A Love Story Spanning Decades and Continents

Article by annalia

Xiaolu Guo's new novel I AM CHINA opens with a cryptic letter from punk rock revolutionary Jian to his “dearest woman” Mu. It is only three pages but contains enough drama for a novel unto itself. Airbound, Jian cannot tell Mu where he is, where he is going, what will happen when the airplane lands, or how long he'll be forced to stay. He recalls the 1989 massacre in Tiananmen Square, regretting that he didn't anticipate his current predicament sooner: captive, alone, seemingly defeated. 

Although this letter, dated December 2011, provides the prelude, the first chapter moves the reader forward one and a half years, jumping into April 2013 in London. There, Scottish-born Iona has been doing freelance translation projects since graduating from SOAS, the world’s leading institution for Asian, African, and Middle Eastern studies. Now in her mid-thirties, she feels unfilled by her translation work. But this changes when she receives her latest assignment: to sift through photocopies of Jian and Mu’s correspondence and diary entries. Their relationship consumes her, and she wants to find out as much as she can about her two new friends (for example, she eats one of Mu’s favorite meals at a local restaurant).

Readers who like unconventional narrative strategies will enjoy I AM CHINA’s epistolary form and its chapters that span decades and continents. However, it is easy to wonder why two characters with such rich history also require a frame story. If this novel is about Jian and Mu and China, who is Iona, and what role does she play?

The answer comes toward the end of part one, when we learn about the day Iona left Scotland to start her college studies. Although she vowed to escape home since she was a child, the experience proves strange and empty when she is finally standing on the boat at seventeen, watching the figures of her parents shrinking in the distance. At the last moment, her father shouts into the wind for her to write home, the only affectionate gesture from him that she can remember. Young Iona puts on a brave smile and watches the waves through her tears until the English coast reveals itself. This is where Jian, Mu, and Iona's stories meet, and where they find the way to discovering one's identity is a journey both public and private, shared and individual.

Xiaolu Guo presents I AM CHINA at Asia Society Texas on Wednesday, September 3. Tickets are available on their website.

Pre-order books to be signed below. Pick your book up at the event or at the bookstore!  

I Am China Cover Image
$26.95
ISBN: 9780385538718
Availability: Special Order - Subject to Availability
Published: Nan A. Talese - September 2nd, 2014

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