the source of the translation. In the first British edition, published by Chatto and Windus in the United Kingdom in 2007, the page comes with an annotation that the translation is "editor's" (Mirsky, Hwang 81). The US edition, published later that same year by Nan A. Talese, an imprint of the Knopf Doubleday Broadway Publishing Group, deletes this annotation, just as it alters the text in other ways, removing "a conversation between 'Him' and 'Her' at the beginning of the novel, as well as several photos, drawings, handwritten notes" (Hwang 81). Thus the US edition domesticates the text quite aggressively and proves less hospitable to "any trace of translation except italicization" (81), suggesting a further differentiation between the power of English and its concomitant culture, even between the two nations where it is spoken as an official language. Xiaolu Guo sees the interventions of the US editors as the Western "censorship of the market," which she critiques as even more rigid than the censorship of totalitarian countries ("China in Britain").
The irruption of Chinese halfway through Dictionary for Lovers feels violent because the juxtaposition between languages here leads to a realization of their inherent difficulty and arbitrariness. Z openly asks, "Why is the process of communication so troubled and so painful?" (143). Again, the vocabulary of pain echoes the persistent power of the monolingual paradigm, and it reminds of the labor involved in transcultural communication. Interestingly, she asks this question first as only "why is the process so painful" in Chinese, and the English translation adds more nuance calling it also "troubled."
I am sick of speaking English like this. I am sick of writing English like this. I feel as if I am being tied up, as if lam living in a prison. lam afraid that I have become a person who is always very aware of talking, speaking, and I have become a person without confidence, because I can't be me. 1 have become so small, so tiny, while the English culture surrounding me becomes enormous. It swallows me, and it rapes me. (143)
The imagery of rape, swallowing, and enormity juxtaposed with tiny, self-conscious alienation suggests an unequal relationship between English and Z's native language/s. The immensity of English reflects the homogenizing danger of globalization, and that is why Chinese has to reassert itself by imploding into the novel. However, because writing in Chinese already elides Z's mother tongue, her Southern dialect, Xiaolu Guo takes the language problem further and does not fall into the monolingual tendency to idealize Chinese in response to the threat of English.
On the one hand, although not being able to speak a language perfectly feels like confinement, the deeper problem is being confined within any language: "I wish I could just go back to my own language now. But is my own language simple enough? I remember the pain of studying Chinese characters when I was a child at school" (143). Any language comes painfully because any language confines, superimposing limited words on limitless reality. As Z notes in the preceding entry, "Words are void. Words are dry and distant towards the emotional world. Maybe I should give up learning words" (141). Words cannot describe physicality and do not guarantee connection. Here, however, learning Chinese at school already means acquisition of a stepmother tongue, the imposed Mandarin of China's educational system. The Chinese ideograms translate Z's identity constructed in a dialect into a new confinement of written characters, but they are also her first encounter with the imposition of the monolingual paradigm in her own country. That China is not monolingual--and thus that there is no natural link between a nation and its language--becomes evident even in London, where she initially stays with Chinese people she cannot understand because they speak Cantonese (35). On the other hand, Angelia Poon questions the English translation given in the novel for the Chinese words "[TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]" as 'simple' in the question above: "Is my own language simple enough?" (143). Poon claims that a "more accurate translation would be 'natural' or 'that which one is born with'" (4). Interrogating how natural the connection is between herself and both her mother tongue and her stepmother tongue, Z denies the intense emotions at the core of monolingual ideology. By extension, a useful analogy to describe Xiaolu Guo's attitude to her literary languages is provided by the Japanese and German writer Yoko Tawada, who Yildiz uses as one of the examples of post-monolingualism. For both writers, translingualism promises detachment from the affective attachment to either language. Neither Xiaolu Guo nor Tawada finds a new space of belonging in European languages, but both writers move towards Western languages also in order to evade the limiting gender identities associated with their native cultures. As Beaujour has written about Samuel Beckett, "being thoroughly detached he can ultimately return to his language without the original emotional servitude" (170).
