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‘With your tongue down my throat’: Hanan al-Shaykh’s Only in London and Xiaolu Guo’s A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers.

Susie Thomas

I have crossed an ocean,
I have lost my tongue,
From the root of the old one
A new one has sprung.
(Grace Nichols, i is a long memoried woman)[1]

The title for this paper is taken from a short story by Hanif Kureishi, ‘With Your Tongue Down My Throat,’ which contrasts the lives of half sisters Nina and Nadia, who share a Pakistani father but little else.[2] Nina’s upbringing with her single parent mother on a council estate in London has led to tattoos, drugs, a job in a massage parlour and an abortion. Nadia’s parallel female narrative in upper class Karachi has been one of academic achievement, policed virginity, a future as a doctor and possibly forced marriage. Put simply, the story contrasts the constraints of class and national culture on women: who is better off? The title of the story refers to Nina’s diary, which her mother’s boyfriend, the screenwriter Howard, suggests that Nina should keep and which apparently forms the substance of what we read. At the end, it is revealed that Nina’s diary has in fact been written by Howard, who has been ventriloquising all along. ‘With your tongue down my throat’ suggests the (white) male writer’s anxiety about ‘speaking for’ the minority female experience.

The two novels under discussion could be seen as examples of a new genre: the feminist Bildungsroman of migration. Briefly, this genre emerged in the postwar period with Buchi Emecheta’s In the Ditch (1972) and Second-Class Citizen (1974), which together recount Adah’s journey from Lagos to London in the 1960s and her attempt to keep her ‘head above water’.[3] Later examples include novels by Beryl Gilroy and Joan Riley, which chart the migration and education of female protagonists from the West Indies.[4] Guo and al-Shaykh, then, can be seen in relation to this new genre of women’s novels in which the search for an identity is both enriched and potentially compromised by engagement with the other. Both novels ask: what is lost and what is gained in translation? The erotic and the linguistic are closely intertwined in both novels as the heroines discover their own desire and enter a new language. Although the romantic encounter with an Englishman is represented as transformational, the male lover has to disappear in order to allow the heroine to speak in her own newly bi-lingual voice. In both novels, London is a place of possibility and also potentially engulfing. Like the male lover, it is a ‘vacuum cleaner that sucks up everything’.[5] The authors’ ambivalence about the city as a liberating space for their migrating women is suggested by the endings, in which the protagonists leave London, but with the possibility of a return. Strikingly, both protagonists are also conscious that they may be stealing the other’s words. Here, for perhaps the first time in English literature, there appears the figure of the silenced man. Moreover, both novels suggest that what may be choking their female characters, is not the male lover’s tongue down their throat, but their own mother tongue; the mother as patriarchal gatekeeper and enforcer of female subordination.

I’d like to begin with a quotation by Hanan al-Shaykh:

This is our society. We cannot hide. We have to go through the darkest tunnels to come out into the light. And if we don’t go into the tunnels of taboos … and oppressions, and talk about [them], then we will never emerge into the light. We will never be with integrity and free people. This is how I feel about it. And I want to tackle these things, because they are next to my heart.[6]

These are the preoccupations of this paper: the connection between society and the heart, transgressing taboos and integrity, speaking and freedom. Despite their many differences, both novelists bear out Foucault’s premise that any relationship of desire is also a relationship of power and Lacan’s founding insight that desire is inescapably linguistic and bound up with loss. For both novelists, language is an attempt to transgress taboos and prohibitions in order to achieve intimacy with the beloved, and intimacy with the reader, who may reject the insights as shameful. Both al-Shaykh and Guo have suffered from attempts to censor their work of its more explicit sexual elements, despite the fact that repression of female sexuality is their central subject.[7] Their protagonists follow a similar trajectory: from dependence on the man, inarticulacy, and sexual inhibition, to perceived dominance, fluency, and sexual confidence. The ideal of intimacy and equality with a male lover remains unrealised but not discredited. And like Raymond Carver, both novelists know that what we talk about when we talk about love is, very often, not love at all but something else entirely.

