Interview / December 2017 (Issue 38: Writing Hong Kong)

Beneath the Slogans: Interview with Madeleine Thien on Do Not Say We Have Nothing (2017)

by Christopher B. Patterson, Jason S. Polley and Madeleine Thien

Introduction (Christopher B. Patterson)

I first encountered Madeleine Thien's work when I read Dogs at the Perimeter, her spectacular and haunting second novel about the history of the Cambodian genocide and its afterlife. I read it in Phnom Penh, alongside visiting museums, art galleries and archives. Dogs at the Perimeter encircled these other guides to history, and brought to the forefront this history's sadness and loss, without easily casting blame. Whenever I tried to identify, simplify or label a character, the novel refused to give them up without a fight.

With this view, I approached Thien's third and most recent novel, Do Not Say We Have Nothing, as a work not merely about China's Cultural Revolution and Tiananmen Square protests, but a work that challenges us with its characters' indelible humanity, even when they are spouting slogans, even when they push each other to suicide. With the help of those at Hong Kong Baptist University, I organised a public lecture in Hong Kong, where I interviewed her alongside Jason S. Polley, and we opened the floor to questions. In our discussion, we touch upon vital themes in her work, among them the act of writing about revolution, the need to remember unofficial histories and how the habit (then and now) of thinking in short-form slogans can be resisted through the persistent and polyphonic voices found within the long-form novel.



Madeleine Thien: With [Do Not Say We Have Nothing], I was looking at sixty years of revolutionary history, of Chinese history that transformed so many lives within the country and echoed outside the country. There's an official way to think about these revolutions—the ways that the Chinese Communist Party has created an official version of the past. I think what this novel is looking at is the repository of unofficial history—so all the music, the unwritten music, all the half-finished stories, the fragmented novels, all the memories that don't get spoken aloud, all the love affairs that just dissolved. And all that becomes part of this unofficial "Book of Records," this unofficial history that is a counterpoint to the official history.

Jason S. Polley: Can I ask where or what may have been your key sources for both the official and the unofficial histories? In Jan Wong's Red China Blues, for instance, the author recounts being in Tiananmen with the students. She counters the official narrative of these students fasting. According to Wong, the unofficial narrative is that as soon as the media left the students were apparently eating.

MT: That's a very controversial reportage of the student hunger strike, and I think it's unsubstantiated, or at least unknown, but it's a great question about sources. I'd say, for the Tiananmen part of the novel, the book that carried me was Ma Jian's Beijing Coma. It's a novel, a work of fiction, but a very detailed account of those six weeks of demonstration, and his book like mine spirals backward and forward from those days in Tiananmen. Beijing Coma is a brilliant and very moving example of the way Chinese writers have safeguarded unofficial or censored histories inside art and fiction.

And the other book was The Tiananmen Papers (the English translation, which is only a part of the complete Chinese edition). These documents are believed to have been smuggled out of Beijing, and they detail the minutes of the Politburo meetings [the Communist Party's upper level meetings]. It's unknown who smuggled them out and that person is known only as "the compiler." This idea of "the compiler," the person who documents, the person who makes the copies of the copies—this I think is a very deep part of my novel, because Marie could be thought of as "the compiler," the keeper of records, the gatherer. Apart from these two main texts, I read everything I could find. I've been thinking about China ever since I was a teenager, which is a long time now since I'm 42, so it's been on my mind for decades. I've been gathering all these ways of thinking about revolution and idealism in China, but I'd say [I'm] most indebted to Chinese literature, as much as to historical accounts.

JSP: The novel moves from the 1960s to 1989—1960 Shanghai, 1989 Beijing—to 1990 Vancouver, to 1995 Vancouver, to 2010 Vancouver and, finally, 2010 Hong Kong. What is your chronology of composition? How do you know what to dis-include, or when to stop adding supplemental narrative(s)?

Christopher B. Patterson: Can I just extend on that question, because I think the family saga is one way that this ties into all the different eras, which is not really in your first two novels.

MT: It was very unexpected. In a way, the initial opening into the book is almost a false front, you know, like the false front used in Chinese architecture when you enter a home—you come to a second wall, and you have to make a turn. So Marie and Ai-ming are the doorway, but the story is very much about the turn, about Sparrow, I think.

Yes, it's a family saga and it covers these decades, but in my mind, it was much simpler. In a sense, the trajectory of the book is the birth, the life and the death of Sparrow. So those fifty plus years that he's alive, that's the crux of it, the timeline and chronology we're looking at. It seems Marie is telling the story of her father, Kai, but in fact she tells the story of the people he loved. The idea is that this biography or autobiography is told through the lives of those we try to hold fast to, or the ones that we lost, or the ones that we betrayed.

