Montreal-based author Madeleine Thien speaks to mART of history and revolutions to be, as well as of the long, self-disciplined yet liberating process of writing a novel. Her latest one, Do Not Say We Have Nothing, was shortlisted for the 2016 Man Booker Prize.
By Sofia Jesus
Your latest novel, Do Not Say We Have Nothing (2016), starts with the story of a family that emigrated from China to Canada. How much of it is inspired in your own personal life?
This book is in some ways the least autobiographical of all my books. There are certain similarities — a family in Vancouver, the mother is from Hong Kong; that is similar to my background, but not the father. My father is from Malaysia, a very different history. And their emigration history is quite different from what’s in this book. I think what feels true to me is the relationship between the daughter and the mother, Marie and her mother, and the mother’s passing — my mom had also passed, though at a different time. And Marie’s struggle with the Chinese language — that is very much my struggle [laughs]. I speak Cantonese poorly. I understand quite well. I can read a tiny bit, but like a child. I think the idea of a person taking refuge in Canada is something I remember from childhood with my mom taking care of a young woman who had arrived. A totally different story, but also arriving without the proper papers […].
The story of the novel is marked by the Tiananmen massacre in Beijing, which you witnessed live on TV as a teenager. What did it represent to you then?
I was 14 and I remember watching things unfold for a very long time, for what seemed a long time. Because we had no 24-hour news before then, so to see something unfold in real time was… It’s very striking. And I was struck by what seemed to me then to be the selflessness of the students. This sort of idea that they so wanted a better outcome for their country that they were willing to put their lives on the line, and they were willing to sacrifice. And that is what stayed with me, because I was that age also, they were only a few years older. And I think the story of Tiananmen is much more complex than the students’. It is extraordinary about the students, but as I grew older and began to understand more about the last fifty years […] of Chinese history, I began to understand the complexity of all the generations involved. And, in fact, what became more startling to me was the immense courage of the parents’ generation.
In your session at The Script Road — Macau Literary Festival, you made a parallel with youths taking part in the Cultural Revolution movement. Two very different perspectives and goals, but still…
Tapping into their better selves. That’s what they felt. Both times. And I think it is the tragedy of the Cultural Revolution. It’s part of the tragedy of it. The revolution called for the young people to give voice to their goodness, and in giving voice to their goodness to feel that they had the right to be violent. So, a slogan of that time was “it is right to rebel”. And it was right to rebel because the idea was that the revolution was in danger of being lost. Unless it was the responsibility of the young, the idealistic, the good to save it. And this recurs in history: the use of language and rhetoric that appears to be addressing our best selves, but in fact is calling out our most violent selves.
When you look back now at these points in time, particularly the Tiananmen event, how do you look at China now? As you said, there are things that had not been solved in 1989. And perhaps still haven’t, right? But no other revolution seems to be taking place. Or is it?
It’s continuous in China. There is a resistance that is continuous there. There are quite a number of smaller demonstrations, especially in the rural areas. I think that the numbers are in the hundreds, you know? Every day. But how that will culminate, or whether this will become part of a larger movement is so difficult to say. Just because the power at the top feels very entrenched… Many people might say that what has been the greatest surprise, that was not anticipated after 1989, was the longevity and stability of the Chinese Communist Party. And that really is a surprise. And it stands apart now, at this moment in history. And I think what is unpredictable is how it will change. Because it will change. And whether it’s going to choose a path that is a tightening, which appears to be the direction it’s going now… Because equally possible is a loosening, if it can be done with a certain amount of control. That is also highly possible. And if it were me, I wouldn’t bet on one or the other. I think they are both highly possible scenarios.
When you say a tightening, you mean a tightening of the control from the Government?
Yes. Increasing censorship, increasing crackdowns. And I think this crackdown in particular gets to something at the core of resistance, which is the crackdown against human rights lawyers. So, it’s a crackdown really against their own Constitution. […] So, this is getting now to a real collision point about what kind of China this is going to be.
So, you believe that tightening could also spark a reaction?
I think so. I’m sure they know that too. The more you push down the more pressure builds up.
As you mentioned, you cannot predict what and how will happen, but you see it coming from the cultural agents, such as intellectuals, writers?
Because they are some of those who suffer the most from censorship…
Was it just last week [two weeks ago] that there was a high-ranking official who said the costs of the great firewall were too great? Last month no one would have predicted an official would come forward and say publicly this level of censorship is something that needs to be revisited… It’s really interesting. All the time in China things you don’t expect [happen]… Of course, they are destabilised by what is happening in the United States. So, again, we’re on shaky ground.
Your books are not published in China, or are they?
The first two [are]: the short stories [Simple Recipes, 2001] and the first novel [Certainty, 2006]. The Cambodia novel [Dogs At The Perimeter, 2011] was considered too sensitive, and this one [Do Not Say We Have Nothing] is too sensitive.