The Lebanese novelist, Hanan al-Shaykh, has lived in London since 1982 but her first novel to be set in the city was written in Arabic and translated into English by Catherine Cobham. She has said that she cannot imagine ever writing in English directly: ‘My language. If I lose it, chalas, finish. No Hanan, no writing. So I will never write except in Arabic’.[8] The Chinese novelist and filmmaker, Xiaolu Guo, moved to London in 2002 and her London novel is written in deliberately bad English, which gradually improves. She has said: ‘As a foreigner in London, I feel I become more aggressive as a person and louder as a writer, to hear my voice in the crowds,’ which is perhaps one reason why she chose not to speak through translation.[9] Although neither novel is necessarily autobiographical, it is telling that Guo’s protagonist is by far the more assertive and defiant; indeed, it was Guo’s anger at the mother, for example, which alerted me to the more muted expression of matrophobia in Only in London that I missed at first. I hope that reading the two novels together will highlight the main themes of the feminist Bildungsroman of migration: the mother, motherland, sex, language and identity.

Both novels begin on flights, emphasising migration and the crossing of boundaries. In The Chinese English Dictionary for Lovers, Z has been sent by her parents to study English so that she can return to China and help with the family shoe factory. She describes herself as a peasant girl from a desert town who has never seen the sea. Everything about her new life scares her: ‘I no speaking English. I fearing future’.[10] Only in London begins with Lamis, an Iraqi refugee, who has been visiting her family in Dubai, and is now returning to London. Although this is where she had lived for 13 years as a married woman, she too is frightened of the future. Her new life will be as a divorcee, no longer subservient to or protected by her older wealthy husband and his family. Both women are alone and clutching their passports: Lamis’s is British, Z has a year’s visa.

For both Lamis and Z, London is a place of possibility and freedom, which allows them to escape from family pressures and become individuals. On her arrival, Lamis encourages herself: ‘Go to Soho this afternoon. No guilty conscience, no feeling that you’re letting people down anymore. You’re free, free’ (OL 11). But she doesn’t go there; in fact does not even ‘dare to think about what she wanted’ (OL 10). Instead of the expected elation on leaving her husband, she feels as defeated and lost as a Jean Rhys heroine. Although she has been living in London for thirteen years she wonders: ‘How is it I don’t know a single English person to invite for a cup of tea, or a beer? They’re out of bounds to me, just like the city’ (OL 13). Like the male protagonists in an earlier group of novels about migration to London by Sam Selvon and V S Naipaul, she thinks of a romantic encounter as a means of acceptance: ‘It would take only one invitation from an English person for her to have a way in: one ant leads the whole column to a grain of sugar. She had heard many stories about men Arab women fell in love with simply because they were English’ (OL 16).

During her isolated married life, only the occasional visit to the theatre or the ICA had given her a glimpse of how people viewed life differently. A performance of Carmen, in which the heroine boldly chooses her lover and discards him when she has had enough, shocks and excites her: ‘She was as restless as a lizard’s severed tail until suddenly it seemed that Carmen had rejoined her to herself, body and mind’ (OL 18). She resolves that ‘This is going to be my country. I’ve stopped living a temporary life’ (OL 20). She wants to ‘assimilate’, to speak English without an accent, and her teacher advises her to stop using ‘her mother tongue’ (OL 53). It is at this point that Lamis begins her affair with Nicholas, the Englishman who ‘had given her back her life’ (OL 2) when he found her lost passport on the plane. Here, then, she connects love and language, both learning English and unlearning her mother tongue, for it was on her mother’s tongue that she nearly choked: ‘If her mother had known her daughter’s body, or thought about it, she wouldn’t have been capable of marrying her off as she did’ (OL 194). Much of Lamis’s desire to assimilate comes from the sense of having been betrayed by her mother and virtually sold into a loveless marriage, so Lamis associates Arabic with both sexual repression and exploitation: she has ‘her mother’s blessing’ only so long as she is beautiful and marketable (OL 21).[11]

Hanan al-Shaykh uses specific London locations in order to chart Lamis’s development. Her ‘first proper kiss’ (OL 65) takes place while they are on a guided tour of Lord Leighton’s House. This Temple of Orientalism is London’s most significant monument to the English love affair with Arab culture; thus it is the perfect site to suggest both the attraction and the power relations between the two. The novel highlights the building’s significance to Lamis as she walks through it with a group of English art lovers: she ‘did not share the wonder expressed by the rest of the group’. She looks behind the veneer to imagine the reality of the women’s lives: ‘behind saffron tiles, mausoleum walls and wooden lattices, she could envisage women who were desperate to become pregnant, to see their husband’s return, or to be cured of illness; women whose features were blurred behind the circles and squares of the carved screen’ (OL 62).

