- Extract (Granta Magazine)
MADELEINE THIEN IN CONVERSATION (GRANTA magazine)
That, I think, is the fundamental heart of this book: how to find the language, and what happens when everything that you know how to express – whether that’s through language itself or through music or through art – has been co-opted or taken away or literally stripped away from you. Do you speak or do you not speak? Is every word that you speak then compromised?
I was really affected by reading an essay about Shostakovich – Shostakovich at one point was called up and criticised for his music under Stalin. He went on at great length about his loyalty to the Communist party, and one of his colleagues said: if only he had said nothing, if only he had chosen silence instead. That profoundly affected me because I’m a writer who relies on words, on language, who has to believe that there is a line of communication always open between us, that there is a way I can reach another person out of these solitudes, so what does it mean when the only place of integrity is to say nothing? That’s devastating.
Yes, it’s a bit like in the Chinese conceptual framework of time we are facing the past, so the past is ahead of us, and the future is what’s behind us, because we can’t see it. It’s like Walter Benjamin’s ‘Angel of History’. The Angel being pushed backward into the future and seeing the debris of the past piling up in front of him, that’s exactly how Chinese language works about time, so tomorrow is behind you and yesterday is in front of you.
I think there’s a sort of echo of that in the way the book is structured. Were you working with a very deliberate set of time shifts?
You know how we were talking about growing up without me speaking the Chinese language? It’s such a funny thing, because the way time is understood in a Chinese conceptual framework is very instinctive to me. It makes complete sense to the way my mind works and my mind deals with time, so even though I don’t have the language, I weirdly have the conceptual framework. And so it comes naturally to me when I write in English that time would have that kind of elasticity with past, present, and future, because you know in Chinese there’s no tenses, there is no past tense, or future tense, everything is present, and I think that has always been a natural part of my writing. It’s almost like it’s the English language that has to become more elastic to hold these things. And I think that is sometimes a struggle for readers of my work: how time works.
But I also think the idea of time is the thematic centre of my work: the way it runs in our minds, the way it merges and diverges with other times, the way that we are bodily here in one moment but our emotions are in another moment. And I think that’s actually quite natural to the human experience and it’s the English language that maybe makes things seem more linear than they actually are, and that’s actually an illusion.
I think it happens in post-genocide and it happens in trauma, that time divides, and I think it’s especially difficult when it’s historical tragedy that has in many ways been erased from mainstream memory. So it’s like the time exists but is invisible. The time is inside that individual and never really stops unfolding and running, but they’re in a world that has forgotten that this time existed and I think that’s very difficult. It causes a rupture in the self and a rupture in how they can relate to the present moment.
…I would say that a Western narrative of how we live, here and now, is erasing narratives of how people living elsewhere at the same time are living. And so in Dogs at the Perimeter Montreal becomes the erased place, and the narrative of Cambodia is completely superimposed on top of its streets, its cities, its climate, its people. And that can be very discombobulating for the reader, you know. It’s a very uncomfortable experience, but I think that’s good.
For five months this year, I traveled and wrote in Cambodia and Laos. Most of those weeks were spent in Phnom Penh or in Luang Prabang, with the occasional sojourn to less inhabited places. At the most difficult points in my life, I have always turned to travel. It changes the fundamentals of experience for me: it elongates time, severs distance, drains the pocketbook and reminds me, persistently, of how we are raised up by language.
“I came to Tibet,” wrote the exiled writer Ma Jian, “hoping to find answers to all my unasked questions, but I have discovered that even when the questions are clear, there are no clear answers. I am sick of travelling. I need to hold onto something familiar, even if it is just a tea cup. I cannot survive in the wilds–nature is infinite but my life has bounds. I need to live in big cities that have hospitals, bookshops and women. I left Beijing because I wanted to be alone and to forge my own path, but I know now that no path is solitary, we all tread across other people’s beginnings and ends.”
