Champion of the human spirit
This fall, the University of Ottawa welcomed Madeleine Thien to campus as writer in residence at the Department of English in the Faculty of Arts. 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 acclaimed novel, Do Not Say We Have Nothing. When not busy picking up awards, Thien mentored uOttawa students with literary aspirations and made time for a conversation with Tabaret’s Kelly Haggart.
Were you surprised that Do Not Say We Have Nothing touched so many people?
Stunned. I was so lucky with early readers. The first few reviewers weren’t afraid to say how much they loved the book, and their wholehearted love gave it a good push into the world. Then the Booker longlist came out, and no one expected that. In the U.K., they said “we’ve never heard of you,” and I think that’s a fair comment also in Canada. Most people had never heard of me, and suddenly here I was with my fourth book. Eking out a living in anonymity is more normal for a writer.
What aspects of the book do you think are resonating with readers?
The theme of refuge and what it means to take someone into your life and how that person can completely reframe the way you understand the world. Ai-ming does that for the 10-year-old Marie, who is so isolated after her father dies, feels that she has failed him and that she can’t help her mother either. Ai-ming gives Marie stories and also a sense of her smallness in the world, which actually becomes empowering, because Marie sees her life in a larger context.
The book starts with Marie, but goes far away from her by the end. She tells the story of her father by telling the story of the people he loved. In some ways, it goes against the climate in which we live, which celebrates the self and self-actualization. But Marie’s story is very much about the other people who have shown her how to live.
Another aspect that feels present is the mob and the use of the language of aspiration and hope, like the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution or Make America Great Again. These slogans seem to speak to our ideals, but in fact are calling up fear and violence. And how do people live in those times, which are now our times?
The book plays with the notion of hidden languages. There’s language that operates on the surface and then private language underneath. When the book goes into the Cultural Revolution, there is a big divide between how a person needs to express themselves publicly in a revolutionary time and whether that language takes over their entire self or another language remains intact inside. That also becomes true with the music in the book and, for Marie, the mathematical equations, which are simple on the surface but give profound insights into the way the universe operates.
Where did you write the book?
I began it in Berlin, wrote big sections in Shanghai and Montreal, and finished it in Vancouver. In Berlin, there was no space at home to write so I went to a café. It was November when I started, so at 7 a.m. it was still dark and I would sit at a table beside the window and watch the light come up and people going to work, taking the kids to school. It could be annoying to have someone sitting in the same spot for four or five hours, seven days a week, but they were so nice to me in that café. I had a five-month streak where I never missed a day, including Christmas and New Year’s, and not because I’m so disciplined, but because I loved it. When you’re in the middle of a project you’re excited about, you can’t wait for the next morning because you want to find out what’s going to happen.
How did you shut out the distractions?
I put myself into a dream space almost immediately when I sat down in the café. I put on headphones and listened to Bach’s Goldberg Variations and fell in love with the piece. I decided very early that I would always put it on the moment I sat down to write, stop it when I finished for the day and not listen to it at any other time. I didn’t know how integral the music would become to the book, but it makes sense because it worked itself into my consciousness.
The ideal day for me was writing in the morning and reading for three or four hours in the afternoon. Part of the research involved listening, which was great, because I could go for long, long walks and listen to a symphony multiple times. You can work something out on long walks, when you’re not thinking about it. And if something was bothering me about the novel, sometimes I’d think about it before falling asleep, and it did some shape-shifting in the night.
Are you working on something new?
In the back of my mind. I started the research in the summer and I’ve booked a research trip for next year. It’s too raw and messy to talk about yet, but it’s very different — and it’s like trying to figure out language all over again: what is the language for this one? I may use the two weeks at the Banff Centre that come with the Giller Prize to immerse myself in the new book.
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.
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: Man Booker Prize
Read more: Listen to the "private voice"