Where Readers and Writers Meet

History and Music Play in Perfect Harmony in ‘Do Not Say We Have Nothing’

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Image courtesy of amazon.com

Rarely does a book come along that is as masterfully written as Do Not Say We Have Nothing. From critically-acclaimed author Madeleine Thien, the novel was shortlisted for the 2016 Man Booker Prize, and was awarded the Scotiabank Giller Prize and the Governor General’s Literary Award, among many others. Living in Vancouver, Marie and her mother invite into their home Ai-Ming, a Chinese refugee fleeing the crackdown in the aftermath of the Tiananmen Square Protests in 1989. The novel beautifully splinters apart, delving into different subplots, but all centered around Marie finding and tracing her family history, and the connection between her father Kai, a talented pianist, and Ai-Ming’s father Sparrow, a brilliant composer, as well as a violin prodigy.

Do Not Say We Have Nothing is deeply moving and beautiful, and shows the sheer depth of mastery that Madeleine Thien has in exquisite storytelling. Booktrib was lucky to catch up with the author for a quick interview, where we talking about writing music, Chinese history, and more.

Booktrib: The novel is so well written and explored – it’s incredibly haunting, and you dive so deeply and vividly into the past, into the history of China, the protests at Tiananmen Square, and the Cultural Revolution. What was your first inspiration for writing this novel, and setting it in across these time periods?

MT: It’s a book that has been a labour of love, and one that brought me to places and ideas that I never anticipated. The first inspiration was, I think, many things coming together and persisting as questions in my mind. First, the 1989 student demonstrations and why they remain the most highly (and brutally) censored event in 20th century Chinese history. The Tiananmen massacre claimed hundreds, perhaps over a thousand lives, but Mao Zedong’s political campaigns directly caused the deaths of over sixty million. I wanted to look at how the demonstrations are part of an ongoing and unresolved political experimentation, and a violence and a transformation over which the Chinese government forbids both open discussion and public mourning.

Booktrib: Some of the central themes of the novel is the way poetry, music, language, even typography interact with, and impact our lives, both for good and bad. Was this something that you thought about for a while, or something which developed naturally as you were writing the novel?

MT: It emerged as I went, as the characters began to show how they lived in the the world. What they heard, saw, registered, and how they interpreted ideas or signs or texts, how they loved one another or were surprised by what love or ambition or politics drove them to be or do. I had this idea that the language had to be layered through different forms of expression (music, ideograms, photographs, musical notation, mathematics), so that all these ways of thinking might be visible or felt, like screens continuously moving between and beneath one another.

Image courtesy of the Toronto Star

Booktrib: Speaking of music, one of the most complicated things that authors and readers have commented on is how hard it is to transcribe music, or the love of music into words; but in Do Not Say We Have Nothing, you express it so well, it makes me feel like you have a really deep appreciation and understanding of music.

MT: It sounds strange to say, but I feel as if this appreciation was possible because of the characters in the book. In some ways, I had to apprentice myself to them, to hear what they were capable of hearing, which was in essence a kind of history and life.

And once I had some access to these layers, then I could begin to feel what they felt. Music is alive for them, it is both an inner world and an external one. It is as real as what they see with their eyes. To have it taken away by the politics and violence of the time was to have a sensory world, along with all its ways of thinking, purged from their memories. But nothing disappears, least of all music.


Booktrib: Can you speak a little bit about ‘The Book of Records,’ and the act of copying? Both had such an interesting role to play in the novel.

MT: Yes, I was curious about the act of copying as an act of devotion, learning and becoming. When studying Chinese calligraphy, it’s common to learn first by tracing and copying the handwriting of a master calligrapher: to step inside the brushwork, which is a way of immersing into the way of breathing and the cadence of another person.

So, one learns first by copying (as we all do as children learning language). Afterwards, one adds their own inner life, cognition and art to this foundation. Wen the Dreamer initially copies the “Book of Records” for Swirl, because he thinks the novel will bring her pleasure. Later, he begins to hide names, locations and acts of courage inside its pages. He begins as a reader, a lover of literature, but then the book becomes the passageway to another form of record keeping, storytelling, and form of survival — authorship, in other words. In the West we like to see the artist as sui generis, but I think of art as a fabric that creates us and which we, in turn, add to. It doesn’t come from our individual hands, it comes from the world.

Image courtesy of uOttowa

Booktrib: Is there anything that you wanted to add to the novel that just didn’t make it in for some reason?

MT: I think that the lives of the mothers, Ma and Ling (the mothers of Marie and Ai-Ming) are a kind of unspoken current through the novel. Their daughters are looking for what was hidden from them, the love and secrets of their fathers; their mothers are a kind of bedrock, whose devotion they are not, at first, attuned to. But they are their mother’s daughters, and I think they come to see this in the end. Personally I think it’s a novel full of loud, intellectual, gifted, and ever sonorous women, from Big Mother Knife to Swirl and Ling, to Ai-Ming, Zhuli and the Old Cat.

Booktrib: Do you have any advice for aspiring or struggling writers?

MT: To follow your own heart and your own complicated and difficult questions. To not give into simplistic words and forms of expression, or to ways of being that reduce the human and animal and sensory in all of us. To not be afraid of the panoramic or the intimate, and perhaps even see that they are fractal, one always echoing the structure and life of the other.

Do Not Say We Have Nothing is available for purchase now.

For more information on the author, please visit her website at madeleinethien.com


Image courtesy of cbc.ca

Madeleine Thien is the author of the story collection Simple Recipes, which was a finalist for the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, a Kiriyama Pacific Prize Notable Book, and won the BC Book Prize for Fiction; the novel Certainty, which won the Amazon.ca First Novel Award; and the novel Dogs at the Perimeter, which was shortlisted for Berlin’s 2014 International Literature Award and won the Frankfurt Book Fair’s 2015 Liberaturpreis. Her novels and stories have been translated into twenty-five languages, and her essays have appeared in GrantaThe Guardian, the Financial TimesFive DialsBrick and Al Jazeera. Her story “The Wedding Cake” was shortlisted for the prestigious 2015 Sunday Times EFG Short Story Award. She lives in Montreal.


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Rachel Fogle De Souza was born and raised in Connecticut, and traveled extensively throughout Europe, parts of Asia, and the United States, before attending college at the University of California, Davis, where she received a B.A. in Comparative Literature, with a double minor in Women, Gender and Sexualities studies, and Middle Eastern/South Asian studies. When she's not writing, she's reading, boxing, or thinking about traveling.

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