Gerald Elson talks to Canadian novelist Madeleine Thien about China, recording history, and how classical music infuses writing.
Beginning in Vancouver in 1991, Madeleine Thien’s Do Not Say We Have Nothing is a haunting portrait of multigenerational trauma and displacement. Li-ling – known throughout by her ‘English name’, Marie – is just ten years old when her father commits suicide back in Hong Kong, at the age of 39.
Kai, we soon learn, was a prodigious pianist at Shanghai’s Conservatory of Music during the later years of Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution. Tensions that had long simmered during that brutal autocratic regime tragically came to a head in 1989, when the Chinese government deployed its military against the pro-democracy protestors who had been camping out for weeks in Tiananmen Square, killing a still-untold number. In the backdrop of such momentous events, Kai’s suicide is the mystery that the adult Marie will attempt to comprehend.
In Do Not Say We Have Nothing, Thien makes no bones about the fact that when we reach at history’s ghosts, the ratio of newly disturbed questions to answers grasped will rarely be in our favour. But the novel is witty, too, and couched within Marie’s contemporary search for understanding is a vivid, often playful historical drama reaching back almost 70 years into China’s past.
When we speak, Thien is two weeks into a five-week-long book tour of Canada and in contention for the Man Booker Prize. (She doesn’t win, but soon news will come that Thien has been awarded Canada’s Governor General’s Award for English-language fiction).
KYD: How are you finding it, to suddenly have a huge spotlight cast upon your work?
MT: I’m used to my books flying under the radar so it’s a very new experience for me. You know it’s fleeting, in the way that everything is. It’s the spotlight of the Booker; it will move on. Mostly I’m just trying to rise to the occasion. I feel like I’ll do all of the emotional processing in about five or six months!
KYD: Have there been any concrete, practical implications on your practice, or your career, since the nomination was announced?
MT: There have been some, which is wonderful. One of those is that I now have a publisher [again] in the United States. That’s something that hadn’t happened up until the longlist of the Booker was announced. In fact, [the new book] had had 30 to 40 rejections, all along similar lines, saying the book was too complex, too ambitious. The Booker has opened that door for the book. And for the previous book [Dogs at the Perimeter].
Maybe that’s what’s best about it for me: the previous book was one I really believed in, and it was the first of my books to not find a publisher in the United States. It came close. Even my [former] US publisher said it was my best book, but that they didn’t think it was a book they could find a market for. They said the Cambodian story had already been told.
KYD: I’ve read you say that at the time of its initial publication in Canada, Dogs at the Perimeter was only the third novel to look at Year Zero.
MT: It was the third, in English. [But] very soon after there was an amazing book, Vaddey Ratner’s In the Shadow of the Banyan. That found a wide American audience. In some ways, that’s how it should be. Her book is extraordinary; it’s a masterpiece. But I disagree with the limitations of telling the story that the publishers articulated by saying it had already been told. I think that’s part of a larger problem with the way that we in the west think about our relationship with the wider global geopolitics.
KYD: The necessity of plurality, of different tellings and viewpoints, is a big theme throughout your work. It’s disheartening to learn that there might be some unspoken law among publishers that there’s only room for one, so-called definitive novel on any given historical atrocity – which isn’t the Second World War, of course.
MT: It goes against the complexity of [Cambodia], too. The place has multiple ways of thinking, multiple ways of remembering. And multiple ways of not directly addressing that part of its history. It is depressing, I have to agree.
KYD: Cultural confluence is crucial to Do Not Say We Have Nothing. The conservatory, and even the character of Marie herself – each serve as sites where the ideas and traditions of east and west encounter and influence each other.
MT: In this book, I wanted to collapse the binaries of east and west; they’re always in this circular motion with each other. For the musicians at the conservatory, western classical music becomes their language, their means of expression.