As for the structure, in terms of the years, it's two things: one is the idea of the zero point. For those who have read the novel, you know that it goes up in chapters, up to chapter seven or chapter eight—and then it reaches Part Zero and the chapters descend back down to one. The idea was the zero point, an idea of analytical geometry which was part of the spatial and architectural imagining of Tiananmen Square: zero as the point on which all other points depend. We can look at zero spatially but also in terms of time. It's from that zero point that the book moves back and forward, but it's always circling that centre of gravity.

JSP: Did you map the projected text beforehand? Or: how much of the finished product proved initially improvisational?

MT: When I'm writing I don't tend to jump around. I start at what I think is the beginning, and I just go because I need to feel the momentum. I need to feel the force building up, and there are two forces in this book. There is what happened in 1966 and what happened in 1989. But the structure is very much connected to Bach's Goldberg Variations, so the idea that it starts with a simple story—Ai-Ming arrives and begins to tell this story to Marie, but it begins in a simple way because Marie is still a child. The listener, at first, is a child. So it starts like the Goldberg Variations, a simple melody, a simple theme, and like the Goldberg Variations, that simple theme is reworked into increasingly complex variations and canons until we return back to the ending which is the beginning, the very same aria as at the beginning. But by the time we get back to the aria, that theme has been opened up into such a spectrum of human emotions and human experience, from playfulness to joy to giddiness, an almost dance-like quality, all the way to profound grief and sorrow.

CBP: In all of your work, there are themes of indoctrination and ideology and how that works on a very ground level, but you also get us to sympathise with everybody who we would otherwise see as indoctrinated. The other side of that is the love and intimacy, and how those are also in everything that you have written. Do you see them working as counterpoints to each other, especially in novels like this where there are two same-sex relationships in the context of revolutionary China? Can you talk about intimacy and love and how that conflicts with indoctrination and ideology on the other side?

MT: Wow, I've never been asked that before. I'm thrown for a bit of a loop—and I think the loop I've been thrown into is almost an answer in itself in that it's so hard for me to answer questions about intimacy and privacy because I'm such a private person. So even looking into that, I'm having a slight panic thinking about how to answer that question. I think that is the crux that is so devastating for the characters in a way. It's this increasing divide between public self and private self, how they are capable of loving as private individuals versus who they must be in terms of public expression. As the years go on from the 1950s to the 1960s, and the campaigns become increasingly violent and unforgiving, no one is safe. Potentially anyone is an enemy. The eye is always turning, looking for the enemy within. As that happens, the public discourse becomes increasingly constricted, so that the kinds of slogans that we have to use, the language of revolutionary ideology, becomes very controlled and you can't make a mistake. You have to know what the correct political line is at that particular moment because it's always shifting. As all that's going on, private lives retain an almost impossible innocence in the ways that they connect and attach to each other, in the way that they have this musical language that also becomes a form of intimacy in which they speak things to each other that can't be spoken with the language itself.

CBP: I want to ask you a final question about Hong Kong. You were at City University for five years. Hong Kong also frames the novel in a way. Your mother is also from Hong Kong so you have quite a history here, and you come here quite often. What does Hong Kong represent for you as a city and as a political space? I read the novel last year and I thought it might end right with Occupy, the Umbrella Movement, but it doesn't really do that. It does imply, in a way, that there's cycles that keep coming back.

MT: It's been bittersweet coming back because the last time I was here was 2015, when I taught in the final summer residency of City University of Hong Kong's MFA program. Coming back has been a little sorrowful because I grieve this lost connection. I loved the chance to always be returning here and to be engaging with students here, and to be talking about literature here. And that doesn't exist for me anymore.

[Hong Kong] is in an extremely important transitional time. In my thinking, Hong Kong's relationship with China and China's relationship with Hong Kong are crucial for all of us. This is kind of a fragmented answer, but you know, this novel is sometimes thought of as a novel that's critical towards China. I actually don't agree. This novel has been a labour of love, and it's been an ongoing sort of thinking through the power of China's revolutionary movements and how much those movements influenced idealists in so many parts of the world, and how this generational recurrence of idealism is just as potent as the other things we think of when we think of China. So when you say that the novel could have continued or could continue into Hong Kong, I think you are very right because the novel is thinking through the idea that every generation wants to make the world anew. It's thinking through Mao Zedong's slogan, "It is right to rebel," and thinking about a social utopia that, in general, we agree that we want, we always say that we want, so what is it about the human instinct for violence that is always wound up with the human instinct or human desire for goodness? These questions are so visible in this place [Hong Kong]. I think that's why this is a transitional phase because how Hong Kong responds to certain tightening effects is going to set the tone for many places and their relationship with China—all the way through Southeast Asia and much further afield.


