The Lines Between: Madeleine Thien on Writing, Language and Family

There’s a passage in Madeleine Thien’s novel Do Not Say We Have Nothing where 10-year-old Marie Jiang is playfully questioned about her many different names. Her father called her Girl; her mother, Marie or Li-ling. The Chinese university student who has just taken shelter with her family calls her Ma-li, because she cannot pronounce Marie.

“Which one is your real name?” asks the student.

“They’re all real,” responds Marie. But she is vexed by the question: “Even as I said the words, I doubted and wondered, and feared that each name took up so much space, and might even be its own person, that I myself would eventually disappear.”

Do Not Say We Have Nothing is an ambitious novel that sweeps across the Pacific from Vancouver to China, from the Chinese Civil War to the Cultural Revolution to the Tiananmen Square massacre. But this is not grandiose historical fiction; it is a keenly felt study of individuals and the connections between them during times of trauma and tumult.

“Names indicate not exactly selfhood but relationships,” says Thien, when I bring up the passage about Marie’s monikers. She explains that while she goes by Madeleine professionally, her friends and family call her Maddie. “My mother used to call me – she could never say Maddie, she just said Mad, or she would prefer to say Ah Mad. It’s really interesting about naming, how we clarify into someone in each relationship, in each line between another person.”

Do Not Say We Have Nothing has been almost universally praised since it was released last year, picking up a nomination for the Man Booker Prize as well as Canada’s two highest literary prizes, the Governor General’s Award and the Giller Prize. The book is rooted in Thien’s own experiences, although not directly. Thien was born and raised in Vancouver. Her father comes from a Hakka family in Malaysian Borneo, which is where he met her Hong Kong-born mother. The couple immigrated to Canada shortly before Thien was born in 1974.

“We moved a lot,” says Thien. “My parents were a little bit economically unstable which is probably pretty common for new immigrants.” As the family made their way through the “vast east side of Vancouver,” Thien’s older sister taught her to read when she was just three years old. “I don’t really remember not being able to read,” she says. “It was my companion.”

Thien’s elementary school didn’t have a library, so she walked down the street to the public library and made her way through the shelves. “I read through everything in the children’s section up to the age of 12 or so,” she says. After that, she moved onto to Vancouver’s central library, where she eventually discovered the newspaper archives. She made her way through big drawers, removing canisters of microfilm and feeding them into viewing machines.

“It was like reading a scroll. You could just keep going,” she says. She thinks she was fascinated because she had always seen her dad reading the Vancouver Sun when he was at home. “Maybe because when I was reading over my father’s shoulder I didn’t understand about what things were. Going backwards was interesting to me.” She remembers reading about Terry Fox, the young Canadian athlete who lost a leg to cancer and embarked on a cross-country run to raise awareness about the disease. He made it halfway before succumbing to his illness in 1980. “It was the first time there was a story that occurred in my lifetime but I had no recollection of it,” says Thien.

Thien began writing as she devoured her way through Vancouver’s libraries. “I started very early – really from the beginning,” she says. “Because I had learned to read earlier, the school was worried I would get bored so they gave me writing assignments.” Alone in the library, she revelled in flights of imagination. “I really liked multi-character stories that would converge,” she says. “I remember one that I wrote that was about three people crossing certain parts of a mountain path and colliding with each other.”

“Colliding? Like, literally?” I ask.

“Literally,” she replies, laughing.

Thien is speaking by Skype from her home in Montreal, where she lives with her partner Rawi Hage – himself a celebrated novelist. It’s late morning in Montreal; late night in Hong Kong. Thien apologises if she isn’t as alert as usual – she had been up writing until 4am, rushing to meet a deadline. There’s nothing to apologise for: Thien is as insightful as ever. She speaks softly and pauses often, sometimes laughing to herself as she delves into memories.

It has been an intense year since Do Not Say We Have Nothing was released. “I have probably only been at home in Montreal for a month altogether,” she says. Next month, she will be in Hong Kong for the International Literary Festival, where she will speak with local writer Melanie Ho about “writing history’s grand tragedies on an intimate scale,” according to the festival programme.

It will be a homecoming of sorts for Thien, who spent five years as a tutor at City University’s MFA writing programme, which was controversially shut in 2015 after a number of students and faculty expressed support for the Umbrella Movement. Thien’s first encounter with Hong Kong came in 2002, when she was invited to speak at the Literary Festival for the first time. It was a trip that opened a door into the world that Thien explores in Do Not Say We Have Nothing. “My mom decided to come [with me] because she’d always wanted to travel in China,” she says. “She wanted to see the Three Gorges before they were flooded. I think it was a place that was very alive in her imagination of China.”