When Lamis walks through Leighton House a second time with Nicholas, the reader has been alerted to the possibility that what he sees in her is the beauty and exotic allure of ‘the Orient’ without any understanding of the reality of her past –- what is behind the screen — just as we are aware that Nicholas may represent England to her; the ant that leads to the grain of sugar. But al-Shaykh refuses the overdetermination of the East-West encounter: the kiss is a delicious moment for Lamis, a first taste of physical pleasure; ‘she’d been stripped of her confusion and loneliness’ (OL 65). When they go out together, Lamis feels for the first time that she belongs: ‘the trees and houses and office blocks had suddenly become London’ (OL 96).

Lamis is seduced above all by entry into a new language: ‘His English words were flowing into her ears. They broke up into separate letters and slid in, one by one, feeding the little hairs with delicious food so they demanded more’ (OL 97). But her relationship to English is passive and, when she meets Nicholas’s friends, she becomes tongue-tied: it was ‘hard to talk, because the language was like a private club, barred to any individual who hadn’t had it planted in his mind like a tiny seed, so that it sprang from his mind and was always correct’ (OL 155). This linguistic impasse -– rejecting her mother tongue but barred from English -– is paralleled by a sexual impasse.

The British Library seems at first an unlikely venue in which to explore the deepest taboos of sexual shame and fear (and yet: why not?). Nicholas takes Lamis to the Oriental and India Office Collections in The British Library, after Lamis confesses her ‘hidden … masturbation secrets’ (OL 126). After 13 years as ‘secretary to the eunuch’, she can only achieve orgasm on pieces of wooden furniture; and she sees her own sexuality as something shameful, to be hidden behind locked bathroom doors. At first, the significance of this scene is obscure: Nicholas shows her a medieval Arabic manuscript, Suwar al-Kawakib, Pictures of the Stars, by a group of Islamic scholars, and points out in particular, the constellation of Cassiopeia: The Woman with the Chair.[12] The scene ends with Lamis finally being able to make love with Nicholas without inhibition.

What is going on here? When Lamis first looks at the manuscript she feels ‘awkward’ and ‘defensive’, as if she is about to be caught out: ‘The rules of Arabic grammar were a mystery to her’ (OL 123). But as she becomes engrossed in the text, she ‘marvels at the Arabic language’: ‘’the letter s was like a wave of the sea, a carnation flower, a bird’s wings’. She begins to free herself from a suffocating female legacy and to reconnect with an Arabic culture that is positive: ‘her heart pounded with affection for her language’. She stops thinking that ‘being Arab was an obstacle in her life’(OL 125). She sees herself in the manuscript, as The Woman with the Chair, being taken out of the ‘museum storage’ of her marriage: ‘the Cassiopoeia of stars … relaxed the tightness in Lamis’s brain cells … she felt that each part of her was stretching into life in front of what she used to fear the most, men. … And, as if for the first time since she’d been wrapped in a blanket as a newborn infant, she found herself standing completely naked in front of the mirror of reality –- Nicholas –- and feeling like a child, who, upon seeing herself for the first time, becomes aware only by degrees … that the image in the mirror is really her’ (OL 127). What we talk about when we talk about love turns out to be a 13th century Arabic treatise on astronomy.

