What do you think might be the role of writers in the Anthropocene?
X: the implications of the anthropocene are huge. We writers should help to provide a change of vision about our place in the world, on this planet. But if we are reaching the final stretch of anthropocene, then the writers are simply no use for announcing the end is near.
Your films and novels are often structured around themes of cultural displacement and alienation. How might these be extended to encompass the natural world and the ways in which different cultures engage with it? (in your case, China and the West)
X: my roots are in an agricultural society and in the agricultural landscape in which I grew up. I wrote about that in my memoir as well as my current novel A Lover’s Discourse. I still look back to a world I find to be harmonic. But I rarely encountered that sort of Chinese landscape later on in life. Often I find disharmony and indeed alienation between people and landscapes, in countryside in the west and in the East. Farmers are dispossessed of their lands, and the impact of industry removed our internal (and poetic) connections with the land.
Is there a specific thought or idea that motivates you into taking action over the climate and ecological emergency? (or, if you like, what frightens you most about the crisis?)
X: I think the whole system is fragile, and we take for granted many things: travel by planes, mass tourism, meat consumption, industrial farming, and all this can break down when links in the chain broken. The current global pandemic is a good example.
What is the most powerful piece of writing you have read about the climate and ecological emergency?
X: I will just mention an obvious one, an old book – Silent Spring by Rachel Carson.
You currently teach at Columbia University. As an instructor how might you go about inspiring younger generations to engage with the natural world?
X: I talk about the basic facts about humans with students – our vulnerability, our dependence on the idea of home and love, and our capability of conducting something terrible and destructive. I think once we recognize these things deeply and internally, we won’t live in a bubble and will try to find an internal connection between our individual life and the world.
Do you have a vision for a regenerative future? Does literature have a part to play in creating this future?
X: let me put this way. I think humans will disappear but the planet stays. I don’t think this is pessimistic because I simply don’t think humans should rule the planet forever. In the case of literature- literature is about human myth making. For a regenerative future, literature will have to forge a new myth which people can participate in. That myth, as far as I can see, has to be about valuing nature, about the sacredness of nature, and our place in it. But I don’t have much hope of that.
Xiaolu Guo is a British/Chinese novelist, essayist and filmmaker. Her novels include A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers and I Am China. Her memoir Nine Continents won the National Book Critics Circle Award 2017 and was shortlisted for the Royal Society of Literature Ondaatje Award and Costa Award. She was named one of Granta’s Best of Young British Novelists in 2013. Guo also directed several features, including How Is Your Fish Today (Sundance) and UFO In Her Eyes (TIFF). Her feature She, A Chinese received the “Golden Leopard” award at the Locarno Film Festival 2009. Her documentaries include Five Men and A Caravaggio which premiered at BFI London Film Festival 2018. Her most recent novel is A Lover’s Discourse (2020).