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Nine Continents: A Memoir In and Out of China, by Xialou Guo.

May 15, 2017

Nine Continents: A Memoir In and Out of China.   By Xialou Guo.  USA: Grove, October 2017.  FORTHCOMING

(An English edition was published under the title, Once Upon A Time in the East: A Story of Growing Up, Chatto & Windus, an imprint of Vintage, January 2017.)

5 stars FAVORITE

A fine memoir by an acclaimed woman writer who tells of her life as a child in a Chinese fishing village and a small industrializing town, as a rebellious student in Beijing, and as an aspiring filmmaker/writer in London.

Xialou Guo is a highly talented author of novels, poetry, essays, screenplays, and films.  Her writing has been published in both Chinese and English editions and deservedly won a variety of prestigious international awards.  In this book, she tells a rather conventional narrative of her unconventional life. Her writing ability makes her account more than ordinary as she tells of both her own personal and psychological growth and also how she was shaped by the political and social environment in which she functioned.  She attributes her anger, for example, to both her personal rejection by her family and to the totalitarian world in which she grew up.  Nothing completely explains the sharpness of her observations or the wonder of her writing.

Guo was born in 1973 and was given as an infant to adoptive parents.  After a couple of years, her foster parents returned her to her aged biological grandparents who lived in poverty in a tiny fishing village.  The only person with whom she was close was her grandmother who had bound feet and was totally dependent on the husband who had purchased her years before. During these years a Taoist priest foretold that Guo would visit “the nine continents.”  When Guo was seven, her birth parents arrived to take her to live with them so she could go to school.  While slightly more stable economically, she felt rejected by her mother and brother.  Her father, an artist who made communist propaganda pictures, fostered her dreams and was a strong, if often silent, ally.

Unhappy with her family, Guo’s goal became escaping from her parents and the small industrial town where they lived.  With her father’s support, she went to Beijing for tests and became one of eleven teenagers chosen out of seven thousand to study film-making in the city.  Living in Beijing, she gravitated to other young artists who shared her anger and rebelliousness.  After finishing her studies, she scrambled for ways to support herself by writing the scripts for soap operas and publishing her first novels in Chinese.

Another scholarship, again won despite high odds, allowed Guo to go to London to study documentary film-making.  Initially she found the West disappointing.  The weather, the landscape, and the loneliness all depressed her.  Any social life stagnated as she sought to learn English enough to excel at using it to be a writer.  In 2003 she published her first English novel, A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers, written at the same time she herself was struggling with the language.  Since its enthusiastic reception, she has gone on to publish other novels, including I am China, which I loved and reviewed. Guo ends her memoir with her own motherhood and her visit back to China where she still sees herself as rooted.

Because Guo embeds her story so tightly in the worlds which she has inhabited, no list of what she did adequately captures her book. Woven together, there is her personal narrative about rejection as a small child and about the early sexual abuse that affected her relationships with men.  There is her anger at the ridiculous limitations placed on her by her Chinese rulers.  There is her awareness of the ways in which Chinese men’s lives were privileged over women’s.  And underlying everything is her deep anger at the injustices she encountered in both the East and the West.  Yet her book is not ugly and angry, but one that managed to create beauty out of the ugliness of life.

I strongly recommend this book because it well-written and engaging and because it tells a story few of us have known.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. May 15, 2017 8:27 pm

    “When Guo was seven, her birth parents arrived to take her to live with them so she could go to school.”
    Having read a bit about why Chinese children were often fostered during this period, (and it had nothing to do with rejecting them, but rather to do with permits for where families were allowed to live and work) I’m curious, does she explain why this happened?

    • May 16, 2017 3:28 pm

      That was the exact same question I had Lisa. Was it because she was a girl or did the parents not have the money to raise the child? Whatever happened how said that she was bounced around so much from one set of ‘parents’ to another

  2. May 16, 2017 4:53 pm

    In her version of her life, the issue was less about rules than the sheer fragility of life, especially for girls, in villages still where isolation and dire poverty held back government authority. Her parents may have given her away because of poverty, her adoptive parents could not feed her and she was literally starving when returned to her grandparents when she was two. She had never seen her parents when they took her away when she was five. Whatever the initial reasons, her mother never appeared to want or love her although she lived with her for twelve years. Unsurprisingly her mother ignored her in favor of her son. Her father was kinder, but weak and often absent. Only at the very end of the book do the mother and daughter make some tiny steps toward reconciliation. Initial rejection becomes part of her overall view of herself, not any kind off objective fact.

    Read the book. I found it quite good, and you can see for yourselves what I mean.

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