In this edition of the Granta Podcast, editor Ka Bradley speaks with Madeleine Thien about her book, Do Not Say We Have Nothing, which has recently been shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. They talk about translating the sensation of music for a reader, the importance of writing about women of colour, and the Chinese conceptual framework of time.

 

 

 

 

Ka Bradley:

So, you have written an incredibly beautiful, epic novel, Do Not Say We Have Nothing. So I suppose the first question I wanted to ask: was why tackle such a huge subject? The Chinese Cultural Revolution was an enormous thing – what made you want to write it now?

 

Madeleine Thien:

You know, when I started, I thought I was writing about something very specific, which was the 1989 demonstrations in Tiananmen Square, that’s where I had started. It was something I remembered so vividly from my teenage years, watching it all unfold on 24-hour news, and it stayed with me, the 6 weeks of demonstrations and the many points where it looked like things could have turned in a very different direction. And as I was thinking about it over the years I started to think about not only the students, but also the one million Beijing citizens that came into the streets, and especially that older generation. What gave them the courage to stand up to the government? And, what made them come into the streets to want to protect, in many ways, their children, and another generation? So I think that’s why it ended up going backwards into the Cultural Revolution. I’d been writing about Cambodia before that – the Cambodian genocide – and one thing I’d been thinking a lot about were the musicians. I started thinking about what was it about music that could be so threatening. We often know about the writers who are targeted by totalitarian regimes but looking at musicians is another way in to thinking about what’s threatening to this consolidation of power.

 

Ka:

My knowledge of classical music is limited to knowing it exists but as I was reading your novel I felt moved to put on the music as I was reading about it to hear what they were hearing or to learn what they were learning. You also talk about the way music works, the meaning folded inside it, the time that spans through it. I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about that, the difficulty of writing about music and translating the sensation of music for a reading audience?

 

Madeleine:

It was one of the biggest challenges of writing the book, because I’m not a musician. I can play piano very poorly, I learned for a few years when I was a kid so I can read music but that’s the limit of it. But I was thinking about the movement of artistic practices and artistic expression and how we take up one tool that might come from far away and use it to express a very personal self. So for instance, I was trained as a ballet dancer – I was an immigrant Chinese kid, you know – and those two things don’t seem at odds with each other, that ballet for me was a form of very deep personal expression. And I think in the case of these Chinese musicians at the Shanghai Conservatory in the 1960s, they are in a very political climate, in a time that is trying to make a modern Chinese self and to figure out what modern Chinese revolutionary identity is going to look like and then, on the other hand, trying to express that through Beethoven, or Bach or Prokofiev, or Shostakovich, but also to express something that is very particular to the Chinese identity at that moment in time.

I was going for a kind of symphonic feeling. There are many motifs; there are many musical themes running through and these are the character’s lives. They all are a part of a fabric of history and of expression and they will be dissonant at times and they will come into a kind of harmony at times and but it’s a constant folding and refolding of those musical themes.

 

Ka:

I wonder if we could come back to this idea of the modern Chinese self. You talk about how love and desire always has to be secondary to the Revolution and I was thinking about love in this book, there’s a really beautiful line where Big Mother Knife says that her sister was the great love of her life. I’ve got sisters so this made me very emotional when I read it, I felt that in this book you give equal importance to the love and passion of family and to the love and passion of romantic entanglements. Quite often it seemed to me that the relationships between brothers and sisters or cousins had that same – I hesitate to use the word romantic – but had this same knotted importance.

 

Madeleine:

That’s very true I think, and there’s passion. In a way these family bonds are a kind of resistance because what is so painful – and I’ll probably refer to the Cambodia book a lot because they really speak to each other – is that it’s true in Cambodia during the Khmer Rouge and true in China during the Cultural Revolution that the family unit was a threat to the totalitarian ideology. It meant that your allegiances were to this circle around you, to your mother, your father, your sister, your cousin and so on, rather than to the centralised power which in this case would be the Communist party of China and Mao Zedong. So there were many mechanisms put in place to divide the family so that allegiance always had to be to the government, not to your parents.

