Madeleine Thien’s soft-spoken nature and delicate composure belie the weight of her most recent work, Do Not Say We Have Nothing, a novel that brought her to Macau as a guest of The Script Road - Macau Literary Festival. It tells the story of musicians studying Western classical music at the Shanghai Conservatory during the tumultuous 1960s, and about the legacy of the 1989 Tiananmen demonstrations.
The book has earned her a host of prestigious literary awards - as well as fame as “Canada’s newest literary star”- being short-listed for the Man Booker Prize 2016, and winning the Scotiabank Giller Prize and the Governor General’s Literary Awards. In advance of publication in the United States, the book was also included on the fiction longlist for the Andrew Carnegie Medals for Excellence in Fiction and Nonfiction.
Thien’s other works include her story collection Simple Recipes (2001), and two novels: Certainty (2006); and Dogs at the Perimeter (2011) - shortlisted for Berlin’s International Literature Prize and winner of the Frankfurt Book Fair’s 2015 Liberaturpreis.
“In a single year, my father left us twice. The first time, to end his marriage, and the second, when he took his own life. I was ten years old.”
These are the opening lines of Thien’s 450-page book, described by Financial Times as ‘Extraordinary…a living, breathing organism’.
It is a journey inside an extended family in China, showing the lives of two successive generations - those who lived through Mao’s Cultural Revolution, and their children who became the students protesting in Tiananmen Square. At the center of the story are two young women, Marie and Ai-Ming. Through their relationship, Marie strives to piece together the tale of her fractured family in present-day Vancouver, seeking answers in the fragile layers of their collective story.
Her quest will unveil how Kai, her enigmatic father, a talented pianist, and Ai-Ming’s father, the shy and brilliant composer, Sparrow, along with the violin prodigy Zhuli were forced to reimagine their artistic and private selves during China’s political campaigns, and how their fates reverberate through the years with lasting consequences.
The relationship between Marie and Ai-Ming “was a partial memory of someone who had come into my life at that time when I was young, under very, very different circumstances; but a young woman who was taking refuge in Vancouver, and someone I became very close to,” explains Madeleine. “And there is a sense of adoration that the girl has for the woman, this kind of love and security – it represents both the loss of her father Marie has experienced, and a sign that all that love Marie had for her father is still there, waiting to be given to someone, and in a way it finds a temporary home in Ai-Ming, as she’s grieving her father.”
Beautifully intertwined with this story of politics and personal discovery, music plays a central role in Do Not Say We Have Nothing. Thien is not a trained musician, but rather, as she puts it, a musician “by desire”. If she could play any instrument “It would be the violin!” she says without missing a beat. “I had this long exposure to, particularly western classical music, because of ballet. Also traditional Chinese dance, and traditional Chinese music in that way, but more so with ballet.”
Visiting Macau for the first time in 10 years, Thien admits she was excited about the prospect of discussing the story with an audience somewhat more close to the subject of the book.
“I have been looking forward to being able to talk about the book in Asia, in particular Hong Kong and Macau. I think it’s because it’s an extremely relevant book - it touches people’s personal histories here,” she notes. “In the West I have to make the argument that China’s transformation is all of our transformation, because that’s not the automatic response of people. Whereas here, it’s already deeply understood that China’s transformation is a part of all of our lives, and however it’s going to struggle with political philosophy is going to affect all of us.”
And she was also surprised at how frank she became about the material, even when addressing younger audiences here.
“Some of my sessions have been in schools, one at the university and one at the International School, and that’s been pretty amazing and very intense. It is a novel about a particular generational charge in the 60’s and the 80’s, and speaking to young people about this book, I’ve been surprised at the directness. I thought I would treat the sensitive subjects with more sensitivity than I might elsewhere, but I’m actually finding that I haven’t altered the way that I talk about it. There is a receptiveness to it, which in a way makes it more draining because I’m more anxious about how I talk about things and wanting to respect just how complex this history is and how intimate it might be for some people.”
Born in Vancouver in 1974 to a Malaysian Chinese father and a Hong Kong Chinese mother, the immigration question finds its way into Madeleine’s work, but not always in obvious ways.
“It’s probably informed all my books, but in different ways. I was born in Canada, so I’m not an immigrant, but I’m the child of immigrants and my siblings are immigrants. It just so happened that my mother was pregnant when she arrived in Canada. So for me there was always that movement between belonging and non-belonging, or between translation of a kind, not even translation of language, but translation of private family to the public world and culture; that’s just been part of my life from childhood,” Thien reflects.
As well as her own personal experiences, the inspiration behind the book arose from time spent in one of Asia’s poorest and most war ravaged countries, Cambodia.
