Writers & Company

Xiaolu Guo traces her life's unlikely journey from East to West

The author of the memoir Nine Continents takes an unsentimental look at her family and country's history and how it has shaped her art.
Novelist and filmmaker Xiaolu Guo appeared on Granta‘s Best of Young British Novelists list in 2013. Nine Continents is her memoir about growing up in China. (Stephen Barker)

Xiaolu Guo's new book, Nine Continents, tells the remarkable story of how she went from a harsh childhood in a Chinese fishing village, to becoming an acclaimed novelist, memoirist and filmmaker in Beijing and London. Guo's first novel in English, A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers, was shortlisted for Britain's Orange Prize — currently known as the Women's Prize for Fiction — and she was named one of Granta's best young British novelists in 2013.     

When Guo was born in southern China in 1973, her parents gave her away to be raised by a peasant couple in the mountains. Two years later, she was given away again — this time to her paternal grandparents in the impoverished village of Shitang. At the age of seven, Guo was reunited with her parents, but life in their communist compound had its own challenges. 

Guo went on to study film in Beijing and England, and her award-winning films — including an adaptation of her own novel, UFO in Her Eyes, as well as She, a Chinese — have screened at festivals around the world.

A typical childhood

"I think my story as a young Chinese woman is very typical. As a baby girl you were not desired by your parents. I grew up with this family which adopted me because they didn't have their own children. Like most Chinese people growing up in the 1970s and 1980s, whether you were given away or not, everyone had full-time, factory-working parents that they never saw. Most grew up with their grandparents. All I remember are skinny goats on very barren mountains with a barren couple who only had a few potatoes at home for a skinny girl dying of hunger. I could never know what really happened in those early years. I think that memory is about reconstruction, reshaping and trying to find the continuity in your life."

Feeling out of place

"My parents were so-called hardcore communist believers and lived in a compound. These looked the same from the outside, but once you entered those compound yards you could see a very complicated social landscape. I had been taken to live there with my parents when I was seven and I felt very alienated. I was certainly this kind of wild street kid who didn't know anything — just a pure peasant. So it wasn't a great start , but it was much better than village life. Between a factory town and a very brutal fishing village, you saw much less violence — I heard less cries and screaming in the factory town. Everyone was engaged with school work and there was hope, purpose and engagement in that society, which I really valued."

Breaking from a role

"I see so many women, including those from my mother and my grandmother's generation, who are consumed by the practical problems of their life. They either kill their imagination and surrender to a very tedious, domestic lifestyle or they don't grow their imaginative world. We no longer read beautiful novels, we no longer watch beautiful films and we no longer do imaginative things. When you have children, when you have family to look after, you completely surrender to practicalities. But I don't think that art is completely damaged by ideological oppression or suppression. In I am China, I get my female character to say those lines. She is a poet, not a practical person, but she suggests there is a much bigger world beyond ideological practices. I write about that kind of liberation because I don't want to wear that heavy costume as a woman, as a daughter and as a Chinese person." 

Xiaolu Guo's comments have been edited and condensed.

Music to close the broadcast program: "In the Past" composed by Qi Gang, performed by Chang Jing.