Although this image of Lamis’s Mirror Stage seems to cast Nicholas in a parental role — as the centre or anchor of meaning for her — once Lamis overcomes her shame, the balance of power reverses rapidly. When she refuses to move in with Nicholas, avoids introducing him to her son, or talking about a shared future, he accuses her of only wanting a sexual relationship (OL 201). He begins to withdraw from her physically and she sees in him an image of her own previous married self. He becomes silent, and when she masturbates in front of him, he calls her ‘an animal’ (OL 203) before disappearing for the last quarter of the novel. He constructs Lamis as the sexual predator (a Venus flytrap) and himself as emotionally insecure and exploited; feminised and helpless. It is not until the end of the novel that he sends a letter explaining his disappearance in terms that may suggest he recognises his own fears and taboos about female sexuality (OL 272). As Hanan al-Shaykh said in an interview: ‘[men] want to have the upper hand even sexually. They wish they’d invent something else, other than women.’[13]

Nicholas’s absence from the novel also allows al-Shaykh to show Lamis establishing herself in London rather than being ‘given back her life by the Englishman’. She votes in the election, which makes her feel that ‘she belonged in England’ (OL 262). She enrols in college, picking up where she had left off at eighteen, and gets a job in a flower shop so that she will not be financially dependent on her ex-husband. She finally opens the boxes that had been blocking the hallway for months: ‘the past contained in the boxes had died’ (OL 266). Most importantly, she realises she does not have to assimilate by giving up her mother tongue, that migration is not a matter of either/or but both/and. She looks at some Arabic script and thinks: ‘Had she really once considered substituting these for others and doing away with her heritage, no longer seeing, hearing or speaking, and consequently ceasing to breathe?’ (OL 275). And she decides that she will speak her own English ‘even if her logic appeared convoluted; she wouldn’t put off talking about a subject for fear that explaining it would involve a lot of terms whose English equivalent she couldn’t find’ (OL 276).

The final London locality is the BT Tower, which symbolises Lamis’s independence. Like Mrs Ramsay in Woolf’s To the Lighhtouse, Lamis had looked towards it for reassurance in her loneliest moments: ‘The tower guides me like a lighthouse, as if I’m a lost ship’ (OL 263). As she makes her way up to the 34th floor she wonders, as so many strangers to the city have done: ‘How can I reach the heart of the place and make it see me?’ (OL 262). Michel de Certeau has observed that to look down at a city from above ‘transforms the bewitching world by which one was “possessed” into a text that lies before one’s eyes. It allows one to read it … looking down like a God’.[14] As Lamis descends from the tower she carries this sense of the city as comprehensible down with her to street level. Moreover, since entry to the 34th floor is usually barred to the general public, Lamis feels she has penetrated the private club of Englishness: she is no longer an outsider. The novel comes full circle with Lamis sitting on a plane bound for Oman, in order to find Nicholas. She has moved from neediness to perceived dominance; readers with sunny imaginations can hope they achieve equality off the page.

A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers also has a chronological structure but is much more self-consciously concerned with language. Each month is subdivided into dictionary entries of key words, beginning with initial impressions: typically she notes the English obsession with the weather, the strangeness of the food and the contrast between her expectation of London (‘should be like Emperor’s city’) and the ‘tacky reality’ (CCDL 14). Like many before her she is lost: ‘How I finding important places including Buckingham Palace or Big Stupid Clock? (CCDL 14). Later entries reflect the philosophical changes Z undergoes as she considers the meaning of ‘self’, ‘identity’, ‘freedom’, ‘isolation’. She begins to question western concepts: how can they value both ‘privacy’ and ‘intimacy’ at the same time? As in so many accounts of arriving in the metropolis, the gain in knowledge and sophistication is also felt as a loss of innocence and spontaneity.

Like the experience of being in London, Z’s relationship with her lover creates a second self: ‘When I first saw you, I felt I saw another me, a me which I contradicted all the time’ (CCDL 350). Characteristically, Z moves in with her lover as a result of a misunderstanding:

‘I want see where you live,’ I say.
You look in my eyes. ‘Be my guest’. (CCDL 53)

Z attributes much of her new vocabulary to his teaching. He is an anarchist, and a sculptor of the human body; a bisexual drifter who is twenty years older than she is. The lover, directly addressed as ‘you’ throughout the novel, remains unnamed, suggesting her ambivalent feelings. Z tells us that Anon is her favourite poet and the book is prefaced by the disclaimer: ‘Nothing in this book is true, except for the love between her and him’. But rendering the lover anonymous also seems like an attempt to efface him, or revenge for the fact that nobody in England can pronounce her name. His anonymity is particularly ironic, given that Z so often conceives of their relationship as an antithesis between her Chinese value of the ‘collective’ and ‘the group’ against his Western individualism and belief in the ‘self’ (CCDL 269).