Questions from Audience

Guest 1: First of all, thank you so much for writing the book. The question is: why write about the Cultural Revolution? There is a sea of works about these events, so how do you situate yourself among these works when you're producing new meaning but also not producing fatigue?

MT: When I began writing, I didn't think I would be writing about the Cultural Revolution. I wanted to write about 1989, which seemed closer to my memory and lifetime, because I could remember watching the demonstrations unfold on television. When I started writing, I thought I would be writing about the students, about people 18, 19, 21 years old. And as the years passed and as I read more about those events in Beijing, one thing that always struck me was the Chinese government saying there had been no massacre in the Square and learning over time that they were correct: that there had been no massacre in the square because the majority of students had been allowed to leave. There had been a massacre, but it had happened in the streets leading into the Square. The people who came into the streets were parents, workers, high school students, and that made me think about the parents, and what it would mean to them after living through some of the most tumultuous events in human history, to come out into the streets stand up to the government. Their courage is very different from the students'. Theirs was the courage of knowing the consequences and understanding what such an act would mean. That's why the pendulum swings in this book: I initially thought that I was writing about one generation and instead I was looking at an earlier generation, and one lifetime (Sparrow's) as a series of continuous, unresolved events that cannot be disconnected from each other. I could not write about what I thought I was going to write about, the demonstrations, without looking at that vast outpouring that was the Cultural Revolution, which also tapped into the idealism of young people. It also tapped into their violence, but on the surface, it was telling youth that they would be the pure generation who would safeguard the revolution and protect it.

On fatigue, I think in this book the thing that keeps repeating, because it's a book about music, is silence. So what I think is slightly different from what everyone thinks about the Cultural Revolution (and this comes from writing about Cambodia in the previous book) is: what happens when you have to silence so much of yourself simply to live in the times from which you can't escape, in order to live in the conditions that you're in? What happens when you have to speak a public language, and you have to quiet something inside that feels a lot messier, a lot more contradictory? And when the Cultural Revolution ends, and it's the 1980s and there's this opening up, some parts of this silence are lifted, but what about the silencing that you inflicted on yourself? What if that is the permanent silence?

Guest 2: The Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution are very familiar to me. When I was young, I listened to a lot of stories about the Cultural Revolution from my grandfather. He really experienced this and suffered from this. In the novel, you wrote that Jiang Kai had been the only one in his family who survived the starvation from Mao's Great Leap Forward. My grandfather told me similar stories. He is the one person in his family who survived this, too. So I'd like to know when you began to write this story, what motivated you to write this? In other words, what was your expectation for this novel?

MT: When I first started writing, I had finished a novel about Cambodia. It was such a difficult novel for me. It was a very fragmented, very slim novel. It's about a genocide that is largely forgotten by the rest of the world, but its conditions and its afterlife are still ongoing.

What I felt when I got to the end of Dogs at the Perimeter was that I had totally failed language. I had failed the narrative. What I was trying to understand and communicate could not be communicated through language. Language would always fail before the profound experiences of people. That set me into a long period of real silence. I mostly took to drawing.

The thing is you feel that you failed, but your questions don't go away. These historical catastrophes are the ground on which we are all standing, but are completely invisible to us. Yes, there was extraordinary suffering, particularly during the Great Leap Forward, and the number of unnecessary deaths during the 27 years that Mao Zedong was in power is 60 million people and that is a low estimate. The number of dead is so high that the human mind kind of closes down before it. And yet I would say that in the West, and I would say also in China, that the grieving that would need to be done to come to terms with the ground under our feet has not been done or cannot be done, because it would open so much pain. The novel is a way of pulling one thread through that period of time, looking at one trajectory and looking at the ways that one person may have been remade and broken again and again, but persists, so that even silencing becomes part of their identity and becomes part of their music. The thing that breaks us apart becomes essential to our understanding of pain.

Guest 3: You write about music so movingly. I just have a simple question: what were the sources you drew from? And what made you write about these pieces?

