Chinese writer Xiaolu Guo’s memoir tells of extraordinary upbringing and search for identity
Xiaolu Guo is not an easy person to pin down. This, I suspect, is just how she likes it. “I am an extremely optimistic pessimist,” the 44-year-old writer and filmmaker tells me, with what seems to be a characteristic combination of honesty and paradox. Similar ambiguities are present everywhere in her conversation. “My existence is nearly beyond gender,” she says later during a discussion of her recent motherhood: her daughter, Moon, was born in 2014.
Guo’s cultural and geographical identities are similarly blurred. A veritable global citizen, she was born in China, but has lived in London for the best part of two decades – when she is not visiting her second home in Berlin, that is, or travelling across Europe, Asia or America. “A passport and the nationality written on its cover would never define me,” Guo writes in her new book, Once Upon a Time in the East.
Far from being a hindrance, this essential restlessness has formed the bedrock of her diverse artistic career. She has written novels (in both English and Chinese), journalism, essays and scripts for soap operas. An award-winning filmmaker, Guo has also directed documentaries (including The Concrete Revolution, about construction workers exploited before the 2008 Beijing Olympics) alongside more surreal works: How is Your Fish Today?, a loose adaptation of Alain Robbe-Grillet’s 1966 movie, Trans-Europ-Express.
Whatever the medium, Guo’s work draws heavily on her personal experiences. Her best-known novel remains A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers, which used Roland Barthes’s A Lover’s Discourse to fictionalise her own struggles to adapt to the English way of life and language.
But never has Guo written about herself more directly than in Once Upon a Time in the East. To all intents and purposes an autobiography, the book traces her extraordinary life from a tiny fishing village beside the East China Sea to a life spent balancing family, work and art in 21st century London.
The author aged 7. Courtesy Chatto & Windus
Guo being Guo, things are not straightforward. “I really hate the idea of memoir,” she exclaims. “Memoir is immediately connected to genre and I cannot do genre. I feel so shameful. Some people are so happy if they are recognized, like a crime writer. For me if you are a genre writer, you are no longer fresh, no longer sincere. You are no longer unique.”
We talk in Hackney on the morning that Donald Trump refused citizens from seven predominantly-Muslim nations entry to the United States. “It is so dramatic but also arbitrary,” Guo says with undisguised distaste. “You are from Iraq and Iran, but your entire life is in the West? It is so not wise. Tomorrow it could be persecution of another minority because he is so unpredictable this man.”
Hackney and Guo seem a perfect fit, aesthetically and politically. Arriving at the local arthouse cinema, she wears the sort of fashionably-Bohemian military coat that The Beatles once affected.
Guo’s home for almost two decades, Hackney’s long tradition of liberal dissent makes it the very model of the liberal cosmopolitan bubble. In last year’s EU referendum, it ranked third in the UK’s “Remain” vote, with 78.5 per cent of its inhabitants voting to stay in Europe.
Guo is unsurprisingly withering about the “Leave” campaign. “There was no real [intellectual] debate before the Brexit. The politics was just theatre. There is still theatre but there is also protest art going on every weekend. There is no direct power, but it generates all the discussion everywhere. I think it is a good sign.”
Indeed, while she describes the era of Brexit and Trump as “depressing”, Guo feels inspired by current events. “I think it generates the lazy intellectuals in a way,” she says. “I truly believe that from the ruins there is going to be a second Renaissance of art and culture. The centre will be London not Florence.”
Such conversation and surroundings are a far cry from Guo’s origins. “Say I have four lives,” she says. “The first is the very brutal fishing village life. The feudal style for seven years.” This is Shitang, the minuscule fishing village beside the East China Sea that was Guo’s first home. She was raised, not by her biological parents, but by a peasant couple who lived in the nearby mountains. When poverty made the adoption untenable, the two-year-old Guo was handed over again, this time to her biological grandparents.
“Brutal” was Guo’s word for these early years and her book does little to modify the adjective. She regularly witnessed her scavenger grandfather beating his wife, something Guo recalls was par for the course in that part of China. “When I grew up, men beat woman, every house in the night. They live in that very primitive, animals [way of] living. It looks romantic, but it was a harsh environment.”
Nevertheless, as claustrophobic and remote as Shitang was, Guo always had an inkling of possibilities beyond its confines. Her biological family had gone, but were not forgotten. “People ask, ‘How can you imagine an outside world when you have never been outside?’ If you believe in genetics inheritance, your childhood is tainted by your parents’ ambition. I always knew they are somewhere better than this village. I thought, ‘There is a life beyond this little life.’”
Guo was six when she finally met her parents. Cue part two of her story: in the rapidly-expanding industrial city of Wenling. “Everybody was a factory worker, apart from my father, and he sees himself as peasant artisan. That was my second life: factory Communist life.”