Like Lamis, Z wants to ‘grab something warm in this cold country… A man in this country save me, take me, adopt me, be my family, be my home’ (CCDL 38). Their first encounter is in a half–empty cinema, after a screening of Fassbinder’s Fear Eats the Soul. This film, about the love affair between a Moroccan immigrant worker and an older German widow, is clearly relevant to Z’s story. But unlike Fassbinder’s film, there is little prejudice against Z amongst the community in Hackney. The fear that eats the soul results from her insecurity: ‘The fear of without home. Maybe that why I love you? I am building the Great Wall around you and me because I am too scared to lose the home. I have been living in that big fear since my childhood’ (CCDL 127). ‘The fear is like poison in every corner of my heart. That what you dislike’ (CCDL 128).

As in Only in London, the lovers have preconceptions about each other’s cultures. Z’s lover imagines that there is equality for women in China (‘woman holds up half the sky’) and is shocked that Z assumes he will pay for everything and that her first ‘question to the man [is]: will he possible become my husband? If so, will he … be able buy house for his family?’ (CCDL 101). She expects everyone in this ‘rainy capitalist country’ to be materialistic and cannot understand why her lover (possibly the only anti-capitalist Brit-Artist in Hackney) works as a deliveryman and will not even try to sell his sculptures. She admires his pacifism and idealism but feels that she cannot afford them. She is not of ‘the free world’ (CCDL 113), but has to think of visas and bank statements and the future. She views English politics through the prism of Chairman Mao. When she watches the anti-war demonstration, it looks like a family picnic and she wonders: can this stop war? She quotes from the Little Red Book: ‘A revolution is not a dinner party; … it cannot be so refined, so leisurely and gentle’ (CCDL 29). For Z, life is a battle: ‘We Chinese are used to struggle get everything: food, education, house, freedom, visa, human rights. If no need struggle then we don’t know how to live anymore’ (CCDL 142). She cannot understand that her lover is content to be a ‘drifter’; a word that isn’t even in her Chinese dictionary.

Perhaps her belief in struggle is why she feels at home in East London; in ‘long-shabby-Hackney-Road’ (CCDL 69). Z never ventures into Lamis’s affluent London, nor does she travel by taxi screened off from poverty. There are no monuments to Chinese/English history; no equivalents to Leighton House and The Oriental Rooms of the BL. She makes one trip to a Chinese restaurant but she is embarrassed at the rudeness of the staff: ‘I am shameful for being a Chinese here’ (CCDL 75). There is no counterpart to the BT Tower; in fact there are few public monuments of any kind. Z’s London remains at street level: London Fields, Hackney Public Library, greasy spoons and pubs. She enjoys being teased by the men in Dirty Dick’s (CCDL 86) and ‘loves these old oily cafes around Hackney. Because you can see the smokes and steams coming out from the coffee machine or kitchen all day long. That means life is being blessed’ (CCDL 118).

But like Lamis, Z at first feels shame about sex: ‘Is such taboo in China. I never really know what is sex before. Now I naked everyday in the house, and I can see clearly my desire.’ (CCDL 69) And as with Lamis, it is the lover’s language that seduces her: ‘I think you are a noble man with noble words’ (CCDL 79). She tells him: ‘I want learn most beautiful English words because you are beautiful’. (103). The erotic and the linguistic are closely paralleled: she learns about tenses, pronouns and plurals as she reads porno mags, the instructions on a packet of condoms and the box of a vibrator.