MT: When I went through that time of doubt, I was listening to a lot of music. I wouldn't speak because I just couldn't bear words, so music became another way of thinking. Its abstractness allowed for other ways of being and that is, I think, how music found its way so profoundly into this book. I read about music, but I have to say, for the most part, I just listened to a lot of music. That kind of deep listening was something that I hadn't done in a very long time. I trained to be a ballet dancer for many years, so I had a long exposure to Western classical music, but I don't play any instruments. I had to learn how to return to music as a form of expression.

That was one of the reasons I very much wanted to make sure that the Chinese ideograms were in the text, because I wanted there to be those two languages simultaneously: visual and conceptual. For instance, the Chinese languages' relationship with time is very different from the English languages' relationship with time. I wanted all of that to be embedded in the book.

Guest 4: I found the critique of official history that you speak of came only when I was immersed in the novel's web stories. That's against the slightly workaholic and social media frenetic culture that we're living right now, the short form narrative. How are you conscious of the conflicts that you're writing in, and what you're writing against?

MT: That's a great question. I have to say I was very lucky in the sense that this is my fourth book and none of my books had really reached an audience. So I was making my way through writing and trying to make a living, but it wasn't that I had this giant readership. There really was no one waiting for my next book! It was a kind of liberation. I'd always been writing these slender books, you know, a hundred fifty pages or less. While writing this novel, I realised I was at two hundred pages and hadn't even reached the halfway point. I had something in my hands that I hadn't expected to be making. It was a really joyful feeling. I felt that the relationship was between me and this book.

I'd say that [the book] wasn't consciously a reaction to the culture that we are living in, except to say that I do worry that the forms of social media that we have contribute to a sloganistic way of thinking because social media posts are of that aphoristic size, and they are very much about positions rather than thinking. The long form novel, long form narratives and reportage are very much about multiple ways of thinking.

Guest 5: What is your vision about the tension between human violence and human innocence? The Cultural Revolution and the Tiananmen Massacre are maybe two of the most destructive events in modern Chinese history. So under these circumstances it seems like every person can become an enemy to all of his families and relatives. How can people remain innocent under such violent circumstances?

MT: You know in Italo Cavino's Invisible Cities, near the end of Invisible Cities, he talks about the city of Berenice. This is the one that always stays on my mind. It's the city of the just, the city of the good, but inside the city of good is the seed of the city of injustice, always sort of burrowed away in there until it takes over the city of Berenice. Berenice becomes the city of injustice, intolerance, hatred, pain, denunciation. But the city of injustice is giving birth to the seed of resistance, which will eventually allow Berenice to be the city of the good, which gives rise to the seed of purity, of a kind of righteousness that says that we know how to fix the world, that we know how to contain the world which is still the city of the unjust, and Berenice once more becomes the city of hatred, imprisonment, desperation. I feel like that's what the novel is mourning. It's mourning that in all these aspirations to goodness, we find the legitimisation of our violence. And that seems never to have gone away.

Guest 6: The novel has been compared in some reviews to Russian novels in its scale and its scope, perhaps as well some Tolstoynian inevitability of history. How much of an influence were Russian novels? Also, do you find that of the three novels you've written, the influence is there widely or are there certain writers that you pull from the most?

MT: [The inspirations] have been varying quite widely. You're right, there's a lot of influence from the Russians in this book, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy in particular. The big epic narrative which relies on intimacy and psychological acuity. I wanted to get into each person's way of thinking about the world, into the structure of polyphony: that there are multiple ways of thinking about the world which are in collision, which are meeting and re-forming as they come into contact. And I was also thinking of Dickens. I think the Russians and Dickens, in terms of the scale of what I was trying to do, spoke to me. I think, particularly with Dickens, the kinds of reversals of fortune in people's lives, in China, the rise and fall of people [were similar]. You could be a top cadre at one moment and then literally the biggest enemy of the people at another moment, and this was happening in so many people's lives. Up and then down, turned around and twisted, changed over and over.

Guest 7: I just want to ask you about your perspective of the relationship between fiction and nonfiction. Especially because the story is about memory and loss, it made me reflect on how nonfiction is also somewhat fictionalised depending on how you remember things or how we forget things or willfully forget things. How do you juggle between these two?