Classical music has an old tradition in China. Both traditional Chinese classical music, but also in the ways in which western classical music found its way into China. It’s an old, fascinating story. The instruments were brought in by Jesuit musicians in the 17th century. They had these musical instruments, including a clavichord, which they wanted to give to the Emperor, thinking that this would seduce the Emperor. [They hoped] he would give them permission to enter the Forbidden City, and to travel throughout China to do their missionary work. Music was a way, outside of language, to speak human to human.
But it goes across music, and into the realm of ideas. [Consider] the way that Marxist philosophy and Socialist ideals were brought into Chinese modernity, and into China’s relationship with the west. Language, culture, music… It’s an unstoppable flow that we tend to like to see as east and west coming into collision.
But it’s not like that. Hinduism, Buddhism, the movement of religious thought; it all moved with trade. That truth is old as the Silk Road.
KYD: You write so well about those historical moments when the lives of individuals echo the condition of ‘the angel of history’, Walter Benjamin’s beautifully expressed idea that we are always being thrust inexorably forwards but remain unable to turn away from the past.
MT: It’s such a powerful image: being forcibly pushed into the future with your back towards it, this accumulation of history before your eyes. All of the actions you make to stop it or to push it away are directed at the past. Because with your back turned, you simply can’t make those actions towards the future. In consequence, you end up with these cyclical repetitions of history. And, a desire to overturn history.
Again and again, throughout history and around the world, we encounter the idea of the Year Zero, the zero point: the idea that we could erase everything that’s come before, and rebuild it right, this time. That we could somehow make a just society, free from the ways in which, in the past, we’ve trapped ourselves into [perpetuating] various forms of injustice.
The idea never seems to go away. But it doesn’t fit with any part of human nature. No evidence seems to exist to suggest that we could act in that way.
KYD: China provides a fascinating case study of this. The histories you engage in this book are still unfolding in the most tangible ways. Just last week it was announced that the final known prisoner who was incarcerated for his involvement with the Tiananmen Square demonstrations is now, finally, scheduled for release. Which I found shocking. It hadn’t occurred to me that there might still be someone languishing in prison as a result of throwing an empty basket at a tank, 27 years ago.
MT: It’s important to stress that he is the last known prisoner. There may be other unknown prisoners in the same position. Hopefully, he really is the last one.
KYD: What is your research process like for a book of this scope?
MT: I’d say five years of deep immersion, alongside a longstanding interest in China, since I was a teenager. But with no thought that I would ever write about China. It felt far away, and it felt like a culture that I didn’t necessarily want to take ownership of. I think I’m a typical child of immigrants in that I grew up very much wanting to assimilate and belong. My mother tongue is English. My parents put [my siblings and I] in Chinese school, and we refused to pick up much! [Laughs]
So, it’s a long, interesting relationship that I’ve had with China. I made my first trip there in 2002–03. Mostly, I was confounded by how difficult it was to travel on my own, without speaking much of the language. You feel like you’re stepping into a complex world that exists in a universe of its own.
It works away in you. It gets under your skin. I felt that because it’s so complex, it tapped into very complex parts of myself, parts of myself that, for one reason or another, I couldn’t access in places that I know well in Canada, like Montreal and Vancouver. Or even in Western Europe, where I lived for a couple of years.
Certain things about the way you see the world go unquestioned. But when I was in China, everything suddenly became a question. Even simple things, like the way you think about time, the way you think about the pace of change, and the obligations you hold toward your fellow citizens. The way you think about the multiple changes that happen to an individual in their lifetime.
I was just looking back over a book about China by Evan Osnos called The Age of Ambition (2014). He quotes someone, referring to themselves, who says, ‘That was my life. That wasn’t me.’
It’s such a profound statement. It’s one I think you’re very likely to encounter in China. But it would have been very unlikely for me to encounter a statement like that in Vancouver, when I was growing up.
KYD: Did you return to China as you were writing Do Not Say We Have Nothing?
MT: Between 2012 and 2016, I think I went at least six to eight times, if not more. Some trips lasted up to three months, while others were two weeks. I was teaching in Hong Kong at the City University at low-residency as part of the MFA [Master of Fine Arts] program. I go once or twice a year and I teach a workshop. I usually just added time, so that I could spend a few weeks in some part of China.