I think that love in these families is a form of defiance and stating that no, this love has a meaning and it doesn’t mean that I don’t love my country, it doesn’t mean that I don’t want a better or more just country but that doesn’t mean that other kinds of love are impure.

 

Ka:

For a book filled with music and language and discussion there’s a lot about silence, and the value of silence. I think Sparrow at one point says he was thinking about the way the sun, when it fills the sky, blots out the sight of the stars and the moon. So is sound a form of deafness, and if so, what is silence? And leading on from that, the idea that there are some things that we don’t have words for, and we can’t write about, the difficulty of writing, in fact, about the Chinese Cultural Revolution and the Khmer Rouge. How do you find that balance of finding the right language to write about these things?

 

Madeleine:

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.

And yet at the same time I think for Sparrow, who’s kind of the throughline of the whole book, he’s a composer who chooses to no longer make music because everything that he writes cannot express something that he feels is fundamental to himself and if he chooses to express what’s not fundamental to himself he will be distorting his own soul, and this music that he loves so much. In a way he loves the music so much that he can’t bear to make it anymore. And I think that’s devastating, I think any artist, any human being, where the right to express oneself is taken away, it leaves you in a state of isolation and it disconnects you from society. So he tries to find a way around that, in work and in life and in raising his daughter; to speak in the ways that are left to him.

 

Ka:

I think you’re very right when you say that when you take away the ability to express yourself, whether in language or through art or whatever was your primary means of expression, it cuts you off from society. It also cuts you off from yourself and what you understand as yourself. Very early on in the book, Marie talks about the fact that one of her parents speaks Mandarin, one of her parents speaks Cantonese, and she speaks to them in English – did you have the same sort of experience when you were growing up?

 

Madeleine:

Well, different: my mother speaks Cantonese and my father speaks Hakka which is another minority language so either they would speak in English or they would each speak their dialect which the other could sort of understand, but the children couldn’t, so I was sort of always in the crossroads of these languages but with English as my mother tongue. But it’s always going to be an English inflected by the languages of my parents. Even though I don’t speak the languages, there’s a certain cultural . . . I don’t know if cultural is the right word, but a kind of temperament inside the language that comes into the English language. One thing I just wanted to say while I remembered is about the silence, one of the things that is also kind of powerful about the concept is that in Chinese, and I think in Japanese, there is no word for silence because the concept is not believed to really exist. So they have many words for not being able to perceive sound, but that doesn’t accept that there is no sound. So the many words they have will refer to something like a sound that has ceased to be perceived or a sound that cannot be perceived with the ears but only with the mind, you know, so they have many nuances in the conceptual framework of sound and silence – it just doesn’t really have an equivalent in the language.

 

Ka:

That’s really interesting, it almost suggests there’s this idea that there’s this constant backing track of something always playing – music that everyone is always listening to but sometimes can’t hear.

 

Madeleine:

That’s right, can’t hear with your ears, but can be perceived in other ways. I think also it’s about moving the subject position because – ‘We have been silenced, I have been silenced, You have been silenced’ – but I think in the Chinese conceptual framework sound comes from the world itself, existence itself, so it can never be silence. It’s not dependent on whether I can speak or you can speak because the sound is a constant, and the movement between sound and non-sound is much more nuanced.

 

Ka:

There’s a bit where you start to talk about the way that in Chinese you move from the year above to the year below.

 

Madeleine:

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.

 

Ka:

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?

 

Madeleine:

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.

 

Ka:

I really like what you say about the idea that you’re in one place but your emotions are in another. This is almost like a form of time travelling for me – to even remember is a form of time travelling, and to think about the future is a form of time travelling.

In fact I think something very similar happens in Dogs at the Perimeter, your book about the Khmer Rouge. There’s that sense that Janie is travelling forward into the past but also there are things that she can’t really talk about or can’t really see or doesn’t want to talk about.

 

Madeleine:

Yes, absolutely. And 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.