MT: I have to say that, even as you were speaking, I was thinking about my process—how I move between the research that is historical and this imaginative world that I was creating—I was getting vertigo, I feel like I'm standing on a cliff edge and about to fall because it's such a strange balancing act that happens. And it's hard to pin down. You gather so much knowledge and information, not so that you can forget it in writing, but so that it becomes a part of your reality, that you are able to enter the reality of the characters. The movement from factual to the imaginary is very strange, but I was also influenced by what was happening with Chinese literature, and the different forms that were coming into play—the idea of the hyperreal, of bureaucratic literature, of exaggerated realities. These were happening in Chinese literature because you couldn't write about things straight on. Writers were finding other forms to get at the truth of people's lived experiences. That merging of documentation and fiction was something that was already quite present in Chinese literature. So I kind of borrowed from that.

[Do Not Say We Have Nothing] is a historical novel in some ways, but it's also a novel of the present, the unfolding present, the continuous present. China is so complex, so intricate, that there's no superficial way of understanding it. It's a complex place with many realities at work all the time and that's a freedom when you write a book like this. This book needs to stand beside all the work that's being done inside the Mainland, [so that] together they reflect just how complicated this reality is. This is not the go-to book for Chinese history. This is one that needs to be read in light of the Chinese literature that is being published now.

CBP: To expand on that—you mentioned in other interviews, that He Luting, based on the real person, is someone you felt a lot of responsibility for, so that everything you wrote about him had to be accurate. How did you take on this character?

MT: He Luting is like a shadow figure behind the book. He was the president of the Shanghai Conservatory of Music in 1966 when the Cultural Revolution began. He was a composer, and he was quite well known in the Shanghai region. When the Shanghai Revolutionary Committee decided they needed an emblematic target, they chose him and they decided that his struggle session—the denunciation session against him—would be televised. And people would be brought in from their work units and into the factories to watch this struggle session. Except that he didn't behave like most people were behaving in a denunciation section. He refused to bend. He was almost flippant in some ways. They asked him, "What do you have to say for yourself?" and he said, "Well, whatever happens, I have these four pieces of music that I need to complete so give me time to do that. Everything will be fine." In the denunciation meeting, he finally responded with "shame," he just kept shouting out "shame, shame on you, shame on you for lying," and they had to cut the broadcast. It was so unexpected that they felt that it was an anomaly, they thought, "Well, we'll just do it again." They did it again and the same thing happened.

He's an outlier. He has a very unusual story. He also survived, and the story is that after the struggle sessions he was put into prison. And then one day in the 1970s, Mao asked someone, "What happened to that composer who wrote that particular piece of music?" They said, "Oh, he's in prison." And Mao said, "But that was a really good song." And He Luting was released. So it was a very unusual story. He is not the emblematic person most people would think about when they think about the Cultural Revolution, and for this reason, I think it is important that his reality was part of the book.

Guest 8: I wonder how you consider the relationship between Jiang Kai and Sparrow. How do you look at homosexuality in that special period?

MT: It's one of the hardest questions to answer. So much of the form of this book is the form of intimacy, so that we are with those characters as they are creating music, as they make music, as they move around the country, as they live, as they love. So what I tried to do with Sparrow is try to convey that his love is his love. It is what he feels. He knows what the parameters are, but what he feels still exists in the world nevertheless, almost as if its living a separate life from him yet it's never really separated. This love exists and it has no name and it never really can be denied.

This is what I feel with these two characters. I didn't sit down and think that this is a gay relationship. This is a homosexual relationship. I didn't think about it with any kind of finality. These are two people who love each other. They love each other. These are two people with such a deep attachment who can never really be together for all sorts of reasons, in terms of sexuality, but also in terms of the politics at the time and the restraints that they place upon themselves. That is what I wanted the reader to feel, that we couldn't define this relationship either, that it moves through its nuances and possibilities, but it is inseparable from everything that these two characters are forced to give up in life.



This interview with Madeleine Thien was conducted at Hong Kong Baptist University on March 17, 2017, and was attended by students, faculty, and community members. It was conducted by Christopher B. Patterson (Humanities and Creative Writing) and Jason S. Polley (English).

Thanks to Hong Kong Baptist University, the staff and faculty at the Humanities and Creative Writing Department, especially John Erni, Daisy Tam, Jessica Yuen, Donald Chan and Fiona Lu. Thanks to colleagues in English (Tammy Ho Lai-Ming and Stuart Christie) for co-sponsoring this event, and helping organise and promote it, and thank you to Cindy Tang at the Canadian Consulate for promoting these events. Thanks to Pamela Wong for her valuable assistance in the transcription process, to Y-Dang Troeung for her guidance and, of course, to Madeleine Thien for her enduring spirit and her inspirational capacity to always find that thing that makes us human.


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