I spent a lot of time in Shanghai, but also quite a bit in the south, which is where my grandparents are from. And I spent a lot of time in the north-western deserts. That area really called to me. It’s where a lot of the old ‘re-education through labour’ camps were.
Now those have pretty much disappeared. It’s the western end of the Great Wall, where it ends and becomes desert, which eventually goes into Kazakhstan. It’s a fascinating part of the world. Some of the hubs of the Silk Road are there. They’re now tiny little towns, but they used to be these massive trading centres.
KYD: You recently spoke out against the planned closure of the creative writing MFA you’re involved with at City University.
MT: It will fully close this year. They set the closure in motion a year and a half ago, but they’ve let the students who were registered finish their degrees. The last ones will graduate this semester.
Hong Kong’s situation is very particular, and is changing dramatically and quickly – I think quicker than anyone could have expected. The friction between Hong Kong’s residents and the Hong Kong government (which is appointed by mainland China) has been explosive, ever since the [pro-democracy] Umbrella Movement [in 2014]. I think it was two years ago that, for the first time, people in Beijing holding a private memorial for the dead of Tiananmen Square were formally charged by the police ‘for causing a disturbance’. The continued crackdown on the memory of the 1989 demonstration is very surprising.
For a while, it seemed like it was shifting in another direction, that the government was going to try to normalise the memory of those events by making them part of the country’s ‘official history’, [albeit] in a modified form. But the full-on desire to wipe it from history, to have an amnesia surrounding 1989… I find it very frightening, and I’ve been thinking about all of this for years. It’s not a direction I ever thought the government would take.
KYD: How typical do you think Marie’s story is? I’m thinking specifically about what she learns about her father’s complicity with the state.
MT: Very common. Because of the severity and the ubiquity of the political campaigns in the 1950s and 60s and 70s and 80s – but especially those of the 50s and 60s – no one went untouched.
These were campaigns that would re-target the same people, often. If you were a considered to be a counter-revolutionary in one campaign, very likely you would be targeted again, a few campaigns later. Or even later, during the Cultural Revolution.
But it’s also true that the targets were shifted. At any point, anyone could become ‘the enemy’. In that kind of political climate, you learn to have a public self that will fall in line [with the dominant ideology]. Whatever happens to the private self is going to depend on the individual.
I think for some people, the public self becomes the only self; the private self completely bows. For other people, the split will be so great that it enacts a destructive force upon both public and private self. And a lot of people in the middle will find a way of compromise. They’ll know what they think inside, and they’ll learn how to speak the words that must be spoken in public. They’ll try to find some way to integrate the two while protecting one from the other.
That’s what happens to Marie’s father. Kai tries to walk that line, thinking that it is actually possible to barricade one off from the other. In his case, it is possible, for a period of time. But it’s not possible forever.
All three of the [main characters], Sparrow, Marie and Kai… There must be thousands of echoes of them out there. If not more.
KYD: You were in your mid-teens when the Tiananmen Square protests took place. Do you remember how your household reacted to the story?
MT: I could not stop watching it. I was 14, turning 15 years old. It was the first time that I’d ever seen contemporary China. [The demonstrators] were so close to me in age; they were the age of my siblings, and that’s who I felt like I was watching, looking at the students in Tiananmen Square.
What was striking, at many times, during those six weeks was the joy – the incredible joy in Tiananmen Square: the singing, the idealism. And the number of people from all walks of life and different parts of society who demonstrated – workers, students, factory workers, bureaucrats, Party members, police, army – asking for very simple things.
It looked like what we would experience later that year when we were watching the fall of the Berlin Wall. It looked like we were watching a movement in which the desire of the people was so strong that it was about to change history before our eyes. And this for the first time on the 24-hour news cycle, which [at that point] was quite new. It was unforgettable.
