By Donna Bailey Nurse
The first thing Madeleine Thien did after she won the Giller Prize for her extraordinary novel Do Not Say We Have Nothing was head to the bank to deposit her $100,000 cheque. She had planned to drop it directly into the ATM, but her partner, writer Rawi Hage, was horrified and insisted she take it inside the bank.
“I was holding the cheque like it was someone else’s baby,” Thien said. “The teller looked at it a while and said, “We’re going to have to put a hold on this.” According to Thien, the teller went away, and the manager came out laughing. “I want you to know,” he said, “that we are not going to put a hold on it. Because I know this is not some kind of elaborate farce you are trying to pull. I recognize you.”
To date Thien has enjoyed a modest international following. Now she must adjust to being recognized pretty much wherever she goes. Apart from the Giller Prize, Do Not Say We Have Nothing took home the prestigious Governor General’s Award. She was nominated, as well, for the Man Booker Prize, which resulted in profiles and notices in book pages around the world. Her face was everywhere.
Invitations can be expected to multiply exponentially as interest in this haunting work will not fade after a season. At its center is the story of three friends, gifted musicians affiliated with the conservatory in Shanghai: Sparrow, a composer, his young cousin Zhuli, a violinist, and Kai, a pianist. But in 1966, Mao’s Cultural Revolution demands they denounce western classical music. In the violence that ensues Kai joins the Communist Party’s Red Guard, Zhuli is destroyed and Sparrow shuns music altogether.
The phrase “Do Not Say We Have Nothing” is taken from the lyrics of The Internationale, which is considered the anthem of the Chinese Communist Party.
Arise slaves, Arise! Do not say we that we have nothing/ We shall be the masters of the world.
As Thien explained, “The title is a gesture to a very deep friction in human nature, and to certain repetitions in history. Each generation wants to build the world anew and each generation must decide what price they will pay and who will pay the costs.
“There is a deep conflict,” she said, “between the human aspiration towards the good and the human tendency towards violence. Revolutionary times conflate the two and argue that good must be bought through injustice. One of the difficult questions of the novel is why we keep failing ourselves; what is it in our idea of justice that contains the seeds of injustice?”
Thien’s earlier novels also deal with the human ability to survive deadly political movements. In Certainty (2006) Matthew is haunted by memories of his father’s murder by Japanese soldiers in Sandakan during the war. In Dogs at the Perimeter (2011) Janie loses her entire family in the Cambodian genocide. Both characters begin new lives in Canada – but they are derailed by ghosts.
In Do Not Say We Have Nothing, too, Kai abandons his family in Vancouver and returns to China where he commits suicide around the time of the Tiananmen Square protests. His daughter, Marie, knows nothing of his past. Why did he leave China in the first place, she wonders, and what was it that led him back?
The novel is distinguished from Thien’s earlier works by its epic scale and by the cacophony of voices gathered into a single, sweeping narrative. Elements of the fable enhance universality while aspects of the absurd, particularly in the depiction of Sparrow’s parents, Ba Lute and Big Mother Knife, emphasize the pointlessness of life. The novel is a powerful meditation on our twin capacities for creativity and cruelty, and the transient nature of happiness.
“I don’t believe in happiness as an object of pursuit,” Thien said.
Thien lives with Hage in an apartment in the Plateau area of Montreal. But she grew up in Vancouver and it remains the city of her heart. “The whole Eastside,” she said. “That whole stretch that most people don’t think of when they think of Vancouver. That is immigrant Vancouver.
“It is a place of the working class, of parents working multiple jobs. A lot of unsupervised kids and young adults, which was great in the sense of freedom; but not so great in the potential for problems that can befall you. A kind of invisible Vancouver.”
Thien’s ethnic Chinese parents immigrated to Canada in 1974. Her mother was from Hong Kong, her father from Malaysia. They met at university in Australia, but could not settle there as the country did not accept Asian immigrants.
