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Born and raised in mainland China, Yang Huang came to the U.S. shortly after taking part in the 1989 Democracy Movement. She works as a computer engineer at U.C. Berkeley and as a writer by vocation. Her short stories and a feature-length screenplay have appeared in literary magazines including the Asian Pacific American Journal,The Evansville Review, Futures, Porcupine Literary Arts Magazine, Nuvein, and Stories for Film. One of her short stories was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Her debut novel, Living Treasures, was a Bellwether Prize finalist and was published by Harvard Square Editions in October 2014.
I Am China, by Xiaolu Guo, is an intriguing love story saturated with political angst. The prelude begins with Kublai Jian’s letter to his girlfriend Deng Mu, written in 2011, in which he recounts his walk to Tiananmen Square the night after the massacre in June 1989: “If you looked closely you could see the blood had soaked into the gaps between the stones.”
Jian, then a seventeen-year-old aspiring musician, wishes he had stayed in the Square and made it his event. This romantic notion of martyrdom continues to haunt him. In 1993 he meets Mu, a poet with “big black button eyes,” and they fall in love. In 2012 Jian is exiled from China after distributing his manifesto at a rock concert. Their 20-year relationship is documented in their letters and diaries, until they lose contact in 2013.
Mu thinks Jian is missing in Europe. She goes to an international literature festival in Beijing and listens to Jonathan from Applegate Books speaking about publishing censored works of literature. She then makes photocopies of Jian’s and her letters and diaries, finds Jonathan, and gives him a package of these documents. She asks Jonathan to give the package to the London office of Amnesty International and tries to help find Jian. Then she vanishes and cannot be contacted again.
Iona is a translator hired by Applegate Books to work on Jian and Mu’s diaries and letters. Applegate Books used to publish the biographies of eminent people, like the Dalai Lama. Now they are more interested in marginal characters. Jian is a famous underground punk musician who vanishes from China. She tries to piece together their love story from these loose documents and solve the mystery of Jian’s disappearance. Fluent in Chinese, Iona is a young Scottish woman who enjoys casual sex but seems uninterested in having a committed relationship.
The three story lines involving Jian, Mu, and Iona weave back and forth in time and space. They are all told in the present tense, which gives the story an episodic quality. I was able to focus on one character at any given moment.
I was intrigued by Jian’s story. After his exile, Jian ends up in a psychiatric hospital in Dover, England. He manages to obtain political asylum in Switzerland and later goes to France. Mu leaves China and tours the U.S. as a performing poet. Iona is so riveted by their tortuous relationship that she takes upon herself the mission to reunite the lovers. In a way she becomes the author of their love story.
Mu is separated from Jian after she loses their six-month-old son to acute meningitis. While on tour in the States, she writes an English poem to express her anguish: “The Second Sex, or Not?” In the poem she screams, “Transplant the womb! Grow it in men, in every boy-child’s bowel!”
This poem wakes up Iona, who remembers how her own mother was resigned to the fact that “Women will always be betrayed by their men, but you have to be light about it.” Perhaps this deep fear keeps Iona from falling in love—she gets ahead of the game by being noncommittal and casual about sex.
As Iona constructs the love story, I became drawn to her and longed to experience the story in her eyes and anticipate her growth. The weight of the story comes off Jian, as he fades away in an exiled life, lonely and dejected. I feared for him a tragic fate, which has befallen many dissidents in China’s long history. Fortunately for this story, Iona and Mu will march on, with or without him, as each emerges as a new person.
Jian’s manifesto, an ideological declaration about a man’s place in China, is a dream shared by the artists: “I am China. We are China. The people. Not the state.” It is a dream deferred for ages. To this day, Chinese artists and intellectuals have their spirits broken or are sent into exile. Some learn to transform their art into metaphors, symbols, and riddles for posterity to decipher rather than enjoy.
I was deeply engrossed by the poetic language and attention to details. The prose is elegant and smooth. At times the mood and atmosphere is so strong it overrides the story. The novel could be condensed at certain parts, although the chattiness also adds to the atmosphere.
Not all diary entries are realistic. Even an artist doesn’t write about her feelings in such painstaking detail, unless she anticipates her diary will be published someday and read by others. However, I grew used to the stylistic choice and suspended my disbelief.
I had one quibble: Why doesn’t Jian ask Mu to join him in exile? He talks of his loneliness and ideology more eloquently than about his daily life. This makes sense, because the lovers are separated by oceans and continents. But he should ask Mu at least once, when she is on tour in the States. She will have to think about the dilemma and work through it. By adding another layer of struggle in their lives, we would have a chance to see what these people are made of. Although he sets her free, their hearts belong to each other.
I Am China is a unique, urgent, and passionate love story with a confident voice that cries out for the artists in an oppressive regime like China. What will you choose: to hold fast to your ideology or lead a humdrum conformist life? Are you willing to sacrifice a family life for your artistic conscience? Many fenqing, a Chinese term for the angry youth, or shit youth (a derogatory term), do go on to lead productive and conformist lives. Jian, being true to his ideals, chooses another path.
Xiaolu Guo published six books in China before moving to London in 2002. She was a successful filmmaker and published three novels in English. Guo was named one of Granta’s Best Young British Novelists in 2013.
I would recommend I Am China to readers who are looking for an original narrative structure and strong political views. While the framed story is a bit slow to begin, once you learn the structure, it draws you in and doesn’t let go. It’s a book that is easy to put down and pleasurable to pick up again. The prose is witty and sensual, though it could use some tightening. I was sad that Jian doesn’t try harder to be with Mu. The personal choice makes it a feminist story, where love takes a back seat to politics and artistic freedom.