Madeleine Thien is a Canadian born novelist of Chinese descent. She is the author of 4 books, the most recent being ‘Do Not Say We Have Nothing’. The novel won the 2016 Scotiabank Giller Prize and the Governor – General’s Literary Award for Fiction and was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2016 and the Women’s Prize for Fiction and The Folio Prize. Her books have been translated into 25 languages. She is currently a Professor of English at Brooklyn College.
She is one of the authors set to appear at the Fairway Galle Literary Festival in 2019. Here’s our conversation with Madeleine about her writing and the background of her work that will give you a small glimpse of her session at the upcoming Festival!
1. From a dancer to a journalist and then to an author – can you tell us a little about your journey into the creative writing world?
I was lucky to love many things. When I was a child, my parents were quite broke but they wanted my siblings and I to have access to art, culture and expression. I studied Chinese traditional dance and calligraphy at the local community centre, and ballet from a couple newly arrived from China (thirty years later, their ballet school is one of the most renowned in Canada). My mother believed that education and appreciation could never be lost.
My great love was books, so I went to the central library every week. Novels and histories were a way for me to live widely and freely, and to feel a part of the world. The accessibility of the library shaped my life.
2. Your work blends fiction into history. Dogs at the Perimeter explored the Cambodian genocide and Do Not Say We Have Nothing explored China during the cultural revolution. What inspires you to create stories around history?
I think both books are about revolution, idealism, and how we live or try to live as the worlds we know are collapsing or transforming. Cambodia is a place I became very attached to, and where I spent months and months over many years. And then, after writing Dogs at the Perimeter, I still had many unresolved questions, which gave rise to Do Not Say We Have Nothing. Some of the most profound, necessary and persuasive desires of the 20th century – idealism, liberation, Communism, anti-colonialism, self-sufficiency, revolution – became part of a tangled web of social transformation and horrific violence. Ideology in all its forms frightens me; more and more I suspect one needs humility to truly change the world.
3. Tell us a little about your most recent novel Do Not Say We Have Nothing?
The novel takes place over the course of a single lifetime, beginning in the 1940s and continuing for nearly sixty years. Those decades encompass massive transformations in Chinese society, from the civil war to the Great Leap Forward, Cultural Revolution, and the 1989 Tiananmen demonstrations and massacre. It’s a novel about music, art and personhood. At its heart are three musicians who must decide how to live, and sometimes just survive, the ever-changing revolution. A composer named Sparrow is the abiding consciousness of the novel; he loves Bach and the patterning of Bach's music echoes his own desires. It’s a novel about politics, but also art, technical precision, ardour and something completely indefinable. Art saves certain things but compromises other things.
4. How did it feel to explore your roots in China through this novel? Did it feel more personal from your other work?
I never thought I would write about China. It’s strange but, even though its where my grandparents and my mother were born, in some ways it felt the furthest away, the most abstract. Cambodia was the place I loved and the country where I felt at home. But after many years writing about the aftermath of the Cambodian genocide, I wanted to trace ideas of utopia and revolution backwards in time, to understand the model, and financial supporter, of Cambodia’s revolution. So, my doorway to China was through Cambodia, the place that had an emotional grip on me; Cambodia led me back. Those two books, Dogs at the Perimeter and Do Not Say We Have Nothing are as different, structurally and narratively, as two novels can be, yet they’re part of a continuous work.
5. What is your writing process like? Are you spontaneous or more organized?
A lot of routines plus a love of the unexpected, spontaneous and the disorienting! Ideally, I would write three to four hours every day, from early in the morning – but I try not to be too exacting about the how and the where. Every fifteen minutes feels precious to me.
6. If you had to pick between reading fiction or non-fiction novels for the rest of your life – what would be your choice?
I would refuse to choose! Everything slides into everything.
7. What is your pet peeve when it comes to books, writing and the English language?
My great wish is for the Anglo-American publishing world to embrace translation, and to publish and support contemporary writers and translators working in many languages.
8. What are you looking forward to at the Fairway Galle Literary Festival?
This will be my first time in Sri Lanka, a country I’ve longed to see for many years. My knowledge is partial, coming from novels and reportage, from current events, from Sri Lankan friends. I’m looking forward to everything.
9. Tell us in one sentence something that would spark a reader’s interest in your work.
Fiction can be the refuge for ideas and lives that for various reasons – totalitarianism, censorship, fear, forgetting – cannot yet be entered into the book of history.
The Fairway Galle Literary Festival is set to take place from the 16th to the 20th of January 2019 at the Galle Fort. For the full list of authors and attendees for the 2019 Festival visit https://galleliteraryfestival.com/ for more information.