Xiaolu Guo's--and Z's--linguistic entanglement becomes more complicated because of her mother tongue, a dialect of Southern China, which she never names. Z's mother's "harsh local dialect" (15) comes with a set of castigating memories because her mother always "beat [her] up" (148), called her an "ugly peasant girl" (51), and compared her to her "barbarian grandmother" with "a real peasant's feet" (148). Her mother wants to fit her daughter into what Z learns to recognize as a restrictive, patriarchal culture, where only her father ate meat (101), or where in the extreme cases girl children could be found in the "rubbish bin or in the street" (214). Indeed, the dialect, her mother's only tongue, perhaps because of its association with violence and pain, becomes conspicuously absent from the novel: it is mentioned only twice, while "English" and "Chinese" each appear over ninety times, at almost total parity of ninety-seven vs. ninety-three times respectively. Similar are Z's associations with "voice"; while her lover's voice is gentle and solid until it turns cold towards the end of the relationship, her parents' voice is associated with warnings, distrust, and reprimand (14). Z goes as far as to reveal her matricidal wish--"I wish I could kill her" (280)--when she realizes her mother's "power control, for ever, is just like this country" (280). The replication of nationalist rules by the voice of the mother feeds into the monolingual myth that Z wants to rewrite.
This analogy between the power control of her mother and that of her native country brings the final dynamic I would like to focus on: between the ideologies that each of Z's languages entails. Although learning English and traveling provides an opportunity for freedom and self-realization, a feminist way out of the language and country of her mother, it would diminish the novel's critique of global asymmetries of power if Z uncritically gave into the narratives of progress and enlightenment in the capitalist West. While in Europe, she shakes off the caution and distrust associated with her mother's voice, but her arrival in the West does not free her from limiting descriptions. She might have lost the restrictive identity her mother prescribed for her, but she remains "a peasant girl": "In the West, in this country, I am barbarian, illiterate peasant girl, a face of third world, and irresponsible foreigner. An alien from another planet" (123). She learns to see herself in terms of class, her "third world" status, her barbarity and alienness. But abroad, additionally, her whole identity is limited to a set of national stereotypes: "The day when I arrived to the West, I suddenly realized I am a Chinese. As long as one has black eyes and black hair... then he or she is a typical Chinese: ill-legal immigrant, badly treat Tibetan and Taiwanese, good on food but put MSG to poison people, eat dog's meat and drink snakes' guts" (148).
While such Orientalizing perception of the East adheres to Z throughout her stay in Europe, Dictionary for Lovers presents also another understanding of the East, more in line with its post-Cold War setting in 2002. The ideological split between East and West persists even after the fall of the Berlin Wall, both in Europe and globally. On the one hand, in the world Dictionary for Lovers represents, people commonly talk about Berlin as it were still divided--Z meets a man who describes himself as coming from East Germany even after the wall has fallen (170)--and on the other, she is a person from the East dealing with her idealization of political freedoms of the West. If in colonized spaces English, Spanish, or French were imposed as languages of instruction, in communist parts of the world--whether China or Eastern Europe before 1989--they were idealized as the forbidden fruit of Western modernity. Unable to travel, Eastern and Central Europeans learned the languages without ever leaving their home because they promised a space of freedom from communism (see e.g. Lvovich 2013, Wang Gang 2009). Xiaolu Guo, again, provides an insight into her protagonist's situation when in interviews she often compares herself to another translingual writer, Milan Kundera, for she sees their post-communist locations as particularly important for their style and themes of writing. Because she is seeking to avoid socialist realism, she aligns herself with dissident authors writing in a language free from sloganeering ("China in Britain").