When I ask how she felt about being given up for adoption by her parents, Guo sounds coolly unsentimental. “I don’t think that was unique. So many baby girls in China had such a different life without knowing their real parents, or they grew up in Sweden or Denmark, or adopted by Germans and Americans.”
Xiaolu Guo’s parents. Courtesy Chatto & Windus
She can talk and write generously about her father, a state artist who was imprisoned after he unwisely took Chairman Mao’s Hundred Flowers Campaign at its word and criticized the ruling Communist Party. One of half-a-million intellectuals arrested as part of an ideological purge, he was sentenced to 10 years’ hard labour in Changshi.
Guo’s feelings for her mother, by contrast, are dismissive. A dyed-in-the-wool member of the Red Guard, she never disguised her preference for Guo’s brother, nor it seems, regretted handing her baby daughter to strangers. “She doesn’t want baby girl. When she was bored of me, she sent me to another family,” Guo states flatly. “At university, I would go every morning to the washroom and look in the mirror. I see my mother’s face. I was so appalled. She was everything I don’t want to be. So brutal: Red Guard, emotionless, loveless. All her life is about practicalities. The practicality of China killed so much stuff. The creativity and imagination.”
Once Upon a Time in the East paints an irredeemably melancholy portrait of Guo family life. “I grew up really without any love. Now I am much more healthy. But when I was young I was desperate. I wouldn’t talk to the world. I stayed home every day and write.”
The third – and to Guo’s mind – real stage of her life began when she became one of 11 people from 7,000 applicants accepted into Beijing’s prestigious FilmAcademy. Guo was exposed to the work of French New Wave directors like Jean-Luc Godard, read Foucault and immersed herself in Beijing’s underground art scene. She fell in love, with jealous and sometimes-violent Chinese men, and indifferent Americans passing through China on their way to somewhere else. Even more importantly, she began to develop her feminist perspective and find her voice as a writer and filmmaker.
“I really wanted to be a rebellious artist: a punk artist as young girl. I didn’t have much platform, but I produced. I published eight books and wrote hundreds of TV soaps. I made a living as a writer. That was very important in my third life: to become myself.”
Guo’s burgeoning identity would be both completed and complicated by her move to England, which eventually became permanent when she gave up her Chinese passport. “Coming to Europe was my fourth life. Suddenly I felt my provincial Chinese existence was unique because it doesn’t appear in the West. The idea of multiple identities became very clear when I began to write in English. That forced me to accept that actually I do have multiple identities, which eventually I feel happy about.”
Xiaolu Guo’s London life. Courtesy Chatto & Windus
The memoir ends with Guo on the verge of entering her fifth life, comprising motherhood, a relationship with Australian-born philosopher Stephen Barker, and a world turned upside down by a former reality TV host. Guo wrote about this new phase but omitted it for fear that it would unbalance Once Upon a Time in the East. ‘My emotion to my daughter is so strong that the chapter swallowed the early parts. The most important thing for this story is a peasant, uncultured child with a desperation to become artist. I was also worried as a woman writer that you are often devalued for your artwork. Your own personal life becomes the focus for the media. And I hate that.”
Strange as this might sound from someone whose new book is essentially a memoir, the sentiment conveys the tensions and contradictions Guo feels about mixing art and motherhood. Without any positive role models of her own, she is in the process of inventing parenthood from scratch. For example, she refused a pram, she says, afraid that she might become “This depressed looking new mother who has suddenly lost her own identity to the job of looking after this baby. I would say to my partner, ‘Let’s not get too confined with this new life.’”
Not all confines can be escaped, of course. “Family does not make it easy to go out [and] film in the fields for two months. When I was making my first two films, I would sleep anywhere. I miss that.” But baby Moon has proved a valuable teacher. “It is a very strong experience. I refuse to say that having a baby is always better. But it is an amazing strong experience for someone who for 40 years never had children, suddenly has this new experience. In my case, it is rewarding.”
One final, and eminently human contradiction is when Guo wonders whether her experiences are unique or utterly commonplace. “Maybe I am unusual to want to get out from tiny little village to become artist. It is also extremely ordinary in a way, because thousands of ordinary Chinese kids rebel against this heavy culture. They want to be rock ‘n’ roll star or artist or something totally different from their parents’ generation. It is so heavy, this continuity from our parents’ or grandparents’ generation.”
Before Guo heads off into a sunny winter’s day in Hackney, I ask if she ever thinks about roads not taken? What if she had never left Shitang, moved to Beijing and London? Would she still be an artist? Guo shakes her head firmly.
“I would have grown up with that family on the mountain. I would have been married early and would have had a lot of kids. I would have been one of those peasant women – just like my grandmother.”
She looks even more grave than usual. “I would never have become what I am now.”
James Kidd is a freelance journalist based in London.