Madeleine Thien: Listen to the “private voice”

Posted on Sunday, November 27, 2016

Madeleine Thien stands beside shelves full of books, including her novel, Do Not Say We Have Nothing.

Madeleine Thien on her experience as uOttawa’s fall 2016 writer in residence: “Sometimes students brought a piece they had ready or sometimes they just wanted to talk. I think one-on-one when it comes to mentoring is beautiful, and I’m so happy that I’m able to be here. Photo: Andrea Campbell

This fall, the University of Ottawa welcomed Madeleine Thien to campus as writer in residence at the Department of English. During this time, she won the Scotiabank Giller Prize and the Governor General’s Literary Award, and was nominated for the Man Booker Prize, for her novel Do Not Say We Have Nothing. When not busy picking up awards, Thien mentored uOttawa students with literary aspirations and also found time to sit down for a chat with the Gazette’s Kelly Haggart.

Cover of the novel Do Not Say We Have Nothing, by Madeleine Thien

How are you doing in this season of literary acclaim?

Everything happened so fast. I’m happy for the book, but sort of bewildered inside, not because I don’t believe in the book but because I’m more used to experiencing the publication of a book in a very different way, for it to quietly reach certain readers and then for me to just let go.

What did you read as part of your research for the book?

The really important books for me were by the historian Jonathan Spence. Also an incredible book by Sheila Melvin and Jindong Cai called Rhapsody in Red: How Western Classical Music Became Chinese, and Alex Ross’s amazing The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the 20th Century. I read biographies of the Soviet-era composers Shostakovich and Prokofiev, because there are so many parallels.

There’s a huge volume called The Tiananmen Papers, the documents smuggled out detailing what was happening in the Politburo as the demonstrations were unfolding in 1989. I also read a lot of Bertolt Brecht and poets such as Bei Dao. The reading never felt like research because it felt like this is what I want to be reading and thinking about right now.

I also went to China, multiple times. I had gone there for the first time in 2003, long before I had any idea that I would write about it. Then in 2008 I had a residency with the Shanghai Writers Association for three months. I was working on my novel about Cambodia, Dogs at the Perimeter, and tracing Pol Pot’s relationship with Mao and Mao’s relationship with the Soviet Union. Though my mother was born in Hong Kong and my father is Chinese-Malaysian, it hadn’t occurred to me that I would ever write about China, but then I did come to it through the unanswered questions I had after writing about Cambodia.

Do you have a favourite review of Do Not Say We Have Nothing?

There are two that I found so moving. One was in the Los Angeles Review of Books, by a professor of Chinese literature, Nick Admussen, who takes on the question of my use of the Chinese language in the book.

Another was in the New York Times, by Jiayang Fan, whose mother had been a Red Guard. She starts with the first time her mother saw a piano and banged out a beat on it to lyrics from The Internationale, including “Do not say we have nothing.”

That meant a lot to me, because there are so many ways to get things wrong. I would find it so saddening if someone who had lived through the Cultural Revolution read the book and thought it had totally misrepresented people’s experiences, because then you haven’t been up to that act of imagination you put so much faith in. Some of the reviews that have come out in Asia have also been really moving.

Do you have a message for young writers?

Young people have much more freedom than they allow themselves. It’s an interesting state, being in your 20s, when you’re entering adulthood and have so much emotional turmoil — intense emotions and intense experiences — but you may also get caught up in what the world tells you to believe, how to look and how to exist. This gives young people a very limited idea of what freedom actually is. They have so much more within their grasp, but it means listening to the private voice, which is often dissonant with what society is telling you.

The private self is open-ended. It’s still asking questions, still figuring things out, and has contradictory emotions and contradictory truths. That is possible in the private self because nothing is forcing it to come to a conclusion — and that is where the best writing comes from. Once you’re certain about everything or start to speak in the language of society, you’re silencing some part of yourself and that’s very hard to stop. I love the poem by Bei Dao that is quoted often in the book: “Let me tell you, world / I do not believe.” I think that’s a better place to begin.

Thien’s fellow Giller Prize nominee Catherine Leroux is translating Do Not Say We Have Nothing for publishers in Quebec and France. The French-language editions are scheduled to appear in 2018.

See also: Champion of the human spirit

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