“The remarkable story of a remarkable woman” – Once upon a Time in the East by Xiaolu Guo

ouatitexgMy first encounter with Xiaolu Guo came when I reviewed her novel I am China a few years ago. When Guo emigrated to Britain at the age of thirty she spoke little English, and I was bowled over when I learned that she had taught herself to write in English in order to reach a wider audience with her work. So when her autobiography Once upon a time in the East came out, I had to find out how she did it.

The story is more impressive than I could have imagined. For the first years of her life, Guo lived with her illiterate grandparents in a remote Chinese fishing village, joining her parents and attending school for the first time at the age of seven. Through a combination of talent and sheer determination she beat thousands of applicants to earn a place at the Beijing Film Academy upon finishing school. After graduating she started to write film scripts, which ‘slammed into a great wall, otherwise known as the Chinese Film Censorship Bureau’. After some years she applied for a Chevening Scholarship to the UK, and eventually a British passport.

Once upon a time in the East recounts her life so far, starting with grandparents and early years, through middle years in a government compound, adjusting to school, teenage abuse, studies, building a new life in England, and becoming a novelist. Her understated prose makes it sound somehow effortless, although it clearly was not. Even the novel format had to be learned (she recounts how when she first encountered the English version of On the Road, she was astonished to find it written in the past tense, as apparently there is no such thing in Chinese).

Guo’s autobiography is at times uncomfortably frank…

“The more I studied what Confucius had said, the more I loathed this ancient man and his rotten words. It was a philosophy as depressing as the fates of my suicidal grandfather and my hunchbacked grandmother.”

…wry…

“I had lost my main tool: language. Here, I was nothing but a witless, dumb, low-class foreigner.”

…and funny…

“The heating was weak and the flat was draughty, and I started to understand why English people loved tea.”

… but above all, she is a storyteller, and her story pulled me in after a few pages and spat me out again at the end.

Any cop? The remarkable story of a remarkable woman.

 

Lucy Chatburn

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