 

Ka:

My mother’s Cambodian, and sometimes when I meet people they’ll say, ‘Oh I better not crack any Khmer Rouge jokes, then!’ It’s such a bizarre thing to say. But to them, of course, it feels like ancient history because it’s both geographically distant and the time is a forgotten time. But I want to say, ‘That’s a very strange thing to say about a genocide that happened during my mother’s lifetime.’

 

Madeleine:

Yes! I’ve really resisted with Dogs At The Perimeter – and even with Do Not Say We Have Nothing – saying that this is a historical novel because it is not. Yes, it deals with history but this is a history of my generation, of our generation, and that to me is not history, this is a continuous unfolding moment that is not resolved and is not finished, and it is definitely not finished in Cambodia.

It is surprising to me, actually. I think that if people understood the scale of the geopolitics that led to the Cambodian genocide, and the aftermath, the way it was handled afterwards, I don’t think they could make those jokes. I think partly the reason they can is because it’s been so wiped from memory, which only adds to the scale of the tragedy, and because Cambodians have been so extraordinarily resilient: the survivors have really wanted to face the future. We’re talking about which direction they face, the past or the future, but they have done everything possible to turn their bodies so that their back is to the past, to build these lives where their children can be protected – and I’m going to get emotional, here – but I think that’s an extraordinary thing, and I think that’s a kind of courage that has gone unacknowledged.

 

Ka:

It’s impossible to call these historical novels because they’re still unfolding. I mean, it would have been unfolding as you say through childhood, through teenage years; it’s bound up in your identity, it’s bound up in the identity of your parents, it’s bound up more widely. As a result, it’s as much about the people who survive and then come and live in different places and bring their culture and their language and their history with them, than about the history as it were. One of the things I find really interesting about the way you write about Vancouver and Montreal in these two books is that they seem both Canadian and also natural extensions of the countries that the immigrants have left behind because they belong there, they’re both of those places.

 

Madeleine:

Yes, and I think it can be very discomfiting for the reader because in Dogs at the Perimeter I think a question that is part of the narrative is which is the invisible place, is it Cambodia or is it Montreal? Which is the real place? Because for some people they don’t recognise Montreal, and they see it as part of her projection onto that city – but 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.

 

Ka:

I think that’s good as well. There would just be no way for you to write it that’s comfortable, and the same with Do Not Say We Have Nothing – there’s just no way you could write that as a simple linear narrative that takes the reader from one point in history to the present day because it just doesn’t work like that .

 

Madeleine:

Absolutely.

 

Ka:

Would you like to talk about your writing in general? What are you working on at the moment?

 

Madeleine:

I’m working on something that’s taking me in a completely different direction, which is kind of terrifying to me. I think because the last two books have been these vast canvases that are, as we said, unresolved, the next book is going to be a lot more intimate, much more personal.

And I’ve been thinking a lot about women’s lives and the way that women’s lives are expressed in literature in this moment. About sexuality and about being a woman of colour, about all these other things that are very complicated parts of ourselves – and I feel like there’s a book in here that I have not yet seen, that I would like to write.

 

Ka:

I think it’s very much the same in Britain. We’re having a conversation that seems to only be about certain kind of middle class values, so not only does it miss an entire class of women, it misses an entire colour of women, because it’s mainly about white feminism. And then when we talk about people of colour we tend to talk about second-generation women, not necessarily their parents or the histories of the countries they’ve come from. And there’s a strange disconnect.

 

Madeleine:

Yes, and with sexuality, if we’re talking about non-white women, we tend to talk about extremely conservative societies or extreme repression. But actually there’s a whole world in here of India, China, Japan and the fascinating ways that they have dealt with sexuality and the ways that they express sexuality and a different kind of sexual liberation for women that is long and old.

That’s something I want to write about. I’ve been thinking a lot about Japanese erotic art, and young women in contemporary China now. There’s so much to be explored here but again, the question is how to find the language, how to do it, how to, how? So that’s in the back of my mind working away.

 

Ka:

Well that sounds really exciting. I look forward to seeing where that goes.

 

Madeleine:

Thank you.

 

 

Photograph © Simon Fraser University

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