London, April 2013
London is a roar, a slow explosion, scattering every living and dead thing and never letting them rest. Every corner hums, or echoes with a hum, which both repels and attracts. Even the colours and smells seem to roar. Even in the seemingly serene corners of green-grey Hackney parks, with their steel-trap ornate fences, this savage sound reverberates. The City is drowned, infected by the ooze of its energy, and out east along the waterways, Docklands and Limehouse, with their fake Venetian-Lido-style living, are stained by the intensity of sound. And further and further outward to New Cross, Shepherd’s Bush, Kilburn, Kensal Rise, with its black faces and ghost-white youth leading pig-eyed surly dogs, all humming, all electrified by a single slow shout.
In a poky two-room flat not far from Islington, the ripples of the roar still resound. Here the middle class has found a cosy corner, and a young woman called Iona Kirkpatrick has made herself a home, if only temporarily.
Iona is jet-black-haired and blue-eyed. As another London day is breaking she is getting up from her bed. She places two bare feet on her wooden floor. Naked, she puts on her black bra. Moving towards the window, she opens it, lets out last night’s stale air. She takes a deep breath, tracking the skid of an aeroplane in the morning sky.
Behind her in the background gloom of her flat, a nameless man finishes dressing, putting on his shirt and trousers. He gazes at Iona’s bare back, her boyish bottom, her bony and compact features. He betrays a certain awkwardness. Iona doesn’t ask him to stay for breakfast, or make the simple offer of a morning coffee. Since they woke up she has offered him nothing. Yet last night she had been so receptive, the way she had opened her body for him.
“Shall we have a coffee together somewhere?” he asks, and then leaves the sentence hanging, as if he were going to say more, but doesn’t.
“No.” Iona shakes her head, not turning to look at him. “Too much to do.”
Watching her slip into the black silk panties, he remembers how he had pulled them off last night as she stood by her desk. Like a soldier surrendering, she had raised both arms above her head as he undressed her. She had been submissive. But now she is cold. As she puts on her pyjama top, she doesn’t look at him at all.
“So, you know where you are,” she says, polite but distant. “I don’t need to come down with you, do I?” She buttons up her pyjama top but leaves her legs bare.
“I’ll be fine,” he answers. A pause. “When can we see each other again?”
She turns to him now, refusal in her eyes. She shrugs her shoulders in a gentle gesture of “no.”
The nameless man kisses her goodbye and leaves. She hears the soft press of his feet on the carpet grow steadily fainter until the door shuts behind him.
Up above the morning traffic Iona stands by the window, watching him disappear into the throng of the cobbled street. The scent of sex still lingers in the room, and seems to surprise her. It’s on the sheets, and on her body. She sees a scattering of hairs on the pillow, and an odour, not hers, leaves a cloying warmth in the bed. She strips off the sheets and stuffs the knotted mass into the washing machine. In less than an hour, she says to herself, she won’t remember his smell. And before long the recollection of his face will also have been washed from her memory.
In the bathroom she removes her pyjama top and underwear. Standing under the shower head, she lets the water pour down on her hair. A familiar sense of relief floods over her. The lust and dirt of last night, staining her pale skin, are rinsed off and washed down the drain, mingling with other waste, to begin their journey through London’s numberless sewers and then ultimately out into the muddy Thames.2
London, April 2013
For Iona, there are two modes of expression that bring her to life. One is the sexual act. All it takes to rekindle her sense of being alive is that small breath of a decision. The decision to leave a pub with an unknown man and go back with him. She takes pleasure in entering a totally new world in the pitch black of night. The next day she can live with ease.
Her other world is through words. To delve into words, to live with them circling in her mind, allows her to regain something of her life. Perhaps this, most of all, is what enables her to connect. As a teenager, driven crazy by the boredom of living on a small Scottish island inhabited largely by sheep, she found herself longing for foreign words: the alien sound, the unknown syllable, the mysterious sign. Learning languages consumed her. She stuffed herself full with them, and went to university for more. Perhaps a foreign language would offer her an escape. At school everyone had teased her about acting because of her striking resemblance to Hollywood actress Winona Ryder, but shy Iona never saw herself as an actress. She retreated into words.
As the noise of morning from the street below surges up to her at the window, she shakes off her lethargy and the memory of the man’s touch only a few hours ago. Iona makes herself a strong cup of tea and sits down at her desk. On the table, beside a bulky English–Chinese Dictionary, sits a stack of photocopied Chinese documents. She leafs through the papers. Some appear to be letters; others are diary entries of hardly legible Chinese characters. She randomly picks one of the pages from the stack. Almost a scrawl, she thinks. This may be harder than I thought. She starts to read the first letter on the top of the pile.
The sun is piercing, old bastard sky. I am feeling empty and bare. Nothing is in my soul, apart from the image of you.
I am writing to you from a place I cannot tell you about yet. Perhaps when I am safe I will be able to let you know where I am . . .