But Thien’s mother passed away unexpectedly before they could make the journey. She decided to press ahead anyway. “I was overwhelmed entirely,” she says. “It was so much to take in. Because I could understand Cantonese well it was also incredibly familiar, but to be surrounded by my mother’s language without my mother, that was a very emotional thing.”

It was especially emotional because her mother had had a complicated relationship to Hong Kong. She had made only one trip back since leaving for Malaysia as a young woman. “When she came home she said that would be her last,” says Thien. “I think something happened with her family. She was very sad when she came back. She said, ‘Never go back to a place that doesn’t need you.’”

After the Literary Festival, Thien crossed the border into the mainland and began a long voyage across the country. It was an odd time to be in China. SARS had begun to spread from Guangdong but the Chinese government refused to acknowledge the epidemic. “When I took the train from Hong Kong to Beijing, it was packed as normal, but when I took the train back from Beijing, in the whole train I saw six people,” says Thien. “It was astonishing. SARS still wasn’t in the news. But people knew.”

That unspoken knowledge proved to be a recurring theme in Thien’s experiences in China. Something similar occurred later, when she began researching the Tiananmen Square massacre. “My way was never to ask people directly about things. You see how things appear and disappear or go unmentioned,” she says. This eventually became a motif in Do Not Say We Have Nothing, which opens when a student, Ai-ming, flees from Beijing to Vancouver after 1989, and she finds refuge with Marie and her mother. The student’s own father, Sparrow, was a mentor to Marie’s father, Jiang Kai, who had recently left the family and killed himself in Hong Kong. From that beginning, Thien takes readers back to the days before the Cultural Revolution, when Sparrow and Jiang Kai first met.

It’s a complex book. In fact, Thien’s American publisher insisted that she create a character map to accompany the US edition of the book, something she didn’t even have as she was writing it. “The story was unfolding for me as I was writing it,” she says. “I didn’t ever know how it was going to go or how the scenes would come together. I was just following it.” She approached her characters not as chess pieces but as fleshed out people. “I was learning to see the world in the way they experience it and would describe it. The situation around them was constantly changing. The only reliable thing was that the ground beneath them was giving way.”

Language is a big part of what makes Do Not Say We Have Nothing a remarkable book. Its own title is a figment of translation: it is derived from the Chinese version of “The Internationale,” a socialist anthem originally written in French. The novel is peppered with investigations into the etymology of Chinese characters, the nuances of translation and the risk of misunderstandings.

It’s an exploration that reflects Thien’s own experience with Chinese. Though her dad spoke Hakka and her mother Cantonese, their home language was English. Hours of evening Chinese school didn’t have much of an impact on Thien or her sister, especially since most of their classmates were already fluent in Cantonese. “We could see in my parents’ lives how difficult it was for them to be moving between languages,” she says. “Maybe subconsciously we didn’t want to have to choose. Or we didn’t want to be caught between languages.”

But that is exactly what eventually happened when Thien began to teach at City University in 2010 – although “caught” might be too severe of a word; ensconced, maybe. As the only low-residency English-language creative writing programme in Asia, the City U course attracted a much more diverse range of writers than similar literary programmes in North America, something Thien found fascinating. Everyone was writing in English but with a base of knowledge in another language, culture or literary canon.

“They were used to living in multiple languages,” says Thien. “You would have a workshop with a non-Asian writer from Kansas who had been living in Korea for 15 years, and who was perfectly fluent in Korean, writing alongside a Korean-American who had grown up in the US and didn’t speak Korean. And together they would have these really moving conversations about language and identity, and how to perceive a place. It was so fascinating. I learned a lot. And I had to keep learning to keep up with them.”

Thien has had a similar experience as she has travelled around the world to promote her book. “This year has been such an unstable one politically, I think the world around us feels as if it has been changing quickly,” she says. “Even though I’m touring with the same book, the way it is read is shifting all the time. Every place has its own changing relationship with China in particular, so they’re also reading it through other complex ways of looking at things.”

She found the reaction in Poland to be surprisingly touching, as readers there had their own complicated relationship with communism and classical music (another important theme in the book). Here in Hong Kong, the book is being taught in four different university literature classes. Thien spoke at Baptist University last March. “I saw Hong Kong students and also mainland Chinese students grappling with everything in this book,” she says. “That was really powerful.”

Thien’s book tour will end in December and she plans to start writing again in the new year. It’s too early to say how this year of travels will impact her work – but, like Marie’s names, there’s a new identity to discover in each encounter. “It’s like going into a huge library,” says Thien. “You think you know what section you’re going into and then there’s something else in the corner of your eye that captures your attention.”

Madeleine Thien will speak at the Hong Kong International Literary Festival on November 8, 2017. The talk is currently sold out but it is possible to join a waiting list. Click here for more information.

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