Xiaolu Guo was born in Communist China to destitute parents who relinquished her at age 2 to another penniless couple. The couple repeated the act, abandoning a malnourished Guo to her grandparents, who are illiterate and impoverished, like much of the fishing village they live in.

So begins “Nine Continents,” Guo’s tumultuous memoir that scales not only continents, but cultural and emotional landscapes, too.

Under communism’s gloomy veil and Guo’s dubious beginnings, we see, through Guo’s acute eye, children sob and starve. We see women’s feet bound and generations weep. We see men rape girls (including Guo) and discard them like the stingy leftover food they leave for them to eat after they’ve had their fill. With no TV, books or magazines, the state-controlled media is the message. And a large part of that message is the worthlessness of the people — particularly if you are female.

The marriage of Guo’s grandparents encompasses the barbarity of remote China during the 1970s. Her grandmother, a modest, docile “nameless” servant to her bitter and failed husband, is beaten for “small things like not fetching a matchbox quickly enough when he wanted to smoke, or for not cooking to his taste, or for not being there in the kitchen when he was hungry. Or he beat her for no reason at all.”

However, Guo never considers him extraordinarily cruel: “I was already numb from having witnessed this sort of scene too often. Usually I would just hide. Who, in 1970s rural China, had not encountered scenes like this on a daily basis?”

It is with this same unflinching manner that Guo rescues not only herself, but this memoir from mawkishness. Guo’s eye is sharp and fearless — as are her actions and this book — for what could possibly terrify her that she hasn’t already experienced? “The landscape made me merciless and aggressive,” she writes. And indeed, it did.

When Guo is 7, her parents return and remand her to their Communist worker compound, where she meets her older, opprobrious and favored brother. She takes with her a love of her grandmother, who was unable to shelter her from suffering, and the words of a monk, who tells her she is a “peasant warrior,” someone who would “cross the sea and travel to the Nine Continents.”

With the monk’s mandate in mind, Guo, with the focus of a ballistic missile, studies for and wins a coveted spot at a prestigious film school in Beijing. While getting into the film school seems to be the apogee of the book, it is just another obstacle Guo vanquishes.

Once in the West, Guo yearned for the ability to determine her own future — “I had to build a world as a first-person singular.” But she also missed the “energy of life in China” and sometimes even the sound of propaganda broadcasts blaring over loudspeakers. It is this dissonance that gives the ending of the book some vertical depth; in other words, even happy endings are complicated.

Guo’s is a mythic journey: from poverty to fecundity, from communism to capitalism, from the “we” to the “I,” from inside to outside, the latter culminating in her leaving behind a harrowing past. How can a human endure so much with so little and still end up a celebrated author and filmmaker? The answers lie within the pages of this book.


Kerri Arsenault serves on the Board of the National Book Critics Circle and writes a column for Lit Hub. Her work has appeared in Freeman’s, the San Francisco Chronicle, American Book Review, among other publications.

Nine Continents
By: Xiaolu Guo.
Publisher: Grove Press, 365 pages, $26.