Z describes herself as a "legal foreigner from Communism region" who comes to the West to be "reeducated" to accept the freedom of capitalism (7). The character uses the word "reeducate" to emphasize the world she comes from; she knows she must "match this Capitalism freedom and Western democracy" (8). Again, the ideological worldview of the West is seen as more powerful because she feels she has to assimilate to it. Having grown up in the Cold War, Z's English lover has a set of stereotypical expectations about Chinese communism. When she asks him to explain what "worship" means, he responds that "it's how the Chinese feel about Mao" (65). But his stereotypes get only at part of the truth, and Z is surprised he doesn't know that "now we worship America" (65). Seeing English as a route to wealth, because "anything to do with the West can make money" (282), contributes to this worship. But Mao's communism still constitutes an important part of Z's beliefs and her national set of references. From the very beginning she compares her Concise Chinese-English Dictionary to Mao's Little Red Book on account of its red cover (8). Both contain rules and both are "written in the imperative tone" (256): again language and ideology align. Z even buys the English translation of the Little Red Book for the purposes of language learning. But its English publication, without the name of the translator--which omission Z naively interprets as coming from respect to Mao ("no second name can be shared on Mao's work.... The English translators of this book, they are like feather compared with Tai Mountain" )--points in fact to the existence of censorship in England, which puts realistic restrictions on the idealized perception of Western freedoms.
Dictionary for Lovers is not a straightforward story of migration from China to England. While Z has the right to travel to the West, she does not have the freedom to stay there. Thus, we ultimately do not know if her relationship fails because of the incongruence of cultures of the lovers or because of the limitations imposed by the state. Once again, Xiaolu Guo consciously echoes Franz Kafka--evoked already in Z's name that resembles Kafka's K--because Z's life remains beyond her own control, marked with "a doom stamp" (269) of the Immigration and Nationality Directorate of the Home Office that denies her a visa to prolong her stay in Britain. Z's hopeful wish for cosmopolitanism meets the reality of borders and materiality of her passport: "I would become a citizen of the world, if I have a more useful passport" (148). Even here the slight incorrectness of the conditional phrase--'have' instead of 'had'--highlights Z's foreignness and not belonging, just as the passport she holds defines the visa restrictions imposed by the uneven forces of globalization.
If Dictionary for Lovers follows some generic outlines of an immigrant Bildungsroman--with an immigrant finding her place in a new reality--with the protagonist's return to China, it frustrates our expectation of her assimilating to life in England. Rather, the love affair with English allows for destabilization of the monolingual paradigm that held her in a set of gendered, nationalist expectations. Following her lover's example, Z rejects the confines of family life and chooses the uncertain life of an artist. The novel becomes a Kiinstlerroman, focused on the development of a translingual writer. When Z returns to China, she chooses to forsake her safe governmental work unit and her parents' family home, despite her mother's admonitions. With this decision, she abandons also her mother's native Southern dialect and moves towards her stepmother tongue of Mandarin. As she arrives in Beijing, she notes, "it has become unrecognizable," "as if ten years passed" during the year of her absence (281). The uncritical replication of Western models in architecture and fashion, the proliferation of Western brands and their Chinese imitations, all manifest China's triumphalist ideology of "nationalist consumerism," which alienates her anew, making her writerly ambitions seem "unpractical and nonproductive" (282). Much as the novel began with Z's alienation in England, which drove her to write because she was "always alone, talking in [her] notebook" (31), back in Beijing, she yet again feels "out of place" (281). This alienation is productive: writing begins in the space of estrangement, amongst the three languages she now speaks and the ideologies they prescribe for their speakers.
(1) Mo Yan in 2012 was the first Chinese citizen to win the coveted prize.
(2) As early as 1935 Ogden insisted that English was "already regarded as a Universal Language by nearly half the inhabitants of the globe," while advocating his own Basic English as "available for the other half with "the labor of learning [reduced] by 90%" (19). Ogden's constructed language consisted of merely 850 words and claimed to allow worldwide exchange about every possible topic.
(3) These kinds of trivia and comparisons are typical for the rhetoric of linguistics dealing with English as the lingua franca; here it comes from Suzanne Romaine's "The Bilingual and Multilingual Community."
(4) I have engaged with Derrida's thoughts on accent in greater detail elsewhere (Spyra 2013).
(5) I would like to thank Dr. Xingua Li for her help with the Chinese language and culture in the writing of this article.
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|Publication:||Studies in the Novel|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2016|
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