Chinese novelist tackles climate change

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chinadialogue, London, England

Chinese novelist and film maker Xiaolu Guo believes literature can inspire new ways of living and talking about our environment

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"Nature is a combination of disaster and the human desire to survive" says author Xiaolu Guo. (Image by Matt Spark)

Novelist and film maker Xiaolu Guo was born in a fishing village in southern China and now lives in London’s East End.

 Named as one of Granta magazine's Best Young Novelists in 2013, she has now become a writer-in-residence for an international project that places literature and storytelling at the heart of discussions about climate change.

The project, Weather Stations, brings writers in Europe and Australia to work with leading scientists, economists, teachers and pupils to explore how literature can inspire new ways of living and talking about environmental issues.

chinadialogue spoke to Xiaolu Guo about the project and how story telling can tackle climate change.

CD: What is the “Weather Stations” project about?

XG: Free Word set up a London residence for a professional writer to create an important fictional piece on climate change and environmental problems. As part of this project I might go around different cities to work with other writers in residence, because we need global action. If there is a disaster in China it will affect South Asia, Australia and come back to Europe. So there are five stations – in London, Dublin, Warsaw, Berlin and Melbourne– together we will create a fictional piece and work with students and scientists.

CD: Why is it important to link climate change and storytelling?

XG: At the moment in the world there are two crises. One is economic inequality – extreme capitalism; and the ultimate crisis is the environmental crisis. The second crisis is much deeper because it involves the whole of humanity. Across China water is contaminated – and there are lots of villages nowadays called cancer villages because basic drinking water is completely polluted with heavy metals – and water to cook food, plant plants – everything is contaminated – and so everyone gets sick.

 If anything we need to be concerned about the future of humanity – maybe our generation we will die from cancer, but the next generation will die from more specific environmental diseases. I am a novelist and filmmaker; storytelling is my only tool.

 My novel UFO in Her Eyes – which I wrote three years ago and adapted into a film – is about a village completely crazy about the opportunities of the economic boom. They claim a UFO arrived in the village and so create a massive tourist industry – a UFO tourist centre, a UFO spa. In the end the central character, the women who claimed to have seen the UFO, has to leave the village and the Earth on a UFO.

 In the novel, the women eventually realises there is nowhere on Earth she can live, but we have to life with the reality. We can’t run away so we have to do something about our food and water. If we don’t do something today the consequences will be severe.

CD: What role do writers and artists have in shaping cultural attitudes to climate change?

XG: I speak from the value system I learnt as a Chinese person. I don’t know how I would be if I was French. In European society art is supposed to be beyond political struggle – to be independent. But I grew up in a socialist background and my parents were communists. Even though I’ve lived here for ten years and write in English, I have a very socialist way of thinking. I believe what you write, or the films you make should have a clear purpose and rich message which can reach out to society and can be useful. I cannot live beyond the reality. I want my style and artistic form to be beyond realism, but the content and final vision is rooted in the problems of reality. I really see writing is a direct social engagement.

CD: Do you think there are fundamentally difference in attitudes to the environment and nature in the West and China?

XG: No, not really. China and India used to have no time or space to consider environmental problems when they suffered from extreme poverty. But now China has become a middle class society and has the resources and time to seriously take action on environment. Why can’t we develop the economy and environment at the same time? Somehow this is a historical process. After people get electricity then they think – how do we get that electricity. So it is really a mental and physical process. Human evolution creates this nightmare I think. Somehow we don’t see the parallel development. Sustainability has only been talked about in the last 20 years in the West, and now we are starting to talk about it in China and India. It’s a historic evolution I don’t think there is any fundamental difference. China is part of the global economic evolution.

 CD: Your first book, Village of Stone, is about the harshness of life in a fishing village battered by storms, based on your hometown. How did growing by the sea affect your ideas about the environment?

 XG: I grew up close to the eastern sea – in a province which from June to October – every day is typhoon season. My grandfather had a boat that was smashed and he lost it and so had to start a little store selling stuff on the street. My sense of nature is very different to an Australian surfer. I see the sea as a crude place to dig out money to survive. If my grandfather couldn’t catch a bag of fish to sell we wouldn’t survive. [For me] Nature is a combination of disaster and the human desire to survive, because I grew up in a rural environmental where nature is the only way to get food, make money and survive.

 CD: How has your village changed over the past few decades?

 XG: Now it is very developed and still very chaotic– there are no individual fishermen now – there are huge industrial boats that hire workers and machines and are more efficient. I’m not saying the old way is better, but no one can pretend they are immune from the industrial system. We are all part of industrial society, the only way is to face this and find a more balanced way to deal with reality.