Matter-of-factly, Guo describes the brutal privations of her childhood in the isolated coastal village where she spent her first seven years. Family life meant semi-starvation, no education, and almost no conversation. Watching her illiterate granddad beat his wife was "normal." At the same time, the child knew her lame grandmother loved her, and she returned that love.
This book contains shocking moments, public and private. An encounter with a Chinese embassy official in London catapults her into a new phase with jarring suddenness.
The unexpected news that her parents are to visit her in London awakens suppressed memories that underline the dismal state of the parental relationship. "I had no memory of a motherly look," and "the culturally programmed habits of duty...had made me guilty from the very beginning, as the unworthy, wayward daughter." All this "killed any natural love I might have had for my birth family." Though her father does treat her kindly, nobody has ever told her why she didn't see her parents or brother until she was seven, when they came and took her from her widowed granny.
With brutal directness, the author develops her themes of alienation and dislocation. "Masculinity for me was a kind of foreign occupation, which I could take temporarily." The aftermath was "a fearful state of confusion." More than this, "a granite hardness had grown inside me since I was a child" resulting in "a hard knot or core that couldn't be loosened."
On scholarship at film school in Beijing, Xiaolu Guo lived through a brief flowering of free artistic expression that followed the violent suppression of the Tienanmen Square protests in 1989. But, she says, "The time of underground artists is now well and truly over in China. These days, artists are either state-sanctioned, in prison, or exiled in the West."
For awhile, Guo earned a living writing TV scripts in China. She also travelled around the country with an American student who was studying Chinese. A Beijing concert commemorating the death by suicide of Nirvana rocker Kurt Cobain inspired her first book: 20 Fragments of a Ravenous Youth. Originally published in China, this was reworked later and published in English.
Xiaolu Guo felt drawn to the West, and wanted to escape her birth country. She explains, "It was the culture of masculinity in China that I was revolting against, a fact that was inextricably linked to all my bad experiences with the old traditions."
After winning the International Chevening Scholarship the National Film School in London, she soon began to write again. Still far from fluent in English, she made a courageous decision, and "the desire and will to work on a first book in English propelled me through the difficulties." The result was her first novel, A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers. This book was well received and widely translated.
In her memoir, Guo comments insightfully on the socio-linguistic challenges that accompanied her choice of first person narration. "In China, no one is a separate entity: either you were born to a non-political peasant household or to a Communist Party household. But here, in this foreign country, I had to build a world as a first-person-singular -- urgently."
With dispassionate clarity, she also explains the thinking that lay behind her choice of English for her first book written in the West. "I would use my broken English, even though it would be extremely difficult. And yet, more positively, I would be free from state and self-censorship...an even more significant issue for me as a Chinese writer."
She calls state censorship "an assault on our creativity," adding that, "few Chinese writers actually acknowledge the serious and endemic issue of self-censorship." This was another hurdle she had to overcome. "We in China had undergone a proletarian revolution under Mao, and yet there was barely a free thought in our heads. The layers of self-censorship we had to engage in before the official censorship came to get us had already strangled any creative work...Creativity under a Communist regime requires...all creative thoughts to be kept to oneself."
For me, the settings were especially evocative. A month ago, I saw Beijing and parts of Zhejiang province as they are now. Thanks to Guo's evocative descriptions of her homeland, I could then imagine these places as they were a quarter of a century earlier.
The book revealed information that was new to me. I hadn't realized the novel is a new literary form in Chinese. Guo's words also filled in some of the recent history and the odd contradictions of this fascinating and influential country. Today China is both communist and capitalist, progressive and conservative, and equally proud of its ancient history and post-modern lifestyles.