But the discovery of her desire is also felt as a threat to her independence: ‘My whole body is your colony’ (CCDL 132). At this point, Z decides to educate herself in westernism and goes to a peepshow. Unlike Lamis who never makes it to Soho, Z is so mesmerised she goes back another day and pays twenty pounds to see a live show. ‘While I am standing there watching, I desire become prostitute. … To take my body away from dictionary and grammar and sentences’ (CCDL 139). She resents her lover’s power over her, just as she resents being colonised by the English language. There are two passages, when Guo breaks out of the strait-jacket of English and writes in Chinese, translated by the editor. The first is about language:

I am sick of speaking English like this … I feel as if I am being tied up, as if I am living in a prison. I am scared that I have become a person who is always very aware of talking, speaking, and I have become a person without confidence, because I can’t be me. I have become so small, so tiny, while the English culture around me becomes enormous. It swallows me and it rapes me. I am dominated by it. … I wish I could go back to my own language now. … Why do we have to force ourselves to communicate with people? Why is the process of communication so troubled and so painful? (CCDL 180)

The second passage is about love:

I say I love you, but you say you want to have freedom. Why is freedom more important than love? Without love, freedom is naked. Why can’t love live with freedom? Why is love the prison for freedom? How many people live in this prison then? (CCDL 196)

Z finally learns to speak through her body when she is packed off to Europe by her lover in order to school her in independence. In each city she has a brief flirtation with a man, and her grand tour culminates in a wordless sexual encounter with a stranger on the beach in Portugal, which leaves her feeling dirty and possibly pregnant: she has an abortion on her return to London. Z is both appalled and fascinated by what she sees as western sexual liberation. Before coming to London she believed that ‘Sex … means something to do with a man, but not to do with myself’ (CCDL 244). She thinks that nobody in the west will believe that at the age of 24 she is not only a virgin but has never masturbated. For Z this has a different significance than for Lamis; it is not a secret shame but an act of independence. When, for the first time, she achieves an orgasm alone, it is also a feminist epiphany: ‘I can be on my own. I can. I can rely on myself, without depending on a man’ (CCDL 245).

As the novel progresses, Z’s lover loses his words and becomes mute, while she becomes fluent: ‘I talk more and more. I steal all your beautiful words’ (CCDL 293). As in Only in London, the absence of the male lover is primarily about making space for the heroine’s independence, but the figure of the silenced man in both novels also demonstrates women’s lack of entitlement. Lamis’s perception that English is a private club from which she is barred and Z’s feeling that she is ‘stealing’ her lover’s words, suggests they both feel English does not belong to them, whether because the Symbolic Order is considered male or simply because they are not English, is not spelt out. But as Z’s male lover withdraws from her she is forced to recognise that she must speak up for herself: ‘I thought that you would bring everything into my life. I thought you are my Jesus. You are my priest, my light. So I always believed you are my only home here’ (CCDL 325). When she is with his friends she feels like an outsider, ‘somebody’s peasant wife’ (CCDL 266) or like ‘an escaped panda from bamboo forest’ (CCDL 163). It is only towards the end of the novel that she asserts her cultural independence, telling him: ‘“You never really pay attention to my culture. You English once took over Hong Kong, so you probably heard that we Chinese have 5,000 years of the greatest human civilization ever existed in the world … Our Chinese invented paper so your Shakespeare can write two thousand years later. Our Chinese invented gunpowder for you English and Americans to bomb Iraq”’. (CCDL 289) Her lover stares at her and has ‘no words’.

Like Lamis, Z is intensely ambivalent about her mother country. She is proud of being Chinese, craves Chinese food (CCDL 296) but feels absolutely no nostalgia for her family. She remembers seeing girl babies found in the rubbish bins in her home town (CCDL 269) and believes her mother hated her because she was a ‘useless girl’ (CCDL 128). When she considers the term ‘identity crisis’ it is with reference to her mother, who told her she was a ‘barbarian’, a ‘peasant’, that nobody would ever want to marry her. When she read the story of Snow White as a child she immediately recognised her mother in the wicked step mother. ‘I hated her, and I wished she could die immediately.’ Abused and beaten by her mother, she longed to run away from home; ‘the place without my dream and my freedom’ (CCDL 186). On her return to China, Z’s mother orders her to marry and provide her with grandchildren. Z thinks: ‘Sometimes I wish I could kill her. Her power control, for ever, is just like this country’ (CCDL 350).

