Words Can Erase and Distort: An Interview with Madeleine Thien
When language is in conflict with the very things we need it for
Madeleine Thien is the internationally renowned author of four books of fiction, including the short story collection Simple Recipes, and the novels Certainty and Dogs at the Perimeter. Her most recent novel is Do Not Say We Have Nothing, a sweeping story of generations caught up in the legacy of Mao’s Cultural Revolution and the Tiananmen Square protest. The novel has been praised by critics throughout the English speaking world, and it has been shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, and longlisted for the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction. Most recently, Do Not Say We Have Nothing won two of Canada’s most prestigious literary awards: the Governor General’s Award for Fiction, and the Scotiabank Giller Prize. In the citation by the Governor General’s award jury, the novel is described as “an elegant, nuanced and perfectly realized novel that, fugue-like, presents the lives of individuals, collectives and generations caught in the complexities of history.”
David Chariandy: Congratulations on these latest honours, Madeleine. I know it’s been a very busy year for you.
Madeleine Thien: I feel like I’m being blown through a wind tunnel! But it feels okay.
DC: As a longtime admirer of your work, I’d like to begin by asking how you moved from your previous novel, Dogs on the Perimeter, about Cambodian civil war, to Do Not Say We Have Nothing, about the Chinese cultural revolution and the Tiananmen Square protests. Both novels are about individuals caught up in traumatic national histories. But there’s a striking turn to music in Do Not Say We Have Nothing. How and why did music, particularly Western classical music, become such a powerful orchestrating force in your latest novel?
MT: I had felt such an incredible sadness after Dogs at the Perimeter, because I had begun to think that language itself was in conflict with the very things we need it for: to listen, to speak, to understand. Language is fragile. Words can erase and distort so many things. Justice, reason, democracy, freedom, goodness, truth—we have used these words in the service of widely different intentions. We have used them in humane ways and in deeply violent ways.
One of the underlying artistic and conceptual questions in Do Not Say became, how to work on language itself, how to keep a word and its meaning connected when they are so easily severed? And how do we find the language to think in different ways? Music, mathematics, visual art, with their different forms of notation, each complicate reality. For example, Dmitri Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5 can famously be heard in different ways. First, and thankfully foremost, since it may have saved Shostakovich’s life, as “an exemplar of the loftiest ideals of Socialist Realism . . . [and] the creative answer of a Soviet composer to just criticism.” Secondly, as open mourning for the devastating violence experienced during Stalin’s political campaigns and purges.
Classical music spoke to changing political times in the Baroque and Romantic eras, and in Do Not Say it speaks intensely to Chinese musicians who are living through a revolutionary age. It says something that is counter to the times, it keeps other ways of being alive, it speaks always in multiple meanings. The musical form asks, in a structural way, how can there be revolutionary change within the cycle (the motifs) of what’s come before? How can we open ourselves to revolutionary change without embracing dissolution?
DC: There’s a scene near the beginning of Do Not Say We Have Nothing in which the main speaker, Marie, describes listening to Bach’s Sonata for Piano and Violin No. 4: “The counterpoint, holding together composer, musicians and even silence, the music, with its spiraling waves of grief and rapture, was everything I remembered.” I’m struck by how the experience of listening to music is inextricably connected with Marie’s work, both conscious and involuntary, in recalling the life of her father.
Involuntary is exactly the right word. What she hears, the music, this abstract art, holds contradictions – what she knows and doesn’t know, what she simultaneously loves and refuses, who she is but never will be – in a single, passing moment. Meanwhile, language is linear. I sometimes think that experimentation in storytelling is partly about finding ways to defy the linearity of language and, more powerfully, the linearity of time. Imagery, motifs, resonances and echoes, and what Mikhail Bakhtin calls double-voicedness, all distort the smooth surface and superimpose different ideas, one overtop the other, while keeping everything visible. It’s like intricately folding a flat sheet of paper to create more dimensionality.
DC: In a recent onstage reading and interview, you briefly suggested that the architecture of Do Not Say We Have Nothing is based on Glenn Gould’s Goldberg Variations. What did you mean by this?
MT: The Goldberg Variations begin with a very simple aria, followed by 30 variations and canons based on a motif in the aria’s base line, and finally ends with the very same aria. But by the time we return to the beginning, we have traversed worlds. It’s almost like Bach is telling us, the beginning and the end, birth and death, return us to the same place, but in-between are these phenomenal variations—joy and sorrow and states of being for which we have no names. The music is both concrete (sound waves) and ephemeral (memory, emotion), and evokes the concrete and ephemeral within us.
I wanted to use Bach’s architecture, his sense of movement, for a novel that knows its beginning and ending (the history is already written) but seeks nevertheless to understand freedom. Everything repeats and yet nothing is predictable. The history is a familiar one: the aspiration towards utopia, revolutionary change, the mechanisms of destruction clothed in the mechanisms of creation (to create the new world, we must destroy the old, or slogans like, “If it is beauty against ugliness, choose ugliness,” etc.), and vice versa.
