Wednesday, 7 March 2018

Once Upon A Time in the East by Xiaolu Guo

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought:

Shortlisted for the Jhalak Prize 2018, this is a memoir of growing up in China, of peasant existence in the 1970s, and the immense changes that have swept over China since the end of the Cultural Revolution. It is also the story of a struggle to develop an identity and a creative voice, first in a collective society, and then later, marooned and isolated as an immigrant in a foreign country.

The memoir overlaps, chronologically, with Madeleine Thien’s sweeping epic, Do Not Say We Have Nothing. But Xiaolu Guo’s family was not one with a long cultural and artistic heritage. Although her father was a state-sanctioned artist, for the most part, her family were illiterate peasants and fishermen, living in the rural and industrial fringes of China, far away from the cultural centres of Shanghai and Beijing.

Despite the declared feminism of Communist doctrine, this was a society where women were treated brutally. Domestic and sexual abuse was rife. Her grandmother, who brought her up for the first few years of her life, was regularly and savagely beaten by her grandfather, and nobody thought it was anything unusual. And when Xiaolu speaks up about her own sexual abuse at the hands of a colleague of her father’s, she finds every one of her university dorm-mates has a parallel story to tell.

Fascinating as Guo’s account of her life in China is, it is her struggle to find a creative voice in a strange country and in an unknown tongue that I found most absorbing. It always seems extraordinary to us stubbornly monoglot Anglophones when someone expresses themselves creatively in a language they did not grow up with. But the gulf that Guo had to cross was far more than merely linguistic. It required an entirely new mode of thinking.

“How could someone who had grown up in a collective society get used to using the first person singular all the time? The habitual use of ‘I’ requires thinking of yourself as a separate entity in a society of separate entities.”

I haven’t read any of Guo’s novels, but I am excited to try one now.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien, Wild Swans by Jung Chang

Avoid if You Dislike: Frank discussion of sexual and domestic abuse

Perfect Accompaniment: Noodles and tofu

Genre: Autobiography, Memoir, Non-Fiction

Available on Amazon

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