Although this is far more direct and angry than anything Lamis says, the sense that she is stealing her lover’s words and choking on her mother tongue is similar: ‘When I badly communicating with others, my mother’s words become loud in my eardrum. I am ugly peasant girl’ (CCDL 60). In response, she tries to create a new hybrid language. She reads a headline in the newspaper: ‘Lost For Words -– The Language of an Endangered Species’ about the death of the last speaker of womans-only language, Nushu, ‘the language used by Chinese women to express their innermost feelings’. (CCDL 122). Z thinks: ‘Maybe this notebook which I use for putting new English vocabularies is a Nushu’ (CCDL 122); this becomes of course The Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers that we read.

When Z’s lover sends her off back-packing, he gives her a copy of Hanif Kureishi’s Intimacy to read on the journey. The significance of this novel about frustrated married love is clear to Z: she identifies completely with the male character, Jay, who wants intimacy with his wife, and who decides that if he can’t have that he will leave her for another woman. ‘Intimacy’ is what Z wants from her lover and the promise of permanence. It is much less clear what the novel means to the lover and what he is trying to convey to Z by giving it to her. Does he, perhaps, identify with Susan, the wife in Kureishi’s novel who now refuses intimacy and responds to Jay’s desire as a demand she cannot fulfill? Is Kureishi’s novel being offered as a cautionary tale about love as the prison for freedom? About why the process of communication is so difficult? Perhaps Intimacy is what we talk about when we talk about leaving. The last film they see together in London is Saturday Night and Sunday Morning: he identifies with Albert Finney’s frustrated, restless character and she with the young woman who simply wants a home (CCDL 336). There is nothing left for them to say to each other.

Like Only in London, Dictionary for Lovers ends with a letter from the male lover. There is no prospect of a happy ending in Guo’s novel but neither is there any bitterness. 500 days after her departure from London, Z is in her Beijing flat (a significant locality because it shows she has not gone home to her mother). In a manner typical of the Bildungsroman, she reflects on her experience: ‘maybe I will never go back to England, the country where I became an adult, where I grew into a woman, the country where I also got injured, the country where I had my most confused days and my greatest passion and my brief happiness and my quiet sadness.’ (CCDL 353). And where she learned from reading Flaubert in Hackney Public Library that she wants to ‘dedicate her life to something serious’; to be like Billie Holliday, or Frieda Kahlo (CCDL 193). Or, since London is also credited with being the place where she developed her sense of humour, better still, to be like her heroine, Mae West (CCDL 146). After all, she used to be Snow White but she drifted.

Finally, for both Guo and al-Shaykh the most significant change in their work since coming to London has been in allowing themselves to use humour. Hanan al-Shaykh has said: ‘But there is one thing which I took from the West, from reading literatures here. In the Middle East or in the Arab world, usually, if you are a serious writer, then you don’t let any sentence which is funny come into your text. Unless, if you are a comic writer, then you write comedy from the first word to the last word. You cannot mix both at all. And only when I started living here and reading books here, I thought that when you sometimes produce a laughter here and there in the text, they consider you as being very much in command of your work and that you really know what you are doing. … Because it’s very easy to write about tragedies and to let people cry. But to let them smile, you have to be very witty. So this is what I learnt here’.[15] Xiaolu Guo has said: ‘In China we don’t have humour; we have peasant jokes. Because humour requires that you’re really detached. … I tried to keep the book in a sunny, childish, hopeful tone … but inside me is this heaviness.’[16] One of the greatest pleasures in reading these novels is the way the writers embrace the possibilities of tragicomedy.