Exactly five weeks ago I arrived here in Iowa City. For some reason, in this beautiful place, all my words have evaporated. I feel like an empty glass sitting on the windowsill, while all the light and darkness of the passing days run right through me. Right now in America, a great many stories, a great many beginnings and endings, are in collision: the story of the American Dream and the global village, of exceptionalism and the decline of empire, of the girl-next-door and the enemy within. Over the last few weeks these stories have made for riveting and sometimes disturbing politics.
Several years ago, the writer and political philosopher Michael Ignatieff wrote an essay about marching on Washington on January 20, 1973, the date of Richard Nixon’s second inauguration when America was in the throes of the Vietnam War: “I’m a Canadian,” wrote Ignatieff, “but it was inevitable that the great cause of my growing up was an American war, not a Canadian wrong. I loved my own country, but I believed in America in a way that Canada never allowed. I was against the war because I thought it betrayed something essential about the country. I marched because I believed in Jefferson and Lincoln.”
But the idea of the migrant hovers, I believe, over our political discourse. She or he lives in the notion of the outsider, the stranger, the spectre that haunts ‘real America’, in the fear of disappearing jobs and a rising China, of shuttered towns and the loss of home. The migrant, some believe, has no ties to this land
I was born in Canada and I hold a Canadian passport and no other. I would be distressed and offended were anyone to question my Canadian identity. Once, at a souvenir shop in Leeuwarden, in the north of the Netherlands, a shop owner said to me, “The immigrants in Canada, they don’t dream in Canadian.”
There is a saying in Dutch, Nooit vergeet je de taal waarin je moeder van je hield. Translated it means, Never do you forget the language in which your mother loved you. For me, that language is English. Like many new immigrants, my parents raised my siblings and I to speak and think in the language of the new home. My mother watched in quiet curiosity as I hoarded books from the library. Like my sister’s daughter, who is now 16, I read at the breakfast table, in the car, on the bus, even while walking. She must have been certain that I dreamed in English because it was the only language that I had, and the one in which she had loved me.
Among the many things this Dutch shop owner was saying, something in particular jumps out at me now: that the ideal immigrant should be a person unencumbered with a past. Only then can an immigrant embrace the future and fit seamlessly into the adopted nation. But in our heart of hearts, he knows and I know and you know: such a person is more fiction than fiction.
The migrant in literature is obsessed with home. Perhaps he or she has been cast out; perhaps he or she has entered into a chosen exile. Perhaps they are outsiders within their own homeland. The migrant in literature builds her tent in a landscape where home is as elusive as a stable sense of the self.
Like many writers, I believe that literature not only defies borders, but it brings the periphery to the centre. It draws our gaze to the crevices and the minute, the cracks in the epic, the multiples selves within the individual. It adds labyrinth upon labyrinth to our shared experience of the times in which we are now living.
The Lebanese writer Elias Khoury put it this way, “The other is a part of me. If I do not incorporate the other into myself, then I am not me.”
I don’t know if I can prove that I dream in Canadian. Whether I am here or in Montreal or in Asia, my writing allows me to reflect a self that is often in-between places, that is restless and that is not satisfied. Pico Iyer, the travel writer and literary critic, once said that it was in Canadian literature that he found a “vision of what Canada might offer to a world in which more and more people are on the move and motion itself has become a kind of nation.”
Some things are forever burned into my memory. Once, in Cambodia, a little girl asked me to buy her a pair of shoes. In Phnom Penh, a child accompanied me to the bakery and pointed her tiny, muddy finger at the display case to indicate what she wanted. She looked up at me, her eyes full of knowing. “Two,” she said. “Give me two.” She smiled, thinking she had won the day. She took her prize and ran away into the dark traffic-laden streets. I know that it is easy enough for a foreigner like myself to buy a few pieces of bread, a pair of shoes, to thrust money into every open hand. But back home, in Montreal, familiarity will breed a certain ease. Between talking and writing and living, so many things fall between the cracks. These young girls that I meet in Cambodia, everyone that I meet and share a moment or a day with, they slip, over time, into that other impenetrable world.