A few weeks earlier Iona had received an email from a publisher she hadn’t worked with before. They were interested in translating some Chinese letters and diaries—this motley heap on her desk. The pay wasn’t bad; most of the other translation jobs she took up were deeply boring: business or legal documents. Iona didn’t demand anything more: no information, no context. She remembered that lull after graduation where she seemed to live only moment to moment, with no plan, no future and five thousand Chinese characters lodged in her mind struggling to get out.
With long fine fingers she picks up a pencil and is ready to begin her work. But the pages look very confusing. Some pages don’t have dates on them, some are only half legible due to the deep black stain of the photocopier. The person who photocopied the original documents clearly didn’t speak Chinese as the pages are completely muddled and in no particular order. As she flicks through the folder, she begins to wonder where the publisher got hold of them. It looks like some of the letters and diaries are from a long time ago, some more recent. They span nearly twenty years—there are dark spots from greasy fingers, smudges and ink stains and, in a few places, blurry characters as if someone had spilt something or cried onto the page. The editor at Applegate Books had sent her the heavy folder through the post with only a cursory note, saying the material related to a famous Chinese musician. “We need a bit of an idea of what we’ve got here,” she had written. “We think there could be something very interesting, but it’s hard to know without some sort of translation.” At a rare appearance at a publishing party recently, where she had stayed for two quick drinks and lingered mostly on the edges of the crowd—her skirt was too long, her conversation too intense—Iona had overheard this editor declaiming, “We used to publish eminent people’s biographies, like the Dalai Lama’s, but no one cares about ‘eminent figures’ any more. We’re more interested in marginal characters, especially if they’re connected to something big.”
There’s an officious-looking letterhead on the first letter. It reads “Beijing 1540 Civil Crime Detention Centre,” and there’s an address—somewhere she doesn’t recognise. She looks it up on Google maps. The pin lands in an empty grey landscape of main roads in the dark hinterland outside Beijing. She tries to imagine the desolation of a place like that—grey buildings, grey roads. She looks back at the messy script and starts to read.11 November 2011
I can’t bear this. My days are going by agonisingly slowly. There’s so little light from the window and I’m only accompanied by the stark and cold prison walls. How do I distract myself from going completely mad? I’m building the walls of our little flat inside the dark cave of this cell—our little home, where there is hot afternoon light and droopy plants, and we stand on our balcony facing the distant Xiang Mountain listening to those pirated foreign CDs we used to buy at the market—it soothes me when I think of all this.
I know you cannot visit me, but I wish you would write to me. Your silence since I showed you my manifesto is just unbearable. How can you say you don’t believe in what I’ve written? Does it sound extreme to say that if you don’t believe in my manifesto, you don’t believe in me? Not to me it doesn’t, though you may laugh and call me naive, call me too idealistic. For me art, politics and love are all connected. You have seen how I lived for all these years—this is nothing new. It’s been nearly twenty years since I wrote my very first song, Mu! Twenty years is half a life! Half our lives, and all the time I’ve known you. And all that time you knew me. You lived with me. You accepted me by loving me. So what’s different now?
What manifesto? Iona wonders. She puts down her pencil and rereads what she’s translated. The voice on the page is angry. Even his handwriting is angry: the pen is pressed deep into the page; there are crossings-out and repetitions. And who is this Mu? Iona looks out of the window. The sky has whitened still further, as if it’s sucking all the energy out of the busying crowds below.I’m going to say it again, even if you might not want to hear it. I know you, and I know you understand. There is no art without political commitment. All art is political expression. You know that—please, Mu, you know these things, why do you continue to block me out? We’ve talked about this. You knew I was going to distribute the statement at my concert. I felt stifled. We knew this might happen. Even as I miss you, I still think it was worth it.
Imagine my arms around you in our bed. My woman, you know I love you.
Your Peking Man,
Lincolnshire, January 2012
The Chinese man sits at a table, holding a broken ballpoint pen. The surface of the table is heavily scratched, marked by the handwriting of every man who has sat there before him. Opening his diary, the pages all falling out, he tries to record the last few weeks. But he feels weary. Perhaps he is still jet-lagged, or disorientated. He stares at an oak tree outside the window whose twisted branches seem to stretch into the cloud laden sky like his thoughts. An old garden under an old sky. Old skin on an old body. Old, England is old, he murmurs to himself. His only reminder of China are two small cherry trees sheltering under the canopy of the huge oak. In this overheated room his eyes feel tired and his head congested. Maybe it’s the sleeping pills he’s been given to take. Or the words, words, words that the nurses fling at him in a language he can’t fully understand, despite what he learned at university. Their exasperated faces grimacing as he looks back at them blank and mournful.
He wonders about the unit he is in—the Florence Nightingale Unit—as he watches the strange people around him. All in matching striped pyjamas, either agonised or oblivious, but all hurting in some way. Why don’t they just call it what it is: “Mad People’s Reform Hospital,” exactly as the Chinese would do? He cannot understand the layers of confusion around him.
