A Conversation with Madeleine Thien, author of Do Not Say We Have Nothing
When Madeleine Thien first kindly agreed to do this interview in May 2016, her novel Do Not Say We Have Nothing was soon to be published in Canada and England, but there was as yet no publisher for it in the US. Since I was unable to get a copy of the novel in the States, she sent me a galley PDF. I started reading the novel PDF when I was in South Africa in July, but I was so taken with it, I knew I had to read it in its proper book form. When I came back to the States in August, I ordered the novel internationally and waited for it to arrive. By the time I’d received my copy and started reading it, Do Not Say We Have Nothing was on its way to being something big, and deservedly so. It is a structurally complex novel that is large in scope and heart, a novel very much for our times.
Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, and winner of the Scotiabank Giller Prize and the Governor General’s Literary Award for Fiction, and a New York Times best book for 2016, Do Not Say We Have Nothing traces the lives of three Chinese musicians and their legacy from Mao’s Cultural Revolution to Tiananmen Square to the present. In the past few years, we have witnessed the deterioration of artistic and political freedom in Hong Kong. Today, as I prepare this interview for posting, The Guardian has published an article whose headline reads “In Hong Kong’s Book Industry ‘everybody is scared.’”
Now that Do Not Say We Have Nothing is available in the US, I’m very happy that Americans will have a chance to read more from this gifted and generous writer.
This interview was conducted by email.
SB: We met through the City University of Hong Kong’s MFA program in the summer of 2011. Your novel Dogs at the Perimeter had just been released. I was still haunted by my own trip to Cambodia in 1997, and loved the way you captured that haunting quality in your novel. I read recently that you started Do Not Say We Have Nothing as a way to explore some of the unresolved questions from Dogs at the Perimeter, allowing yourself a more expansive canvas. Can you comment a bit more on what those questions are and the initial process of writing Do Not Say We Have Nothing?
MT: At first, I thought I was tracing ideas backwards, particularly the trajectory of Marxist thought in Asia, and the relationship between Pol Pot’s Cambodia and Mao Zedong’s China. One of Mao’s high level military intelligence officers, Kang Sheng, was instrumental in aligning Chinese support for the Khmer Rouge.
As the novel grew, I found I was returning to a very particular unresolved question in Dogs at the Perimeter, the complexity and pain of survival; how people live on in the immediate aftermath as well as the long aftermath; how people learn to silence themselves, to speak, to be silent again, to speak. That survival is a life’s work, a double helix of forgetting and remembering.
The two novels are different shapes in time and space. The Cambodian genocide took place over approximately four years; the political campaigns in China spanned decades. 2016 is a very particular moment. Mao Zedong was in power for 27 years, until his death in 1977; and it’s been 27 years since the 1989 Tiananmen demonstrations. I think, in Do Not Say We Have Nothing, there’s a counting up and a counting down of time, an effort to make visible patterns in history, the idea of the Year Zero or the Ground Zero, these rifts in society which we keep recreating, and to which we keep returning.
“I found that listening to Bach or Prokofiev or Shostakovich was enriching, the music opened up my imagination and my conceptual awareness in unexpected ways. The structures of their symphonies, partitas, sonatas, variations, etc., all worked their way into my consciousness as ways of thinking and forms of narrative. Arrivals, departures, and returns.”
SB: While I was reading Do Not Say We Have Nothing, I couldn’t sleep well at night. The scenes from the Cultural Revolution — those last days Sparrow, Kai, and Zhuli were together and the aftermath of that that time were unsettling and hard to read. I hung out with you for a few weeks for three summers when you were working on this novel, and you were always so committed to teaching and being part of the MFA program. Now I wonder how you separated the intensity and singularity of the world of your novel with your own life while you were writing it.
But I found that listening to Bach or Prokofiev or Shostakovich was enriching, the music opened up my imagination and my conceptual awareness in unexpected ways. The structures of their symphonies, partitas, sonatas, variations, etc., all worked their way into my consciousness as ways of thinking and forms of narrative. Arrivals, departures, and returns.
MT: Oh, Sybil. This is a very moving question to me. While I was teaching, the world of the novel never really left my consciousness. China was unfolding in my imagination, anchored to things I was seeing in the present. The ardour and the desires of the students, the politics of the moment, the everyday things in Hong Kong that go unnoticed, the relentless forces of centralized power: all these things were part of my mental landscape. The past is written all over the present, nothing has gone away in Hong Kong, in China, or in our societies, even when the past is unremarked upon.
It’s also true that the most difficult writing was done in near isolation, often in China where I would work 12 to 14 hour days, and then wander through the streets at night. During those intensive writing times, I never fully emerged from the world of the novel. Sparrow, Zhuli, and Kai were always with me.
SB: The use of music as the architecture for the novel helped me navigate its complex narrative structure. Can you describe how you came to this narrative structure? Was this something that helped scaffold the novel for you, or did that come with later revisions?
