Inspired by Polish writer Witold Gombrowicz’s 1937 novel Ferdydurke, in which obsession with youth and the new takes an absurd and unnatural form, The Offence is a short story in the form of a film. The narrative follows a chorus of characters in a provincial Hungarian town, obsessed with tradition and fearful of the unknown. The unassuming hero of the story is a town official who decides to rescue his fellow citizens from their backwardness by an unusual method: with an uncanny understanding of the human desire for perversion, he forces progress through unnecessary prohibitions and restrictions that he knows will be broken. The film is about the paradoxically liberating effects of censorship, capable of attuning society to its needs and desires.
Numbness is a very dangerous state. And that takes me back to the political aspect. Before the revolutions, the Arab world was going through a deep and abiding numbness. I don’t understand how you can do anything without feeling. This is what the revolutions are all about. When you’re going down the street in Damascus, Tunis, or Cairo, you are risking your life. So the only way you can go down there is if you’re feeling something, some emotion. My whole goal of making this film was to make something that would allow people to feel, to feel what it’s like to go home, to live in a space that had no boundaries, to feel what it’s like to breathe.
Watch the trailer for Mais Darwazah’s film, My Love Awaits Me By the Sea, about the life and creative legacy of poet Hasan Hourani— then read our interview with Darwazah in the new issue of Guernica.
I allowed myself to fall in love with the poems first. And then I started writing about the kinds of characters I would like to meet.
When you are forbidden to occupy a space or a place, there is not the luxury to enter or leave in any kind of casual way, whenever you want, however you want. I had to stay there for five years to grow deep friendships with the people I met. So what I had with these people was based on pure instinct and pure chemistry. Considering I’m visiting the space for the first time, I allowed my emotions to lead me. Like a child, I allowed myself to say, “I like this,” and I allowed myself to follow it.
- Guernica: How did you come to start writing in English? How do you decide which language to work in on a given project?
- Xiaolu Guo: It’s not a choice. Either I write or I don’t, especially when I’m in a foreign culture. I’ve lived in London for years, and I must continue my writing and filmmaking. The most important thing for an artist or an author is to continue her work. Languages and settings are the tools but not the first thing.
- Guernica: I’d say it still takes a significant amount of effort to write in a language that isn’t your mother tongue, no matter how strong the drive to create. Was there really no part of the move to publish six original works in English that happened on a conscious level?
- Xiaolu Guo: When I came to the U.K. ten years ago, everyone told me I couldn’t send my books directly to publishing houses—that I had to go through a literary agent. So I did, and then I found out the agents couldn’t provide a translator or read my Chinese. There was—there still is—a big shortage of good Chinese-English literary translators. So for two years in London, I was stuck waiting, not writing, with several Chinese books I couldn’t get translated.
- That’s when I decided to write in English, since I had been living here and had decided to reconstruct my life here. Even if I wrote in broken English, it was better than getting bored and weary and bitter on the long queue of authors waiting to be translated by a stranger. That decision was really liberating; I managed to find some [viable] ways to approach the foreign language in A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers. It was written as a linguistic exercise and was an awakening for me in terms of using ‘other’ ways to create literature.
“I wanted to put my arm around him and say “it’s going to be OK,” which is this crazy thing we say in English. I remember thinking “but it’s not going to be OK.” And that’s what he’s going through now: the horror of realizing that somehow he’s damned, that he has destroyed himself.”
It would be perverse to visit the killers on behalf of the thousands that were killed and then lead them toward redemption. There is no redemption in the end. It’s an anti-catharsis.
I would always condemn the crimes that these men had committed and were still committing through extortion and so forth, but one of my main principles was that I should never condemn them as a whole person.