Xiaolu Guo: ‘There was no private or personal space in China’

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The writer and film-maker on the hardships of growing up in communist China and the shock of discovering artistic freedom

Xiaolu Guo is a Chinese writer and film-maker based in London. She was named one of Granta’s best young British novelists in 2013, and has been shortlisted for the Orange prize. Her memoir, Once Upon a Time in the East, is published this month.

Your memoir begins with you, as a newborn baby, being given away by your parents to a destitute peasant couple. Do you understand now why they did that?
You could go into lots of psychological explanations. But there were also simple practical reasons. My father had been sent away to a labour camp, and my mother was working full-time in a factory and performing in revolutionary operas in the evening. There was no one there to raise me. The peasant couple took me to live in a mountain village, and that’s where I stayed for the first two years of my life. But they couldn’t feed me, so aged two they gave me back to my grandparents, who lived in a small fishing village, Shitang. I lived there until I was seven.

Related: ‘Is this what the west is really like?’ How it felt to leave China for Britain | Xiaolu Guo

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