KYD: Do I correctly understand that the way the government deployed military force against the people at Tiananmen Square was unprecedented in China?
MT: In Beijing, there was such disbelief that this could happen. Even with the magnitude of the tragedy of 20th century Chinese history, and the many brutalities of the campaigns, and all of the death, people didn’t expect this. The violence had always taken very different forms before. The people still considered the PLA [People’s Liberation Army] to be their army. The chant was often: The people love the People’s Army!
Tiananmen Square is in many ways the zero point of the China that we now know. It became clear what the limits of criticising the government were going to be, as well as the compromises that would be made to political freedom towards economic opening-up: one would be restrained, but one would be given the opportunity to grow. That’s the China we have now.
There’s still intense disagreement in civil society about what the [nature of the] balance between economic freedom and political freedom should be. China is a very moving place, because, with good reason, people have an urgent idea of what it means to be free, and of how much freedom you need to be happy.
That’s a question we don’t ask in the west, but it’s been asked a lot in China. If you have 70 per cent freedom, is that good enough? Do you need democracy? These are questions we should be asking, in Canada, and definitely in the United States, and elsewhere. If only so that we can articulate what we want to do with the freedom that we have. In Canada, we have a great deal of freedom that we under-utilise.
KYD: Without wishing to put you on the spot, how do you think Canada might put this freedom to better use?
MT: It has to do with our engagement with civil society. Our governments do many things that we may not agree with – everything from weapons trading and investing in the military-industrial complex, to how they act and operate in the Middle East, to what our policy is with refugees… It all goes very deep.
In our case, in Canada, we also have our complex First Nations history, and very important, ongoing discussions about land and natural resources. We tend to dissociate from politics, as Canadians. We vote, and we hand over the thinking, the questioning and the critiquing. We just want to live our lives. We never really ask what we owe to each other, as strangers, in a community.
KYD: Australia’s in a very similar place. I’m sure you’ve seen news of the abhorrent treatment that people who are coming by boat to seek asylum in Australia are currently being subjected to in our country’s offshore detention centres. A great condemnation of where Australia is at, as a nation, is the fact that asylum seeker policy was not really a major issue in the lead-up to this year’s federal election. Of course, there were calls for it to be. But clearly too few.
Years from now, with the benefit of distance and hindsight, and when the world has realised the true scale and severity of what has been going on, I think our complacency as a populace, and the moral failure it represents, will be a huge point of shame. A few years ago, a human rights commissioner from the UN compared the situation to South Africa’s apartheid regime.
Which begs the question: what can we do, personally? In Melbourne, we have the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre doing incredible aid and advocacy work. Countless people have and continue to demonstrate over the issue. But it all seems to be falling on deaf ears, at the governmental level. What’s the next step? seems to be a question that many concerned people are asking themselves right now. Which I think could be said about a great many causes, throughout all of the world’s democracies.
MT: It really shifts something in you, to be in China for a long time. It’s true that in Canada we also feel a similar sense of futility. There almost seems to be a pointlessness to any governmental critique. But then in China, they’re up against something so powerful; the government holds all of the cards. And yet an extraordinary number of people don’t give in to this sense of hopelessness.
China has a long tradition of the poet/scholar/intellectual whose duty it is to critique the state, and that tradition has amazingly survived into the 21st century. An artist like Ai Weiwei sees it as his function in society. He makes art for the people, and in that, he is very much of his generation. He’s part of the sent-down generation: his father was labelled a rightist and the family was relocated to a rural labour camp when Ai Weiwei was still an infant. He sees his role as an artist as one that has a traditional relationship with a government.
That’s really powerful. We’ve definitely lost that in Canada. Literature and art have moved away from the political and into the realm of the spectacle, and of entertainment.
KYD: At the risk of betraying my ignorance, compared to Canada or Australia, are the effects of governmental oppression any more palpable for the general citizenry in China, on a day-to-day basis?
MT: Not necessarily. A lot of people aren’t touched by the government regulations. In general, more and more people in China can live much as we can in the west. They can live an ordinary life and make a good living, in a middle-class way. But people know the invisible lines that you don’t cross.