After graduation they lived in Malaysia where they had two children- Thien’s older sister and brother- before moving to Vancouver and having Thien. As a child, Thien visited the library once a week where, apart from borrowing books, she spent her time scrolling through pages and pages of microfilm - early evidence, perhaps, of a fondness for history and politics. With her sister, Thien studied ballet. Her talent would eventually earn her a dance scholarship to Simon Fraser University.
But the family struggled financially. Early on, they lost their house. They moved from apartment to apartment. Thien’s mother worked herself ragged, holding down as many as three jobs at a time. Thien was often left on her own. In her teens, she began to steal.
“In my own defense,” Thien said,” I took up shoplifting out of necessity. But my mother was so disappointed that I had decided to steal.”
Thien’s mother realized she needed to be emotionally and psychologically grounded. So she enrolled her in Tai Chi: Three classes a week.
“So here I am,” Thien said, “in the playground of Strathcona Elementary in the Downtown Eastside, with people on benches watching 16-year-old me and 80- year-old teacher doing Tai Chi with Sword.”
Thien’s mother passed away suddenly in her sleep, at 58. It was the most traumatic loss of her life. The two were set to depart for Hong Kong. Thien had been excited about the prospect of learning more of her mother’s story. Accordingly, her novels are preoccupied with recovering the missing details of individual lives, especially those overshadowed by historical events. In Do Not Say We Have Nothing, for example, a mysterious novel is endlessly copied and circulated, encoded with names that might otherwise be forgotten.
At the Giller ceremony, Thien stepped up to the podium to accept her award, elegant and ethereal in black satin and lace. In a soft, strong voice she dedicated the win to her mother:
“I wish my mother was here,” Thien said. “She taught me how to be kind and how to be brave.”
In an essay, Mavis Gallant describes writer Elizabeth Bowen as arriving on the literary scene fully formed, and then getting better and better. This is also an apt characterization of the career of Madeleine Thien. Her first book, a collection called Simple Recipes (2001) earned a rare blurb from Alice Munro, and several literary prizes. The stories are so expertly crafted they appear to have no craft at all. They draw on Thien’s painful observations of Asian immigrant families in her East Vancouver neighbourhood. They consider how enthusiastic beginnings can become sad endings; and how going back rarely moves us forward.
In Do Not Say We Have Nothing Kai returns to Hong Kong as an act of atonement, but winds up committing suicide. After Sparrow opens up again to music, he is trapped in the violence of Tiananmen Square. Is Thien saying it is vanity to attempt to start again?
“Initially my question was about societies,” Thien said “I had been writing about Cambodia and the idea that in order to build a just, good society, we need to clear the slate and begin from Year Zero. The Khmer Rouge, and also Chinese Revolutionary society, told people that, in this blankness, we could create the Utopian world that had not existed before.
“Now if you extrapolate from society to the individual, this is almost an idea that you could wash yourself clean and begin again. I understand the impulse because the past is full of sorrow. But the most dangerous way of being is when we convince ourselves that we can just ignore the ground we are standing on, which is history.”
Yet, one discerns a contradiction: After all, don’t many immigrants come to Canada in order to start again? And don’t we encourage all Canadians to leave harsh histories behind?
“In our country,’ said Thien, “we think that if we can start history at a particular point, we can say that everything that comes before that point –say 1867, or 1996, when the last residential school closed- is forgotten and forgiven. This is a tempting idea for any society whose wealth was built on violence and injustice.”
History is Thien’s clear preoccupation, yet she resists the label “historical novelist.” Perhaps because the political terror she describes occurred within her parents’ lifetime or her own. Indeed, she recalls watching the Tiananmen student protests on the television news, unfolding in real time before her 14-year-old eyes.
It is true that attaching the word “historical” to brutal political events is a way of distancing ourselves in time and space. On the other hand, to read Thien is to acknowledge the countless Canadians who carry horrific pasts within them. It is to accept that the history of Canadians- Canadian history, as it were- is not exactly what we think.