I’ve been thinking of Italo Calvino’s description of the invisible city of Berenice, the unjust city, which also contains another Berenice, the just city. They are infinitely germinating, one within the other, ad infinitum. The malignant seed forever taking root inside the good; the love of justice growing again each time it is cut down.
DC: In addressing the Cultural Revolution and Tiananmen Square protest, Do Not Say We Have Nothing represents major events in global history. At the same time, the great success of the book is the richness in which it evokes everyday life, as well as the emotional intimacy it creates and sustains. Yet how was your writing of the book complicated by the fact that you might be considered a Canadian, “Western,” or a “diasporic Chinese” writer? Like Marie in your novel, you appear to live, at least most of the time, at both a social and cultural remove from contemporary China.
It’s so complicated. You’re right, David, I really am at a cultural and language remove. At the same time, I have this almost childlike intimacy with Chinese culture (years of calligraphy lessons, traditional dance classes, 1980s Hong Kong television serials, family, etc). I’ve always felt that the history that appears to be distant (Cambodia, Indonesia, Chile, Ghana, Iraq, and on and on) is in fact the history that reveals ourselves. They are the narratives in which we are implicated, but which we have tried to forget.
I think, whether I’m writing about something that is close to home or far afield, I continuously question what I think I know. What we assume—and therefore project—onto the world takes up a lot of our brain space. Predetermined knowledge can blind us from seeing what’s right in front of us. That was the great joy and challenge of writing Do Not Say . . . I’m not a musician, I didn’t live during the Cultural Revolution, and I watched the 1989 Tiananmen demonstrations on television. I began from a place of knowing so little, but believing that attentiveness, creativity and discipline could somehow bring a very complex place into our personal landscapes. Maybe art’s desire is to make something come alive. In art there is so much discipline, even fastidiousness, bound together with freedom.
DC: I imagine you are also relatively distanced from those who might threaten censorship or more serious repercussions for what you write.
MT: Yes, very much so. There are numerous sensitive subjects in China, and writers there have to make decisions about how they’re going to create in these conditions. The resulting literature is fascinating, full of docu-fiction, allegory, and everything in-between, as well as what Ning Ken called, “chaohuan,” the ultra-unreal.
I’ve been thinking about how we make use of the freedoms we have, and sometimes, how little we make use of them. Here in North America, perceived audience, publishing culture, money, prizes, MFA programs, cliques and fashion, etc,. can all shape the literature we have, and the decisions writers make. North America is fascinating because artists can be tempted to impose limitations on themselves. Or sometimes the structures we inhabit, what Doris Lessing called the prisons we choose to live inside, are the most difficult to see.
DC: In your previous novel, Dogs at the Perimeter, the main character, Janie, sets about organizing and interpreting the “towers of research notes, clippings, books, interview transcripts, recordings” commissioned and preserved by the Khmer Rouge as their very means of enacting genocide. Janie’s work brings to my mind writers seeking to come to terms with other uniquely catastrophic events like the Holocaust and Transatlantic Slavery, and forced to confront the archives of terror created by the very perpetrators of atrocities.
Yet in your latest novel, Do Not Say We Have Nothing, Marie draws upon a very different type of “archive.” She inherits from her father a series of notebooks entitled The Book of Records, which turns out to be an untidy and almost formless “novel”—really an unruly and oftentimes impersonal collection of legends, histories, and experiences transcribed by hand but also expanded by each new custodian. Through the Book of Records, Marie is able to piece together both her father’s history and that of modern China. Can you talk a bit about this apparent turn, in your recent novel, from the violence etched dutifully into the official archive to the lives written with creative spontaneity in the fragile unofficial archive?
MT: It’s a really moving point, that the records are often kept by the conquerors or perpetrators, as a kind of documentation of power and efficiency, and very disturbingly, of possession of people and lives. They are a record of particular attempts to organize the world. Files can be opened and closed, giving the record keepers the catastrophic illusion that they have every right to control the beginning and end of narratives. That they are godlike, and can start and stop time.
Do Not Say has an argument to make: that we are all authors. That novels, poetry, photographs, copies of things, sheet music, sound recordings, and more, serve as the unofficial record, a messy ever-expansive record, as wide and turbulent as a river. No one can pinpoint the beginning or the end. The Book of Records is unfolding and forever unfinished novel that has no apparent author, and has many variations. And when people read the book, they don’t know if it’s a mirror to the past, or if it’s a future that is still to come. They don’t know if it’s invention or history, all they know is that it takes hold of them, and they can’t let it go. It is them.
DC: Do Not Say We Have Nothing is by and significantly about women. The novel concerns Marie’s effort to “find” her father, but it is in her voice, and pieced together through her friendship, in Vancouver, with another woman, Ai-Ming. Moreover, the novel carefully chronicles the lives of earlier generations of women, such as Ai Ming’s great aunt and grandmother (Swirl and Big Mother), and especially Big Mother’s daughter, Zhuli, who becomes an accomplished violinist. Did you consciously set out to explore the complex fates and agency of women in revolutionary China?