It’s interesting to see the different kinds of people who get thrown across the line. Something happens: they’re put into contact with someone, or they say the wrong thing, or they seek response from government authorities after a tragedy, and suddenly, they’re on the wrong side of the line. It’s not just activists. What’s incredible is the way that ordinary people can be moved to that side of the line, and then take up the refusal to stay silent.
Like the Tiananmen Mothers. Their founder Ding Zilin’s teenage son was shot and killed on 3 June, 1989. One thing she has said is, ‘All my life, I just wanted to live an ordinary life.’ In the wake of her son’s death, she was prevented from mourning. She couldn’t visit the cemetery to lay flowers by his grave, or do any of the mourning rituals that a parent would normally do at the loss of a child.
One of the first things she asked for was the right to grieve her son in public. A very simple thing. She’s one example of someone who would rather have flown under the radar. She’s a retired professor. She didn’t need to get caught up in the politics, but she felt it was her duty.
KYD: In Do Not Say We Have Nothing you write both evocatively and insightfully about classical music. What’s your relationship to music?
MT: I had piano lessons for one year when I was about six, so I can read notation. Technically, I could learn how to play a piece [today], but it would take me forever. I studied ballet for 15 years, though. All of my exposure to classical music comes from ballet.
It’s very familiar to me in terms of its movements, its cadences and its expressive potential. But I’d never put it into language before. I was nervous to write about it. There are so many classical music experts, and I thought I was going to make them angry! [Laughs.] I had to decide not to think about it.
The composer [in the book], Sparrow, is such an important character, so it was necessary for me to enter his way of being. I couldn’t do that without conveying the naturalness of his relationship to music. It wasn’t only about the modifiers he’d use, but also the ebb and flow his language would take on when he’s thinking about music.
KYD: Were you listening to, say, Glenn Gould performing the Goldberg Variations as you were writing about that recording?
MT: Yes. I’d never written to music before. Writing this book was the first time that I didn’t have [a space] to work inside my apartment. So I sat in a café. And the sound in a café is so unpredictable that I took to wearing headphones in order to create a working environment that I could depend upon.
I listened to the Goldberg Variations on repeat for five or six hours every day. My mind works in such a way that I can’t write and actively listen at the same time. I don’t really hear it, but I believe it seeps into my subconscious. Then, I’ll come out of the writing to find myself at some part of the Goldberg Variations and be so taken by it. There are so many variations that any point of re-entry it is an extraordinary moment.
KYD: The novel is genuinely infused with the spirit of that piece, then?
MT: Very much. For the writing of this book, the music and the writing were always occupying the same space. That’s true from when I was writing the first draft of the first page right up until the very end of the process.
KYD: I sometimes think that when a novelist writes well about music, they do it better justice than any other kind of author. It’s not incumbent upon them to bring everything to bear on a particular composition, or song, while a critic has to adequately contextualise a piece in order for their insights and observations to resonate, or even make sense. And then, they have to deconstruct it.
Meanwhile, the fiction writer can consider a piece formally, theoretically and historically, while also evoking its character in the aesthetics of their prose and demonstrating how it affects someone in their story, and by extension, a reader-listener. But the author of fiction is not obliged to give us the entire story. The music is allowed to retain an element of mystery – and therefore, maybe, its power.
MT: That power is so difficult to capture in language.
KYD: There’s that great, enigmatic quote that’s variously misattributed to everyone from Laurie Anderson to Frank Zappa to Thelonious Monk: Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.
MT: You know, one thing this process taught me is the importance of key changes. It’s such a useful lesson for a novelist! I found the structures of classical music to be extremely enlightening for my practice as a writer of longform [fiction].
Maybe [writers] are so used to discussing literature that we no longer ‘hear’ the structural concepts as we read. Listening to music, though, I’m still like, Oh, I get what this is doing! I’m aware of what a key change does. Bach helped me to write this book.