Indeed it is striking that in earlier examples of the feminist Bildungsroman of migration by Buchi Emecheta and Joan Riley there is an almost complete absence of humour, as well as an absence of the genuinely erotic. The ‘detachment’ and ‘command’, which allows tragic material to be treated humorously, is either unavailable or undesired by these earlier authors, possibly because conditions for migrating women in the 1970s and 1980s were harsher, but perhaps also because with so few depictions of women’s struggle, the authors could not risk making this a laughing matter. The sex in Emecheta and Riley’s novels is almost always another form of victimisation for the heroines: Adah endures repeated marital rape in Second-Class Citizen; Hyacinth is sexually abused by her father in Riley’s The Unbelonging (1985). It is inconceivable that either novelist would suggest that ‘a way in’ for their heroines might be through a relationship with an Englishman. Indeed, given the colonial history of Nigeria and the West Indies, the relationship between a white man and a black woman was more likely to summon up the spectre of master and slave. Even in more recent examples of the genre, such as Monica Ali’s Brick Lane (2003) and Leila Aboulela’s Minaret (2005), in which the heroines’ development includes both the linguistic and the erotic, the protagonists’ sentimental education occurs exclusively within their minority community. Moreover, both Ali and Aboulela seem sceptical about the benefits of falling in love: Brick Lane rejects the possibility of a redemptive lover in favour of sisterly solidarity; Minaret closes with the heroine embarking on a pilgrimage to Mecca. Placed in the context of other migrating women’s novels, Only in London and The Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers are highly unusual in celebrating women’s humour and sexuality as an expression of their confidence, authority and agency.


[1] In Grace Nichols, The Fat Black Woman’s Poems (London: Virago, 1984).

[2] In Hanif Kureishi, Love in a Blue Time (London: Faber, 1997).

[3] This is the title of Emecheta’s autobiography (London: Fontana, 1986).

[4] Unlike their male counterparts, such as Sam Selvon and V S Naipaul, women novelists from the colonies and former colonies had considerable difficulty in making their voices heard in the postwar period. Beryl Gilroy’s In Praise of Love and Children, for example, was not published until 1996 although it was written much earlier. For an account of the difficulties facing women writers see Susheila Nasta, Home Truths: Fictions of the South Asian Diaspora in Britain (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2002), p. 63. See also, ‘Living room: Buchi Emecheta, Joan Riley and Grace Nichols’ in John McLeod, Postcolonial London: Rewriting the Metropolis (London: Routledge, 2004).

[5] Hanan al-Shaykh, Only in London (London: Bloomsbury, 2001), p. 276. Future page references appear in brackets in the text with the prefix OL.

[6] Hanan al-Shaykh in conversation with Christiane Schlote, Literary London online, vol 1, no 2 (September 2003).

[7] Hanan al-Shaykh’s Women of Sand and Myrrh is banned throughout much of the Middle East. Interestingly, Guo has complained of attempts to censor the abortion and peep show scenes by her American publishers. See Xiaolu Guo in conversation with Boyd Tonkin, ‘Far East to East End’, Independent (28 July, 2007).

[8] Hanan al-Shaykh in conversation with Christiane Schlote.

[9] Xiaolu Guo in conversation with Boyd Tonkin.

[10] Xiaolu Guo, A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary For Lovers (London: Chatto and Windus, 2007), p.4. Future page references appear in brackets in the text with the prefix CCDL.

[11] More matrophobia: Lamis’s double in the novel is the Moroccan prostitute Amira. She has also been betrayed by her mother, who condemns her daughter but takes the money. In one of the most tragic scenes, Amira is beaten up by an Arab Prince, after which she takes refuge in Regent’s Park Mosque and cries hysterically for her ‘dead’ mother who has abandoned her. Similarly, the mother of Nahid, an Egyptian prostitute in London, does not even want her dead daughter’s body to be flown home to her: ‘why bother?’

[12] Cassiopeia is the wife of King Cepheus; she was punished by Poseidon for boasting of her beauty. Later, he relented and turned her into a constellation but because of Cassiopeia’s vanity, he placed her in a chair which revolves around the Pole Star, so half the time she is obliged to sit upside down.

[13] Hanan al-Shaykh in conversation with Christiane Schlote.

[14] Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life, translated by Stephen Rendall (Berkeley: U of California Press, 1984), p. 92. Quoted in John Clement Ball, Imagining London: Postcolonial Fiction and the Transnational Metropolis (Toronto: U of Toronto Press, 2004), p. 197.

[15] Hanan al-Shaykh in conversation with Christiane Schlote.

[16] Xiaolu Guo in conversation with Boyd Tonkin.

To Cite This Article:

Susie Thomas, ‘‘With your tongue down my throat’: Hanan al-Shaykh’s Only in London and Xiaolu Guo’s A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers.’ Literary London: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Representation of London, Volume 5 Number 2 (September 2007). Online at Accessed on [date of access]