How do you feel about that? How do you deal with that as a person that has Chinese origins and who, correct me if I’m wrong, would also like to reach out to those readers?
I would love it to be translated. But I think it’s a long narrative here. And it cannot be translated now, or published now, but it could… I feel surely it will be published there eventually. And we’re all patient.
You travelled through China to do some research for your latest book, Do Not Say We Have Nothing. It was a five-year process the writing of that book, right? And you have said in the past “you learn a lot from what people don’t tell you”. Could you elaborate on that? What did you learn in that research that was made of those silences?
It was about how people lived around the past. So, just because someone doesn’t speak it directly doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist. And if I was a reporter or a journalist I would have to ask very precise, specific questions about their relationship with an event. But as a novelist, I’m more interested in how people say or don’t say, or how they put it aside, or how it comes out unexpectedly, you know. Or the kinds of illusions that might be made that are indirect. So, you’re picking up on everything else that is not just what is spoken out loud, but about even gestures or facial expressions or the choices of conversations we would end up having, what it is we are actually choosing to talk about and what kinds of things we avoid talking about.
You found fear? Would you call it fear? Or shame?
No. No. Weariness. A little bit of caution. And it’s almost like anywhere. The past is always all there, the country’s history is always all there, a person’s history is always all there, but it is not always the natural movement of a conversation to go there. So, if we’re writing about characters we want to be alive, it’s really about what happens in every day, as opposed to pushing that, forcing that history into the present. It’s always there. So, you just have to learn to see it in its invisible ways.
You believe that observation, that care, that attentiveness can help build density for a character?
Yes, yes. You’re absorbing that world. And then, absorbing their world, you absorb their way of being in the world. It’s like the kind of world they have around them is as important as how they try to pin down who they are.
It is obvious this was a very thoroughly thought book; you said you revised it over and over, you did a very thorough research in terms of history, you read the Tiananmen papers, for instance. How does that deal with the writing of fiction? How do you make it work?
Yes, exactly. It’s like one of those weird counterintuitive things that you learn everything so that you can forget it. It’s not that you forget it; it’s that it can become so much a part of your psyche that it is just an inextricable part of the world now, and then you live with it.
That’s when the characters, as you mentioned [in The Script Road’s session], take control…
Yeah… You’re able to see what they might have seen because you’ve done all that other work. But then, in that moment of creating or imagining, you only see it the way they would see it. You know, you have to let go of the way you’ve been thinking about it. And that’s, I think, the real mysterious part. How that’s possible, due to the way our minds work, that we can actually forget our own existence?
How did you start writing? Was it a passion you always had or a click that happened at a certain point in time? I know you studied dance…
Yes… But the reading came really early. I started reading very young. My sister taught me to read even before I started school. So, I don’t have any memories of a time without reading. And almost as instantaneously as was learning to read was wanting to know how these stories got made, you know… That’s the weird thing: when you’re reading, there’s a trick of the mind that happens, where it feels like your mind is almost creating it, as you’re reading, because it’s just unfolding in real time. And so, in that weird way, reading and creating happen simultaneously. And so, as soon as I learned to read, it was a draw to learning how to create too.
This automatically unfolding, like if something possesses you while you are creating, is also a bit like composing music, I imagine… And music is something that connects the whole book [Do Not Say We Have Nothing]. Is this related? How do you see this? You mentioned before the “abstract language” of music to deal with repression…
Yes, it was the use of this abstract art form that is very revealing about this person, even to themselves. So, there’s the part of themselves moving to the world that is the public expression of self as demanded by society, especially as it goes increasingly revolutionary. But then there is this on-going creation of music that seems to be happening in another part of his selfhood. And I remember when I was thinking hard about this I invited three or four composers for dinner — this was in Vancouver — and I asked them just to, as freely as possible, talk […], as if they were just four composers sitting around and talking about process. And they said “it’s so funny you ask us to do that, because we never do that”. So, it wouldn’t feel natural. Anyway, they started talking. I didn’t realise I was looking for this at that time, but what I was looking for was a confirmation that the process of composing was very similar to the process of writing. And that’s what I heard when I heard them talking. It was very familiar. They have the technical challenges and, of course, very specific things that are unique to composing, but there was something about the way the mind works and the sitting down to write, whether they had the piano with them or they’re just writing on paper. So familiar. I felt we were the same.
And in the book, in the characters, the music plays a different role as we get to know them. What is for you the metaphor that this music represents?