MT: Scaffolding is the perfect word. The structures came very naturally, perhaps because I was listening to so much music as I was writing, and I had never done this before. I used to think that I needed complete, or near complete, silence to write. But I found that listening to Bach or Prokofiev or Shostakovich was enriching, the music opened up my imagination and my conceptual awareness in unexpected ways. The structures of their symphonies, partitas, sonatas, variations, etc., all worked their way into my consciousness as ways of thinking and forms of narrative. Arrivals, departures, and returns.
SB: I love your use of the nonverbal forms of language in the novel. Were you able to integrate the nonverbal forms from the beginning or did that come at a later stage in the manuscript?
MT: They were there almost from the beginning. I think I rewrote the first 40 to 50 pages multiple times, and then, once Marie became clear, the nonverbal forms of language became inseparable from her — mathematical equations, Chinese ideograms, even the shape of the conductor’s hand movements as she or he counts time. I was struck by descriptions of musicians and composers sitting down to read scores, as if they were text. And, like text, the reader hears everything — the voice, the music — in his or her mind. I think the photographs came later. They became part of Marie’s archive, when initially they had been part of mine.
“My first encounters with classical music were all through ballet and dance and so, to me, music has always been intertwined with movement, with dance and the narrative of dance. The challenge was using language to express the dimensionality and physicality of music.”
SB: I read that you first went to university on a dance scholarship. As much as your novel “reads” musically, I can also read it as a dance — dance of language, characters, place, and time. Some of my favorite authors like Paul Bowles and Thomas Bernhard come from a musical background. Has your study of dance influenced your writing?
MT: I think it has, and I think, potentially, the more I allow it to inflect my writing, the more it will. My instincts are gestural and tonal, and this is evident in my previous books, particularly Dogs at the Perimeter. Do Not Say We Have Nothing is a bit of a departure. It’s epic in scale, and even though it’s not linear, it’s more linear than any other work I’ve ever made.
My first encounters with classical music were all through ballet and dance and so, to me, music has always been intertwined with movement, with dance and the narrative of dance. The challenge was using language to express the dimensionality and physicality of music.
SB: I remember watching Thirty-Two Short Films About Glenn Gould in Washington, DC in 1994, and reading Bernhard’s The Loser around the same time. There’s a mystique about Gould as an artist. Besides his music, did that mystique as a musician inform your portrayal of any of the characters?
MT: I read a lot about Glenn Gould as well. I love his particularities, and even though I didn’t borrow his eccentricities for my characters, his life gave me freedom to imagine their relationships with music as highly specific and highly personal. It moves me a great deal when musicians tell me that they recognize this intimacy with music, that the novel describes something that is nearly inexpressible not only about creating and performing music, but the quality of devotion itself. I feel so relieved and happy. It is as miraculous to me as it is to them.
SB: We became friends through the amazing low residency MFA program at City University of Hong Kong. Its closure was heartbreaking to all of us, but you were able to articulate our pain through an article in The Guardian linking the decision to closing the program to Hong Kong’s increasing limiting of free expression. I can see now that as you were finishing your novel, this closure would be even more troubling. The Umbrella Movement is yet another note, a response or an echo to Tiananmen, of the Cultural Revolution, of the Communist Revolution. It is another chapter in the Book of Records. You also mentioned our program and its closing in your Acknowledgements. What advice do you have to artists who find themselves unable to express themselves?
“If a regime or place or ideology wants you to disappear, to live and to continue creating is a form of resistance, especially if it is done with integrity.”
MT: This is the most difficult question of all. There’s no question that my reading of events at City University of Hong Kong was informed by the many years I had been thinking about a longer Chinese history. Deep, transformative, and troubling changes to society never happen overnight. The conditions for those change are introduced incrementally, at the margins, in unexpected places. The disappearance of a writing program is very marginal, but it was part of a wider shift in society, and a narrowing down of forms of expression.
Censorship and the closing down of expression take many forms, and one of these is the creation of conditions in which people begin to self-censor. We have this in North America, too. There are certain subjects people will avoid; topics in which we fear we may be out of sync with our peers, friends, families, and social groups. It’s easier to express opinions that will result in social validation, rather than social opprobrium.
In China during the Cultural Revolution, there are many moving stories detailing how people hid things, or created in secret, or made use of the arts available to them in order to refine their craft and their skills, so that later on, when they had a different kind of freedom of expression, they had the technical ability to do what their imaginations desired. The artist Xu Bing is a powerful example of this. Shostakovich, who lived during Stalin’s Terror and through multiple purges, said something to his students that I’ve always remembered: “Work, play. You’re living here, in this country, and you must see everything as it really is. Don’t create illusions. There’s no other life. There can’t be any. Just be thankful that you’re still allowed to breathe.” And I think this pragmatism is very important. If a regime or place or ideology wants you to disappear, to live and to continue creating is a form of resistance, especially if it is done with integrity. Art has the capacity to say multiple things, to camouflage ideas and ways of being. Nothing stays the same forever. It’s the line from Bei Dao’s poem, “Remember what I say: Not everything will pass.”