I Am China is the story of a young Scottish girl, Iona Kirkpatrick, who is given the task of translating a package of Chinese documents consisting of letter and diary entries by a British publicist, Jonathan Barker, who is hoping to uncover something exciting. As she delves into the translation, Iona uncovers a compelling love story between a Chinese political dissident and his estranged wife.
The story of Kublai Jian and Deng Mu is indeed a fascinating one. Jian was a punk musician who at his last gig in China gave out copies of his political manifesto which heavily criticised the Communist Party of China, and Mu is a Chinese slam-poet. Their story spans three different continents as Jian is deported to Europe and tries to create a new identity there and Mu tries a similar venture in America. The lives of Jian and Mu become entangled with Iona’s and it becomes her mission to uncover the reasons for a Chinese block on information about Jian and reunite the two lovers, whilst also facing up to her own demons.
References to twentieth century Chinese history are made throughout the book, in particular to the 1989 Tiananmen Square incident which Jian is a part of. This event is crucial for cementing his political ideals and shaping his manifesto. In his manifesto he concludes that “I am China. We are China. The people. Not the state.” One of the essential premises of the novel is that people are the drivers of cultures and ideas and are the most important actors of a nation.
There are lots of interesting ideas conveyed throughout the novel; the theme of foreignness in one’s own country and in another’s, the shortcomings of the Chinese political system and the pitfalls of translation. Iona is faced with essentially writing the version of the story that she thinks is the most accurate because many nuances in Chinese language are hard to directly translate into English. This is a theme that Guo has conveyed in her other works and is very passionate about.
Guo’s work makes for a very interesting read, one which I enjoyed immensely. It was one of those books where I put off reading the ending until the very last moment because I simply did not want it to end. The way this novel is written is truly captivating and it provokes interesting reflections on the vast geographical, cultural and political enigma that is China.