He looks back at the desk in front of him, his thoughts awash with recent events. The white-greyness around him is numbing. The humiliation, some days ago, when the doctor told him about his “borderline personality.” The words wouldn’t come. He felt totally inert and unable to argue back or explain what was really wrong.
Each night he stares at his battered guitar, which he brought all the way from China; he has barely touched its metal strings since he got here. There’s a new dent on the body from the scuffle and fight at the concert. The rough hot hands which grabbed him and pulled him off the stage as the spotlights were burning his face. He hasn’t let that day into his thoughts for weeks. The guitar stands there, almost in judgement against him. But he can’t look at it without seeing the face of a Chinese girl, gazing up at him from the front of the crowd, her face open, full and light—the one still point in that underground den of mania.
Then he thinks of those rare days he tried to set aside and spend alone, away from his musician friends, trying to write a song in memory of his long-dead mother. He remembers he wept as a little child, in rage and utter confusion, standing before his mother’s gravestone. Now the days of being alone seem to be the normal pattern of his life.
Suddenly a shattering sound cuts through the air, like the frantic squawk of a bird trapped inside a room. Jian is startled out of sleep. He finds himself in the patients’ library. His fellow inmates are absorbed in Sudoku puzzles and blotted crossword grids. He’s awake, but tiredness clings to his limbs. His mind is possessed by hallucinatory impressions of his favourite “mala” beef-and-hog noodle soup with extra Sichuan peppers. The soup is steaming with heat right in front of his face. China is still alive for him. It has not been too long; he can still taste it. Smell the dank, sharp tang of the backstreets of Beijing and the tickle in his nose of the chilli in the air as he passes market stalls. He waits. His body dull and heavy.
It’s late evening. He looks up at the darkening sky, searching for familiar stars. He can see the Big Dipper, only a little obscured by clouds. Swathes of empty blank sky. And then he spots a comet, speeding fast towards the dark horizon. It zips along. Barely seen. As his eyes follow the trail of the comet’s burning dust, it feels like his body has been a comet zooming through the dark blue, from his birth in the leap year of 1972, when China was still in the throes of the Cultural Revolution. There he was, landed in a half-Mongol, half-Beijing family. And now the comet has landed here, in some backwater of a sodden suburb of a second-rate town in a country long since descended from glory. It must have been something about his origins, he thinks, in the Year of the Rat, that has led him here, along an inscrutable path. The rat was running as he burst out of his mother’s womb. According to his grandparents, when he came out, a screaming brat in Beijing’s No. 8 Women’s Hospital, with the umbilical cord almost strangling his cries, his family was in the midst of Mao’s madness, the Chairman’s very last ideological war against the bogeyman of imperialism and the bourgeois infection of the people’s revolution. The rat was hissing, for sure, when his grandmother took him to an old palm-reader in Beijing’s Heavenly Gate Park. The white-bearded man opened the child’s palm, studied it for a few seconds, then announced: “There are dark clouds floating in his destiny; but his energy is stronger than the clouds. He will prevail if he avoids his wilfulness.” Jian’s grandmother didn’t fully understand those words as the child’s hand escaped from her grip and tried to flee from the palm-reader into the steamy Beijing streets. But the rat-child grew up in a time of indoctrination. He was fed on the milk of ideology: Marxism plus Leninism, interpreted through Maoism. And when he was eight he was spouting the slogans of the party, a robust, fierce, cherry-faced child, on a flag-hung stage, with a wooden gun and a red kerchief around his neck, as if bursting from a socialist-realist canvas. But his allegiance didn’t last long: his teenage years blew his spirit to the opposite shore.
Now, in the cool night, beneath a low English sky and distant Midland traffic, Jian’s past seems to him like dying embers, like a theatre of bright shadows playing quietly in his mind. A nurse passes, muttering words in a still-unfamiliar tongue; he remembers where he is. It is late, ten thirty at night. Slowly, he walks back to the bedroom he shares with other patients. He swallows a sleeping pill left for him in a small plastic cup on his bedside table. He sits on his bed, picks up his battered guitar and strokes the fretboard. The guitar has a line of characters written on its side. Although it is very scratched, Jian can still read it:
资本主义清道夫—This Machine Kills Capitalists
His fingers find the familiar chords that still resonate with his energetic rat’s heart inside. He plucks a string. The sound stretches out in the silent night. One of his room-mates suddenly wakes up, turning his neck and staring at Jian blankly until he sighs and puts his guitar down. Laying his head on the cold pillow, he gazes up at the grey ceil- ing and feels the darkness around him. Until dawn, sleep does not come. He wakes up with a single burning thought: I have to get out of here, any way I can. So he starts at the top.
Excerpted from I Am China by Xiaolu Guo. Copyright © 2014 by Xiaolu Guo. Excerpted by permission of Nan A. Talese, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.