As a child, Xiaolu Guo hunted birds and toads for food – today, she's an award-winning novelist

Guo’s jagged, unpolished memoir Once Upon a Time in the East reminds us of the power of storytelling.

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In Once Upon a Time in the East, Xiaolu Guo recalls the fatalism that enveloped her lonely and troubled childhood in south-eastern China: “Silence was the way we communicated, a family tradition carried down to my brother and me from my parents and their parents . . . Never mention the tragedies, and never question them. Move on, get on with life, since you couldn’t change the fact of your birth.”

The facts of her birth may have presented too many obstacles for most. Given away as a baby, then returned to her destitute grandparents and finally to her parents, Guo hunted birds and toads to avoid starvation and from the age of 12 was often abused and raped on her way home from school. Nevertheless, although she was illiterate until the age of eight and lived without glasses for her severe myopia until she was 20, Guo won one of 11 places – out of 7,000 applications – to study at the prestigious Beijing Film Academy. By the time she was 40, she had made 12 films, written ten books (five of them in English) and been selected as one of Granta’s Best of Young British Novelists. This autobiography is her account of fiery, artistic defiance and a testament to the act of storytelling as a way to break the silence.

It is no surprise that for Guo a sense of personal narrative is of such importance. The communal hardships of life in a tiny fishing village cancelled out people’s individual plight. Her kind grandmother, sold at 12 for a few bags of rice and yams, couldn’t remember her own name, let alone the value of her life. Her grandfather, a failed fisherman and abusive husband, was known as “a man of no words and no particular stories to tell”, while her mother embodied “the uncompromising ideology of Maoist China – inhuman, unchallengeable and full of contradictions”. Personal histories were either eclipsed or warped by grander socio-political narratives.

The idea of autonomy arrives with a Taoist monk’s prophecy. “The girl is a peasant warrior,” he tells her foot-bound, hunchbacked grandmother. “She will cross the sea and travel to the Nine Continents.” So it is, at six years old, that Guo has her epiphany. To escape the cycle she must become an artist and never get married. She binge-reads Frank O’Hara and Walt Whitman, starts writing mournful “misty poetry” and embraces as an omen the meaning of the name Guo (“outside the first city wall”).

Cultural alienation is to be expected once she leaves home. Her university years in Beijing, during the nervy aftermath of the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989, are replete with comic vignettes about run-ins with corrupt police, buffoonish censors and attention-seeking iconoclasts – art students sucking their own penis or simulating sex with the Great Wall. The young, mock-­heroic Guo renames herself Franny (in tribute to Salinger), gives her heart to French New Wave cinema and starts writing her first novel by candlelight.

Only when she arrives in Britain on a scholarship and faces the reality of poverty and isolation in London does she realise that her childhood is still the “driver of my imagination, a source of creativity, thought and understanding . . . Never again would I turn my back on the China of my youth.” As the memoir’s fairy-tale title suggests, those traumatic early years take on an almost mythic quality.

Unlike with so many memoirs of exile or immigration (Guo was stripped of her Chinese citizenship in 2014 after she took a British passport), she neither romanticises her past nor glorifies her new home. Guo is as lonely and culturally dislocated as an “orphan” in a village in south-eastern China as she is in Europe. And, much like her novels (including her impressive English-language debut, A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers, and, most recently, I Am China), this autobiography reads as an account of miscommunication within close relationships.

So, too, for her fellow Chinese authors who write in English, such as Yiyun Li and Ha Jin. But while they have imported the profound continuation of endurance and rationed emotion, Guo writes in the audacious, restless and fragmented prose that has become her imprint: a feverish style that can be as merciless as the world she portrays, naming its tragedies and shaming their perpetrators.

Throughout, she uses the image of a jagged-edged rock or stone to describe a granite-hard life born of neglect, defiance and estrangement. This rock in her heart, she admits, was a source of strength as well as a “deadness at the centre of my emotional life”. It is a personality trait as captivatingly flawed as those of the Monkey King – the brash, impetuous, shape-shifting superhero of Chinese fiction – whose story prefaces each chapter of her memoir.

Perhaps it is no coincidence that the reason that Guo gives for deciding to write in English is to be free of Chinese government censorship, a process that she describes as the wearing down of a rock’s sharp edges to a smooth pebble. That is something the reader would never wish for this wonderfully unpolished and penetrating writer.

Once Upon a Time in the East: a Story of Growing Up by Xiaolu Guo is published by Chatto & Windus (317pp, £16.99)

This article first appeared in the 26 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The eclipse of the West