What is particular to the migrant is that these impenetrable worlds exist simultaneously within his or her own soul. The task of living is, in large part, an attempt to reconcile these multiple solitudes, to live with them or alongside them in a way that will not result in the fragmentation of the self. From this shattered mirror we make a narrative. These stories pervade our identities, our nations and yes, our elections. It’s no wonder, I think, that I can’t write in Iowa City; another story, far more compelling, is being unspooled in the newspapers, on television screens and in the streets. Nothing and no one come without a past. Not a president and not a migrant. Not even a bystander watching history being made.
Near the end of the novel, Bao Ninh asks, “As for the author, although he wrote ‘I,’ who was he in that scout platoon? Was he any of those ghosts, or of those remains dug up in the jungle?”
Was he any of them, all of them, or none at all? Bao Ninh’s literary creation is an empty man, a sieve, who is brought alive by other voices. Kien survives the war but his identity, his self, is ruptured. He becomes both a full and an empty vessel, a character who knows that only a greater humanity, a flood of conflicting voices, will hold his self together. “Let our stories become ashes now,” a young woman tells Kien at the war’s end, wanting him to forget the past. In the moment, neither recognizes that ash remains, that the residue survives the conflagration. “I know, of course,” wrote Bertolt Brecht, “only through luck did I survive so many friends. But tonight in a dream I heard these friends say of me, ‘Those who are stronger survive.’ And I hated myself.”
“The philosophy,” wrote Hannah Arendt, “of art for art’s sake ends, if it has the courage to pursue its tenets to their logical conclusions, in the idolization of beauty. Should we happen to conceive of the beautiful in terms of burning torches we will be prepared, like Nero, to set living human bodies aflame.” Pol Pot was, as Arendt described Hitler, true until the end to his own ideology: enacting a revolution he believed would strengthen Cambodia and purify its people. Both men were “prepared to sacrifice everything to this consonance, this ‘beautiful’ consistency.”
A few years ago, attending a writers’ conference in Boston, Bao Ninh was interviewed by an American who had served in Vietnam. The American, Marc Levy, was met with reticence when he asked Bao Ninh to describe the NVA’s tactics, jungle strategies, and ideological training. Finally, Levy asked Bao Ninh if there was something more he wished to say, something their interview had overlooked. “We were human beings,” Bao Ninh said simply. “That is what you must tell people. We were human beings.”
‘He Luting’s defiance was a moment of resistance in the savage history that features prominently in Canadian novelist Madeleine Thien’s powerful third novel, along with the events two decades later surrounding the Tiananmen Square protests. History matters in China. For more than 60 years, the historical narrative has been manipulated or suppressed in the service of the shifting needs of the regime’s politics. Writing the wrong sort of history – one that deviates from the party line – can still get you into trouble.
Thien takes this history and weaves it into a vivid, magisterial novel that reaches back to China’s civil war and up to the present day. At its heart are the interlocking fates of a set of characters who live for and by music, until their world is destroyed by the events the revolution unleashes.
Gradually, tracking back and forth across more than seven decades of history, Marie assembles the story of her father and his profound but troubled relationship with members of Ai Ming’s family.
The story is uncovered with difficulty – Marie barely speaks or reads Chinese, and the events and characters are buried beneath layers of forgetting. It is pieced together from the fragments of a set of notebooks brought to Canada from China.
The novel’s characters have copied and recopied into these notebooks a story entitled “Historical Records”, the origins of which remain obscure. The notebooks serve as both a narrative device and a metaphor for a history that can neither be remembered nor forgotten. The title of the manuscript is an allusion to China’s most celebrated work of history, Sima Qian’s Historical Records, completed in 91BCE but kept hidden for fear of the wrath of an emperor who had had its author castrated. The telling of history in China was always a dangerous occupation.’
All her life, my mother wanted to see China. Born in Hong Kong, she went, as a young woman, to study in Melbourne, where she met my father and fell in love. They settled in Malaysia but, a decade later, emigrated to Canada; by then, they had two small children and my mother was six months pregnant with me. She was not yet 30 years old.