“Initially, I think it was a lot of unresolved questions I had after finishing the book I wrote about Cambodia, (Dogs at the Perimeter), the Cambodian genocide and the Khmer Rouge and survival. Both Tiananmen and what happened in Cambodia all happened in my lifetime, and I feel that the aftermath of that history is continuous in individual lives and the current trajectories.
“It was a place where I was spending a lot of time because it was a place that I had really fallen for in a number of different ways. It’s a place that gets under your skin, and it’s complicated; there is so much that appears one way on the surface, but there are so many layers underneath, and there was something about the complexity of this place that rang so true with me and my own personal history, although completely different, for some reason or other I could completely slip into Cambodia in a way that I never really felt anywhere else.”
“Cambodia was the first place I encountered where history felt so alive and so unfinished. I was definitely an outsider, yet it was also a place where I felt that all our governments were really implicated. It was definitely related to all our ideas on intervention, proxy wars and the fallout that we never really have to pay the consequences for.”
Delving into Cambodia’s past raised many questions for Thien.
“A lot of my questions about revolution were unanswered after writing about the Khmer Rouge and what happened there. And I had a lot of lingering questions about what we believe and what we wish to believe and how we want to make a just society. And how we can be driven by a purity of intention that is inextricable from a sense of justification of violence.”
“It was an unfinished question about the constant circular notion of goodness and violence. And that’s what led me back to China, starting with 1989, but also really looking at how complex that student movement was, and what was beneath that movement, in terms of the previous generation.”
In the wake of the recent presidential election in her neighbouring country, the US, Thien is reflective of the current political climate.
“We are experiencing hard times, things are pretty difficult. I think there are a number of political issues in the novel that feel very present right now, everything from public shaming and public confessions and the use of those tactics. Not only where I live in the West, but of course also in China continuously.”
“The concept of the enemy within, the enemy within the state, of your fellow citizen, your neighbour who is the threat to your society, that idea has come to the fore again, and that was certainly the case during the Cultural Revolution; that the greatest threat to the revolution was coming from hidden elements in society, and they had to be unmasked.”
“It’s not so much that the book is timely, it’s that there are political fissures that reoccur, and they just happen to be meeting at this moment in time, but they are always there and sometimes they are just less visible than other times and right now it’s a very, very visible time, and it’s a time when that kind of desire to cleanse society of certain of elements has been legitimized.”
As for the reasons behind this situation – the contemporary million-dollar-question if you like – Thien sees a few causes.
“I think it is partly unresolved political injustices that are continuing to act upon the world. And the other aspect is massive economic transformation. There is a shift in empire that’s happening, and there is a real economic decline in places that have had prosperity for a long time, and it’s frightening and it leads to tremendous fear and resentment, which seems to be feeding a lot of the anxiety.”
But she doesn’t just view see these changes as a Western phenomenon.
“Looking at it from China’s perspective, China has been through so much change, and so fast, to a degree where most other people in the world can’t really comprehend just exactly what a generation or two has experienced. There is still a lot of unresolved grief, and many questions about the direction of the country that are not going away and manifesting in a lot of small protests in the small villages, and particularly with land disputes and that is just simmering below the surface.
“So in some ways it is the flipside, but there is a real pressure on people and societies to make a certain equable standard of living available to everyone, and for some countries it’s a raising of the standard of living, and for some it’s a lowering.”
Thien has spent a lot of time in China and has been going back and forth over the last five years, however hasn’t been back since the book came out last summer.
“I love being there, even at times when I’m frustrated or angry, or even when it causes me a huge amount of sorrow. It is so endlessly stimulating and it is so humbling. It is a huge country with a huge population and huge economic disparities that have been changing, and this vast geographical expanse and all these regions and all these languages and the very complicated relationship to the past. It endlessly makes you question and think.”
The vastness of the country is reflected in the scope of her storytelling - Do Not Say We Have Nothing took five years to write – which she admits is a challenge.
“It’s almost like you only have partial vision a lot of the time, so you patiently try to see a little more and then figure out how the pieces you see are starting to cohere, if they do indeed cohere”.
Madeleine’s next book however, may take her down an altogether new road.
“There is something that I am so desperate to work on, but I just haven’t had the space to yet. It’s about intimacy, because I have been doing these big epic things and although the Cambodia book wasn’t epic, it was a difficult book in all its material, research and just being with that knowledge for so long. The new book I know is different, I’m still thinking about what the language is going to be. It will be political in some way, but more in a sense of feminism and sexuality, rather than a political narrative of a particular country.”
“I think it will be interesting to see how it goes. It will be more personal and I don’t know if it will be more universal or not. I’m a little bit scared of it.”
Coming from a woman with such monumental capacity for storytelling, this can only be a good thing.