In some ways the music becomes a habitable space for them. It’s actually something they can live inside. And the music, because it is western classical music — it would happen with all forms, but say in this case it’s western classical music — is also a continuity to the past and the future. But in an art form that you can only engage in as it’s unfolding, you know? So, the piece may be very old, we need to recreate it again in the present, each time, so that a listener can hear it. So, it’s that sort of fabulous art form that is inerasably the past, but it’s the now for the musician. It becomes the measure of time in the present. Music is fascinating because it makes us live inside its time signature. So, if it’s going to stretch time or collapse time we experience it.
You also wrote Dogs At The Perimeter [about the Cambodian genocide of the 1970s]. It’s another historical tragedy. What motivates you to write about such kind of marking moments in history?
In some ways that what ends up happening is that I feel something in the present that unresolved. And I think the conditions of the present are a residue of something that is still on-going. And that’s how I felt about Cambodia each time I was there. […] Because when I was writing the Cambodia book it was during the war in Iraq, the bombing in Iraq. And then I was writing about bombings that had taken place in the early 1970s. And there was 2.5 million tonnes of bombs on Cambodia. Western intervention, western bombs, American bombs. And the creation of the state of civil war. People just turned against people. Some people supported the government that was allied with the Americans, some people supported the resistance, the Khmer Rouge. And that was Iraq in a nutshell. The sudden tearing apart of the whole fabric of society and this bombing and this war and this occupation that had created the conditions for the most brutal kind of war, civil war, just neighbour turning against neighbour. So, it never felt like I was writing about the past. It felt like the same on-going act that we keep committing. And then it’s other people who live out the consequences of these acts, all the way into our present. So, from that moment you can sort of think forward to what was going to happen to Iraq citizens over the next, I don’t know, 10, 20, 50 years. And, in fact, geopolitics is still continuing from the Iraq war and the huge destabilisation that happened — just the same in Vietnam, huge destabilisation.
What current event triggered you — if we can say like that — to write Do Not Say We Have Nothing?
This one was a continuation of the Cambodia book in many ways. Because Cambodia had a very close relationship with China. And Pol Pot had this idea that he could enact the fastest and purest communist revolution in history. So, what Mao had done in almost 30 years, Pol Pot was going to do in four. So, in a way, it was a step backwards. It was like I had mapped some part of this revolution, but I wanted to keep tracking it backwards to where the seeds of these ideas came from. And how they were imagined into being, and how they were put into practise.
You are mentioning what people often say, that history repeats itself, that we keep repeating the same mistakes…
And the same idealism.
Exactly: is this a pessimistic view or not necessarily?
Both. They’re both intertwined. What I keep coming back to is the desire to change society recurs. And it’s very strong. And it never seems to go away. And it’s a difficult question of why when we have the desire, when does that desire for justice becomes a call to violence. And is it possible that they both rise in the same moment? And that is why we have such difficulty in pulling them apart. Because in the desire to make something good is the strength that comes, the feeling that we are the ones who know what the good is. And yet we can’t loose that. Imagine loosing that. We can’t loose it either. […]
So, you believe this idealism is still something very much alive in some societies today…
And necessary. But we have to question ourselves. Nothing that we do is pure. And I think we have to realise that from the very beginning. Even idealism is rarely pure. Idealism is also entwined in power, and seizing power, and taking power.
Going back to the process of writing: you said before that it was at the same time, almost paradoxically, very self-disciplined, but also very liberating…
It’s so much rigor writing a novel. You’re attentive to every word, every line, and at the same time you’re building something very big. I feel like it must very much be like painting a very large canvas, because you have to step very close and do the individual brush strokes, and you have to see that detail, but you really have to walk away and see it at many points of distance. And so, with the novel, you’re kind of doing that all the time, moving in, coming out. And when you make some beautiful, detailed work, sometimes is very hard to paint it out, but you know when you step back that it’s a distraction to the eye.
So, you were disciplined in that revision and that self-critique…
Not being afraid of the hard work. Not being afraid that is going to take a lot of time.
Generalisations are always wrong, but do you believe that many authors today opt for that kind of long approach, or perhaps they are too pressured by publishers to get it done fast, for example? If we can talk about some kind of trend…
It’s hard to say. Because those many approaches lead to different kinds of work. And all of that is necessary and good. I know for my own self is the rigor and the discipline that for me bring out the best work. And it’s a quality that I have from childhood: I’m terrified of wasting people’s time. And I feel like I need to know that what I’ve put on the pages is what needs to be there. Because if someone is going to spend 25 hours reading a book — this book is quite long…
What can we expect of you soon as a novelist? Or not so soon… Are you working on a new book?
Probably not so soon… Yes, working, but the travelling has been very demanding, so working with less concentration that I would want. But it’s there. And it’s sort of spinning away. And I think it will be five years at least. And I have a feeling, I could be totally wrong, it’s a small novel. A very different novel from the last two.
Can you share a little?
I think it’s about intimacy. That’s what I think. That’s about as much as I know for sure. I think it’s an exploration of different forms of intimacy. We’ll see.