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A blog for everything bookish

Sunday, 20 April 2014

20 Fragments of a Ravenous Youth – Xiaolu Guo

As part of my quest to read more books by women, I realised that my reading has been, not surprisingly, dominated by writers from a Western European / North American cultural background. One of the reasons I wanted to read more books written by women was to open up a wider range of voices, of viewpoints, to open myself to a different cultural norm. I can’t do that without reading from a wide range of cultures too. Sadly, as an English speaker, this is surprisingly difficult. Book in translation are only a small proportion of the available book catalogue, and a large proportion of books in translation are by male writers. There are books written by women available, but it takes a bit of hunting around to find them. If anyone has any recommendations, please post them in the comments here.

Xiaolu Guo is a writer whose name I encountered in reference to the Jaipur book festival where she argued that Western literature was ‘massively overrated’, and she made some interesting comments about how the Western narrative form had ‘stolen’ the reading habits of other nations, swamping their traditional forms with the Western traditions. I don’t know enough about literature to say if Guo’s accusation is true, but I do feel that a diversity of voices is something which should be encouraged in literature; without this literature loses its edge of challenge, it fails to be the mirror reflecting the realities, the dreams, the horrors and wonders of human existence back at us, so the idea that this diversity might be discouraged is a little troubling to me. Anyway, it is perhaps a blog entry for another day, but if you’re interested in reading a little more about what happened at the Jaipur festival there’s a link here: http://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/jan/20/writers-attack-overrated-american-literature-jaipur-festival  

Having piqued my interest, I was lucky enough to stumble upon a copy of Guo’s short novel 20 Fragments of a Ravenous Youth on a table display at Manchester library. 20 Fragments tells the story of Fenfang, a young woman who has moved from the sweet potato fields, and mind-numbing repetitiveness, of her village to Beijing in pursuit of a ‘better life’. There she takes up various different jobs, finally settling on a career as a film extra. From there we follow Fenfang as she moves from place to place in Beijing, gaining friends and unsuitable boyfriends, disapproval from building committees, reflecting on her village upbringing before finally turning her hand at scriptwriting. Fenfang is someone who is willing to try and take a risk, someone who is prepared to leave behind everything and start out on her own journey. As Fenfang says at the beginning of the novel:

“My youth began when I was 21. At least, that’s when I decided it began. That was when I started to think that all those shiny things in life – some of them might be possible for me.

If you think 21 sounds a bit late for youth to start, just think about the average dumb Chinese peasant who leaps straight from childhood to middle age with nothing in between. If I was going to miss anything out, it was middle age. Be young or die. That was my plan.

Anyway, when I was 21, my life changed just by filling out this application form. Before then, I was just an ignorant country girl who didn’t know how to do anything except dig up sweet potatoes, clean toilets and pull levers in a factory. Okay, I’d been in Beijing a few years, but I was still a peasant.”  

20 Fragments makes for very interesting reading. It isn’t complex or peppered with lush, beautiful prose. What it is, however, is very fresh and authentic and honest and it represents, with the appearance of faithfulness, how it must be for a young Chinese girl escaping her rural history and trying to make a new life in the city. Guo has a keen eye for social commentary, using Fenfang and her many appeals to the ‘Heavenly Bastard in the Sky’ as a vehicle to reflect on social structures within China, the role of non-Chinese organisations in China, living without a support structure, the bravery and risk-taking of migrant communities and how they’re received and how they struggle in the places they migrate to. The character of Fenfang is curiously non-judgemental about her situation. She reflects on her boredom, times when she has virtually nothing, hunger, her fear of returning to the sweet potato fields, escaping a stalking and potentially violent boyfriend. She is brave and charming, insightful and eager to carve her own groove in history. She has the kind of pioneering spirit which would not be out of place in the American West, though her story pans out very differently.

I found 20 Fragments of a Ravenous Youth a refreshing, fun and entertaining read which hides its deep social critique beneath the voice of a charming 21 year old, who never stops being hungry.


20 Fragments of a Ravenous Youth receives an authentic 8 out of 10 Biis.