She arrived with little, and for the next 30 years would work multiple jobs to keep us all afloat. She told me she wanted to see the Three Gorges before the building of the massive hydroelectric dam, when the waters would rise by 175 metres, submerging nearly 1,500 villages. We planned our trip for 2003, but she died suddenly, at the age of 58, three months before we were due to depart.
I didn’t cancel our trip. Speaking almost no Mandarin, I set out on the journey she had imagined, and travelled from Hong Kong to Shanghai, from Xi’an to Luoyang to Beijing. As I went, rumours of an epidemic, which would turn out to be Sars, shut the country down behind me. I felt my life had already been overturned by losing my mother and didn’t realise, until years later, that this three-week solitary journey marked another tumultuous change.
There was so much about China I didn’t understand. And yet in the encounters I had, which ranged from comic to astounding to absurd to soul-shifting, I felt that there was much I could understand, but only if I was attentive, open and utterly myself. In more than a decade of returns to China, I learned a necessary lesson: how to absorb a place with humility, and in the process how to live with myself – the ways I felt I had let my mother down, the failure to change her ending, all the complex, contradictory desires that I felt.
Do Not Say We Have Nothing begins with a mother and daughter in the Vancouver where I grew up. From there it spirals out to a world of imagination interleaved with history. I wanted to write a novel about the conditions left behind by a century of political revolution, and about a present moment that is as intricate as a single lifetime. I immersed myself in the expressive worlds of music, the filial act of copying, survival in an age of destruction, in the effort to understand how a person tries to be free. Bach’s Goldberg Variations played in my head and on the page, showing me how structural constraint – limitations on freedom – might provoke artistic creativity, individuality, resonance. To write a novel is to find many other ways of being alive. I wanted to bring to life not myself and not my mother, but the imaginary and forever incomplete world between us. This is my fourth book and the one, for reasons I don’t think I’ll ever know, in which I felt unafraid and free.
For many in my generation, the images of class boycotts, calls for face-to-face meetings with senior leaders, and the decision by students to put their bodies in the way of police lines, brought back memories of the Tiananmen demonstrations of 1989. For writers, literature is a carrier of history. In Chinese, the word remembrance, jì yì, is a pun that can be heard two ways, 记忆 (to recall, record) and 技艺 (art). In the aftermath of Occupy Central, a chilling effect has taken root in Hong Kong’s academic institutions, most palpably in the territory’s top institution, Hong Kong University, described two weeks ago by media as “a campus on edge”.
When the MFA programme at City University invited me, in 2010, to be part of the founding faculty, I accepted for a very specific reason: I wished to learn what a multilingual, multi-canonical literary workshop might look like. Hong Kong’s programme is low-residency: the students work individually with international writers, and gather in Hong Kong for a series of week-long workshops.
In an interview with China Daily, the novelist Junot Díaz,who visited the programme in 2012, said: “That’s how impressed I was with the programme, with its mission, its students, staff and faculty: I was ready to relocate to Hong Kong for the opportunity to be a part of their vision. I’ve never been to an MFA programme anywhere that tempted me with its excellence the way CityU did.”
Although Pulitzer prize winners Díaz and Rae Armentrout, and the extraordinary Chinese poet, Ouyang Yu, have visited the MFA, the students know full well that a programme like ours cannot ease their path to publication. Hong Kong is not New York; powerful agents and editors do not visit us. To be frank, they do not know that we exist. Writing in English in Asia – a fraught choice as well as a liberating one – means these writers are inevitably working from the periphery. How can it evaluate its success?
Since the programme’s inception in 2010, six of our students have published highly regarded books; this is, however, not the only measure. The students know that literature from America and England – countries they may never have the chance to visit – has transformed them, and they also know that this world literature includes them. In what other MFA programme is this a founding principle? There are many more stories and ways of telling, if only we have the ears to hear them.
Chinese intellectual life is full of translations, imitations, and excoriations of Anglophone books and ideas, and yet somehow English-language intellectual life lags behind, still scratching at the surface of Chinese experience. This is why it is particularly important when a book that claims to represent part of Chinese experience goes into wide circulation in English-speaking regions. Madeleine Thien’s new novel, which has been shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and celebrated in British periodicals even before its release into the U.S. market this week, is such a work, poised to influence the way that thinkers and readers encounter China in the English language.