MT: I don’t think I set out to do this, but it is a reflection of how I experience the world. I think when it comes to my characters, they seem wholly themselves, women and men. They come into the world with fairly strong temperaments, and in the case of Big Mother Knife, in particular, it’s the force of the individual versus the force of society. What we used to call man versus society. I think you’re right though that, in this novel, for various reasons, Kai and Sparrow either compromise or self-erase, and Big Mother Knife, Swirl, and Zhuli refuse. They have a clarity in them, and fewer illusions.
DC: Your novel offers glimpses of the millions of lives lost during the devastating famine of the Great Leap Forward, as well as the lives lost during the Cultural Revolution and the Tiananmen Square protests. Yet some of the most haunting parts of your novel involve not only the extinguishing of selves but the state-controlled production of selfhood itself. I’m thinking here of your novel’s depictions of struggle sessions and denunciation meetings, and also how individuals like Jiang Kai, Marie’s father, are remade through coerced confessions and exhaustive rituals of “self criticism.”
MT: Yes, the new person. A new society and a new China, born from the violence of revolution. So the question could become, where did the old society go? And the answer might be, It went inside the people: as memory, as an old value system, as unspoken allegiances. So each person had to purge themselves, and the way to do this was self-criticism and struggle sessions. You make a really distressing and, I think, correct observation about state-controlled production of selfhood. That the self will be utilized in the service of the state, or the Party, or the ideology. It’s a form of militarization, and not so different from how we create fighters and soldiers and consumers, how we bring thoughts into line as we harness the individual’s spirit and their physical capacity. This idea which we can’t seem to extinguish and which we must, that selves and bodies can be owned by others.
DC: As Marie reads her father’s written self-criticisms, she describes how she “glimpsed [him] through the many selves he had tried to be; selves abandoned and reinvented, selves that wanted to vanish but couldn’t.” I’m wondering if there’s a connection here to the form and narrative voice of your novel. Although Marie is the only first person speaker in the novel, what we encounter as readers is a variety of viewpoints and characters bespeaking an astonishing plurality of times and spaces. A novel originally in one voice about a lost father eventually breaks into a prismatic diversity of selves.
MT: That’s beautiful, David. I think that each character is a doorway or a gate, a series of doors the reader enters. Marie is, for me, the keeper of the records. In The Tiananmen Papers, which is the collection of secret documents smuggled out of China documenting the government’s realtime response to the Tiananmen demonstrations, the unknown individual who gathered the papers is called only “The Compiler.” Marie is a kind of compiler. She has never accepted her father’s suicide. But the story she tells is not her father’s story, and not a biography. Instead she tells the story of the people he loved—Sparrow and Zhuli—and I think she tells it this way to remind herself of the great love her father was capable of. That this love had consequences, and in fact sets her own story in motion because it brings Ai-ming (Sparrow’s daughter, who leaves China in the aftermath of the 1989 demonstrations) into her life. I love how you use the word prismatic.
DC: Your win of Canada’s Scotiabank Giller Prize came on the day before the end of a uniquely heated and distressing US election. Many now have new fears regarding the future of US democracy. There’s a line near the end of novel in which Marie states the following: “In the end, I believe these pages and the Book of Records return [us?] to the persistence of this desire: to know the times in which we are alive.” How does Do Not Say We Have Nothing help us know our time today?
MT: I think it does so in a difficult way, by tracking the minutiae of a series of political campaigns in China that, first, created the conditions in which anyone can be considered an enemy of the people; and second, set the tone and the language for political discourse. For me, when the discourse becomes deafening, when only the ones who shout will be heard, we are in dangerous times. It means we are all being asked to choose an extreme, and the collision of extremes only knows violence. The US election has made the argument, over and over again, that there is an “us” and a “them” and the us/them has shifted depending on who is being addressed. Extremes desire purity. Extremes on both sides cannot accept doubt, moderation or nuance. Purity always eventually links itself to blood, be it race or class. These are some of the conditions that allowed increasing brutality in China’s political campaigns, because campaigns are tools of cleansing.
DC: Do Not Say We Have Nothing is an extraordinary triumph of writing, Madeleine; and I know that people will be reading and discussing your novel for many years to come. However, I wonder if I could end this interview by gesturing once more to your previous novel, Dogs on the Perimeter, which I’m happy to hear is scheduled to be published very soon in the US by Norton. Did writing Do Not Say We Have Nothing enable you to see more clearly the formal project and political stakes of your previous novel?
MT: I love this question, but I think it’s difficult for me to look back on the books in an abstract way, to articulate the formal project. They are ways for me to understand, and therefore ways for me to live. I think I’ve always had a lot of questions. As we live through catastrophic events, my instinct is to look backwards, to see how one moment was the culmination of a previous one, to see what the road looked like. Why did we choose this rather than that? What did we believe we were doing, and what were we blind to? Thinking allows us to walk back through the doorway, to retrace our steps, and from that understanding, imagine how a life continues. To be better. I think Dogs at the Perimeter will always be the defining book for me—because it was so difficult and the task impossible. It’s the novel I believe in, because it is exactly what it is, a tiny, heavy stone in the ocean.