This is a beautiful historical story, brilliantly told: Thien’s characters are sharply drawn, and their repeated involvement in the major events of twentieth century Chinese life underline the way in which so much of the turmoil and transformation of China’s revolutionary century happened to the same people. In some cases, the heroes of the war with Japan were the same cadres who were criticized and humiliated in the Cultural Revolution, were then rehabilitated by the Deng government in the 1980s, and went to protest that government in 1989. The novel’s structure and ambition is in this sense deeply connected to contemporary Chinese literature, with an urge to trace the arc of history quite similar to Yu Hua’s To Live or to a lesser extent, given that it is so much more fanciful and surrealistic, Mo Yan’s Life and Death Are Wearing Me Out. That many of the central characters are musicians adds a rich emotional layer to the punishing march of events, as individuals unable to express themselves in words do so instead through the voices and silences of orchestral music.
But Do Not Say We Have Nothing is much more than a historical drama. It is told to us in the voice of Marie (also called Li Ling, also called Ma-li), the lonely daughter of Chinese-Canadian immigrants. After her father, crushed perhaps under the weight of his losses and complicities during the Cultural Revolution, commits suicide, Marie sets out to understand his life and the lives of the people that he loved. While it is their stories that make up the bulk of the novel, it is Marie’s voice that we hear. Marie peers into her father’s world in the manner of a betrayed and orphaned child: because so much was hidden from her, she was denied the chance to love her parents for themselves. Discovering them, their crimes included, is her way to reveal real people with whom she can empathize, to forge a familial bond. What she makes, though, is not a community — the people she’s searching for are ghosts — but something as immaterial and powerful as music. As one character says, “music is nothing. It is nothing and yet it belongs to me.”
Marie’s complex of feelings towards her father are visible on every page of the book: it has the precision of a student trying very hard to please, the patience of a denizen of an empty house, the persistence of ardor, and the hopeless conviction that wherever the story goes, it cannot recoup the losses it chronicles. As loving as Marie is about the historical record, Do Not Say We Have Nothing is as much a myth and an epic as it is a mixture of actual and plausible events. We have a lot of facts about the Cultural Revolution and 1989’s June 4th Massacre, but what happened is also a matter of story, interpretation, error, exaggeration, empty records and secrets yet untold. It is not something we can compile and master; it is handed down to us in contradictory pieces, and to see it otherwise is to submit experience to ideology. We tell what happened in stories not because we need to list the minutiae of history — we put those in other kinds of books — but because we need to understand the lives of the people that went through it.
A composer in the novel puts it this way: “…his music would have to come from broken music, so that the truths he understood wouldn’t erase the world but would be a part of it.” This kind of understanding is a great gift of the current generation of immigrant and diasporic Chinese writers.
Mikhail Bakhtin, one of Thien’s favourite writers, encourages us to imagine every word as a ray of light and its context as a prism refracting it: “The social atmosphere of the word, the atmosphere that surrounds the object, makes the facets of the image sparkle.” Thien’s dexterity ensures that these correspondences are not offered as prescriptive, but as the kinds of coincidences we notice when we are searching for explanations. When Thien includes excerpts from poems by Li Po or homilies by Mao Zedong, she’s encouraging us to do this same work of meaning-making, constellating what she has written with the cultural context from which it emerges, but allowing us to find connections.
Although ostensibly a historical novel about two of the most significant moments in recent Chinese history, Thien has written a supple epic about that which remains behind after each new beginning. Do Not Say We Have Nothing is thoroughly researched but without the burden of trivia, both riveting and lyrical. I’m reminded of a few words from the American poet Lyn Hejinian: “And we love detail, because every detail supersedes the universal.”
Of the many artists and intellectuals quoted by Madeleine Thien in her extraordinary novel about China from 1949 to the present day, Walter Benjamin is perhaps the most apposite with his prophetic angel of history: “The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.”